Curiosity, like all thinking, is relational in nature; that is to say, it involves an intimacy with an imagined or real other. This means that curiosity requires a capacity to tolerate the anxieties of not knowing the other in advance but through a process of discovery. When we are curious about someone or something, we embark on a journey that moves us in our imagination from the safety and familiarity of knowing—our “psychic home” offering us relative certainty—toward the experience of unknowing and not knowing. Playing with our curiosity, which involves this risk of wandering in our imagination to unknown vistas, including those far away from the self as it is presently known, can stir up profound anxieties that have the potential for our undoing, threatening our continuity of being.1 Much of our clinical endeavors focuses on discerning the imagined dangers of this curious intimacy and, in my case, the dangers associated with racial and ethnic others.
While the Oxford English Dictionary defines curiosity as “a strong desire to learn or know something,” psychoanalysis frames this desire with an ambivalence, particularly with the emotional perils of knowing about self and other—especially in the context of ethnic or racial others. Understanding this conflict between self-discovery and deception goes to the very heart of our clinical work, preoccupied as it is with the anxieties and quality of thinking in particular states of mind that obstruct curiosity and concern about ourselves in relation to others in the world. This is perhaps reflected in the proverb “curiosity killed the cat,”2 used to warn of the dangers of unnecessary investigation and exploration. The question of what or who will be discovered and killed in the desire to know centers on imaginary threats that include the potential annihilation of self from a true or genuine engagement with the other who symbolizes the threat of our undoing, a threat emanating from within. It conveys what is at stake: the psychological survival of self and the different ways in which a solution is sought to attend to these urgent anxieties.
This chapter will focus on understanding how retreating into a racist imagination is one attempt to resolve these anxieties by trying to bolt down certainty, which shifts the focus from an inner threat to an outer one, creating monsters of our imagination that are grafted onto the ethnic characteristics of others. More specifically, racist phantasies offer to allay these anxieties by simplifying the world into dyadic relations of “us/them,” “good/bad,” which become ever more ossified as boundaries that cannot be questioned and must be fixed and certain. In so doing, these racist constructions bring temporary relief to what is felt to be internally unbearable by preventing the emergence of curiosity and concern, thereby distorting reality and misrepresenting racial and ethnic others in ways that rob or silence their humanity.
Both recent media discussions and clinical case studies are used here to illuminate the central thesis that racism is a destructive state of mind that exploits others to manage emotional vulnerabilities. This is achieved by creating a false narrative to obstruct any curiosity and compassion or concern that might expose our anxiety. These psychosocial and political defenses involve a configuration of omnipotence, sense of superiority, intolerance, arrogance, cruelty, and coercion. They also involve formidable elements of disguise and trickery that aim to “fix” misrepresentations of reality that make them difficult to engage with and understand.
Given the political, social, and cultural upheavals in recent times that have given rise to xenophobia and an astonishing increase in race hate crimes, racist states of mind are all the more urgent to understand. In the first section I sketch out some of my thinking on these murderous, tragic, and misguided attempts that seek out a sense of identity and security at any cost, by looking at recent events such as the migration crises in Europe, Brexit (the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union), and the unprecedented turmoil in American politics created by the campaign of President Donald Trump. The second section briefly describes the experience of working with a patient’s racism in the consulting room and how this more nuanced understanding can contribute to our thinking about race in our society.
Positioning Race, Curiosity, and Concern
In psychoanalysis, the acquisition of knowledge has a special significance because our capacity to comprehend reality is thought to be intimately connected to the trajectories of our emotional development. Curiosity and concern are processes that are understood here to be intertwined, so that the qualities related to inquisitive thinking—such as exploration, investigation, and learning—are bound up with a gradual capacity for empathy toward the object that has aroused the desire to know. In other words, curiosity and concern shape one another to bring about an expansion of awareness and potential for exploration of self and others that recognizes a common humanity.
These processes take place in the context of a developmental progression from a two-person to a three-person relationship as the basis of comprehending and relating to a diverse and complex social world. Besides the self, there is one “other,” a first other: the maternal body and presence. This is initially experienced as an idealized place free of imaginary intrusions, our first geographical and psychical home,3 rooted in infantile experience and a ruthless self-centeredness that knows no recognition of separate others. However, a capacity for a sense of guilt and concern that mobilizes reparative impulses can be facilitated, in which the “individual cares, or minds, and both feels and accepts responsibility”4 toward others, expanding and enriching the capacity for a sense of exploration, playfulness, and creativity.
