Hating in the First Person Plural: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Racism, Sexism, Homophobia (Book Review)

Author:  Moss, Donald
Publisher: New York, NY: Other Press, 2003
Reviewed By: G. Reynaga Abiko, Summer 2004, pp. 74-77

This collection of essays on hatred is an important work that is integral to any clinician’s library. Regardless of theoretical orientation within psychoanalysis, issues of racism, homophobia, and misogyny are rarely considered or discussed. This remains true even in times of great heterogeneity and multicultural interaction in the United States. It is disconcerting that the very theories that promise insight into human nature remain silent regarding painful experiences that negatively affect so much of the population. This work helps shed some light on the historically oppressive systems of racism, homophobia, and misogyny with the final section devoted to a psychoanalytic understanding of terrorism. It is appreciated that each topic is addressed separately, as they are areas that are too often considered in a superficial way, as if all types of hatred and/or bias were alike. Although each topic is of a sensitive nature and often provokes unconscious reactions among discussants, they must be seriously and consciously considered if we are to learn how to live together in peace. The authors of the various chapters provide honest discussions about challenging and controversial topics from which many shy away and for which they should be commended.

The book begins with an introduction from its editor. Moss helps explain the subtitle for the book, making the point that we hate as groups, as this is a means of self-identification that helps fill the need for solidarity with others. If we are to treat hatred psychoanalytically, we must resist the process of disidentifying with hatred, as “it is only an intimate familiarity…with these deadly hatreds that gives us any chance to diminish their influence” (p. xx). However, current psychoanalytic theories avoid talking about the various types of hatred and, when they do, often treat them with a global perspective, as if they were all the same. Fortunately, the sections that follow deal with racism, homophobia, misogyny, and terrorism in ways previously unseen in psychoanalysis.

The first four chapters comprise the section on racism. In Chapter 1, Apprey explains that, not only must we consider our own basic assumptions, but we must also declare some ethic of translating concepts when attempting to understand patients cross-culturally. This is required because it will help capture the experience of groups for which psychoanalysis currently has no language and therefore no means of accurately conceptualizing. Current theory betrays the victims of racism, because it overpathologizes those who are suffering from effects both individual and collective. Apprey then sheds light on “transgenerational haunting,” or the effects of trauma across generations. This is a process with which oppressed groups easily identify but that psychoanalysis has consistently ignored in an American context with ethnic minorities. In Chapter 2, Bass expounds on the ideas brought forth in Chapter 1. He asks, “Why hasn’t this integration of observable intergenerational transmission of trauma with the history of unconscious processes been generalized to include racial persecution in the United States?” (p. 31). Chapters 3 and 4 provide psychoanalytic interpretations of Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, respectively. These are two of the most important works of fiction in African American literature and their inclusion in this work is noteworthy. While this section focuses on African Americans and therefore represents only a small portion of the work to be done regarding theory generation for all oppressed people, it is promising to see such validating words in print. For the countless clinicians of color who are trained under theories and clinical styles that do not adequately represent them, these chapters are integral to a sense of representation for both the analyst and patient. It is hoped that this spawns more work and conceptualization in this area.

Chapters 5 through 8 have as their focus homophobia. In Chapter 5, Corbett provides a powerful and honest investigation into the underside of masculinity and use of the word “faggot.” He describes “faggot” as an “all-purpose put down” that is used as an unconscious attempt to preserve an image of strength in its user. “Faggot” is used whenever males want to aggressively protest the threat of smallness, something considered unacceptable in the U.S. Corbett explains that “…masculinity has been undertheorized and insufficiently problematized” (p. 141) in psychoanalysis. One wonders if this is due to a lack of motivation on the part of analytic theorists: “At the very least, it serves men, who, after all, have largely been the ones who theorize masculinity, to the extent that they do not have to take responsibility for their hate and anxiety” (p. 141). The challenging questions posed in this chapter should help shed light on an important, yet neglected, area in psychoanalytic theory, i.e. the nature of masculinity and male aggression.

In Chapter 6, Young-Bruehl explains that homophobia may only be fought with analytic theories that help understand the character pathology underlying this type of hatred. She describes the different ways that homophobia is expressed in obsessionals, hysterics, and narcissists. Although Young-Bruehl does not provide case examples or detailed explanations, it is interesting to approach the treatment of homophobia in this way as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach.

Chapter 7 is a fascinating chapter in which Lewes describes the current status of “gay-friendly” psychoanalytic theories. He states that they do not represent what many gay psychoanalysts would have wanted, as they are based on lesbian and feminist liberationism. He reports that this is due to the fact that many of the male, homosexual analysts who were actively contributing to a reformulation of theory have since died, many from A.I.D.S. He explains that current theories focusing on attachment as a primary motivator of behavior cannot account for the multitude of gay men who identify as such simply in order to have sex with as many other gay men as possible. He argues against attachment as a primary motivator, explaining that relational theorists do not have the language to “hear” many gay patients accurately. In general, current theories “…underestimate the primary motivating power of phallic drives” and are unsuccessful “…in addressing adequately many of the issues that gay men bring to treatment” (p. 171). He provides illuminating case examples in this regard that demonstrate how the patient would have been misunderstood with a relational approach. He ends the chapter with a discussion of current “gay-friendly” theories as simply another disguise for the homophobia that has run rampant through psychoanalysis since its inception: “Psychoanalysis now welcomes homosexual people to its precincts, but in order to do so, it has transformed its image of what a homosexual is…” (p. 189). The “new” image of gay men is that of someone who “…seeks permanent ties of attachment and a stable and respected conventional social position” (p 189), which is not applicable to the patients of whom X speaks. He makes a convincing argument in this regard and it is interesting to consider the ways in which homophobia continues to “hide” in psychoanalytic theory.

With Chapter 8, Moss writes of internalized homophobia in a way that is not conventionally described. He conceptualizes it as the outcome of a substitution for something else as opposed to the typical meaning of persistent negative feelings toward one’s self as an internalization of the dominant culture’s values. He argues that both homophobia and internalized homophobia are renunciations of something sexual, with internalized homophobia targeting the sexual drive’s aim and source (as opposed to its object, as in homophobia). He explains “one hates oneself for wanting what one wants, and therefore for being what one is” (p. 205). This is something that can be seen clinically only when it is unsuccessful but an important factor to consider when working with homosexual patients.

The section on homophobia provides an important contribution to a field that has traditionally overpathologized homosexuality. They represent important steps in the direction of more fully understanding the pernicious effects of both homophobia and internalized homophobia, including the generation of psychoanalytic theory and therefore treatment itself. The absence of work on lesbianism and bisexuality was disappointing. While space constraints certainly limit what is able to be included in any edited volume, the silence in this area seems strangely reminiscent of the lack of clarity in psychoanalytic theory on female sexuality in general. Therefore, even more work must be done on this topic. If analysts hope to remain vital in a country with increasingly blurred sexual boundaries, homo- and bisexuality are important areas to remain open to in the future.

Chapters 9 and 10 focus on misogyny. In Chapter 9, Zeavin makes the familiar point that psychoanalytic theory is not strong regarding the development of female sexuality and/or femininity in general. She argues that current theories continue to view women as obscure versions of (normal) men. In chapter 10, Harris agrees and makes it clear that “…a psychoanalytic account too easily privatizes psyche and leaves unremarked the material historical conditions and social practices that maintain misogyny and make use of it” (p. 259). Thus, misogyny continues to run rampant throughout psychoanalytic theory, in addition to society and the interpersonal world of both men and women. In general, misogyny is described as a transformed fear of women that begins with the mother. Kleinian theory is helpful in this regard and the authors argue that misogyny is so strong and prevalent because everyone has a mother who is both needed and feared/hated. Misogyny actually allows its perpetrators to maintain a passionate form of attachment with women, albeit distorted and abusive, because it keeps the feminine close and important. These chapters provide a sobering view of a condition that plagues every aspect of society. Whether it manifests itself in unconscious bias against women, interpersonal relations, or societal standards, the hatred of women is not likely to disappear anytime soon. We need theories that allow us to recognize misogyny and treat it, but this does not seem welcomed in psychoanalysis. The authors were brave in their willingness to give justice to a topic that most would either deny as problematic (or even existent) or ignore altogether. Let us all appreciate their effort and continue to foster psychoanalytic discussion and theory about a topic that will only become more relevant as women continue to gain presence in the world, both personal and political.

