The Mutual Paranoia of the Culture Wars

“Blank Expression” — Wikipedia


“Mass formation psychosis” is a term coined by vaccine sceptic Dr. Robert Malone. Sounding for all the world like a recognised psychological disorder, it was apparently made up by Malone in an effort to discredit public health messaging around the pandemic as something akin to mass hypnosis. First employed on the Joe Rogan podcast, “mass formation psychosis” immediately became a term of art on social media, by some estimates mentioned in posts which were shared or liked one hundred thousand times within a few days. Directed against one side of the ideological debate surrounding the global response to the pandemic, it was easily repurposed and directed back against the original accusers. It joins a long list of expressions used to promote the irrationality of the other side in the culture wars. Other examples include “projection”, “regression”, “ideological possession”, “living rent-free in someone’s head”, and so on. The frequent use of these psychologically loaded terms might seem to indicate a sensitivity with respect to mental states; but in the context of online debate, these terms betray what Bateman and Fonagy call “hypermentalizing” or “pseudomentalizing”: a purely abstract engagement with mental states that is divorced from any kind of affective understanding, particularly as it relates to oneself. [1]

Seen in this light, the pretend interest in the mind as exemplified by online debate is consistent with what the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas calls “psychophobia”, a cultural condition which he describes as “a hatred of looking into the mind for fear of what we shall find.” This is not limited to the culture wars but pervades all aspects of society. To take just one related example, consider public policy discussions around the issue of misinformation on social media. Contributions will invariably canvas the use of algorithms by social media companies, the incentives behind producing and sharing misinformation, ways to regulate the problem; everything, it seems, except the question of why people are so vulnerable to misinformation in the first place. It is simply accepted that people are so susceptible, with relatively little interest in explaining or addressing the problem on a psychological level. (This is not to deny such research exists, only that it rarely comes up in the public hearings and media coverage of the subject.)

Part of what Bollas means by “psychophobia” is a rejection of psychoanalysis and talk-based therapies, in favor of what he calls non-human or unconscious solutions determined by the market, technology or politics. It is a trend which goes back fifty years, and in his book Meaning and Melancholia: Life in the Age of Bewilderment, Bollas situates it within a broader historical narrative which traces the loss of interest in what was once called the search for meaning. As interesting as his historical thesis is, I won’t elaborate on it here. Instead I want to consider Bollas’ effort to sketch the outlines of what he calls a “political psychology” which would counter the effects of psychophobia when it comes to understanding political phenomena. Specifically, I will discuss two chapters of his book which I think have particular relevance to the culture wars issue: “Paranoia” and “The democratic mind”. (Although Bollas doesn’t use the term “culture wars” as far as I can tell, his book was written as a response to shocks such as Trump’s election and Brexit.)

Positive Paranoia

When Bollas talks about paranoia, he does not mean a personality disorder but rather a mental process or defense. As he writes in the opening sentence of the chapter: “All of us can be paranoid.” Paranoid thinking is attractive because it simplifies reality and so relieves us of the anxiety of having to cope with ambivalence and conflicting points of view. For Bollas, one of the psychological actions which characterise a type of paranoid thinking is projection: the disowning of unwanted thoughts and feelings by positing them in other people. In projective identification, which Bollas seems to use interchangeably with paranoid projection, this mental act is actualized in some way: through overt communication, or perhaps in more subtle, non-verbal forms. The person being projected into then has to contend with an unconscious pressure to accept (or introject) that content, i.e. identify with it.

This may sound mysterious but it’s actually very common. To see how prosaic it is, let me relate an example from my own experience. I was reading a book in a large food hall; it was mid-morning and there was hardly anyone around. A harried mother walked past with a couple of kids and a husband in tow, and she muttered under her breath something to the effect that I wasn’t even eating, i.e. I was reading in a place usually reserved for eating, taking up space in an area she may have wanted to sit. Now if she was having trouble finding a table I could appreciate this sentiment. But the place was almost empty of people. A plausible interpretation of her state of mind is that I happened to be a convenient target for her frustrations and anxiety. She was projecting into me a “selfish” desire to take a break from other people, rather than acknowledge such a desire in herself. By muttering it under her breath, just loud enough for me to hear, she was unconsciously attempting to impose her phantasy on me.

I’m sure everyone has experienced moments like this at the hands of others, or even as a feature of their own thinking. What makes these cases of projection paranoid is that the subject’s understanding of the world is simplified both internally, since they no longer have to acknowledge unwanted content; and externally, because other people or groups are reduced to playing the role of manifesting the subject’s rejected feelings and thoughts. Those projected into just are selfish, cruel, greedy, etc. rather than people with their own dynamic inner worlds and viewpoints which have to be negotiated.

