Attacks on Thinking: in Society and in Therapy. Written by Dr Linda Berman.



A poet’s work….. is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.

(Salman Rushdie , The Satanic Verses.)

Rushdie’s poet, Jumpi Joshi, mentioned in a previous post, advocates freedom of thought and its expression.

However, such freedom of expression is not available to all. Autocratic societies prevent individuals from expressing thoughts that in democracy would be regarded as acceptable; there is often suppression of ideas merely because they do not concur with the state. Such regimes declare themselves inviolable, their ideologies sacrosanct and unchallengeable. Ideas that do not accord with their beliefs are strictly censored. Often such societies attack and manipulate the ways of thinking of their people.

Research has indicated that what is termed ‘cultural tightness’ inevitably affects what thoughts and ideas can be written or expressed, cramping ‘cognitive style’ and ways of thinking.

‘Tight cultures promote narrow socialization, with highly developed systems of constraining, regulating, and monitoring behaviors (Arnett,1995), and deviation from established norms is readily identified and sanctioned. Additionally, justice systems in tight cultures often impose stiff punishments for crimes (e.g., the death penalty for corruption in China). In terms of everyday life, tight cultures are also linked to situational constraints that embody a restricted range of appropriate behaviors (e.g., in Singapore, eating and drinking are not allowed in the subway). Over time, these institutional practices collectively foster individual-level psychological adaptations, such as self-regulation, cognitive styles, and propensity toward change, all of which have implications for creativity.’

(Recently, Gelfand wrote in The Guardian, about ‘the science behind the Brexit vote and Trump’s rise,’ using his concept of tight cultures to explain the cultural cause of these contemporary political changes.)

In Waiting for the Barbarians, JM Coetzee describes an extreme example of a ‘tight culture’ in the form of an imaginary place, ‘Empire,’ in which the people are told that there are barbarians outside, waiting to invade. These are the ‘others’, who are different and speak an unknown language, depicted as savage people who should be tortured, eradicated. The novel is an allegorical story about apartheid, the oppression of black people in South Africa.

The fear of the other, inculcated into their people, strengthens the rulers’ control of Empire, making the people terrified and dependent. There is a need to create an enemy, in order to feel some kind of dysfunctional sense of ‘safety’ within the walls of Empire. Thus the oppressors think themselves into existence; their own identity as masters of Empire depends on their projection onto the barbarians of denied aspects of themselves. What Coetzee creates in his novel is a kind of memorial to the victims; he cannot insult them by attempting to historicise their experience:

‘Waiting for the Barbarians does not recover history as a fully narratable subject, but bears witness to it by refusing to translate the suffering engendered by colonial oppression into historical discourse. In “bringing to speech an impossibility of speech” (Agamben, Remnants 164), in maintaining rather than negating the unsayability it says, the novel can be seen to embrace an anti-historicist ethics of remembrance, an ethics of testimony….’ (J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and the Ethics of Testimony)

Coetzee portrays an example of thought control at its most powerful, for any thoughts that do not concur with Empire’s masters are prohibited. This destroys individuality and choice, determining what people are allowed to think and censoring those who dare to contradict the ‘laws’ through the use of torture and murder.

That Empire has no definite article is crucial, for this generalises the imperialist way of thinking, making its milieu unspecified. Thus the implication is that the discourse of totalitarianism can be found anywhere and everywhere.

George Orwell was also well aware of this fact; ‘Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable,’ he said. In his seminal novel, 1984 he creates the ‘thought police,’ those who will closely monitor the thoughts of others, through omnipresent television monitors, minute observation of facial expression and other subtle surveillance methods. The menacing image of Big Brother is everywhere. Any deviation from the party line is regarded as thoughtcrime and thought criminals are severely punished with torture or death.

Sadly many forms of persecution, maltreatment of others, and tyranny are to be seen in the real world and their threat is pervasive today. Under the guise of religion or politics, and long after the year 1984, people around the world are tortured, brutalised and oppressed for their ways of thinking.

Such physical and psychic trauma often result in difficulties with thinking, remembering and certainly with speaking thoughts. Extreme suffering such as this often renders speech impossible, creating numbness and an inability to think. Subsequently, painful memories may be repressed, as a way of defending against the resulting psychic pain.

When such pain becomes unmanageable, some people might decide to engage in psychotherapy. There are many examples of how patients in therapy unconsciously find ways of suppressing the thinking process as a defence against very painful thoughts and repressed feelings and impulses.


In group psychotherapy, this can be particularly striking; psychoanalyst Robert Hinshelwood, in a book entitled Ring of Fire;Primitive Affects and Object Relations in Group Psychotherapy , describes attacks on what he calls ‘the reflective space’ in the group:

‘The term ‘reflective space’ indicates that aspect of the group in which members link emotionally and from which personalities can emerge. In contrast, primitive states reveal themselves in attacks on the capacities for thinking, for reflecting and for making emotional links.’

Such attacks may take the form of ‘primitive processes of violence and paranoia,’  which disrupt the group’s thinking.

In individual therapy, the patient may also attack thinking, for buried emotional truths can be extremely upsetting. The task of analytical therapy is to help the patient bring into consciousness such difficult issues, which may be adversely affecting aspects of his current life. The therapist’s empathy and understanding will, it is hoped, enable a committed patient to work through such difficulties.

Further examples on attacks on thinking will be discovered in a future post about the effects of digital media on thinking.

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