War, Terrorism, Cultural Inequality and Psychotherapy

Andrew Samuels on ….
War, Terrorism, Cultural Inequality and Psychotherapy

I don’t have a settled position so I am going to ask three questions addressed to myself and everyone here.

Is there a crisis in the West that needs a kind of therapy?
Can cultural monoliths, such as Judaism for example, evolve so as to become more differentiated and open to dialogue?
Can psychotherapy ever really make a difference at the level of geopolitics?

The short answer is yes, and I want to suggest that in Islam, whether it likes it or not, the West has found its therapist.

There are many signs of crisis in the West: materialism, global greed and massive social and economic inequality, crime and violence in society, addictions and consumerism, sexual excess (pornography, lap-dancing, prostitution, trafficking) and decline in the seriousness of long-term relationships and marriage, spirit-free politics, citizen apathy and the hibernation of idealism.

Many of these problems have been pointed out to us by Islamic critics, whether so-called moderates or so-called extremists. Of course, it is hard to listen, but, hey, whoever said being in therapy is easy?! I want to hit home the necessity to listen and to hear.

So I would like to position Islam, not only as the enemy of the West, not only as the critic of the West, but also as its therapist. Of course, these terms ‘Islam’ or ‘the West’ are themselves deeply problematic. I’ll return to this issue later.

This is not to idealise Islam, which breeds its own injustices and cruel fundamental isms- dependence on a Book, (Bible, Koran, Freud or lung) is not always a good thing. And dependence on a book, coupled with possession of power in general and military technology in particular, is a disaster, no matter whether this is America or AI-Quaida. But you don’t have to be fault free or possessed of 100% insight to be an effective therapist.

Let’s take this idea of the West needing therapy a bit further:
What are the cultural habits of mind that contribute to our problems? Can we doubt our one-sidedness, lacking balance, wholeness, integration? But therapists know that crisis is potentially the catalyst for healing.

There’s a crisis in thinking – thinking in opposites, our binary way of thinking in pairs of complementary opposites (dualism). If we are rational, they are irrational, if we are compassionate, they are cruel. It is binary thinking that stops us spreading a general critique over all the warring players, so that one could condemn Saddam and Bush, Israel and the Palestinians, lungians and Freudians.
And, more important than criticise or condemn the players, develop an across-the-board compassion and love for them – for the Israelis as the suicide bombers hit, for the Palestinians as their children and communities are annihilated.

There’s a crisis in moral process. Linked to thinking in opposites, there is the problem of what I call original morality, meaning the primitive, innate, archetypal moral sensibility with which we are born. This is an inborn but clumsy and rigid form of moral process in which horizontal conflict is flipped over into a self-stabilising vertical evaluation. A moral hierarchy comes into being in which the opponent, initially located horizontally across from ourselves, becomes re-located vertically, below ourselves. One psychological follow-on from this is that there is no gain in peace or alliance or communication taking place because there’s so much pleasure in the moral beat-up of the other. So the aggression displayed by our enemies is morally outrageous while our own is morally justified. Much of the pro-war propaganda can therefore be reframed as an abuse of morality.

You see original morality on the part of the West in relation to terrorism which receives blanket moral condemnation, forgetting that there are different kinds: what about the ANC, or Israel in 1947-8, or Hizbollah (a genuine liberation struggle against an occupier), or the IRA? Why is it so difficult to understand that, even it feels foreign, and requires moral imagination (the necessary counterpart to original morality) the terrorists are convinced they are engaged in a form of social spirituality (Samuels, 200 I), whether we accept it or not? Original morality rules out empathy and hence forgiveness on the collective level. On the personal level, it rules out repentance and atonement. It is only a small part of the potential in human morality – but it is a lethal one.
What about aggression then? Fighting, bleeding, dying, suffering, destroying – and aspiring, asserting, creating, liberating? I sometimes think many psychotherapists are too squeamish when it comes to the aggression represented by terrorism.

When you factor the immense political power and military might of the West in general and the US in particular into this, you see that a flowering of moral imagination (all about an improvised, flexible response to the other and to conflict in general) isn’t going to happen. There is no incentive for it. The whole thing resembles depression, and the West is stuck in a profound cultural depression caused in part by its own strength, just as depressive anxiety in an individual is fuelled by destructive fantasies of destroying someone or something.