The examples of projection which Bollas is concerned with are not as benign as the one I just related, because they involve political leaders, groups and ideologies. He notes that the Bush and Blair administrations engaged in paranoid thinking when they convinced themselves that Sadam Hussein was pursuing a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) program in 2002; a false belief which was used to justify a “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq a year later. (If one looks back at the timeline of events, it’s obvious just how paranoid their administrations were. For example, when the head of UNSCOM, Hans Blix, challenged the evidence presented by the U.S. for an Iraqi WMD program, he became the target of a CIA operation to find dirt on him.) I note that today Vladimir Putin is engaging in a similar paranoid process with respect to Ukraine, one which again involves attributing a secret WMD program in order to justify an act of aggression, and with equally disastrous results.

Moving on to Donald Trump, Bollas notes that Trump’s public persona “is engaged in an endless stream of projective identifications”:

When he pledges to “Make America Great Again”, we could translate this as “Make myself great again”. When he describes Mexicans as “rapists and criminals” this might translate as “I will get rid of my sexist attacks on women and my shady business dealings by putting them into Mexicans.” He accuses the press of issuing “fake news”, whilst he fabricates the “truths” he wishes to espouse; projecting this part of himself into journalists. And so it goes: “Crooked Hillary”, who will not disclose her shady email dealings, stands for Trump who will not disclose his taxes; the chant of “lock her up” is an unconscious reference to the members of his team who may face jail for violating the law.

This observation helps explain a paradoxical feature of Trump’s success: how someone who lies so frequently and shamelessly can be seen as “authentic” by so many people.The answer is that his authenticity consists in being quite open about the functioning of his own mind, more so than other politicians. This transparency has led some of his followers to see his constant projecting as a model for their own “paranoid cure”, one which has appeal for “all citizens who feel that their failures can be transferred into others.” According to Bollas, Trump is a perfect example of a demagogue, a leader who presents simple solutions to complex problems. By tapping into the paranoid aspect of people’s imaginations, Trump is able to unite people in a common cause and elicit powerful emotions around shared phantasies, as can be seen in the chants of “lock her up” or “build that wall” at his rallies.

An interesting question is: how does paranoia serve to bind people together in this way? After all, as Bollas points out, the paranoid move is to “retreat from the complexity of the situation and the reality of external others, into an intensified intrasubjective relation.” He compares this retreat to a sulking child who cuts itself off from the world. Drawing on the imagery of Melanie Klein, Bollas describes the paranoid self as engaged in “intrasubjective breastfeeding,” feeding on the negativity of its own dark thoughts.

The key to understanding the socially binding potential of paranoia is that, in the process of coming to hate those people and groups being projected into, the paranoid self inevitably suffers from a loss of what they had once loved or had affection for. A person who is radicalized by an extremist ideology, for example, will end up rejecting friends, family and a community with its ideals and symbols which they had once embraced. In order to compensate for this loss, love is enthusiastically directed instead to the new cause and community of fellow haters. This potent combination of love and hate working in tandem recalls a much earlier stage of psychological development, when the child’s emotional responses to others were exaggerated and not tempered by the demands of reality:

In the paranoid movements we are discussing… we can see how the self gains a blissful return to a golden age in which it was normative to hate with fulsome embodied rage, and at the very same time to love with deep, passionate adoration a sacred object.

This process, in which a simplified and psychologically bearable version of the world is achieved through projection identification, and then reinforced through the social expression of powerful emotions, is what Bollas calls positive paranoia. This is not to suggest that there is anything beneficial about it, but only that it involves actually positing a view of the world and other people, no matter how mistaken, simplistic or maladaptive it may be. Bollas also describes another process, which he calls negative paranoia, that involves emptying the self of positive beliefs and opinions. He associates positive paranoia with the right, and negative paranoia with the left. Before I go on to discuss the notion of negative paranoia, I just want to note that historically ideologies of both the right and the left have suffered from positive paranoia. Indeed, at the fringes of left-wing thought today one is bound to find positive paranoia at work. But it is also true that the most popular conspiracy theories currently in circulation, whether it be a rigged presidential election, shadowy globalist/Jewish elites controlling everything, climate change denial or anti-vaccine misinformation, are primarily promoted by the political right. Of course, positive paranoia is not just a matter of conspiracy theories. Brexit is an example of how right-wing politicians were able to use paranoid rhetoric and imagery to achieve a popular mandate for a simplistic solution to complex social and economic problems which were decades in the making.

