Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A Note on American Reactionary Politics

The uncanny of real experiences....invariably accords with our attempted solution and can be traced back every time to something that was once familiar and then repressed. Sigmund Freud

The specter of Barry Goldwater haunts the GOP. Goldwater’s stance against the Civil Rights Act forged an alliance of anti-regulation money and the undereducated fundamentalist and racist white male. Solidified by Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the GOP transformed LBJ’s Southern Democrats into Republicans, bloated by redistricting. Heedless of failed promises to the working class voter, the elites did well, both Democrat and Republican. Meanwhile the Democrats, hardly less beholden to big money, championed the interests of a diverse group of the disenfranchised at the expense of the white lower middle class. The markets rose and the privileged maintained and expanded capitol with thanks to Reagan, Clinton, and their allies.  The GOP, with only lip service opposition, maintained a grip on the economic agenda, thinking they could keep their Tea Party polite. Instead, reaching the bottom of their cups, they became more aggrieved. And then we elected and re-elected a Black president with a Muslim name and the pawns of the GOP lost it and rebelled. 

Here's my un-nuanced sense of the abused and aggrieved core of the GOP, a group of maybe 20-25% of the overall electorate. Not enough to win the presidency, but more than enough to make national life ugly. What turns white conservatives reactionary? Their perception that too many non whites are getting a piece of their pie. This is the heart of Trump's base. What makes religious conservatives reactionary? An uncanny and confused confrontation with the sanctioned transgression of enfranchised gays, uppity women, and gender benders feeling it's time to come out of the shadows. Cruz country. Trump and Cruz supporters overlap and share a hyper-defensive us violated by them. They finally chose Trump, the bigger bully, who encouraged impotent whites to share his narcissistic desire to tower. They're going to get screwed again, but more organized and rankled with neo-fascist frustration, entitlement, and aggression. We're in for a very dark rough ride.

What's Sanctioned Transgression and Uncanny Dread?

Let's make America great again or, the return of the repressed. 

Sexual, gender, racial, and family relations have always been subject to religion and the state establishing a "settled order" for what people are permitted to feel and do. Sanctioned transgression concerns legal protection for behaviors and relationships a dominant group has previously kept forbidden. When legal protection is sought or offered for these "transgressions", taboos are less hidden, even celebrated. This doesn't sit well with the deeply defensive. It is especially problematic when it evokes a person's suppressed urges now openly exhibited in others. Freud called this "the return of the repressed". It should come as no surprise that anxious dread surfaces in people unprepared to manage these feelings; nor is it a surprise these feelings are treated as provocation to assault the source of threat. So why Trump over Cruz? I suspect it's because Trump encourages attack, a position of strength that feels better than Cruz's creepy discomfort. 

Here's a somewhat more nuanced view and some problems with neutrality: Politics and Religion: Psychotherapy's third rail.

A posting on the behavioral logic of social progress and reaction: Why Marriage Equality (was) Inevitable.  And Empathy, Inclusion, and Moral Dialog or What Gets in the Way of Negotiating Social Justice?

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Politics and Religion: Psychotherapy's Third Rail

I cannot advise my colleagues too urgently to model themselves during psycho-analytic treatment on the surgeon, who puts aside all his feeling, even his human sympathy, and concentrates his mental forces on the single aim of performing the operation as skillfully as possible.  Sigmund Freud

Silence is collusion.  Sheila Kitzinger

A person requires a community in order for it to be possible for him to engage in human behavior at all.
A community is characterized by a common world, a language, a structure of social practices, statuses, way of living, choice principles, and individual members.  Peter Ossorio

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.  John Newton

My clinical psychology students and supervisees rarely have trouble asking their clients to explore something problematic. Inquiring how or why a person sees things the way they do is stock in trade. The point, explicitly stated or not, is to increase mutual understanding and free up consideration of whether something can or should be done differently.  Asking implies a judgment.  We all know this. Therapists are sensitive to their client’s reasonable belief that what is questioned can be seen as questionable.  This is why when therapy touches politics or religion, trainees almost invariably are awkward and uncertain about what they can appropriately ask.  I suspect this holds true for many of my colleagues.

Politics and religion are the “third rails” of psychotherapy, off limits and taboo, especially as taught and practiced in the United States. Political correctness as respect for difference suggests caution. Usually this is good policy. But when is it an unserviceable inhibition? In cosmopolitan multi-culture, where politics and religion provide morally loaded guides to behavior, this is a thorny issue. We’ve been taught to avoid these topics on Thanksgiving.

It's no surprise the current state of American political turmoil enters the consulting room. Here’s a composite cobbled from various case presentations from the past weeks.  A young junior college student, “Bob”, white, lower-middle class, complains of bouts of depression and anxiety. What brought him to treatment was the consequence of a drunken brawl that resulted in his arrest and mandated counseling. In reconstructing the day of the fight, Bob mentioned earlier that day feeling “pissed” when he observed an attractive classmate dropped off on campus by a man driving a BMW. Angry, Bob described her as the sort he’d like to date but wouldn’t ask out, “a stick in the ass type” who wouldn’t give him the time of day. His therapist, we’ll call him Dr. James, thought he heard Bob mutter “sand nigger” referring to the driver. Not knowing what to do, Dr. James let the comment pass. Near the end of this first hour when asked about family, Bob said his father had a history of bar fights and usually ended up worse for wear. This was not spoken with pride. Bob’s occasional bravado barely concealed despair.