The paternal dimension serves as a second “other,” creating a triangular, or Oedipal, structure that Freud referred to as the “primal scene.”5 McDougall conceptualized the scene in terms of the child’s “total store of unconscious knowledge and personal mythology concerning the human sexual relation, particularly that of his parents.”6 While sexuality is central to the primal scene, much more is being worked out here through the child’s curiosity and imaginative reconstruction of the interaction and relationship between the parents.7 Whether the parental couple in the primal scene come together in a lively and pleasurable or destructive way is thought to have a profound effect on the capacity for thinking. Since thinking necessitates making links or connections, it also forms the prototype for the development of creativity as symbolized by how members of the parental couple are linked together in the mind.8 A capacity to link thoughts, to think, and to create meaning is therefore shaped by the way the parents in the triangular situation are perceived and used.
In this way, the developmental tasks of recognition that take the trajectory from a dyad to a triad determine the way mental space is structured, increasing the capacity to comprehend and relate to the complexities of reality. The development of curiosity and concern requires the recognition of others as fellow human beings separate from oneself in a shared social space, where there is a possibility of mutual empathy or concern and accommodation. This is in sharp contrast to a mode of functioning that mobilizes splitting and projective mechanisms to obstruct that recognition,9 leading to the collapse of a triangulated space. The particular appeal of racist narratives is the allure of simplicity through their power to call upon a regressive phantasy of return to a dyadic space as a response to the unstoppable march of modernity and its inherent uncertainties. This is evident in how external geographical spaces and boundaries that arouse such primitive passions on the international stage10 are often gendered into notions of Mother Earth that are linked to myths of return to an imaginary homeland, promising a sense of security and belonging.
The structure of racial phantasies reflects an intense preoccupation with the other in its ethnic or racial form and, like all primal scene phantasies, they organize one’s relation to the other through encounters with difference.11 Such phantasies are concerned with fundamental questions about the relationship between self and other, or questions about one’s origin.12 Phantasies of race are also relational,13 determining the extent to which connections between thoughts can be tolerated and allowed to come together to engage in a productive relationship. Here we are concerned with contrasting objects, their ideational representations, and the extent to which these can be allowed to interact with each other in the service of reflective thinking as well as a capacity to manage contradiction and complexity without being attacked.14 This opens up a distinction that I suggest needs to be made between the use of racial and racist phantasies, whose functions are different: the former notices the ethnic characteristics of others and is motivated by a curiosity that aims to explore the self in relation to others within a triangular structure. By contrast, racist phantasies involve a regressive pull that demands absolute certainty and aims to thwart and damage others, closing down possibilities for intimacy with and learning from others.
The development of curiosity and concern in this formulation extends the trajectory of recognition from the notion of self/other within a dyad to a third other, thereby creating a triangulated space and laying the emotional foundations of a diverse mental and social world of mutuality.
Body, Psyche, and Nation: The Collapse of Curiosity and Concern
Mira Nair’s film The Reluctant Fundamentalist gives a powerful sequence of events in which action and reaction escalate in a frightening way, illustrating how effortlessly the dyadic cycle of terror and terrorism can feed itself perpetually.15 In its unfolding, the story reflects a collapse of triangulation that obliterates any semblance of curiosity and concern that might potentially make room for some degree of mutual accommodation. We see a young Pakistani man, Chengez Khan, working in the world of corporate America, enjoying his identity as an American citizen. All this comes to a dramatic crash after the 9/11 terrorist assault on the Twin Towers. The audience is led through a chain of events that connect the burning of the Twin Towers with this young man walking through the airport with his colleagues, all suited and booted, just as he had done many times before. Only this time, he is stopped and led away by FBI officials, who first question him as to whether he is a foreign or American national.
From this point onward, we are led to believe that an apparently normal world of protocol is taking place in the face of suspicion but, in actual fact, a parallel world is taking shape. A paranoid, racist construction has taken grip, ambushing and obstructing the capacity for inquiry and concern under the guise of reason. We see the young man taken into a room and from there onward he is spoken to in a tone that already assumes his brown skin and country of origin make him a potential terrorist, a narrative that will become difficult to prove otherwise.
The film captures the chilling manner in which a racist mindset can infect and grip ordinary citizens, interpreting behavior in such a way as to confirm an inner template. This is a type of knowing in advance of experiencing the other. In the airport room, he is instructed to remove his clothes as the official puts on his plastic gloves, standing behind him, leaving little doubt in the imagination as to the menace that is about to strike. His hair and body are searched in a manner that suggests he is being treated like an animal. He is then instructed to remove his underwear and spread his legs, as he undergoes a further humiliating examination. He is then told to put his clothes back on and, as he does, the shock is palpably present on the reflection of his face in the window against a backdrop of the Twin Towers. The whole thing has taken place in a matter of minutes. He is not only shaken to the core but powerless in the face of what has just happened to him. The careful juxtaposition of imagery in the film conveys a silence in him borne of rage, burning from the inside like the Twin Towers. What has receded into the background is the official in uniform who has conducted the examination with military precision. He steps back without any overt emotion on his face, a silent casualty of the assault in which he has become a participant in an act of naked terror.