(I first began to write about the linkages between morality and geopolitics at the height of the Cold War’ see Samuels, 1989, Chapter 11.)

There’s a crisis of sincerity. Aren’t we Westerners supposed to love our neighbours, or even our enemies, it’s supposed to be the heart of Judaism and Christianity? Yet we have created one of the most unfair and unjust social and economic systems the world has ever seen. We then close our eyes to the links between poverty and disempowerment and terrorism. We ignore what I call democratic spirituality, the fundamental, ineluctable equal-in-the-eyes-of-the-Lord kind of equality, similar to what Jocelyn Chaplin calls ‘deep equality’.

I feel I must use Judaism as an example because this is my cultural location, and the invitation to the speakers was to be mindful of their cultural location.

There is world-wide debate within Jewry about the relationship between Jewish identity and Jewish nationalism. This is not totally new, there have always been anti-Zionist Jews, but the intensity might be new.

Some illustrations of these developments with which I have been personally involved:
The formation in 2002 of Jews for Justice for Palestinians – there is an immense political impact in the mere title of this group.
The renunciation by a number of Jews of the right of return -the Israeli law that guarantees that any Jew (according to rabbinical definition) has a right to live in Israel as an Israeli citizen. Palestinians have no right of return, so the argument goes, so why should Jews, many of whom never sought this right, have it?
The role of Jews internationally in calling attention to serious inequalities in the Middle East – e.g. by participating in the Guardian letter in April 2002 pointing out the anomaly that Israel is regarded as part of the EU for academic research funding purposes. And whatever one thinks about that call for a moratorium which many claimed was terribly unfair and against academic freedom, it crystallised debate so that the inequalities in the academic area in that region could be engaged with in a much better-informed manner.

Psychotherapists face an unusual problem when it comes to commenting on issues such as the geopolitical situation. If we are not careful, we just end up sounding like any old journalist, nothing in our discourse that speaks of our work and knowledge base as therapists. If we are too technical, there will be the immediate charge of ‘psychobabble’. And a good deal of psychotherapeutic comment on politics can seem very reductive.

There’s also the question of whether or not therapists should be getting involved with the political at all. Questions of neutrality and abstinence arise. I have discussed these at length elsewhere (Samuels, 2003) and what I want to do in this context is to point out that much the same problems exists for artists and religious
people. If the novel is too ‘political’, it may be castigated as propaganda not art. If the sermon harps on about conditions in the inner city, it is ‘political’ not religious pronouncement.

The strengths of psychotherapy when it comes to political critique are obvious: ‘therapy’ thinking, is reflective, long-term, bringing together psyche, body and the social realm, devoted to deep understanding, compassionate. Some of the weaknesses of psychotherapy are also obvious: love of power and being wedded to conformity, ignoring of issues affecting difference, whether sexual, ethnic or socio-economic.

However, there are some weaknesses of psychotherapy that are less obvious: use of triangulation to solve every problem – the therapist needing two warring parties so as to sit at the supposedly neutral tip of the triangle and sort the whole thing out, an excessive belief in dialogue that avoids the shadow of dialogue which can mean avoiding struggle. As Hamlet puts it, when bemoaning his lack of resolution and the capacity to act: “the readiness is all”. Therapists are mini-Hamlets, preternaturally suspicious of action.

“Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.

I will end with two quotes. The first one is well known and from Margaret Mead:
“Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.,

Finally, something from the Book of Proverbs:
“If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat. And if he be thirsty give him water to drink. Say not, I will do to him as he hath done to me.

Samuels, A. (1989) The Plural Psyche: Personality, Morality and the Father. London & New York:
Samuels, A. (200 I) Politics on the Couch: Citizenship and the Internal Life. London & New York: Karnac/ Other Press.

Samuels, A. (2003) ‘Working directly with political, social and cultural material in the therapy session,. In Controversies in Analytical Psychology, Robert Withers (ed.). London & New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Andrew Samuels is a psychotherapist. political consultant and academic. He is professor of Analytical Psychology at the University of Essex. and Visiting Professor of Psychoanalytic Studies at Goldsmith’s College. University of London. Co-founder (with Judy Ryde) of Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility. His books have been translated into 19 languages. and include lung and the Post-Jungians. The Plural Psyche. The Political Psyche and Politics on the Couch: Citizenship and the Internal Life.

Please send your comments via the form below.

Your Name* Your Email*
Your Comments

Please typecaptchahere: