Splits in Internet Discussions – A Description of the Problem and a Proposal

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:37 am by Robert S. White

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
Discussion rules

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.

Internet ethics
·         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.


  1. Dr. Michael Uebel said,

    October 31, 2007 at 10:54 pm

    In its present form, White’s summary of the netcast on masculinity is somewhat chastened compared to his earlier impressions. White, in the earlier summary, wrote:

    “My overall sense of this discussion is a lively mix; questions more than answers, deep divisions, tensions between the clinical and theoretical uses of psychoanalysis. I think Harris’ initial sense of anxiety was well founded, in that the discussion ended in a bitter dispute over “process”. I suspect, as did others, that the anxiety about the topic got displaced into personal attacks.”

    White apparently labors under several misconceptions: 1) he misrecognizes psychoanalysis as divisible into theory and practice; 2) he misinterprets “anxiety” as having been displaced into aggression; and 3) he fails, as most psychoanalysts do, to appreciate the difference between the real world and the psychoanalytic dream-world.

    Let’s take up the third point first since it bears directly on the issue of how a discussion of masculinity can be better pursued. The netcast can be best summarized as failed dialogue. Here’s how dialogue and debate work in the real world, as opposed to the psychoanalytic dream-world: I say, as I did, that Fogel’s theoretical syncretism is superficial and counter-productive to meaningful treatment and theory related to gender issues, and then Fogel defends why he believes syncretism to be useful and meaningful. Then I enlighten him as to why he’s mistaken, and then he enlightens me, and so on. Instead, what happened is that Fogel opted out of any potential dialogue, not only with me, but others who critiqued/questioned his theory and method. While the reasons for his early withdrawal are likely overdetermined, one reason Fogel probably opted out is because he doesn’t face sharp criticism often. His essay should have been rejected from JAPA, and convincing reasons for its acceptance have yet to be produced. In the psychoanalytic dream-world, open and public distinction-making is rare. Along with the reality that there is but a handful of first-rate close and discriminating readers of manuscripts, there is the tandem one that analysts eschew real debate, and, while everyone has some story of a bloody conflict, such moments are only symptomatic of the general and pervasive air of lazy agreement that, after so long, becomes intolerable (to some, anyway). Irruptions and eruptions are inevitable in this idea-poor atmosphere, and their absence should not be mistaken for something like compassion.

    This brings us to point two: White’s conflation of anxiety and aggression. Ignoring the fact that there are much simpler and elegant reasons for aggression than supposed anxieties unleashed in a discussion of masculinity of all things (perhaps White should [re]read his Kierkegaard), I would recall us to what should have been obvious in the criticisms of Fogel’s work and electronic presence. Such criticisms have nothing to do with the personal (that is, Fogel as an individual) and everything to do with making distinctions concerning types, distinctions apparently that no one was willing and/or able to make. Any sensitive reader of the netcast cannot fail to notice that I, at any rate, take Fogel to be an unfortunate type of psychoanalytic thinker and practitioner. Typologies are often useful. And so I could cite 50 authors in the psychoanalytic tradition (broadly defined) who comprise a type of thinker deserving of our close attention on the issue of masculinity and gender, any one of whose writings happen to be infinitely richer than Fogel’s. Recently, while reading Philip Bromberg’s (2003/2006) brilliant case study of “Dolores” wherein he pauses to reflect on the effects the therapeutic process is having on his own sense of masculinity and himself as a man, I was struck again by the inconsequentiality of Fogel’s observations. There is, I submit, more thought in this digressive moment (a couple of paragraph’s worth) of Bromberg’s than in Fogel’s entire essay. I think we need to make distinctions, and I think we need to strive for something richer. The value of drawing on other authors cannot be underestimated, especially since Fogel’s reading on the subject of masculinity appears to be debilitatingly limited. Thus I reiterate my plea for serious cross-disciplinary engagements.

    How does one fashion something better (point three)? By rejecting language, like White’s, about theory and practice divides, for starters. There is no theory/practice division; it just gets confused with the little defenses many put in place to prevent themselves from seeing that some persons are much better theorizers than they are practitioners, and some are better practitioners than theorizers, and some are equally poor being both, and some are excel as both. Again, we don’t like to make distinctions concerning persons’ work; we prefer to use abstractions to conceal our talk about what a certain analyst appears and doesn’t appear capable of doing, intellectually or in the consulting room. I’ve always thought the goal is to be both an excellent theorist and an excellent practitioner. I see no point in pretending there is a choice to make. That we may surmise that some, like Fogel, have made a choice, perhaps at a level below awareness, is not evidence that such a binary is necessary or desirable.

    Some might (rightly, imho) argue that Fogel is not a scholar, and thus his work shouldn’t be judged according to standards more appropriate for ascertaining its scholarly (i.e., critical and theoretical) value. The problem with this argument is apparent: Fogel wrote an essay entitled “The Riddle of Masculinity…” published in what is taken to be a leading journal: this essay is not expressly a clinical piece, though he may have (as I suspect) felt that the theory components were merely obligatory, while the clinical vignettes are the real substantive part. The point is simply that Fogel, as theoretician and as clinician, should be evaluated for his contribution to both theory and practice. If he is critiqued more heavily from one perspective than the other, that only indicates the relative deficiencies of what he has written, and not a divide between the theoretical and clinical uses of psychoanalysis.

  2. Dr. Jorg Bumke said,

    November 2, 2007 at 10:45 pm

    Dr. White provides an interesting summation of what he sees as a “split”–one presumably to be healed?–in the discussion that took place concerning Gerald Fogel’s paper. What White, unfortunately as I see it, has done is reify splitting itself. That is, as Dr. Uebel rightly points out, he legitimizes a split between theory and praxis. My reading of the discussion (I was not a participant) is less in terms of splitting than a failure on the part of many interlocutors to answer the challenges that were raised by Dr. Uebel and by others as well. It was clear that Dr. Fogel’s ex cathedra pronouncements were made with the intent of foreclosing any dialogue. Several of Dr. Fogel’s statements appeared to be searchings for allies rather than intellectual engagements. Whatever merits the paper has were forfeited in the interests of a desire not to offend anyone. Perhaps Dr. Fogel’s studious avoidance of Dr. Uebel’s apposite commentary was a defense against his (Fogel’s) own unresolved aggression. While we have only to conjecture, it remains undeniable that the discussion was unsatisfying and must be so especially for those, like myself, who felt that Dr. Fogel’s paper suffered from a number of limitations, including the disciplinary narrowness that Dr. Uebel identified.

  3. Ruth Stein said,

    November 3, 2007 at 9:54 am

    I found the basic attitude from which you reconstructed the events of the
    discussion, and your analysis and recommendations thoughtful and illuminating.
    They can serve as important guidelines for future discussions. And they can
    inspire further thoughts on scholarly, ethical, and emotionally-inflected
    discourse among psychoanalysts.

    Ruth Stein

  4. Dr. Michael Uebel said,

    December 8, 2007 at 11:58 pm

    Dr. Bumke’s comments, with great economy, get at the heart of the matter of Fogel’s thin-skinned narcissism (see Rosenfeld, 1987) while affirming, to some degree, White’s observations about defense. But then would we expect anything less from such a distinguished thinker?

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