The narrative sequence tells us something important about the reenactment (repetition of an emotional dynamic) that has taken place, a mental split or partition between ordinary feelings of concern and a murderous rage one imagines in the terrorists’ state of mind while they sat in the plane’s cockpit, directing it toward the two towers. The violation of the two towers is mirrored in the physical assault of the young man at the hands of the official. We see the victim’s demeanor change in an instant. He is not the person he was moments ago, when he was going about his daily life: deep in his soul, something fundamental has changed. The film highlights the particularly disturbing way in which the young man was forced to experience feelings of shock, powerlessness, and humiliation as his inner world is ripped apart through an assault on his physical and psychic skin, throwing his sense of self into profound terror, just as we imagine victims of terrorist massacres feel, giving us an indication as to the motivations of the perpetrators. These murderous acts and their unconscious enactment are designed to provoke a range of powerful feelings and reactions in both victim and witness, intending to destroy the capacity to think and reflect.16
I suggest that these types of concrete or physical enactments (action-reaction replaces considered thought) pervade racist narratives that aim to provide immediate certainty and relief by splitting the world into crude boundary markers such as us/them, dangerous/safe, good/bad, righteous/evil, and so on. These splits often follow sociopolitical lines of cleavage that include ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, or disability, projecting across the divide unwanted or intolerable thoughts and feelings into others. Once the process is complete, it aims to restore a perception of emotional safety that was felt to be under threat. Those on the receiving end are straitjacketed or squeezed into an identity not of their making, belying a crudity with which this emotional and institutional process can operate. This is echoed in the comments made in another sequence of the film when Chengez enters a café: “Any beard or turban is a target.” In other words, in this reactionary, binary space, there is no room for becoming curious about the impact of one’s actions on others.
It reminded me of the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks in London on July 7, 2005. At this time, a panicked, terror-stricken way of thinking about others who are ethnically different from white Anglo-British citizens had a tendency to get lodged in the private and public imagination. The deadly combination of both real and imagined threats stirred up quite unbearable anxieties at a personal, national, and global level that potentially compromised the capacity to remain in a reflective mental space. I recall my increased vigilance on the London underground tube in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, where I had unwittingly assumed the mindset in which everybody was a potential suspect. In this atmosphere, the capacity to think humanely of fellow citizens is hijacked by a state of mind that is quick to expel and lodge the anxiety outside the self rather than process it. The shooting of an innocent Brazilian man, Jean Charles de Silva e de Menezes, by counterterrorism police at the Stockwell underground tube station in London may have been a further tragic outcome of a racist mindset and the tendency to panic that it engenders.
The evacuation of, rather than the engagement with, anxiety about strangers is a remarkably recurring theme in identity politics. Racist populist movements use phantasies that dehumanize others in terms of diseases, insects, or vermin, which are felt to threaten and destroy the national body politic. This language also suggests that others are parasites, invading and robbing the body of the nation with their needs and desires, which in turn produces paranoid anxieties about economic and emotional resources being depleted or robbed by foreigners. It conveys a preoccupation that dangerously equates the body of the ethnic other with psyche and nationhood.17
Building walls has mined the divisions of people into “us” and “them” to be exploited for political purposes, where “foreign bodies” are expunged to the other side of the wall18 (cleansing the body and psyche of an imagined contamination by foreigners that is experienced viscerally). This type of splitting and ethnic cleansing, however, has a further aim: to create a heightened sense of moral superiority over others that disguises a nexus of hate and disinformation that misrepresents reality. Trump’s campaign, for example, used racist phantasies to create a climate of anxiety and fear that extended to attacks on women, disabled people, LGBT people, Jews, African Americans, immigrants (especially Latinos, and those perceived to be “foreigners”). His policy of “extreme vetting” advocated “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on. We have no choice . . . we have no choice.”19
Trump’s narrative has unraveled a compelling and captivating unconscious phantasy. Nationhood has become concretely equated20 with an idealized notion of the white female body that needs to be cleansed and protected from foreign rapists, apparently giving political license to build an unconscious phantasy, a grand chastity belt to make it “an impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful southern border wall.”21 The flipside of this idealization is evident in his degrading views about women; he was caught on audiotape saying he could do anything he liked, “grabbing women by the p***y.”22 Fear and contempt of women was evident in his insinuating comments toward a female Fox News journalist during the CNN first Republican presidential debate, when he attributed her “hostile questioning” to menstruation.23 It was a further elaboration of a phantasy of another contaminant: the biological fact of blood within the body, suggesting a familiar component in the racist phantasy based on a dangerous equation between psyche, nation, and the procreative capacities of the maternal body, whose anxieties and threats are also projected onto ethnic others.