In the early weeks of treatment, Bob cancelled an appointment to attend a Trump rally. In the session that followed he described elation during Trump’s speech, saying he felt “solid, strong” yelling support in the packed arena. Dr. James wondered if he was being baited when Bob used “libtards” and “Gimmedat Party” in describing disdain for the “typical Boston” supporter of “Obummer”.  Dr. James recognized he needed to sort out his own judgmental stance and not react to these remarks. Too early inquiry into Bob’s words, he feared, might undermine further treatment. I agreed. 

Dr. James wondered if Bob’s ardent support for Trump wasn’t compensatory for resentful feelings of sexual, social, and economic inadequacy. James saw Trump as an authoritarian populist, a demagogue neo-Fascist, who manipulates his crowd into celebrating racism, hyper-masculinity, us against them nationalism, might makes right, and cathartic violence. We shared this political appraisal. 

We asked ourselves, is this young man’s support of Trump essentially a grievance compensation for impotence, inadequacy, and envy? Are his politics essentially vicarious identification, an unconscious wish to merge with a strong-man leader? When my supervisee asked Bob why he canceled his previous appointment, he responded that he’s been hurt by affirmative action, how Obamacare will make it impossible for him to get a decent job, and that Trump calls it like it is about Muslims.  Still, regardless of his compensations, identity politics, or wishes to merge, we need to ask, is Bob’s conscious justification unreasonable for someone in his situation? Doesn't a person's politics often address grievance? 

And what can Dr. James do, while maintaining the integrity of his own values, professional and personal, to help Bob?  (Values that James and I share in our supervisory community of two.) When is inquiry into the roots and significance of Bob’s politics appropriate and to what end? And when is the absence of inquiry collusion? Darkly, Dr. James and I worried how silence is assent to an aggrieved and violent movement, a step toward the consolidation of a dangerous political community whose specter will haunt America regardless of the election's outcome.  

I asked my friends in the Descriptive Psychology community for help. Here’s Anthony Putman’s response.  First, a bit of background to frame his comments starting with Descriptive Psychology’s understanding of psychopathology: 

A) A person is an individual whose history is, paradigmatically, a history of Deliberate Action in a dramaturgical pattern.
B) When a person is in a pathological state there is a significant restriction on his ability (1) to engage in Deliberate Action and, equivalently, (2) to participate in the social practices of the community (Peter Ossorio, The Behavior of Persons, 2006/2013).

The remarks that follow rest on the way Descriptive Psychologists use the concepts of satisfaction, ultimate satisfaction, community and world.  I’ve written that a person feels satisfied when they have competently engaged in behavior that reflects their intrinsic hedonic, prudential, aesthetic, or moral/ethical values. Putman adds that “satisfaction is participation” and this clarifies his very interesting thought that ultimate satisfaction is the immediate experience of participation that establishes or shows how a person's world comes together and make sense. Naturally, this includes one's place in that world. Tony introduced this concept in describing his experience as a young mathematician solving a proof and suddenly feeling "how it all comes together into a single irrefutable whole".  At that moment he was participating in the great chain of mathematicians, a young man competently expressing an aesthetic value intrinsic to the world of mathematics. At these moments a person feels cohesive, authentic, sound, and belonging.  Understandably, the corresponding elation, bliss, and vitality, once felt becomes desire.  Or, if appraised pejoratively, addiction. Once found, the taste is hard to relinquish.

Ultimate satisfaction requires a community that facilitates the expression of a person's intrinsic values. Religions and political movements provide this space. 

Tony’s comments:

“Bob's a good example of how pathology is understood through the lens of status and world. In lieu of a carefully reasoned analysis, some points:

Bob seems to be suffering from status degradation, in his own mind and, he believes, in others. He wants to be eligible with the attractive classmate but knows he is not; he doesn't have the resources and opportunities others do; he can either see that as his own failure (depressing), or see it as an unfair provocation (anger). Anger does not limit behavior potential like depression; he chooses more behavior potential over less having learned this from his Dad.

Bob clearly does not experience ultimate satisfaction in his world; his place does not fit him. Then he goes to the Trump rally and find a community whose world makes sense to him; he participates in it and experiences "elation" -- a very good way of identifying ultimate satisfaction. Finally, I can be me and say what I think, and it fits here! Good luck prying Bob away from his new world. 

Dr. James has to chose between being a therapist for Bob as he is or sticking to his own political/religious guns. I suggest that the latter is unprofessional and unethical. Dr. James has no play here unless he genuinely gets Bob's world and recognizes the core therapeutic issue: Bob lives in a world with no authentic place for him. He needs a world that does -- and that's the core issue of his therapy.

Dr. James has a core dilemma: In doing therapy with Bob: What am I doing by doing that? The canonical answer is: helping my client live an authentic, satisfying life. But of course he may also say: Helping a budding fascist realize his full potential. Therapeutic ethics say the first trumps (I know...) everything else -- but therapists are people, living their own lives and what is right for James may appropriately override what's right for Dr. James. Hard choice, made as all choices in the light of incomplete information -- but that's life as an adult.” 

