In the Netcast discussion of masculinity that took place in the month of June of 2007, there was a partially derailment by an angry split that became prominent in the last week of the discussion. I believe the same phenomenon has shown up on the Open Line and other discussions of this type on the internet.
I. A brief history of the split
I will give a brief and I hope relatively impartial description of the split. On the 9th day of the discussion, a new voice X entered. This voice was distinctive. He spoke an abstract post-modernese, more at home in literary or cultural theory than clinical. X very much wanted to bring in cross-disciplinary work to our theory.
Some began to see in X a shrill tone, personally attacking and baiting the author. Others, and I think X himself, saw playfulness and a willingness to push ideas that were foreign to many in the discussion. It was not a voice that most analysts were familiar with.
On the 15th day, X attacked the author both for an effort to silence him, and for remaining out of the fray, not replying directly to his criticisms. He argued that we should not expect univocality, nor should we, at this historical moment, expect “containment” or “common ground.” He felt that we need vigorous argument, taking up exclusionary positions rather than empty pronouncements of brilliance, and we need this argument combined with a willingness to read far outside our intellectual comfort zones.
A poster called for “plain speech”, echoed by others, which seemed aimed at X. Several posters agreed with X that plain talk can be used defensively to avoid anxious topics. Others argued that theory and direct speech can and must be unified in our therapeutic work.
In the third week of the discussion, there were a number of accusations toward X of ad hominem attacks on the author. A poster directly attacked X, experiencing his tone as very demeaning, hostile, aggressive, and contemptuous. This was followed by another poster calling for censorship, wanting the moderator to “edit out” ad hominem attacks. He would trust the faculty and the moderator to exercise judgment in distinguishing between vigorous discussion and mean spiritedness. A number of other posters seconded these opinions.
X did not back down. He noted that he received several emails from analysts who agreed in the main with his critiques but each was reluctant to go public. X thought it had to do with the small insular and insulated world that is psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic scholarship. Calls for civility when deployed to silence dissent are empty.
The discussion in the last week was largely derailed from the discussion of masculinity. Participants lined up to support the attack on X or to defend him.
II. Theories about internet discussions and their derailments
- Anxiety about the subject matter – several posters suggested that discussions of gender (and this was true in our discussions of femininity as well) touch on our deepest anxieties and are covered up with aggression. A panelist eloquently spoke of her own anxieties about the subject and experienced great relief at the passions of the argument, much better than previous silences on the issue.
- Large group dynamics – due to the very nature of internet discussions, there is a strong pull toward regression and defense. Any of you that have attended a group relations conference is familiar with these dynamics. When the group members can no-longer make face to face contact with the other group members, there is a fragmentation into smaller groups which band together in a paranoid attack on other groups. Opinions and comments become increasingly split and turn to power issues. Defensive aggression starts to predominate. One poster thought we had been derailed from a work group into an assumption group. My view is that we were never in a work group in the first place but functioned more as a dependency assumption group. When that was challenged by X, the assumption changed to fight and an effort to expel him.
- Use of theory – there was a definite tension between those who wanted to use theory primarily grounded in clinical data and those who saw theory in a wider social and literary field. One poster put it that psychoanalysis should try to keep mining its own resources because they are so rich and not at all fully explored. Implied in this was seeing how things are, staying with clinical evidence, and the aim to interpret and help individuals. Others, including X wanted to use theory to integrate across fields, to find universal truths, as social and cultural criticism. Rather than what is, we should look to what can be. This involved moving beyond clinical material and integrating with theory from other fields.
- Related to #3, there is a feeling of “us” versus “them”. “us” being APsaA, practicing psychoanalysts, tending toward homogeneity and conservatism, sharing a common language. “them” are non-analysts, other fields, radicals, speaking foreign tongues. This is also an example of small-group fragmentation.
- Several posters suggested that X promoted a more academic discourse; academics are more ready to declare someone’s argument totally worthless, without necessarily implying that the person is incapable of thoughts that are worth taking seriously. Opponents are often also close personal friends. Another poster thought that Europeans are more open to spirited debate than are American academics. Other posters feel that psychoanalytic discussions often avoid conflict and controversy, cover over disagreement and avoiding issues of power. One poster felt that passionate promotion of psychoanalytic discourse that is intellectually and socially relevant, that has a promising future, was met with hostile nostalgia for a past where we had clear grasp of the truth, where things were simpler, more familiar. Another poster asked: why are people so touchy, so hypersensitive about disagreement? Why is disagreement deemed so disagreeable? He did not see X attack any one personally: he only disagreed with the ideas expressed by the author.