Negative Paranoia

Bollas prefaces his account of negative paranoia by recalling his time at Berkeley in the 60s, in which free speech protests (i.e. ones in favor of the freedom of speech and ideas) attracted people of all political persuasions. When he revisited Berkeley in 2016, however, he found a very different place. Faculty were being reported for “microaggressions”, and “trigger warnings’’ were given in lectures to alert students to potentially offensive or uncomfortable material which some might find “traumatic”. The overall atmosphere was one of intimidation, and it had a chilling effect on people’s thoughts and speech. Bollas notes that Berkeley was just one among many university campuses across America in the grip of an anti-free speech movement.

One form of protest that caught his attention was the practice of “the dead face” by some activists, in which a student would present a completely blank expression during class. Bollas explains the rationale as follows:

This form of radical facial politics demonstrates a refusal to accept the terms of any other’s projection of thought or feeling. It is a statement that this person would under no circumstances be subjected to the gaze of the other, as this would be to subjugate the self to the other’s ideological system. To be without expression is to rise above this oppression in an act of disconcerting defiance.

I had never heard of this before, and realized only in retrospect that Jessica Chastain was performing the dead face when her character is possessed by alien spirits at the beginning of the film Dark Phoenix (2019). It is certainly disconcerting.

Bollas, while appreciative of the thought which has gone into this act of protest, thinks that ultimately it has the same intimidatory impact as those protesters who openly carry rifles into public spaces. And that, unfortunately, seems to be the point: “Both [actions] elicit paranoid anxieties in the group surrounding them: it is their way of exploiting the paranoid element and using it to gain leverage in group relations.”

What distinguishes the dead face protestors as paranoid, Bollas argues, is that rather than paranoia manifesting itself through the projection of unwanted content, it takes the form of extreme self-idealization. The blank expression of the activist is indicative of a self which cannot hold dubious views (indeed, one without an inner life at all) and cannot be contaminated by an unclean environment. As already noted, Bollas calls this negative paranoia because, in contrast to positive paranoia, it is devoid of any views other than those which negate the other. Needless to say, negative paranoia is not limited to practitioners of the dead face. Consider how many accounts on social media embody what Bollas calls “sanctimonious rectitude”, never proffering a positive opinion on anything but only condemning others as white supremacists, misogynistic, transphobic, corrupt, hypocritical, fascist, and so on. Another example of this type of paranoia is the ridiculous lengths some organisations will go to in order to purify themselves of tainted associations, such as Microsoft removing the term “master” (as in “master branch”) from its code repository software because of the word’s association with slavery. And I’m reminded of a post by Freddie deBoer in which he complains that certain left-wing activists reject any name which might be used to characterize their position, such as “woke” or “political correctness” or “critical race theory”. His speculations on why this is align with what Bollas says about negative paranoia and self-idealization. DeBoar writes:

What’s more, the people who act this way [denouncing every attempt to name their politics as a slur] seem to think that there is no reason to give their faction a name because what they want isn’t politics, it’s just “the moral arc of the universe,” just progress, just the way things ought to be. There’s no need to talk about what they want because their politics are just right.

It should be noted that Bollas also thinks negative paranoia is at work in America’s national mythology of conceiving the United States as a unique force of good in the world: “a city upon a hill,” serving as “a beacon of hope” for other countries. Given the way successive administrations from the 1960s onwards have explicitly invoked this myth, one can hardly claim that delusional self-righteousness is limited to today’s left-wing activists.

Paranoia as it has been described here is a psychological process which simplifies reality and vilifies alternative points of view. It is a defense against the anxiety which arises from confronting reality in all its ambivalence. Paranoia may involve projecting unwanted feelings and thoughts into others, creating a world which appears menacing and dangerous; or it may involve an act of self-idealization which evacuates the self of any views which have the potential to undermine one’s sense of moral superiority. In both cases, powerful emotions of love and hate are invoked which help to forge a strong sense of community among those who are in a similar frame of mind.

