The Ironic Flaw in WOKE Extremism

This piece is a follow up discussion regarding the responses to the previous post titled Psychoanalysis’ Latest Racist Blunder.

The Problem of Splitting and Projective Identification in Social Movements (Vol 2; Issue 48)

Those involved in major social movements like WOKE* confront a dilemma common to all political activists:

How to avoid exacerbating the trends you strive to reverse.

The anti-racism component of WOKE, ironically, faces the same Ouroborus**-like problem. We humans inevitably collect individuals into faceless groups, i.e., the unhoused, migrants, college sophomores, etc.; however, we need not always tinge them negatively. Such degradation requires a few additional steps: debasement, tribalism (the us versus them phenomenon), and primitive mental functioning. Evolutionary psychologists like Steven Pinker (2002) believe tribalistic cognition is baked into our DNA. However, and again, it need not be accompanied by antagonism. Racism occurs because persons’ aggregate others—African-Americans, Jews, Latinos, or Asians, for example—and then place them into singular, negative categories. Discrimination, oppression, segregation, and other evils follow.

Reactions to my last newsletter, which criticized the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association (JAPA) for awarding a prize to Don Moss’ (2021) article titled, On Having Whiteness, demonstrate the ways WOKE enthusiasts risk falling into the same trap. Of course, Moss’ article itself floridly illustrates the quandary. Before elaborating, I explain two well-worn psychoanalytic concepts useful in understanding racism: splitting and projective identification.

These two archaic defense mechanisms effectively protect infants at birth. Immediately after being cleaved from their mothers, they begin separating their experiences into categories of good and bad. Such a categorization process, supported by the neuroscience literature (Muller, 1992), simplifies infants’ overwhelming perceptions. It is difficult to even imagine a baby’s experience at birth: Bright lights, loud sounds, fresh air, strange smells, tactile sensations, new tastes, and more. Splitting protects. It organizes, lessening the sensory-emotional overwhelm of the first seconds, minutes, hours after birth. Psychoanalytic scholars call this the qualitative split.

Consider it an archaic form of dissociation. Infants turn towards good experiences; they turn away from bad ones. They organize these sets of experiences in each category. Some degree of tranquility emerges as these foundational defenses set in. “Ah, yes, I cope better by categorizing the world in these two ways,” the infant thinks (but of course no real cognition occurs yet except in this most basic way).

Alongside splitting, projective identification (PI) erupts. Infants split their minds, as well as their perceptions of others, in this binary fashion. The bare outlines of a “good” and “bad” self emerge; in a parallel fashion, the “good” and “bad” (m)other is perceived. The way these classifications are projected out represent projective identifications. These are called geographic splits. Several prior newsletters describe these processes in greater detail.

Although we humans organize our experiences in this fashion initially, more mature, complex defense mechanisms develop over time. By adolescence, we (hopefully) experience a broad range of ego defense mechanisms. These serve a function mirroring that of the body’s immune system: They protect against overwhelm, overload, and other trauma.

Interestingly, the brain acts primarily as a censor, a dis-information system. Norretranders (1998) notes we only perceive around 40 bits of information per second while our sensory systems detect information at a rate of 11 million bits per second! In other words, the vast majority of information we perceive is never consciously experienced. Anna Freud (1936) identified the ten most common defense mechanisms as regression, repression, reaction-formation, isolation, undoing, projection, introjection, turning against the self, reversal, and sublimation.

A final note about those ancient defenses of splitting and PI. You never lose them entirely. They remain crucial in emergency situations. If, while you sit here quietly reading this missive, an intruder breaks into your apartment, you will instantly regress. The assailant becomes all bad. You lose the capacity for empathy for his or her poverty, acute drug withdrawal, or any other motivation for the violation. Your energies become instantaneously focused on self-protection. (You can also find more information about defense mechanisms in prior newsletters).

Alas, and per usual, I digress to excess.

You get the point.

Because of our propensity to organize individuals into groups, it is unlikely racism can ever be completely eliminated. But, maturity brings with it a heightened capacity for empathy. Therefore, even if you have a bias against certain groups (due the the built-in tribalism Pinker and others validate), empathy breaks through these inherent biases.

For example, you encounter the presumable wealthy Caucasian woman exiting her $150,000 Porsche at the gas station. However tempted you might be to think, “there’s another rich white bitch who exploits the poor,” you consider other options: She worked hard for decades to earn the money for the fancy car. She sensuously enjoys these vehicles. She actually works as a housekeeper for a tech-millionaire who asked her to fill his car with gasoline. Or, she’s a hardened criminal who stole the vehicle half-an-hour earlier.

Finally, I return to my main point:

Political activists of all stripes risks making the same kinds of negative generalizations they seek to overturn. As promised, here are a few (rather tepid) examples taken from the reactions to my last newsletter.

I shall begin with the ones lifting my spirits. They, nonetheless, represent a form of splitting and PI. One female psychiatrist, a personal friend, wrote:

You are a hero.

Another friend from the psychoanalytic world posted:

Terrific & thanks.

Here is another response from the darker end of the spectrum, also from a psychoanalytic colleague:

The reemergence of an attack on Don Moss and his paper “On Whiteness” in a diatribe from Alan Karbelnig is both shocking and distressing. Don’s paper [was] a creative and serious contribution to our understanding of how white supremacy is imposed on many white individuals. For anyone who cares to read this paper as it actually is written the confusion that the reader can only bring to it is based on an active misreading. The result  is something quite destructive and very Fox News in its attitude.