I think Tony captured the central dilemmas. Let's work with:

"Dr. James has no play here unless he genuinely gets Bob's world and recognizes the core therapeutic issue: Bob lives in a world with no authentic place for him. He needs a world that does -- and that's the core issue of his therapy."

Can therapy can provide a space where participation is authentically satisfying?  For this to happen, it requires establishing a significantly valued relationship.  And this has to happen first before a person's politics or religious practices can be questioned. 

How can therapy accomplish this? When I posed this question to Saturday's study group, Bryan Harnsberger spoke of maintaining empathy and Al Ossorio suggested carefully noting the problematic themes with a question along the lines of, "how do you imagine I'm feeling about what you are saying?" To be fair, I thought, asking this might require the therapist to show his hand. (And, if it seemed inappropriate to ask the client about the therapist's feeling, a safer route might involve asking Bob how other significant figures in his life might feel.)

Therapy, I believe, requires patient and uncertain negotiation, with the therapist empathically attending to the unfolding improvisation that one way or another will demonstrate professional and personal values.  This happens silently or out loud. Therapists with their careful attention, kindness, and appreciation of their client's struggle show and model their deeply held values. But something also needs to change in a manner that helps the client along. That is why the client is there. The client needs acceptance but something about them, something they are doing needs to be addressed. This requires a new perspective and perhaps new skills.  Re-description, interpretation, and tactful confrontation serves this end. This is also where "how do you imagine I'm feeling..." might come to play. Appropriate functioning requires understanding that everyone stands at the center of their world.  For all sorts of reasons, people forget this or don't adequately keep it in mind. 

The therapist who achieves sufficient value, trusted and fair minded, and demonstrates an accurate appreciation of the client's experience is in a position to employ re-description, interpretation, and empathic confrontation. But how to handle "sand-nigger" and the joy of participating in fascism?  This boils down to whether Bob can find an authentic place for himself in the therapeutic work as a participant in the tiny community he has with Dr. James. Here, size doesn't matter but significance does. For this to work, James must able to accredit and maintain Bob's good standing within the dyad. They both must value belonging before participating in negotiation and improvisation can allow the possibility of a new "ultimate satisfaction".  It will require moral dialog, a disclosing of actual values. This mutual self-disclosure can be uncomfortable, risky, and something therapists reluctantly practice. 

Therapeutic improvisation requires an openness and acceptance to tolerate the to and fro assimilation and accommodation that takes people somewhere new, someplace likely unanticipated.  But consider the dilemma when one party tosses something unacceptable to accommodate. Rather than throw it right back, hold it a bit longer, pause, look at it closely and somehow indicate, hmm, what do I do with this? I am reminded of the annoying but sometimes wise parental move of indicating a child's behavior is bad without attributing essential "badness" to the child. This works when the basic trust the child is a valued member of the family remains securely intact. I often remind students of the similarities of parenting and therapy. 

Dr. James is smart to recognize he needs a firm alliance with Bob before he can take issue with Bob's politics. (And this assumes Dr. James has sufficient reason to).  If the relationship is significant enough, Bob will engage Dr. James' value laden questions and disclosures and make of them as he will. And who knows the outcome? There are no mechanics of necessary change beyond what happens when a person can safely consider another's view within a relationship that provides them a reason to do so. 

But why touch the third rail in the first place?  Why not stop with to the extent a person can effectively engage in their communities, it is not the therapist's job to judge. This, of course, is complicated by the overlap and conflict that naturally attends communities. All of us are members of multiple communities, professional, ethnic, religious, recreational, and so on.  Some get along better than others and some conflicts prove intractable. 

Forgive what might appear a digression. Back in the 1950's, the psychiatric anthropologist George Devereux wondered how to identify "the normal and the abnormal" in a culture different from his own. He explored this question while observing the lives and practices of Mojave shamans. He pointed out that no Mojave would ordinarily choose to become a shaman since it's a nasty and liminal role. Still, shamanism has an important place in Mojave culture.   
Devereux observed a pattern of disturbance common in the developmental history of shamans that was channeled into the accepted practices of the healing community by offering the afflicted a cure through becoming a shaman. The Mojave recognized that it is unfortunate to be disturbed, but if you are crazy this way you can still be one of us. 

Devereux contrasted the shaman's culturally syncretic disturbance, common in the culture and guided by the culture's ritual options, with idiosyncratic disturbances that rendered an individual simply pathological, without a valued place to be. 

Perhaps you see where I am going. Politics and religion may provide community, a way to be satisfied while disturbed, but only if the disturbance is sufficiently shared and valued within the community. Here an otherwise troubled person can "engage in Deliberate Action and, equivalently, to participate in the social practices of the community".  

But if your problem is idiosyncratic without a community that can provide membership and guidance, you're out of luck. Fortunately, psychotherapists occupy this domain with our license to question. 

Let me complicate this a bit further.  Devereux also described the plight of the Tonkawa. Although the stories may be apocryphal, the Tonkawa were alleged to eat the slain bodies of the warriors they constantly fought in ongoing wars with neighboring tribes. The Tonkawa are probably extinct owing to the alliance their neighbors formed to wipe them out. Being a normal Tonkawa ended up untenable. Devereux also wondered about the normality or pathology of the German Nazi and whether from May to June of 1945 the "normal" Nazi managed to become, depending on which side of the river, a communist or a Christian democrat.  

