In a single month, I, along with millions of people around the world, and most painfully of all, of course, people in Ukraine and Russia, have witnessed and experienced a strange psychosocial dynamic. The most well-meaning, thoughtful people, usually inclined to carefully reflect on matters that concern them and not in any sense radical, have now been “moved” from a shared reality into separate realities. I do not use the word “reality” as a metaphor here. I mean reality as such. Former President Trump’s expression “alternative facts,” which so many used to laugh at, has turned into a very tangible “alternative reality,” which is not a joke but a dangerous phenomenon. My aim here is to outline the importance and the danger of this phenomenon as it exists today.
I believe the roots of this phenomenon lie far deeper than the realm of politics. I would suggest they may be linked to brain evolution, deep psychology, and religion. I would posit, in fact, that the origins of the use of deception as a social tool stem from imagination combined with magical thinking. Some of the first—and to this day the most tangible—products of this combination are the alternative realities of postmortem life and godlike authorities created within the various religious doctrines of history. For even these can be seen as subconscious creations that serve the purpose of strengthening social cohesion by creating a shared episteme. Now the same psychic tools are directed toward and used for massive secular indoctrination and to divide people. These essentially haven’t changed from the time of the Inquisition—physical threat, threat of societal exclusion, institutional authorities’ unified opinion, group-directed information, strong leader-image, and many others.
While the obvious catalyst for this psychosocial change was the war in Ukraine, the trend has been observable for years. In 1928, Edward L. Bernays, an American theorist who is considered the “father of public relations,” described how the sociopsychological mechanism of effective advertising and political promotion was a benign modern technology designed to assist a capitalistic economy. The same year—1928—Hitler appointed Joseph Goebbels as his propaganda director. The world soon learned that the “benign” technology can be applied to an evil end. It seems that the origins of the use of deception as a social tool stem from the very perception of reality, which, when processed by a group becomes molded by motivation, imagination, and magical thinking.
Hannah Arendt described the self-deception that covered the entire United States in the 1960s using a forty-seven-volume report titled “History of Decision-Making Process on Vietnam Policy.” This work, commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, was mainly ignored by the US government for the first three years after its publication, but it gained renown as “The Pentagon Papers” after its publication in the New York Times magazine in 1971. The very fact that this publication was written at all testified to the vigor of American democracy at the time, while the core message of the publication—the years-long self-deception on a massive scale with all the suffering it entailed —testified to the opposite, namely the failure of democracy to protect itself and the world. As always, Hannah Arendt’s analysis is penetrating and humane, almost psychoanalytic: there is no external evil to blame. Rather, the fault lies with us, regular people corrupted by the conflicts between our own desires and the roles we play in society. As almost always, the evil remains murky and so entwined in everyday life that it is practically untraceable. Or as Arendt put it: banal.
This is not how Sigmund Freud saw it. In his analysis from Civilizations and its Discontents, he wrote “…every individual is virtually an enemy of civilization.” Freud went even further than Arendt when noting: “Thus, civilization has to be defended against the individual, and its regulations, institutions and commands are directed to that task.” If this insight is to be taken seriously, it implies that the “enemy” can be seen as a kind of passive emotional relic, which can be readily activated when offered appropriate opportunity, especially if the basically antisocial aim is socially approved.
Fostered by social dynamics, rules, and mechanisms, Freud’s “enemy of civilization” is activated and develops over time. For instance, since Bernays defined “propaganda” in 1928 as something that could come as more or less subtle, aggressive, or fraudulent information, the form propaganda takes has now grown into a conscious political desire to construct separate realities. The political entities creating this “propaganda” have highly sophisticated technology and very evolved psycho-socio-behavioral know-how. In short, the enemy of civilization, which resides within every human being, now uses the most sophisticated technology in order to deceive and divide us. The US presidential election of 2016 gave the world a glimpse of the levels of impact targeted use of information could have—it split the nation. Now the war in Ukraine has called to question the very nature of news. It has led to a situation where half the planet continually accuses the other of lying, of fabricating news for the purpose of propaganda, and of spreading false information.
Currently, and for the past several years, I have been teaching psychoanalysis in Russia and other East European countries, while living myself in Finland. Speaking with people from countries both involved and not involved directly in the war, I find myself sometimes completely falling out of a singular, shared system of understanding: each narrative provided in the media is confronted with an opposite narrative. Each view is argumentatively disputed, and each argument relies on “reliable” sources. Each fact can be countered by alternative facts, and each reality has an alternative reality. And, since both realities are painful, they understandably feel compelled to address the pain: the immediate urge is to choose quickly between the provided options or alternative facts. Since the prevalent emotions are anxiety and helplessness, we end up making such decisions with our minds already clouded. From my perspective, this rapid psychosocial deterioration of coherent shared reality looks similar to a psychotic breakdown of an individual patient we might see in our psychotherapy offices. I am shocked by the speed with which public information has altered our reality in no less than three weeks, by the disastrous psychosocial consequences I foresee this may have, and by the process’s tendency to promote itself. It has reminded me of a keen observation made by Hanna Arendt in the early eighties: “Image-making as global policy—not world conquest, but victory in the battle ‘to win the people’s minds’—is indeed something new in the huge arsenal of human follies recorded in history.” As a psychoanalyst, I have come to believe that Freud’s observation regarding the enemy of civilization within ourselves calls for a broader action: such conscious political misinformation and corresponding actions should be classified as a crime against humanity.
I have heard many times the “diagnosis” of the postmodern world as a narcissistic one. I disagree: politically, we live in a hysterical world, where feelings are manipulated, and manipulation as such is not condemned but almost admired. From a psychoanalytic perspective, this hysteria may now be best understood in the context of a perversion in which the psyche’s distorted way of dealing with desire has become consciously approved. Dissociated information-processing is not only widespread socially but also considered by many a normal and desirable part of democratic governing. Perhaps the world is like a hysterical child whose conscious lies and preconscious and unconscious dissociations are approved by his parents.
The core of the issue is the unilateral way in which facts are presented in almost all press and media. Most publishers do not appear to be motivated by a desire to present the objective truth. Instead, they overtly aim to influence, to push the reader’s mind in a certain direction. Too many of the articles that present themselves as “analytic” actually press a clear or hidden political agenda and provide one-sided and overemotional information. This is not done to persuade the reader but rather to create a certain picture of reality, which could affect entire groups of readers emotionally. In other words, the emotional information is not directed toward individuals or to entire nations but rather to the groups defined beforehand: to right-wing-minded groups within right-wing media, and vice versa with left-wing groups and media and various other factions of thought. This kind of social information-processing is divisive and, with modern technology, very dangerous in a global world. It depicts the features of a hysterical character at its best: manipulating the thoughts and emotions with an undeclared purpose in mind—to perversely evade the unpleasant truth about one’s own prohibited desire, to evade consciousness. Psychoanalysis was created to treat hysteria. Do we not as a profession have a responsibility to try to directly address this perversion of our humanity?
- Levas Kovarskis, MD, is a psychiatrist and senior psychoanalyst in the Finnish Psychoanalytical Association. With his colleagues, he helped bring psychoanalysis to his native country, Lithuania, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. He currently trains psychoanalytic psychotherapists and psychoanalysts in Finland and Eastern Europe and is also an honorary professor and head of the psychoanalytic department at the Moscow Institute of Psychoanalysis.
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