Corrupting Curiosity and Concern: Racist Phantasies of Cleansing and Restoration
These anxieties and threats were managed through narratives of “purity” and “homogeneity” in the Trump presidential campaign to exploit sections of the dispossessed American population, what some have called a “forgotten people” who have been living in heartbreaking social and economic landscapes. This section of the population has suffered years of hopelessness and desolation from poverty, hit hard by forces of globalization that have affected local industries, and feel they are living in an increasingly fractured and disunited country. Along a section of Route 45 is Washington County, Alabama, one of America’s poorest states, where a quarter of the people live in poverty; unemployed and unimpressed, one resident commented about his dilapidated town: “Bad roads, bad bridges, they don’t look out for us.” In Marion County, the poorest in West Virginia (and one of many relying on the coal and steel industry), four times as many babies are born with a drug addiction than the national average. One resident commented, “It brings tears to my eyes, no way out, there is nowhere for them to go, there are no jobs, if they took coal mining away, we’re done.” In eastern Kentucky, where more than a third of the people live in poverty, similar comments emerge: “They made us feel we are unimportant, they took the farming away, they took the tobacco away, took the coal mines away, basically they took everybody away.”
Similar narratives have emerged in the British context, where one report described the cathedral city of Peterborough as under siege, with migration being held responsible for putting pressure on public services and local resentment about the changing character of the ancient English settlement. In one popular street, a traditional English baker’s shop finally closed after 136 years. The blame is placed firmly at the door of the new Polish delicatessen two doors down. One resident commented, “three generations that ran this shop for over 100 years, it’s gone too far, the country’s gone too far, this country is never going to be the same again. We can only hope that we can put a stop to it.” A Sheffield resident commented, “We’ve lost the steelworks, coal, everything is gone, everything is going.”
In racist discourse, social grievances (e.g., antiestablishment feeling, alienation, unemployment, loss of local industry and community, immigration) often become the battlegrounds, but what is at stake is the sense of self. One report in the aftermath of the Brexit result showed a woman raising her fists in triumph saying, “Just glad we are going to be out. This is our England, our England,” while another reported a sobbing, grief-stricken elderly man saying, “I have got my country back, what I’ve got I want to keep.” It conveyed a deep wound in his sense of self and identity that he believed could be healed through reclaiming an idealized object called “our country,” which would right a perceived wrong.
What is hidden beneath these moral panics are allusions to profound feelings of loss and a longing for “what once was and is no longer.”24 Elsewhere I have suggested that “racist events wherever we encounter them reflect a ‘racist scene,’ a variant of the phantasy of the primal scene . . . which is saturated with different layers of meanings.”25 This involves a narrative of an imaginary lost love whose structure contains elements of symbolic loss, bewilderment about psychic/social change, uncertainty, a sense of powerlessness and betrayal, coupled with feelings of shame and humiliation. This toxic amalgam can serve to bind the emotional turmoil into melancholic responses26 and be used to replace the pain of mourning by fueling the satisfactions of a grievance and vengeful feelings that are opposed to any notion of a shared social space.
One of the deeper sources of lament in racism is a complex and potentially toxic melding of narcissistic injuries derived from both the personal and sociopolitical realms of experience. Political rhetoric often uses this area of human vulnerability as a feeding ground for racist phantasies to create a world of “alternative facts” that ultimately distorts the recognition of others as fellow human beings. The Brexit campaign used giant posters of migrants in long queues (an image likened to Nazi propaganda during the last world war)27 to imply floods of foreigners were invading Britain because it remained in the European Union. In this way meaning was corrupted by depicting the arrival or presence of the stranger or foreigner as a symbolic loss representing a loved person such as community, country, or nation imbued with the central feeling of being robbed or depleted, thus leaving a profound sense of powerlessness. The notion of getting a country back implies it was a phantasmatic object taken or stolen, an object to which one remains entitled. This grievance is further fueled by an outrage that a nation-state, authority, or establishment (“they”) had allowed this to happen in the first place. In this sense, a perceived influx of strangers, who are permitted to contaminate an idealized relationship and physical landscape, is felt to be a betrayal.
These psychological injuries and their multilayered losses are rarely forgotten or forgiven because the feeling of being robbed or depleted, shamed and humiliated, is felt to be unbearable. Instead of acknowledging this loss, mourning and accommodating the other, bitterness, grievance, and a sense of entitlement predominate. A pitched battle ensues with a phantasy couple, as represented by an authority such as a government using the fertile soil of social battlegrounds to exact vengeful feelings in a “tit-for-tat” manner. Fallen under the spell of what some see as a brilliant demagogue, one veteran factory worker commented, “We’ve been ignored and ignored and ignored, been waiting for years for someone like Trump to come up.” That this hurt translated into a toxic grudge using the ballot box as an anger management tool is evident in the effortless slide from a poverty of circumstance to a poverty of thinking, manifest in the degradation of language connected to a degradation of virtues.