Communities exist side by side, overlap, share, compete, and clash. Sometimes the integrity and survival of one community requires action for or against another. This is a matter for politics, not therapy. Free from the consulting room, will Dr. James and Bob become indifferent, in alliance, or at each other's throat? 

Kindred themes are taken up in On Indoctrination and in Empathy, Inclusion, and Moral Dialog or What Gets in the Way of Negotiating Social Justice.

Thanks to C. J. Stone for the clarity he provided regarding "political correctness" and to The Boston Descriptive Psychology Study Group's openness to explore. And special thanks to my William James students who put up with my trying to figure these things out with them and on their dime.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Implementation and Significance: Fundamental Psychotherapeutic Interventions

Implementation and Significance: Fundamental Psychotherapeutic Interventions

Promise them anything, but give them behavior potential. Peter Ossorio

Near the start of my training analysis I realized that my mostly silent analyst, seated behind me, wrote with a scratchy pencil. Evidently not everything I said warranted noting but apparently some things did. “Operant conditioning”, I commented.  Just the sort of remark to irritate a classical analyst, “I know what holds your attention.” Wanting his interest, the scratch from behind was all the reward I needed to produce more of the same.  But more of the same what?  is what I want to examine. No surprise, he soon switched to a silent pen.

The premise of operant conditioning or instrumental learning is that reward or punishment following a behavior will increase or decrease the behavior's frequency. Thorndike and Skinner taught this. We can teach pigeons and dogs tricks with this sort of reinforcement.  In animals with a limited behavior repertory, this sort of training tends to increase or decrease a specific performance.  Rumor has it this works with infants and young children, but not all that well.

When operant conditioning is applied to socially complex animals with few routinized or stereotypical behaviors, what often follows is not an exact reproduction of the conditioned behavior but variations on a theme, kindred behaviors with shared significance. I think this was first observed in dolphins, who when rewarded for doing something they'd not previously done, responded with novelty.   

But what did I produce in response to my analyst’s sounds? No dummy, I didn’t simply reproduce my previous comments, nor did I try to figure out another way to say the same thing; instead I began to understand the concerns and meanings he thought were significant. 

I’m a psychotherapist, not so interested in training cats and dogs. (I know from experience they seem to make up their own minds how they’ll respond to any sort of "conditioning".) What interests me is helping people with what they identify as problematic and unsatisfying. Accordingly, I spend a lot of time wondering about the effectiveness of a person's way of relating and the significance of what they are trying to accomplish. Something probably needs to change.  

So when a person describes or illustrates a problematic behavior, I might ask, "How’s doing it that way working for you?" Or, "What difference does it really make? What's at stake?"  The first focuses on performance or implementation and the second attends to meaning or significance.  Inquiry regarding how something is working leads to questions about alternatives that might work better. And how something matters brings up questions of what might matter more or might conflict, now or in the long run. Does it really matter that much when you also consider the other things that do?  These questions are in the service of increasing a person’s range of effective action.

Psychotherapy, as I see it, should enhance a person's potential for flexible, improvisational responses to challenging circumstances. My job involves helping people increase their ease in changing action patterns performed with inadequate knowledge or skill, or absent an adequate appreciation of implication and significance. My intent is to invite reflection and discussion of alternatives and significances. The conversation itself should provide practice in doing something different and new.

All the relational features of good psychotherapy provide the context of intervention, but at the end of the day people need to do things differently. Every intentional action, conscious or unconscious, involves someone trying to achieve something in a particular manner that carries significance to oneself and others. Asking people if it might work better done differently, and asking if the significance of what they are attempting best serves their overall interests, are good questions to pose. When stuck, try them out. Like with our aquatic cousins, the dolphins, something new and better might follow. 

A related entry on uncertainty and the policies of effective psychotherapy: Mindful Uncertainty: What is Psychotherapy?

A person's behavior is largely organized by what they find significant. People generally notice opportunities to implement what matters to them. The Descriptive Psychological concept of "through-lines" identifies these "in-character" patterns:  Through-Lines and the Dramaturgical Pattern.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

San Bernardino. The Motive? It's Always Many Reasons.

It's always many reasons. Or probably is. Radicalization provides relief, a map to locate multiple grievances in a person’s world. Radicalization fundamentally changes a person's world. What is valued as right and wrong, just and unjust, change accordingly. Personal identity is altered. 

Reasons multiply. Add religious indoctrination, factor in a community that supports that identity, but include personal insult, and maybe unresolved pathology. All can dovetail when the circumstances overwhelm and demand redress. The particular explosive moment might not be plotted beforehand except as possibility. It might never happen. But then it did. 

Is there any real doubt that the standing conditions, the formal causes, were not already in place:

Easy guns and death religion?

When insult became opportunity did spiritual justification scream for bloody murder? 

Looking for one prime motive is a mistake that obscures and dismisses the range of culpable facts. We need to face the complexity.

Further thoughts on December 6.