Notice here the writer slouches towards an ad hominem attack. He presumes I misread the paper, and he finds my writing “shocking and distressing” and “Fox News in attitude.”

Moving towards the most negatively tinged responses, another reader (who I also consider a friend) wrote:

The post reads as written by an angry (persecuted) White man who has not explored his privilege (the privilege that having white skin and being a male affords you). Anti-Whiteness is NOT about denying that folks struggle with issues & situations….it is UNDERSTANDING and ACKNOWLEDGING that some of us do not face the same struggles (oppression) merely because we have white skin.

Even worse was this reaction:

Anyone who uses the term “anti-white racism” doesn’t understand the concept of racism.  Invoking the idea of “anti-white racism” is a pretty good indicator of being a racist.  Equating “feelings” of “discrimination” by whites in Africa with being black in America or Europe is a quintessentially Fox-worthy, racist move. The Moss article is worthy of the award, perhaps especially for the way it stirs up racist defensiveness such as yours.  

When I engaged person-to-person with these last two responders, you see how an individualized empathy emerges. The woman who accuses me of not exploring my White privilege later adds:

I fear you may receive backlash about your position and be called out….so, I am going to try to call you in…gently and privately. I know you and know that you didn’t mean harm by what you wrote…Alan, it was harmful and shows that you haven’t done “your work” around racism & oppression.

I hear kindness here, and understanding, albeit still a bit of condescension. She suggests I haven’t done “my work around racism and oppression.” Still, she could well be correct. She invited me to watch the YouTube video about the work of Frantz Fanon. I listened to it while hiking, learned a ton, and recommend it to you readers.

Even more personalized, even warm, was the response from the fellow who, in essence, called me a racist. After thanking me for my openness in responding to him, he writes:

I appreciate your acknowledgement about having been “off base” with one of your points. I do not, however, understand your question about conquistadors (which I could find nowhere in Moss’ paper). I think that a more relevant example of parasitic whiteness might be my, and many of my white brothers’ and sisters’, ability to access resources by talking or writing while most of the manual labor in the world is performed by people who are not white… White babies, innocent as they are, are born into this system which they will perpetuate if they don’t become aware of it with the help of people like Donald Moss.  

To be clear, I called your formulation a racist, Fox-worthy move, not you personally.  I don’t know you personally… I acknowledge my snarky, angry tone, which is why I didn’t post the original email to you on the public list serve. I am writing in a snarky and angry tone because I believe your ideas defend a system that perpetuates terrible violence, although I am quite certain that is not your intention. 

In the evolution of our dialogue, this reader softens his tone, acknowledges his initial “snarky and angry tone,” and recognizes it was not my intention to “perpetuate terrible violence.” However, I still take issue, with considerable annoyance, at Moss’ absurd and objectively incorrect assertion that racism is innate. Nonetheless, sir, well said, and much appreciated.

This brief review of how fighting racism can actually elicit racism demonstrates the problematic irony, which is my primary point. It underscores the splitting dominating much of the political discourse of our era. The anonymity of digitized, impersonal modes of communication aggravates the problem. None of these writers engaged me personally, at least initially. None of them “saw” me. Therefore, they were prone, as we all are, to create and then demonize certain groups.

In final conclusion, and as noted earlier, we humans cannot not create groups. We must do so; it is part of our usual social discourse. How can we not speak about Democrats, Armenians, transgender persons, physicians, diplomats, politicians, chiropractors, millennials, dog-owners, bisexuals, neighbors, New-York-city-residents, gardeners, musicians, and so on ad infinitum?

We must.

At the same time, however, we can bring a careful consciousness, consideration, and most importantly, empathy when discussing any group of individuals. Our failure to do so creates a form of racism in and of itself. The reaction to the last newsletter—hardly representative of the evils of literal racism—nonetheless display our unfavorable, invalidating, and gloomy propensities.

___________________________________

*WOKE, an adjective derived from African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), means “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination.” In the 2010s, the term was expanded in usage to suggest a broader awareness of other social inequalities like sexism and oppression of other minorities. WOKE has also become a shorthand for related ideas like identity politics, white privilege, social injustices in general, white privilege, and even controversial issues like slavery reparations for African Americans. Mainly associated with the millennial generation (despite origins traceable to the 1930s in phrases like, “stay woke,”) the term spread internationally. It was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017.

**An ouroboros is a circular symbol depicting a snake swallowing its tail.

References

Freud, A. (1936). The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. London: Routledge.

Moss, D. (2021). On having whiteness. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 69(2), 355–371. https://doi.org/10.1177/00030651211008507

Muller, R. (1992). Is there a neural basis for borderline splitting? Comprehensive Psychiatry, 33(2):92-104. doi.org/10.1016/0010-440X(92)90004-A

Norretranders, T. (1998). The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size. Penguin Group: New York, NY.

Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin.

Gaztambide, D.J. The ‘return to Fanon’ and the foundations of decolonial psychoanalysis. You Tube Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTuhQvhWldQ

Oiginally posted on Journeys into the Unconscious Mind


By Dr. Alan Karbelnig, a training and supervising psychoanalyst in Pasadena, California. He is board certified in forensic psychology with doctorates in Counseling Psychology from the University of Southern California (USC) and in Psychoanalysis from the New Center for Psychoanalysis (NCP). He founded Rose City Center (RCC)—a not-for-profit psychoanalytic clinic serving economically disadvantaged individuals throughout California. Dr. Karbelnig writes extensively and also lectures locally, nationally and internationally.

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