Racist phantasies in this context were served up to offer those most vulnerable and aggrieved, with an idea of decontaminating an imagined utopia of ethnic others through cleansing and evacuation, creating a reimagined community to soothe the hurts of narcissistic injuries. They attempt to restore the individual or community to a former state of completeness, but it is a delusional idea promising a return to a mythical homeland as a solution to profound anxiety.
Both the Brexit and Trump campaigns repackaged some of the oldest prejudices in the service of vengeful feelings that were percolating, decades in the making. Both campaigns used racist phantasies to give free rein to a type of murderousness that corrupts legitimate protest and desire for change through the democratic process into destructive mayhem. Listening to some of the stories of those most affected, living and working in the “rust belt” of America, suggests that the racist narrative tapped into a punctured potency of the dispossessed. Perhaps the anger and bitterness toward the establishment was for their perceived cuddling up to the “forces of globalization,” sharing the same bed with strangers, foreign economic powers that put pressure on thriving local industries to enlist cheaper labor abroad, leading to domestic job losses, homelessness, hopelessness, and despair.
The politicization of a border wall in the most southern region of the sexual body politic, to keep foreign intruders out, urges us to consider a phantasy that wishes to reassert white male potency in an impotent-making world of seismic economic shifts involving foreign players. The imprint of these forces on the physical landscape of “middle America” reflects an inner world of desolation and deadness arising from a profound loss. Bakersfield, an oil town once built on the riches of the land, is now a ghost town, perhaps holding a mirror of what had once been idealized in the American body politic but is no longer. Trump’s calculated move echoes this in a simple and alluring way, through an assertion that the American dream is dead, but it will be brought back to life by making America great again.
Race in the Consulting Room: Curiosity under Fire
This section sketches out my thinking on clinical work with a patient who, at certain moments of our encounter, retreated into his racist imagination to manage anxieties about his emotional safety with me. His wish for absolute certainty in his engagement with me conveys the underlying terrors of letting his mind wander in a way that does not prejudge me but allows a sense of curiosity to evolve through our encounter. The intention here is to describe the type of dynamics that can emerge in some patients’ need for absolute certainty, dynamics that might in turn serve as an analogue of wider social and political stresses that can harvest nascent racism to manage anxieties about change and loss of control.
An Italian man28 I saw for an initial consultation left quite an impression on me, such that, many years later, I continue to think about our experience together and the insight it offered into being with a patient whose only means of communicating just how frightening it was to be himself was to try to frighten, intimidate, and humiliate others.
He entered my consulting room, looking confident but suspicious as he placed his coat over mine on the door, sat down, stroked his chin, and looked at me patronizingly. I had planned to see him briefly to discuss a treatment vacancy with him, but it was not long before he started to go into a tirade about how he “was not going to be messed about.” How experienced was I? Was I going to be like his previous therapist who ended his treatment abruptly? He was certainly not going to put up with that nonsense with me. I had a feeling from this opening gambit that my being Asian had rattled him, as he had managed to create an abrasive and volatile atmosphere within seconds of meeting with me.
His insistence that there was only one version of events to comprehend (i.e., his) was irritating me enough to make me want to kick him out of the room. This atmosphere and my initial response to it became an important source of understanding about how this man was inviting a potential reenactment of a wish to evacuate (“kick out”) rather than engage and understand what was driving his urgent need to establish a sense of security about his treatment. This inner state was difficult to reach and understand by his insistence that only his viewpoint was valid, preventing an exploration where he and I could think together, in a spirit of curiosity, about his traumatic experience with a previous therapist.
I acknowledged his sense of urgency but needed him to tell me about his previous treatment and how the ending came to be so abrupt. I was under the impression that his cessation of treatment had been planned, but he was clearly disgruntled. As he spoke, he seemed more preoccupied with the fact of ending itself, unwilling to convey anything about his experience of the therapy. His distress turned into omnipotent control and demand to put things right.
He became irritated, demanding that I stop pussyfooting around (i.e., exploring) and offer him a treatment that would end only when he decided to leave. He said he had heard all the therapy “lingo” before, so I should not try any of that with him either. It stopped me in my tracks, unable to think for a few moments and feeling as though he was demanding total control over whether I could even think my own thoughts! I could see that this form of abrasive engagement made him feel triumphant, something that was familiar to all who had come into contact with him, including previous therapists. However, the inner place of desperation from which much of this provocative behavior came seemed elusive.
When I was better able to gather my thoughts, I commented on his wish to test whether I could manage his abrasive behavior enough to help him. He replied, somewhat mockingly, that it was a shrewd observation. In his agitated state, any attempt to empathize with his anxieties received a fleeting recognition that was quickly perceived as an attempt to make him feel even more vulnerable with me, increasing his anxieties and attempts to control me. Naming his anxiety, and frank terror of being with me, could easily feel humiliating and inflame his sense of injury, hence his desperate attempts to establish control by any means necessary. This escalated in the session to the point where he began making derogatory comments about my cultural background and telling me the consulting room was “wreaking” before dismissing me as incompetent.