How about we acknowledge the complexity?  Personal grievance,
pathology, easy access to guns, an ideology and community of support, the insult that breaks the camel's back. But guns are a factor that can be reasonably regulated in a pluralistic constitutional democracy, just apparently not ours. Change the 2nd Amendment? We know that's not going to happen, nor is it the primary problem. It's not the 2nd Amendment that prevents the regulation of easy access to assault weapons. The states and the federal government have the authority to regulate, but the NRA and the other gun lobbies make our legislators cower. Not to split hairs, but the 2nd Amendment calls for a well-regulated militia.

Some thoughts on evil: Moral and clinical language.
Some of the behavioral logic of thought restriction:  On Indoctrination.
And the echoes of Charlie Hebdo and Paris.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Empathy, Intentional Action, and The Person Concept

1st Annual Peter Ossorio Lecture - Dr. Wynn Schwartz
October 19, 2015
University of Colorado-Boulder

Empathy, Intentional Action, and The Person Concept: An Exercise in Descriptive Psychology

“The instigation of the Person Concept was a very practical one.  It was the classic problem of how to teach students something about the interpretation of diagnostic instruments, case histories, and psychological theories, and about the conduct of psychotherapy and laboratory and field experimentation, without requiring that they give up their own conceptual and theoretical preferences in favor of those of an instructor (hence the descriptive focus).  A related goal was to accomplish this within a conceptually coherent, intellectually satisfying, and substantively adequate framework….” Peter Ossorio, Persons, 1966/1995

By the 1960’s it remained painfully clear Wittgenstein’s cautionary reminder that “…in psychology, there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion…”  had not been adequately addressed. This is still the case to the extent the behavioral sciences lack a common lexicon and a shared conceptual foundation. This continues to make it difficult for researchers and practitioners to agree on meanings and accurately communicate empirical findings and useful practices. 
Facing this dilemma, Peter Ossorio, during his tenure at the University of Colorado, created Descriptive Psychology:  a pragmatic, theory-neutral map for systematically describing “the world of persons and their ways”.  He called this The Person Concept, a construction that made explicit the interdependent concepts Individual Person, Behavior as Intentional Action, Language, and Reality

The focus of my lecture is Ossorio’s “Parametric Analysis of Intentional Action”, a method and formulation designed to identify how a specific behavior is similar to or different from any other behavior. 

In an application of this analysis, I’ll operationalize empathy as involving actions in which a person demonstrates to another their immediate appreciation of the personal significance of that person’s behavior and felt state in a manner that can be affectively tolerated. I’ll demonstrate how Ossorio’s parametric analysis provides a straight-forward method, a checklist, that can be used in identifying and correcting lapses in empathic engagement. 

I started my talk pointing out the problems Ossorio confronted in the academic and practitioner communities of psychologists.

From his 1983 "Why Descriptive Psychology?":

1. Psychological theories portray persons in ways which are not merely limited  but highly distorting as well.

2.  Psychological theory and method are clearly almost entirely non-empirical, yet no satisfactory account of this fact has been available.

3.  Both psychological theories of methodology and psychological theories of behavior are inadequate to provide a rationale for clinical practice.

4.  There is no general theory in psychology which is not fundamentally inadequate to account for language as a form of behavior.

5.  Finally, there is a whole set of intractable truth issues associated with traditional theorizing.

I went on to what concerned me in 1972 when I started graduate school as his student. 

1.  Given psychology's general commitment to reductionism and determinism, how to account for the choice and responsibility themes of everyday life and the legal and cultural concerns with accountability?

2.  The major personality theories taught as theology-like schools to respect like your neighbors good-faith but mistaken religion.

3.  The confusions created by the absence of a systematic and shared lexicon of behavioral concepts. 

Ossorio's answer was The Person Concept.

Here's my lecture.  I am re-introducing Descriptive Psychology to Peter Ossorio's academic home, the University of Colorado's Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. I was very happy to be doing this.


Monday, October 12, 2015

What Gets in the Way of Negotiating Social Justice? Part 2. Unequal Voices and Hidden Agendas

(a continuation of  Empathy, Inclusion, and Moral Dialog or What Gets in the Way of Negotiating Social Justice? )

A person values some states of affairs over others and acts accordingly.
A person will not choose less behavior potential over more.

A person requires a community in order for it to be possible for him to engage in human behavior at all.
A community is characterized by a common world, a language, a structure of social practices, statuses, way of living, choice principles, and individual members.
To engage in a Deliberate Action is to participate in a social practice of the community.
            Peter Ossorio, Place, 1998

Unequal Voices Undermine the Hypothesis: The Inevitable Arc of Social Justice Requires the Possibility of an Equality of Persons.  

government may not suppress political speech on the basis of the speaker's corporate identity. No sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of nonprofit or for-profit corporations.
         Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

I'll warn you in advance. There are many loose ends and considerable uncertainty in what follows.

The tension I want to explore involves what is public and open to negotiation and what is private and will not be revealed except under special circumstances. The public can be debated but the private, the hidden, has voice behind the scenes. I'm going to wonder about these two factors: The vastly unequal public voice shaped by money, and the private, hidden voice, shaped by shameful, guilt-ridden or under-examined  motive. This effects the playing field where conflicts of justice are presented and decided. Even if courts and legislatures define the law, the varied public sentiments prepare the ground for the legal outcome. The Supreme Court’s 2015 decision on marriage equality would have been unlikely without the acceptance already achieved by a critical mass of individuals with good standing within the national community.

