Psychoanalysis and political correctness

Twenty years ago Howard Schwartz wrote a paper on the Psychodynamics of Political Correctness which might easily have disappeared into the academic graveyard along with all those other countless publications that no-one outside their particular sub-discipline would ever read in the first place.  However, times change and today political correctness (PC) is firmly back on the social and cultural agenda, mainly courtesy of Trump, Brexit and the resurgence of right-wing populism in general.  In fact, Schwartz has recently published his third book on the subject, which shows that the question of PC has been bubbling under for some time now.

However, it is instructive to go back to Schwartz’s 1997 paper because it lays out an interesting theoretical foundation for a psychoanalytic approach to PC.  The focus of Schwartz’s argument is what he defines as the ‘PC university’, which is perhaps not surprising as Schwartz is an established academic.  In fact, he introduces the paper with a short vignette about an experience he had had a few years earlier whilst giving a lecture of Freud’s concept of the Oedipus complex in the context of organisational theory:

As I was going through this part of the argument, a woman in the audience, who happened to be the chair of the psychology department at the time, had what can only be called a fit. Without addressing herself to anything I was saying in particular, and without any apparent attempt to control her rage, she said that Freud was a sexist and a misogynist, and went on to condemn the entire psychoanalytic enterprise, which she said was “shot through” with sexism and racism.

But what really struck Schwartz was that:

Despite this woman’s evident lack of grounding in what she was talking about, her voice seemed to express a feeling of absolute authority. I recall that at the time this struck me as very peculiar. But what struck me as even more peculiar was that as she engaged in this frenzied performance, the other members of the audience were not looking at her as if she were acting strangely, but were looking at me as if I had done something contemptible and despicable.

It was this experience, according to Schwartz, that motivated him to write his paper (and presumably the three books that followed).

At this point it is perhaps worth noting that Schwartz’s description of the woman’s behaviour would now (and quite possibly at the time) most likely be viewed as very ‘un-PC’, in the sense that he appears to be falling back onto the stereotype of the ‘hysterical, irrational and ignorant female’ in order to contrast himself as the ‘rational, calm and knowledgeable male’.  However, do we need PC in order to make this criticism of Schwartz’s judgement of the woman’s behaviour?  But before addressing this question, it might be helpful to explore Schwartz’s theory of PC and especially that of the ‘PC university’.

Schwartz’s basic contention is that whereas in the past the university was the bastion of Truth and of rational enquiry, nowadays the focus has shifted radically to that of ‘the Good’.  In other words, whereas traditionally universities were centres of learning and research, more recently the emphasis has moved towards what Schwartz describes as the ‘balkanisation of the university’ in which:

…instead of competing for achievement, students come to engage in a competition for sympathy and even pity. By showing that they have been victimized, oppressed, abused, devalued in the past, the students assert their claims to compensatory appreciation and resentfully depreciate the claims of others.

What Schwartz is getting at here is that, in his view at least, the university should be a place where the pursuit of knowledge, based on an agreed criteria of Truth, should be its raison d’être.  It is interesting to note at this point that for Schwartz such a pursuit of knowledge is a competitive process, because knowledge and Truth are always contested.  And this is a critical point for Schwartz’s argument because whereas in the past such contestation could be managed in a reasonably civilised and rational manner, in the ‘balkanised, PC’ university any challenge to the status quo is savagely attacked and the ‘perpetrators’ of such ‘bad’ knowledge are demonised and subjected to a modern day version of excommunication and being burnt at the stake.

Of course, Schwartz is, ironically perhaps in view of his critique of PC, putting forward an idealised version of the university prior to its fall into political correctness and identity politics.  In reality, of course, things were never that simple.  One has only to think of the situation in German academia in the 1930s to realise that the pursuit of Truth was never that much of a priority.  In fact, Gene Veith in his fascinating book on modern fascism, argues that the fascism of the 1930s, and especially in its National Socialist form, is the precursor to modern day political correctness.

But perhaps Schwartz is onto something here in the sense that there are other criteria for evaluating knowledge other than that of whether it is true or not.  In fact, in our post-modern age, the idea of ‘Truth’ itself is viewed with extreme suspicion –we are all relativists now, of course.   Instead the focus is now on the perceived ‘goodness’ of knowledge – a concept that makes more sense once one starts to think about the knowing subject rather than the subject of knowledge. 

To understand how knowledge can be ‘good’ rather than ‘true’, we need to think about the psychical development of the subject, and especially how the world is for the very young, pre-Oedipal child.  And this is the crux of Schwartz’s argument: prior the intervention of the father the child’s world not only revolves around the mother but the mother is the child’s world.   This ‘primordial mother’, as Schwartz describes her, is not only the young subject’s world, but is also the arbiter of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’.  In Kleinian terms, the child’s universe is composed of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (part) objects, which at this stage all revolve around the mother.   The ‘good’ objects, such as the mother’s breast are ‘introjected’, whilst the ‘bad’ objects are ‘projected’ – firstly onto the mother and later onto other people.