Two throwaway remarks were telling. First, he demanded that only he should decide the ending date of any treatment that was offered. Second, he said he hated the silence in the room when I was thinking. This need to establish control and dictate my behavior seemed to be a way of communicating his psychic terrors of being suddenly left without anything to hold him emotionally, rupturing his sense of continuity. It threw him into a paranoid state that demanded absolute control of others. Among other things, his wish to stop me thinking was perhaps aimed to create an experience inside my mind where I was temporarily unhinged in my thinking and unable to connect my thoughts. In other words, a relational disaster of losing control that he experienced was now being played out in my mind with my thoughts.
His use of racist thinking offered him temporary refuge from possibly spiraling into a more severe breakdown, by becoming superior, dictating the terms of our engagement where he wanted absolute control. As these attempts failed him, he escalated his maneuvers by trying to wound me. In this way he could disavow his own feelings of humiliation, of floundering in a mental and emotional mess that now took on racist overtones. It is of course telling that, in his attempts to inflict attacks on my personal and cultural identity, he was trying to tear, in me, the very thing that was at stake: the fabric of a sense of self.
Despite his contempt for me, his desperation was vital but difficult to reach when he was determined to throw everything at me to see if he and I could survive and continue thinking. This is difficult to do when the very act of thinking itself becomes the object of attack. In this state there is no space for curiosity to emerge, as other viewpoints and feelings are felt to be intolerable. There is a marked absence of any breathing or thinking space to both observe and be observed29 within a triangular space that might enable the taking of different positions and creating the possibilities for empathy and concern. Instead, the urgency of psychic survival means that refuge is sought in control through a particular kind of coupling that acts like a gang with an attitude of superiority that is played out with the analyst in the “live theater” of the consulting room. Here the difficulty is to remain emotionally open enough to be able to continue being “curious under fire,” when so much anxiety is being discharged, and all under the patient’s watchful eyes. It requires us to allow ourselves to let our imagination breathe, aiming to recognize, understand, and empathize with and be altered by that which the patient must not inflict but convey. Then a different space, even if only momentary, may emerge to allow some exploration.
A more malignant atmosphere, however, can put both patient and analyst under strong pressure to evacuate anxiety and therefore risk unhelpful enactments that strive for absolute certainty. We can inadvertently become intolerant of intolerance in our patients by unwittingly putting an “analytic coat” over them, just as this patient placed his coat over mine, trying to engulf, control, and dominate rather than collaborate with me.
Triangulation versus Strangulation of Political Life: Keeping Curiosity and Concern Alive
As you can gather, my attempts to reach this patient were often experienced like a red rag to a bull, intensifying his contempt. When the atmosphere in the room is so noxious, there is little room for a third or triangulated position that involves a different viewpoint or a new perspective, as this would be experienced as “stepping out of line”: the analyst having an independent mind that is beyond the reach of the patient’s wish for control. In some circumstances, it is possible to free up this paralysis of thought by describing the atmosphere to the patient in a manner that does not feel too intrusive and wounding, placing the observation in a third space for both parties to observe, think about, and comment upon.
Some of these therapeutic situations have a certain resonance with the way political discourse has emerged in recent times, using race to corrupt, bully, or terrorize and stop meaningful dialogue. The attack on the potency of others throws light on how racism organizes itself both internally and externally by keeping people straitjacketed into prescribed roles so that the racist dictum is kept in force: “know your place” and do not step out of line. Thuggery, both overt and covert, is always present to one degree or another and can be enacted by some of the very institutions that supposedly support reason and humanity. The building of walls, for example, to manage the migrant crises in Europe, leaves open to question the extent to which these are aimed to keep racist projections in place. The wall will ensure that migrants are kept at a distance in squalid conditions, keeping them in permanent dependency and powerlessness. Keeping them out of sight and out of mind behind the walls bolsters the delusion that it is the migrants themselves who are responsible for their deprived conditions and squalor. It also ensures that those on the inside “know their place,” bolstering a moral superiority.
The imagery of a wall or fortress conveys not only the difficulties of penetrating a demeanor that is prickly and quick to react and evacuate anxiety but also a mental armature that conceals the cunning tactics used to subvert reality and corrupt meaning. Another patient once employed an image of hiding from her vulnerability in an army bunker—terrors she could fend off delightedly by believing she could command and control everything, including my attempts to reach her. Here, terrorist tactics are often utilized not only to assassinate the analyst’s concern but the patient’s collaboration in the therapeutic process,30 which potentially threatens to expose his or her vulnerability by creating a world of “alternative facts,” including racist thinking.