In the culture wars, positive and negative paranoia play off each other. Controversial and/or offensive views promoted by one side provide the perfect opportunity for the other side to demonstrate their sanctimonious rectitude, which in turn provides new targets for projection by the other side, and so on in a self-perpetuating cycle. Social media has made it relatively easy for anyone to promote and profit from this dynamic. Bollas notes that once the paranoid process is up and running, it can be very hard to break out of because it involves hating and expelling from the mind other perspectives and ideas which might drain it of its power. He thinks the possibility for change ultimately depends on bringing the paranoid subject into “consistent verbal contact with selves who hold different views.” Given that both sides of the culture wars appear to be obsessed with what the other side says, it’s not immediately clear how this could be the solution. To appreciate his point, we need to turn to his notion of the democratic mind.

The Democratic Mind

Bollas reads democratic theorists from the 18th C. onwards as developing not just a theory of government, but also a theory of mind: they observed that “democracy reflected the minds of those who took part.” Among them, John Stuart Mill in particular emphasized the importance of “flexible and thoughtful selves” to the democratic process. For Mill, such individuals could only develop these traits in an environment which fostered the free exchange of ideas. But it was not just ideas which were important to democratic discourse. Bollas finds in Mill’s account an insight that parallels one found in psychoanalysis:

Mill understood that the listening self had to endure the full weight of the other’s points of view, not simply as cognate phenomena — intellectual objects — but as powerful emotional experiences. This statement could easily be the credo of the psychoanalyst who, from his position of neutrality, must subject himself to the full force of the analysand’s emotional life if he is to understand the unconscious truths embedded in his statements.

If the democratic process is to sustain the very conditions it needs to flourish, i.e. “flexible and thoughtful selves”, then the “unconscious truths” conveyed by emotional experience are just as important as the ideas being exchanged. Bollas is suggesting that, at its best, democratic discourse would function as a kind of “talking cure” which, in analogy with the individual’s case, would seek to give expression to conflicted states of mind and not just opinions. In an age dominated by psychophobia, however, this imperative is rarely attended to.

The unconscious mind is itself a kind of democratic process. The psychoanalytic technique of “free association” reveals that an individual, if they are given the freedom and time to express their own thoughts, will offer a diverse and contradictory set of opinions, some of which that same person may view as an anathema. Translated into a group context, Bollas argues that what was expressed by one individual could, in terms of its unconscious truth, be taken as representative of what all members of the group would feel at one time or another. In the therapeutic technique developed on the basis of this insight, a “group leader” will not attempt to censor or discriminate between different opinions, but rather seek to reformulate a view expressed by an individual member as being the position of the group as whole, i.e. “the group thinks that…” This avoids recriminations and violent confrontations, and allows others in the group to absorb what has been said. About this approach to group therapy, Bollas writes:

[D]emocratization disseminates divergent emotions or ideas through many people who will elaborate, contextualize and render them differently. The eventual accomplishment of understanding will be the work of the group, as it gradually forms its own mind according to psychic democracy, entertaining all the conflicting ideas and feelings experienced by its members.

Consider again the case we opened with, Malone’s “mass formation psychosis”. It is at best a misunderstanding or distortion of an idea found in social psychology. At worst, it’s not even a mistaken idea that can be reasoned about, but rather a case of paranoid projection. Can we nevertheless unearth an emotional truth here, one which appears to resonate with a great many people? This is the kind of question which Bollas thinks we need to be open to as practitioners of democracy.

Being encouraged to “speak without censorship” is a principle of both psychoanalysis and democracy, and Bollas thinks it reflects a deep psychological need or drive to give expression to our own minds. If the unconscious mind is inherently democratic, then the democratic process realizes not just a particular frame of mind, but the mind itself. Nevertheless, just as there are totalitarian, oligarchic and monarchical regimes, so too there are frames of mind which emerge from our inner worlds to silence its diversity of voices.

Today in Russia, Belarus, Myanmar, Hong Kong, and many other countries, it is not just alternative opinions, beliefs and values which are brutally repressed, but the democratic process as both a political and psychological attempt to collectively work through divergent emotions and ideas. The culture wars, while not comparable to the violence of a brutal crackdown by the state, nevertheless have the effect of stymying this democratic impulse through the encouragement of paranoid frames of mind. The answer is not to censor either side of this conflict, of course. But it may lie in promoting the idea of a democratic mind: not merely defending the right to say something offensive or stupid, but working to unearth the unconscious truth behind such speech in order to reformulate it and make it accessible to all participants for their considered reflection.

Note to readers: I have started republishing essays on Substack in case people have trouble accessing them on here. I also take the opportunity to revise and sometimes lengthen the original work. I will continue to publish here first.

[1] Bateman and Fonagy, Mentalization-Based Treatment for Personality Disorders: A Practical Guide, p. 19.




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