The sociologist Steven Lukes reminds us that power involves the ability to control the agenda and establish the public conversation.  The vested interests that shape the public agenda are always in play among individuals who have their specific and idiosyncratic abilities and dispositions to influence each other.  But this is warped when the values in play are hidden or the power to influence is vastly uneven. The values involved in an individual's negotiations can be hidden in bad-faith or self-deception or unconsciously unexamined.  But on a large social scale, political and moral dialog is also distorted by the weight of big-money interests.  We all know that money doesn’t just talk, it screams. It buys the agenda and billboards its propaganda. Currently, the powers of corporate capitalism are overwhelming in forming the public conversation and social agenda given corporations now have some of the legal status of “persons” in regard to “speech”. 

Social justice and economic justice are intrinsically intertwined. A person’s place in the economy is fundamental in defining their opportunity.  Corporate personhood renders my argument of inevitable social progress trivial or absurd when corporate interest is in conflict with social justice. If, on the other hand, the two interests coincide, justice as enhanced fairness has a much better chance. This restricts the field of change. To avoid despair, I’m going to table this theme and confine my argument to circumstances where corporate interests are not in fundamental conflict with personal liberation. Granted, I’ll have to ignore class based economic injustice, many of the issues of income inequality, and limit my focus to some of the cultural conflicts of racism, sexism, religion, and homophobia.  This is the paradox of increased economic injustice during the same historical period that has expanded educational, housing, and voting rights, normalized homosexuality, and legalized gay marriage. But tragically, consider how corporate interests can stifle progress toward equality of health care and accommodations for parents and the disabled if these enhancements, "entitlements", are too much a threat to the bottom line.  And what of planetary injustice? Do the corporate and political interests concerning climate change establish a generational injustice we will be hand our children?

The Hypothesis is Limited to the Moral Dialog of Potentially Equal Players

So with these huge limitations, what else hampers the negotiations and moral dialog of human beings struggling for increased emancipation and fairness on matters of age, race, gender, religion, and sexual preference? Where politics is most local, individuals might have the best chance of being heard by each other. Here the community of family and neighborhood still counts. Here’s the possible space that big money, corporate personhood, and gerrymandered conformity might not overwhelm and fill.

My starting point is the mix of conflicted alliances we all have. These are the conflicts that involve the public presentation of our values that affirm our allegiance to some, while degrading our position with others. When push comes to shove, who counts the most in my life? Where does my integrity rest and what compromise can I afford? Are the true colors I show everyone the same? Can I be authentic and two faced? Here is the dilemma of living on various fronts, some I especially cherish. Is this a potential engine of progress? And is this dynamic different when our local community is cosmopolitan or homogenous?  

All of us are members of various communities, tempered by the specifics of education, job, profession, intimate relations, family, etc.  Membership has its privileges but can also be an embarrassment, a source of shame and guilt. A community’s social practices and accepted manners shift over time. Consider heartfelt racism, sexism, and homophobia. Or “lighthearted” racist, sexist, and homophobic banter.  What was once normal, perhaps laudable, becomes reprehensible. In times past, without second thought, what could be said with friends, family, and professional associates might still be acceptable in some communities but cause a double-take and censure in others. Privately, my boorish friends and I might continue talking the trash that provokes righteous outrage from my wife and children, and possible firing from my job.  Values and acceptable self-presentations change. What was once public is now private and a potential embarrassment. Still, for a host of reasons I might continue this banter with some, careful when family and colleagues are within earshot. It’s not easy to find new “enlightened” friends, and friends are friends for all sorts of reasons.

But what does this say about my values, the priorities that routinely shape my appraisals of self and world? The public and private nature of what I hold dear can vary irregularly, in both self-deceptive and self-aware hypocrisy.  I might tolerate or overlook conflict, ambivalence, and contradiction.

We all know there are judgments we can openly discuss, negotiate, reconsider, and try to reorder in significance.  In self-examination, my prejudices, my pre-judgments, might diminish over time. Then there are those appraisals that I am reluctant to admit, hold shameful, and will certainly not discuss, at least not with you. Perhaps I also make significant appraisals unconsciously, unavailable for my introspection. I’ve come to believe this last group of motives, absent significant psychopathology, is very difficult to broach and rarely an overriding force, but to the extent it’s significantly at play, judgment will be compromised. I’ll have return to this theme.

Let’s focus on the interplay of the appraisals and values easily available and those that we are reluctant to acknowledge. The reluctance that I’m interested in is not simply a concern with social censure but more along the lines of a reluctance to even go there with myself. This is not the domain of secret glee but of shameful impulse. These are the matters I don’t want to think about and won’t easily admit. This, I think, is what the psychodynamic psychotherapies actually explore and map, and where empathy and safety is key. This is where the public presentation of values I am reluctant to acknowledge may influence a reappraisal of their significance. This in turn can change the community I prefer to identity with or support. But, in the absence of “publicity”, unexamined problematic values are a minefield for negotiation.