The vocabulary of “fake news” and “alternative facts” in recent political discourse depicts a longing for a return to an idealized body politic in the form of a pure and uncontaminated nation-state free from imaginary intrusions of so-called foreigners. But there is nothing to return to; it is a myth. Nevertheless, it is most compelling to those who are vulnerable in society, who amid economic and emotional deprivation look for a way out through a solution that claims to offer an immediate sense of location, meaning, and security. This solution evacuates their anxiety through a literal cleansing of others, which can lead to a collapse of any curiosity and concern toward others.
One of the dangers in our current political climate is the crushing of curiosity and compassion toward others, who become the carriers of vulnerability. In the consulting room, my patient tried to do this by attempting to get me to experience feelings of vulnerability and inferiority through his manner of relating, in turn seeking to establish a sense of security through his superiority over me. It was not surprising that attempts to think with him and challenge some of the safety of his racist defenses were met with rage, as he was assessing my capacity to be both affected by him and retain my authority, role, and moral compass in continuing to think with him. In other words, despite all his bluster and noxious ways, here was a patient who had taken the risk of bringing himself to see me in the hope, however faint, that he could be emotionally reached and helped, despite the obstacles he put up.
We have witnessed in recent times a grave danger of reactionary rhetoric that reflects some of the flagrant displays of sadism and loss of moral compass by terrorist organizations. These, like racism, aim to ensure that triangulated mental and social spaces, where curiosity and concern can thrive, collapse into dangerous, regressive, and totalitarian spaces. This is already evident, given the alarming attacks on the free press and intimidation of any opposition or alternative points of view. The executive order of “extreme vetting” from President Trump’s administration, banning refugees and immigrants from Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, induced chaos, persecution, and terror in the victims. At Washington-Dulles airport, a five-year-old Iranian boy was perceived to be a threat to national security.31 The current deportations taking place of Mexican “illegal” migrants, who have lived and thrived with their families in the United States for many years, involves parents being separated from their children on a mass scale.32
I suggest that an imposition of this mayhem on families may well reflect the chaotic or fragmented state of the current administration, which lacks any internal coherence in statements or policy. Grand gestures of building walls may come out of desperation to split the world into “good” and “bad” or demarcate an “axis of evil”33 to justify moral superiority—a superiority that comes at the cost of human misery and prevents any acknowledgment of responsibility for the damage wreaked on others. Notice the effortless way in which the shadow of unreason disguises itself as reason in the following statement made by Rex Tillerson, former secretary of state, after Trump’s first executive order for the travel ban failed and a second ban was pursued:
To our allies and partners around the world, please understand that this order is part of our ongoing efforts to eliminate vulnerabilities (my emphasis added) that radical Islam can and will exploit for destructive ends.34
The grotesque deformation of politics in recent times sees a growing trend of authoritarian leaders who are using nationalist sentiments and the racist impulse to call upon unconscious phantasies of an idealized time, laying claim to a sense of belonging and certainty, pure and uncontaminated by the real complexities of life. However, these emotionally tempting solutions reflect the terrors of thinking about who or what may be discovered in engaging meaningfully with others, recognizing them as fellow human beings. Indeed, curiosity and empathy or concern requires a willingness to relinquish phantasies of omnipotence and superiority, a trajectory that demands moving from a two- to three-dimensional thinking that reflects psychic complexity, diversity, and our common humanity. Central to these discoveries is a capacity to bear loss, to mourn, and to accommodate others in a shared social space that is not without tension, conflict, and contradictions. It is a lifelong struggle to learn and comprehend the complexity and limitations of this ordinary human reality, a development that necessarily brings about a quality and depth of thinking and feeling.
Unfortunately, our current political discourse about the other reflects a dangerous confluence between a malignant narrative of an idealized nation-state that demands cleansing, purification, and reunion and a utopian phantasy of the suicidal terrorist who dreams of oblivion as a place in heaven, free of unwelcome intrusions and the frustrations of life. One of the most challenging tasks of our times is to cultivate spaces for curiosity to thrive in a way that recognizes differences and similarities between us, thereby allowing for human vulnerability to be tolerated without seeking to attack others. This would mean “decoupling” narcissistic injury from inflammatory wishes served up by racist phantasies claiming to evacuate mental pain. Our willingness to be potent and humane witnesses, continuing to exercise the capacity to think, remain curious “under fire,” and expose lies or “false narratives” that attack a sense of concern toward others, is ultimately the ongoing hope for the future.
D. W. Winnicott, “The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 41 (1960): 585–95.
Benjamin Johnson, Every Man in His Humour (1598), www.fullbooks.com/Every-man-In-His-Humour1.html.
Sigmund Freud, Civilisation and Its Discontents, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 21 (London: Hogarth, 1930), 57–146.
