Return of the Repressed
I would like to raise the subject of the incalculable damage done to children and women by many of Sigmund Freud’s pronouncements. None of this damage, apparently, was addressed in Élisabeth Roudinesco’s panegyric, In His Time and Ours, nor did Samuel Moyn mention it in his review [“A Whole Climate,” Nov. 21].
The wrongheaded declaration that children who reported being sexually molested and abused by adults were all just expressing wish-fulfillment fantasies has by now been roundly refuted by fact—never more so than in recent years. And describing a woman’s inability to reach orgasm as frigidity born of hysteria reveals Freud’s misogyny.
Though he was undoubtedly a pioneer in many ways, Freud’s own apparent fear and misinterpretation of female sexuality tarnishes his legacy, as does his denial about the sexual abuse of children. We should be thankful that his ideas have fallen out of favor.
Samuel Moyn laments that Freudian psychoanalysis has diminished in popularity among academic social scientists. As a result, he argues, “Rational humanity finds itself once again enthroned…as if the world did not undermine that optimism at every turn.” I am an academic psychologist at the University of Texas, Arlington, who does research on human decision-making, and can attest that rationality is not enthroned among my colleagues or in my own work.
The view of humans as rational political and economic actors dominated the field of decision-making studies from the early to mid-20th century. But starting in the 1970s, the work of Daniel Kahneman (a Nobel laureate in economics) and Amos Tversky (a cognitive psychologist) refuted that notion. Kahneman and Tversky discovered that typical human preferences and numerical judgments deviated from logical consistency in systematic and repeatable ways. Other psychologists discovered that some of these illogical actions could be related to emotions. Neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio mapped out brain pathways for emotional influences on decisions and, using studies of patients with brain damage, showed that decisions without an emotional component were ineffective, being either overly impulsive or overly deliberate. Emotions, and other nonrational influences like the framing of choices and time pressure, are now mainstream subjects at academic decision-making conferences.
I believe the view of human nature these findings give us should make progressives more optimistic than pessimistic. As Moyn notes, events like this year’s election can cause us to despair. But our inconsistency also tells us that people who act in socially destructive ways can do better in a different context with different incentives. It tells us that war, poverty, bigotry, and environmental damage are not the results of rational actions, and that well-designed social programs can make a difference.
Daniel S. Levine
Samuel Moyn Replies
Bettyanne Lopate is certainly right to note the profound limitations of Freud’s views about female psychology, which were glaringly insufficient. Some of the case studies he wrote up, notably the report on his treatment of Ida Bauer (or “Dora”), make this plain. And though he championed the once-disturbing idea of universal bisexuality, Freud also famously consigned adult homosexuality to the status of illness. All the same, while Freud might have underestimated the incidence of child abuse when he abandoned his original “seduction thesis,” he was not really motivated by a desire to sweep that abuse under the rug. Indeed, whatever its other limitations, psychoanalysis was and is a practice of helping people cope with and work through traumatic experiences, including sexual trauma.
Daniel S. Levine is also right, in his excellent letter, to indicate that academic psychologists have been interested of late in “predictable irrationality,” and have explored it in interesting—even if non-Freudian—ways. Yet in many circles, their own findings have been mobilized in a profoundly rationalist spirit. Too often, human beings are regarded as beset by minor foibles, ones that small interventions or technocratic “nudges” will help them overcome, the better to fulfill their own preferences. In such approaches, only the mistakes made in pursuing those preferences are treated as irrational, never the preferences themselves. At its best, psychoanalysis forced people to look at the fragility of their self-mastery more forthrightly.
The morning after the election, entering my first stage of grieving, I denied myself all news sources, feeling betrayed not just by the results, but by their shipping and handling. Reaching for the mail, I felt a slight smile crack my lips as I pulled out your “Fall Books” issue [Nov. 21]. Sometimes you just have to hold on to the small things.
Happily Enough Ever After
Suffering from insomnia after watching our beloved young people protesting the election results in major American cities, I found myself reading a Walter Mosley novel (Charcoal Joe) at 4 am. A sudden visit to the bathroom caused a Jungian incident as I picked up the recent Nation and read Mosley’s “My Call for ‘Untopia’” [Nov. 21]. For a moment, I forgot the election, over-population, climate change, racism, and misogyny. I went out and looked at the stars, picked up the morning paper, and acknowledged that President Obama was correct: The sun will rise today.
I could hardly join Bob Dylan in believing that a god counts “every grain of sand,” but who can deny the poetry of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Desolation Row,” “Positively 4th Street,” and so much of his oeuvre? Reading the effete complaints about Dylan’s Nobel on your Letters page left me wondering which side the letter writers are on and tangled up in blue.
Re Patricia J. Williams’s “Our Panopticon, Ourselves” [Nov. 21]: As much as I love technology and am generally optimistic about the future, the ease with which we are collectively willing to trade safety for security has concerned me for a long time. Anyone who says “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide” is very likely white, straight, and didn’t pay much attention in history class.