The Dangers of Fake Conversation
Some years ago, I fell asleep behind the couch while conducting a session of psychoanalytic psychotherapy. My patient, a young man named Michael, turned around and caught me with my eyes closed.
“Are you asleep,” he asked. I jolted awake and scrambled for an answer. “No,” I said, “Just resting my eyes.” Michael lay back down, unsatisfied. “I don’t know,” he said, “I’d like to believe you, but I don’t.” He went on voicing his doubts, asserting himself in a way I’d never heard before.
As the seconds turned into minutes, I grew more and more uncomfortable until I could no longer bear my feelings. I admitted the truth.
In the wake of this incident Michael wanted to quit. He moved from the couch to the chair, where he could keep an eye on me. Over the next few weeks he expressed his anger and disappointment. He struggled to square his new disillusion with his trust in me based on years of fruitful alliance.
In the end he decided to stay, now protected and energized by a new attitude: “Trust, but verify.” This experience spurred his development into a mature adult who recognized his responsibility for himself.
Michael never again used the couch, but we continued the partnership that enabled him to conquer his fears and achieve his goals — starting a business, marrying, and becoming a father.
What enabled me, compelled me to admit my failure, despite my shame and fear, was the imperative to tell the truth, born of my own moral code buttressed by my identity as an analyst.
In analytic therapy we work hard to unearth distortions of truth that block forward movement toward creative loving and living. Succeeding at this task depends first and foremost on the mutual efforts of analyst and patient to maintain an honest conversation.
Today, in the world outside the consulting room, we truth-seekers find ourselves strangers in a strange land, presided over by a man whose rise to power rests on his instinct to stir up what is base and false in us, rather than what is good and true.
Our compromised leader engenders enthusiasm in his followers by engaging in false conversation, monologue disguised as dialogue.
Followers in a false conversation think they have a say, when they are actually following a script in which only the leader has a voice:
Leader: We all know it’s a shame, what they try to do to us. We know it’s them, not us, don’t we?
Followers: Them, them!
Leader: We have no choice but to round them up and put them away.
Followers: Yeah, round them up and put them away!
Leader: Now there’s a suggestion for you. I couldn’t have come up with a better one myself. I knew you were smart! Round them up and put them away!
Followers: Round them up! Put them away! Round them up! Put them away!
Fake conversation is pervaded by lies planted in the midst of unsuspecting followers. It provides the means of turning demonstrable truths into their opposites. Laws that deprive citizens of the vote become laws that protect us from voter fraud. Empirical evidence of climate change becomes fabrication for a hoax.
When Sigmund Freud was attempting to leave Austria in 1938, he was forced to sign a statement supporting the government. Freud asked to add a sentence, “I heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone.” Reduced to the status of a refugee dependent on the beneficence of the functionaries of a persecutory regime, he used his gift for irony to inject a final dose of truth, an element of honest conversation, into a body of lies.
The founder of psychoanalysis was able to make his way to freedom because he recognized the fundamental frailty of the human mind, our craving for the fulfillment of wishes for dominance, admiration, and love. He understood how our emotional needs, forged in the heat of trauma, blind us to the realities of the worlds inside and outside of us, how our vulnerability as individuals allows us to be conscripted into mass movements in the misuse of power.
Psychoanalysis has evolved enormously since Freud’s day. Its expanded insight gives us far greater capacity to help people make creative use of the good and true for the benefit of themselves and the societies they inhabit.
The progenitors of the base and false may expand their reach by harnessing our fears of vulnerability and uncertainty, but they rarely make progress in the depth and complexity of thought and feeling. That kind of progress, which gives rise to a more humane and innovative society, requires real conversation, authentic dialogue that promotes conflict and compromise, empathy and mutuality.
That is why my experience as a psychoanalyst gives me hope and energizes me in these discouraging times.