However, the key point here is that although this process of ‘introjection’ and ‘projection’ is a normal part of psychical development, there must come a point when the child recognises that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ can both be attributes of the same ‘object’, i.e. the same person, including the ‘person’ of the subject themselves.  At this point the child recognises themselves as a subject in world of subjects, of other people, and that most of them are indifferent to the subject.  In fact, the world is neither ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but simply is, and apart from the subject’s immediate friends and family (if they are lucky), cares little or nothing for them.

The problem for the subject is that this ‘de-anthropomorphised’ world, for want of a better term, can be very cold and unloving, even though, at the same time, it offers the possibility of freedom and exploration for the subject.  For Schwartz, this ‘objective’ reality is the world to be explored through reason and rational enquiry, and the university is the place to facilitate such reasoned and rational enquiry.  For him, the university becomes the embodiment of the super-ego, which he associates with the father:

Thus, the father acts as the agent of the external world. Through his prohibitions, he represents its indifference and its demands. Over time, the children take the father’s prohibitions into themselves. They build the structure of the world’s constraint into their own character, fashioning it around the core of what they come to call “reality.” This is how children learn the rules of exchange that operate within their culture: what they must do to get along, in a reciprocal way, with others who are indifferent to them. Making sense of these rules, they turn external demands into obligations, and thus come to understand what they previously could not understand: why they must do what they do not want to do.

At this point in his argument, unfortunately, Schwartz makes a theoretical error: according to him the primordial mother is the embodiment of the ego-ideal, whereas in fact it is the ideal-ego.  Granted that Freud had a tendency to use the two terms inter-changeably, but they have two very different meanings.  Put simply, the ideal-ego is how I would like to appear to others, whereas the ego-ideal is the Other to whom I wish to appear to, to be recognised by. To put it another way, the ideal-ego is in the Imaginary register, whereas the ego-ideal is in the Symbolic.

However, if indeed Schwartz does mean to equate the ideal-ego with the primordial mother, then we need to be clear that this is not a real mother at all, as in a separate human being (or to use the language of object relations, a separate object), but rather a narcissistic identification.  In other words, we are not talking the mother as Other, but as specular other; this links very closely with Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage where the ego is constructed as the result of a series of imaginary identifications.

The problem here is that such an ego cannot bear real difference or the intervention of the Symbolic (the Other); this is somewhat ironic bearing in mind that ‘politically correct’ individuals would probably pride themselves on a respect for, and a welcoming of, ‘difference’ – as long as it’s not real difference, not a real Other.  This goes a long way to explaining why any real challenge of the PC world is experienced as abuse, as a violation; essentially, the PC (narcissistic) subject cannot bear anything which threatens their imaginary sense of wholeness, of unity – even though, paradoxically perhaps, this is ultimately structured by the Symbolic order itself, as Lacan makes clear in his Mirror Stage paper.

Perhaps what’s most worrying of all is that whereas in the 1990s, following Schwartz’s argument, political correctness was a specific problem within the university, today it is endemic in our culture, and is very closely tied up with that other Imaginary phenomena, identity politics.  In many ways, identity politics and political correctness are two sides of the same (Imaginary) coin, where the focus is on championing the cause of the narcissistic ego (either individually or collectively).  Identity politics focuses on promoting the particular identity whereas PC is about ensuring that such an identity, i.e. narcissistic identification, is not challenged.

Going back to Schwartz’s vignette of the woman who became very angry with him whilst he was giving his talk, is it possible to criticise Schwartz’s response (the idea that this was an ‘hysterical female’ criticising a ‘rational (male) argument’) without resorting to political correctness?  Perhaps the key difference would be that the PC argument would be something along the lines of: ‘how dare he criticise this woman who was making a very good point about Freud; clearly he is treating her as a hysterical, stupid woman, which is what you would expect in a patriarchal society (of which he is the embodiment)’.  On the other hand, it would also be possible to ask: ‘Is Schwartz falling into the trap of stereotyping women who criticise him and his ideas in this way as ‘hysterical’; and if so, why is he doing this?’

And the one big difference, of course between these two scenarios are the two words ‘is’ and ‘why’.  In the PC universe there is no question, no room for doubt.  All that matters is that one speaks from a position of authority, and, if possible, from the position of ‘victim’.  In fact, in the PC universe, being a ‘victim’ is what confers authority (and ‘goodness’) onto the subject in the first place….