D. W. Winnicott, “The Development of the Capacity of Concern,” Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic 27 (1963): 167–76.
Sigmund Freud, “From the History of an Infantile Neurosis,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 17 (London: Hogarth, 1918), 3–123.
Joyce McDougall, Plea for a Measure of Abnormality (New York: International Universities Press, 1980), 56.
Lewis Aron, “The Internalized Primal Scene,” Psychoanalytic Dialogues 5 (1995): 195–237.
W. R. Bion, “A Theory of Thinking,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 43 (1962): 306–10; Donald Meltzer, Sexual States of Mind (Perthshire, Scotland: Clunie, 1973).
Melanie Klein, “Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 27 (1946): 99–110.
Edward Said, Freud and the Non-European (London: Verso in association with the Freud Museum, 2003).
Luz Calvo, “Racial Fantasies and the Primal Scene of Miscegenation,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 89, no. 1 (2008): 55–70.
Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis (New York: W. W. Norton, 1974).
Narendra Keval, Racist States of Mind: Understanding the Perversion of Curiosity and Concern (London: Karnac Books, 2016).
Michael Feldman, “The Oedipus Complex: Manifestations in the Inner World and the Therapeutic Situation,” in The Oedipus Complex Today, ed. John Steiner (London: Karnac, 1989).
Mira Nair, dir., The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Cine Mosaic, 2007), based on the novel of the same name by Mohsin Hamid.
John Alderdice, “Introduction,” in Terrorism and War, Unconscious Dynamics of Political Violence, ed. Coline Covington et al. (New York: Karnac Books, 2002), 1–18.
Phil Cohen, Home Rules: Some Reflections on Race and Nationalism in Everyday Life, The New Ethnicities Unit (London: University of East London, 1993); Steve Reicher and Nick Hopkins, Self and Nation (London: Sage, 2001).
Lene Auestad, “The Social Unconscious and the Herd,” New Associations 20 (Spring 2016).
Doug Saunders, “Trump’s True Believers: How He’s Gone Farther Than Europe’s Far Right, and Who Got Him Here,” Globe and Mail, January 5, 2017, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/how-trump-has-gone-farther-than-europes-far-right-and-who-got-himthere/article27713704/.
Hanna Segal, “Notes on Symbol Formation,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 38 (1957): 391–97.
BBC, “Donald Trump’s Mexico Wall: Who Is Going to Pay for It?” BBC News, February 6, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-37243269.
Rachael Revesz, “Full Transcript: Donald Trump’s Lewd Remarks about Women in Days of Our Lives set in 2005,” Independent, October 7, 2016, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/read-donald-trumps-lewd-remarks-about-women-on-days-of-our-lives-set-2005-groping-star-a7351381.html.
BBC, “Donald Trump Axed from Event over Megyn Kelly Blood Comment,” BBC News, August 8, 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-33833516.
Keval, Racist States of Mind.
Keval, Racist States of Mind.
Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 14 (London: Hogarth, 1917), 243–58; David Gadd, “Racial Hatred and Unmourned Loss,” Sociological Research Online 15, no. 3 (2010): 1–20; Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).
Stephen Hopkins, “Nigel Farage’s Brexit Poster Is Being Likened to ‘Nazi Propaganda,’ Compared to Auschwitz Documentary Scene: A ‘Prominent White-Skinned Man Also Removed from Image,’” HuffPost, June 22, 2016, https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/nigel-farages-eu-has-failed-us-all-poster-slammed-as-disgusting-by-nicola-sturgeon_uk_576288c0e4b08b9e3abdc483.
Some details have been altered to protect this patient’s identity.
Ronald Britton, “The Missing Link: Parental Sexuality in the Oedipus Complex,” in The Oedipus Complex Today, ed. John Steiner (London: Karnac, 1989).
Salman Akhtar, “The Psychodynamic Dimension of Terrorism,” in Terrorism and War: Unconscious Dynamics of Political Violence, ed. Coline Covington et al.(London: Karnac, 2002).
Rachel Roberts, “White House Claims Five-Year-Old Boy Detained in US Airport for Hours Could Have Posed a Security Threat,” Independent, January 31, 2017, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/white-house-five-year-old-boy-detained-dulles-international-airport-hours-sean-spicer-pose-security-a7554521.html.
Hilary Andersson, “Trump’s Fortress America,” Panorama Investigation, BBC Productions (2017), http://bbc.co.uk/panorama.
George W. Bush, “State of the Union Address,” Washington Post, January 29, 2002.
Sabrina Siddiqui, Lauren Gambino, and Oliver Laughland, “Trump Travel Ban: New Order Targeting Six Muslim Countries Signed,” Guardian, March 6, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/mar/06/new-trump-travel-ban-muslim-majority-countries-refugees.