Monday, October 5, 2009

Freud's Unfriendly Persuasion

Today is the first day of the new Supreme Court term. So, it feels like the right time to compare Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and Sigmund Freud.

Among law students and legal scholars Holmes is considered to be something of a demi-god. We owe him the concept of the marketplace of ideas, one of the foundations of first amendment jurisprudence.

When individuals debate issues by speaking their opinions freely in the marketplace of ideas, the ensuing bargaining will lead to something like the truth.

Presumably, no single individual or institution has a monopoly on the truth. Only when honorable people debate their ideas openly will they come to an agreement on an idea that exists somewhere between the proposals first offered.

The marketplace of ideas works its magic because both parties to the debate have agreed to subject themselves to friendly persuasion.

To my mind this is the opposite of what happens in psychoanalysis. Many of Freud's acolytes have touted the master's commitment to free thought and free expression, but they have missed the point.

Psychoanalytic patients speak what comes to mind. Psychoanalysts offer interpretations. These interpretations are supposed to be the meaning of what the patient has been babbling about.

But when a psychoanalyst interprets the patient cannot choose freely between agreeing and disagreeing. He can acquiesce or resist.

The analyst's interpretation is the one true opinion. The culture of psychoanalysis has taught people that they reject it at their psychic peril.

If the patient resists the truth,then, by Freudian definition, he is proving that he has unresolved infantile sexual conflicts.

If he announces to the world that he disagrees with Freudian theory, some members of the culture will declare that he has thereby announced to the world that he has unresolved psycho-sexual problems.

But a psychoanalytic patient cannot just nod his head in assent. He is obliged, before his psychoanalyst will declare that he has terminated treatment successfully, to provide material evidence from his past history affirming the correctness of the analyst's one true opinion.

The challenge is most daunting for candidates in psychoanalytic institutes. Not only do they have to accede to the analyst's interpretation, but they have to become so thoroughly convinced of Freud's truth that they can persuade their analysts that they have become true Freudian believers.

I will mention in passing that Freudian theory was not produced by the marketplace of ideas. It came to Freud as an epiphany, a moment of divine inspiration. For true Freudians it is not subject to revision or contradiction.

If people do not accept it they are either sick or stupid. In either case they need help.

I will call this process: unfriendly persuasion. When you have been deprived access to a free market in ideas, you are faced with the choice of accepting the dominant dogmas or suffering the consequences. Call it mind control; call it thought reform.

Unfortunately, the practice of unfriendly persuasion has entered our political debate.

Too many people express their thoughts as though they were the one true opinion. For reasons that are beyond my understanding many of these people are stand-up comics.

Given the mental insufficiencies of this crowd, it is not surprising that they have tried to persuade others by denouncing disagreement as a sign of stupidity, mental defect, bigotry, or psycho-sexual conflicts.

This is the price we pay for allowing stand-up comics to lead the political debate.

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