- Finally, I think there is a disagreement about styles. Some prefer an orderly discussion, polite, tightly controlled, that builds carefully on existing psychoanalytic theory. Others clearly like the rough and tumble of passionate debate, of less veiled aggression. One panelist put it thusly: “I have also had the experience of being caught by a wave, turned upside down, and dumped in shore tangled in sand and seaweed and wondering what just happened. But over all that seems interesting to me. I think that it is likely that many on line discussions I have been part of, are more highly edited and censored than this. Robert White let this one rip. On-line discussions by their very ‘nature’ do some undermining of many of the usual categories and hierarchies. I found all this intriguing, not exactly refreshing, but invigorating.” Another poster found perhaps forty percent of the discussion interesting and absolutely enjoyed and loved about ten or fifteen percent. “About ten percent of the words have challenged and aggravated me and compelled responses in my head. In reading the discussion I have learned and smiled, have experienced the content and shed tears, and been compelled to admit that what at first seemed stupid was actually not. So I ask myself, what more do I want from our discussion. I suspect that if the discussion is partially dissatisfying, it must be going well; and if it is seriously lacking, it is probably myself who has contributed insufficiently.”
III. A proposal – There are clearly some rules to be followed and these should be clearly stated. Goals should be clearly articulated. Rules should pertain to the topic of the discussion, what is within bounds of the discussion and what is not. There may be rules for who can participate. If the discussion is moderated, then the degree and type of moderation needs to be clearly stated. Beyond these rules, I do not think we should “censor” individual comments. We need the greatest degree of freedom and creativity to make these discussions relevant and interesting. What I am suggesting is a ethical code of conduct, that would contribute to the sense of safety and comfort of each participant to participate as fully as he or she would like. I have started below a beginning articulation of these issues for the Netcast.
Goal of the discussion
Psychoanalytic topics are chosen that are relatively open, may generate a multitude of opinion and will promote a vigorous debate. The goal of the discussion is to generate creativity, both in seeing old ideas in new ways and bringing new ideas into the theory or practice. We need to safeguard the integrity of the discussion by maintaining a safe and trustworthy environment for members to post their thoughts and opinions.
- Membership – We ask that members have an interest in psychoanalysis and some familiarity with theory and practice. There is no membership screening; anyone is free to join and participate. This would imply a wide range of interests and experience. The group is heterogeneous with many voices and interests. This should maximize creativity. On the other hand, it can be quite chaotic, too many languages that can’t communicate, insistent voices, competing threads, many levels of discourse.
- Moderating – The moderator screens only for general appropriateness (the posting is not spam), the posting is appropriate for the topic under discussion, and excessive length. Postings not meeting these requirements are sent back to the poster with editorial suggestions. There is no “censorship”. If there are personal attacks by a participant against another participant, the moderator may enter into a off-line dialogue with that participant to achieve better use of language.
- Panelists – Two to four panelists are chosen by the moderator. They are selected because of expertise or interest in the topic under discussion. They are granted the privilege to post first and last. They have no other special privileges. We encourage the panelists to develop dialogues with the author(s).
- The authors – A paper from JAPA is chosen to anchor each discussion. The authors of the paper join the discussion. They have first reply and last reply privileges. The author(s) are instructed only to engage in dialogues that interest them and further their own thinking.
· Passionate debate is highly encouraged when focused on ideas and observations. Their needs to be both encouragement of and a respectful toleration of differences.
· Personal attacks on individuals or groups should be avoided. This might include implying lower intelligence, sarcasm, mocking, denigration, an insistence on THE truth. Humor is a tricky subject. What you think is funny may well be offensive to others. It is probably best avoided.
· Multiple postings are fine if you are involved in an exchange. If your idea is not taken up by others, you need to let it go. Demanding to be heard is not helpful.
· If you are introducing new ideas to the group, an educational rather than a confronting style is much more likely to be heard. This is especially true when using different levels of discourse or different technical languages.
· Self-promotion, in terms of listing biographical articles, should be avoided. Just bring up your ideas.
· Take what interests you in the discussion and ignore the rest.
· Private side conversations are fine, but try to bring the content back into the public converstion for everyone when possible.
· Consider posting if you have never posted before. We welcome new voices. No question or comment is too simple.
The use of clinical examples is difficult. Remember that the internet is public. You must use your own judgment. Generally short vignettes without any identifying marks, previously published case material or material from non-clinical sources may be OK.