In the service of exploring these themes, let me introduce "The Psychodynamic Judgment Diagram" as a way of representing the nature and consequences of a person's values and circumstances that are most accessible, those hidden in avoidance, and those truly unconscious. 

For simplicity, I’ll refer to these motivational grouping, these collections of values, as domains or zones one, two, and three, with one being the easily shared and accessible appraisals, two being the domain I’m reluctant to acknowledge and three being the dynamic unconscious.

Notice the connection between reason and motivational weight. The greater the weight the greater the motivational priority. But, unfortunately, there is nothing that requires the content with the greatest weight to be in zone one. People can be reluctant to acknowledge or unconscious of the actual weights relevant to their appraisals. You can be sure that the extent people don’t know or acknowledge their priorities, their negotiations may falter and appear in bad faith.

For now, let’s attend to the interplay of zone one and two and prepare to ask, “in the privacy of the voting booth, what values ring loudest”?

Peter Ossorio (2013, p 226-227) identified four “family resemblance” groups of reasons people have for doing what they do: Hedonics, Prudence, Ethics, and Aesthetics. Briefly, hedonics involves variations on pleasure, pain, noxiousness, and disgust. Prudence concerns self-interest, advantage or disadvantage, and what I take to be good or bad for me. Ethical reasons involve my perspective on right and wrong, good and bad, justice, fairness, and where duty or obligation occur. Aesthetics involve how things fit together, artistically, socially, and intellectually.

These domains of intrinsic motivation can be complementary, independent, or in conflict.  How individuals weigh the relative significance of these motivations define important aspects of character, their “true colors”.  These patterns of significance, implemented in various ways, define the “through-lines” of our lives.

What I’d like us to notice is that domain two, the zone of reluctance, is not, under ordinary circumstance, open for debate or discussion and is accordingly resistant to negotiated change. The same holds for domain three, the unconscious, but here the situation is frozen.  Worse, the “dynamic unconscious” lacks an aesthetic and ethical perspective since ethics and aesthetics require the ability to engage in Cognizant and Deliberate Action. Ethics and Aesthetics hinge on choice, even if that choice involves refusal. I can’t, as a matter of ethical principle, choose the high road over the low road if I’m not aware there’s a choice, nor can I sit down and refuse to move further. Similarly, in zone two reluctance, I might refuse to ask for direction and pretend not to see a fork in the road.  And even if I am fully aware of a more ethical path, my journey might continue along predominately hedonic, prudent, and aesthetic lines.  I’m complicated that way and so are you. Doing what’s “ethically right” is not always the top priority.

Back to the question of getting domain two out into the light of day.

Does the Fork in the Road lead to Degradation or Accreditation?

When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
          Yogi Berra

A setup for a thought-experiment: New neighbors move next to an already established family in the two very different neighborhoods I know well. The first neighborhood is where I now live, Boston’s South End. I think this is a very fine place, mixed income but skewing to upper-middle class, racially and ethnically diverse, gay and lesbian friendly, highly educated.  I feel I belong here.  I’m comfortable as I walk about. The second neighborhood I’d like us to consider is in Gastonia, North Carolina where I grew up from forth grade through high school.  I was mostly happy there, too, and certainly felt safe and protected.  Back then, my neighborhood, Gardner Park, was all white, very Christian, and as far as I knew, populated by married heterosexual couples and their children. In 1959, my family, Jewish, moved to Gastonia from Minneapolis with a group of engineers and scientists so I didn’t start my life in the late 1950’s American South.  I think this move increased Gastonia’s Jewish population from about 50 families to maybe 52 or 53.  For me, the in-your-face racism, the segregation of water fountains, classrooms, and neighborhoods was immediately startling.  Teachers and classmates referred to “the niggers cross town” as normal speech. (Not that the neighborhoods I’d knew in Minneapolis were any less white, nor, for that matter, less homophobic, but I’d never heard such speech in public or private, let alone seen water fountains for white or "colored". Being a Yankee and, as it happened, a Jewish skeptic of religion, my childhood sense of belonging was mixed. My sense of safety and belonging-while-an-outsider has its history here. 

Knowing something of where I come from provides perspective on my bias. Back to my thought-experiment: Let’s imagine a householder, a standard heterosexual white guy we’ll call WG, who with wife and children, lives either in my current neighborhood or in Gastonia. Keep in mind that WG’s South End neighbors predominately vote as liberal or progressive Democrats along with a few Greens and a “moderate” Republican or two sprinkled in.  They talk about this in the dog park. In contrast, the predominately white neighborhoods in Gastonia vote Republican. In both places, WG fits in as one of the acceptable types and values this and wants it for his family.

Now the new neighbors. First the South End: In the condo below WG, a mixed race gay couple moves in with their dog.  The couple who moves in above is a white heterosexual couple who also, as it turns out, have a dog. WG likes dogs. WG and his wife, being the neighborly sort, separately invite each new couple in for drink and conversation. One more imaginary fact. The new white heterosexual couple, who outwardly look the same demographic as WG, make clear a significant disrespect for the downstairs neighbors they’ve seen but not spoken to. They’ve braved the gay South End.