The final three chapters are devoted to the issue of terrorism, a topic of obvious importance to Americans only in the past few years. This section was undoubtedly the most incomplete, yet the one to which readers will likely consider first, given the news as of late. It seems that public opinion likely drove inclusion of this section, given that terrorists have varied agenda that is likely related to other types of hatred more than its own unique kind. Chapter 11 was written with a very clear Western bias to any reader with even cursory knowledge of Islam and/or Muslims. Stein writes about “evil” terrorists, with a focus on the letter of Mohammed Atta, the man who bombed the World Trade Center. Although she is commenting on a letter that was translated from Arabic into English, using Christian and Jewish religious terminology to reference Islamic ideas, a caveat is never given, with the exception of a footnote stating the letter had been translated. As any bilingual and/or bicultural individual is well aware, concepts do not always translate well into other languages and one must remain exceedingly vigilant in maintaining accuracy when commenting on “foreign” concepts. However, Stein never does this, leaving the reader with a consistent misunderstanding of Islamic religious devotion and overpathologization of the manner in which devout Muslims speak and act. For example, in reference to a passage of the [translated] letter that conveys Atta’s willingness to die for his cause, Stein writes, “What is the place and role of a smiling, calm, confident state of mind with which one passes from life into death, a state of mind so diametrically inverse to the turmoil, terror, and rage that would be expectable accompaniments to the commission of such destruction?” (p. 286).

One is reminded of the ways in which Japanese kamikaze fighters were overpathologized and misunderstood during World War II. It seems that the individuality prevalent in the West, and psychoanalytic theory as well, has no place to consider a human being who is completely willing to give their life for what they consider a greater good. When considering acts of terrorism, regardless of the religious beliefs of the perpetrator(s), it is more productive to attempt to understand how the individual(s) came to define that greater good rather than overpathologizing the devotion itself. For example, Stein mistakenly argues against the ways God is viewed in the letter as opposed to making the comment that the bomber seemed to be a devout Muslim who was suffering from delusional thought processes and a disordered personality structure. Nowhere does she make this point, instead incorrectly placing Western viewpoints and interpretations in exactly the way against which Chapter I warns.

Another complaint against Chapter 11 is the frequent reference to Christian and Jewish concepts when describing a Muslim terrorist. Ironically, there are more similarities than differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, though this is never mentioned. Instead, it seems that the Islamic fundamentalism attacked in this chapter is not understood from a grounded perspective, but rather in a way that judges it against the assumed Judeo-Christian ethic of America. This is problematic, not only because of the inaccurate method of comparison, but also because the rationale for making such statements is never given, as if it were obvious. This is exactly against which every other chapter in the book argues. This essay seems to model what not to do when considering the views of those who are culturally different from us. One wonders why only Muslim terrorists were discussed, instead of the countless other individuals claiming religion as their rationale for violence. One need not search too far in American and Christian history to find examples of such “terrorists,” though this is also never discussed. Overall, it seems that Stein used this chapter to propagate the same generalizations and bias against fundamentalist Muslims that can easily be found in popular media, as opposed to providing a psychoanalytic understanding of “the mind of a suicidal religious terrorist,” as the title promises.

Chapter 12 redeems the section on terrorism, with its admonition against absolutist language and the lack of reasoned discourse that accompanies it. Lichtenstein is articulate in his description of the ways in which many have dealt with the inevitable confusion and coping difficulties after a terrorist act like that seen on 9/11/01. He explains that “’terror ‘ has come to be the lasting signifier serving not as an occasion for a progressively more articulated discourse regarding the social, historical, and political meaning of our current crisis, but as a substitute for that articulation, a condensation that can serve, symptom-like, to convey meaning only if it is allowed to open further discourse, not if it is taken as the end point, the truth in itself” (p. 315). This certainly applies to the ways in which many Americans have reacted to the terrorist attacks and is a timely response to the challenges often faced in working with these patients. However, it may also be considered applicable to the ways in which people potentially deal with something they do not understand and/or like, making it consistent with the general theme of the book. The section on terrorism ends with a chapter by Moss in which he makes the point that the goal of terrorists is to instill fear, making their message irrelevant. Although this may be interpreted as a convenient way to ignore the ways in which the U.S. is seen by others, Moss makes an important argument that conjecture about the goal of terrorist activity as anything other than a way to scare its object only serves the one making the argument. It may be, therefore, intellectualization against acts that are unable to be processed in any other way. Moss makes it clear that, “in a psychoanalytic reading, appearance is suspect. In the construction of evil, appearance is all” (p. 331). Like Lichtenstein, Moss argues against using defenses that serve only to prevent intelligent conceptualization of those we fear, dislike, and/or do not understand.

The chapters included in this work provide a thoughtful collection that is timely and useful to American psychoanalysts. The U.S. is unique in the multicultural nature of its population, which means that many psychoanalysts are challenged to provide ethical treatment to patients who expose the limits of current theories. It seems that psychoanalysis must work with great vigilance in order to overcome the various biases inherent in its history. This is the only way in which analysts may hope to ethically conceptualize and treat members of a multicultural population. Although we are still in the ground stages of such an overwhelming process, the essays reviewed herein serve as an exciting step in the direction of inclusion of others in psychoanalytic theory and treatment.


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