Now the same setup but in Gastonia. The new white couple expresses concern they weren’t warned before buying into a mixed race neighborhood.  Speaking loudly, without a second thought, WG's new neighbor wondered which of the gay men was the “wife”.  So here’s my question. What do we imagine WG actually feels about his new neighbors? How will he talk to his wife and children who have witnessed these encounters? 

Let’s add another feature to our thought-experiment. For whatever reason, the gay couple prove, over time, to be thoughtful, helpful, and friendly. The white couple, not so much.

(Like all bad thought experiments, we must limit ourselves to these being the only stated facts).

Back to the “psychodynamic judgment diagram” and a bit more about WG. WG is a middle-aged standard white guy who reluctantly, zone 2, harbors racist and homophobic feeling. He grew up that way. OK, let’s be more real. At times, he wisecracks with some of his old friends in a undeniably racist and homophobe manner. After all, they get the joke.  At home with family, this stuff rarely crosses his mind, and when it does he’s knows to be silent. 

A point of practical theory: Evidently, some thoughts are more “reluctant-to-self-acknowledge” in some circumstances than in others. Here’s another assumption about actual empirical humans. Our different social contexts alter our self-presentation and disposition, and with this our sense of what is most consciously available. Circumstance factor into our psychological state and our immediately available configuration of motivational values. This is relevant to how zone 1 and zone 2 content shifts, and where one’s sense of degradation and accreditation, a person’s immediate feelings of standing in their relevant communities, serve to maintain or change what is available for negotiation and moral dialog. What my family evokes is often significantly different from what I find myself thinking in my office or with my friends. Circumstances evoke different patterns of a person’s powers and dispositions based on perceived relevance. I am the same person with everyone, I am always me, without my self-presentation being necessarily all that consistent when with others.  I can be authentic and more than two-faced.

People live in a vast variety of separate and overlapping communities, cherishing some above others. Family over neighbor? Neighbor over boss?  The communities people value greatest, where their good standing is vital, are the ones they will be most reluctant to violate. What is available as zone 1 content, the stuff most personally and publicly accessible, will reasonably be what a person finds most relevant to the social practices that the person’s most valued communities find acceptable. (But keep firmly in mind that people's integrity may involve their upholding the values of communities not immediately present to the eye but held in the heart).


          Groucho Marx, Telegram to the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills

Deliberate Action

Another point. Deliberate action requires the knowledge of choice. Appraisals as an aspect of a deliberate action many involve the recognition of both what is to be done and what is to be avoided. In contrast, zone 2 content tends to be under-socialized and under-examined and as a result less mindful of alternatives.  This content is commonly what a person fears might be degrading.  This is not to suggest that a person is reluctant to privately acknowledge potential self-degrading actions. In fact, the potential to easily know how one can be degraded is central to my hypothesis about social progress.  Consider, there are matters I can easily think about but refuse to do, zone 1, and there are things I don’t want to think about and certainly don’t want to acknowledge doing, zone 2. This self abrogation is rarely separate from the expectation of public censure. The avoided thoughts and public actions are shameful. Zone 1 has a place for the shameful ideas that I will carefully and prudently avoid enacting. I may be less careful about zone 2. I am making the assumption that there is a good reason to know what to be careful about one’s nature. There are personal matters we need to understand well enough not to inadvertently act out. I know that I am an animal, sexual and possessive, but I try to be appropriate in my expression of these desires.  The potential and expectation of appropriate Deliberate Action is a fundamental attribute that defines us as Persons. (See, for example Prosser, The Doctrine of The Reasonable Man). 

But back to WG. WG, both North and South, are deliberate actors, whose appraisals follow from their hedonic, prudential, aesthetic, and ethical perspectives.

Here’s a reasonable bet: WG in the South End will tell his children and demonstrate though his careful behavior that their neighbor upstairs provides an example not to follow. It is less clear what WG in Gastonia will do. He belongs to many communities where his racism and homophobia is just fine. He wants his children to fit in to this world, too.  But he knows times are changing.

Gastonia's WG has less experience with the diversity found in the other WG's neighborhood. This might limit his experienced faith in social change working out OK. Still, he’s come to enjoy a weekly barbecue with his gay mixed race neighbors even though he won’t abide their mustard-based sauce. He’s come to recognize their marriage hasn’t cost him a dime.  Regarding his homophobia, their sexual lives are no longer part of his disgusted fascination.  His children like them, too, and find their other neighbor a wee bit creepy. 

When we talk to our children and provide them the object lessons of our actions, we are a powerful source of influence.  And we ask ourselves, whose voice are we most comfortable representing?  When we engage with friends and neighbors, and especially when we enter into new relationships, we may have cause to recognize and reconsider our values. As deliberate actors we have the potential for an ethical perspective. We may come to appreciate the fairness of our neighbor’s concerns even if our only gain is their happiness. This doesn’t mean this will count for more than our other values. But it might, especially if we know that supporting our neighbor doesn’t put us in a worse position.

My empathic identification with my children gives me profound reason to want them to fit in, a prudential and aesthetic value. My neighbor’s sexual life might still make me squirm but that may count for less than he’s become my good neighbor deserving his own pleasures and satisfactions. And it turned out his mustard sauce is an acquired taste worth developing.

Does this set the stage for some social progress? Might it effect my vote or what my children come to see as reasonable fairness across difference?  I think so.