Dr. Karyne Messina’s Newsletter — Issue #3: Appealing to Our Better Angels

Earlier this week, Americans paused to recognize and give thanks for the brave military personnel who made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve and protect our country and the values we hold dear. We are lucky — dare I say, blessed — to live where we are protected by law to say and think as we please. America is indebted to those who fought and died for those rights.

And we have exercised those rights in recent months to the point of fatigue, but I worry that when we do, we neglect to listen to others. Ours is an era of polarization unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes, and as Lincoln presaged in 1858, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” I know I’m not alone in calling for greater tolerance and bridging the divide, but the reality of reaching out to those who don’t share our views is a bit messier in practice and mostly through no fault of our own.

That we are having trouble finding common ground at this moment in 2021 is an understatement. Post-election, post-Capitol-riot, and almost-post-pandemic, we are as deeply divided as ever, with huge swaths of the population in disagreement on nearly everything — not just issues and ideas, but on facts.

Radio silence is not the answer, nor is total verbal badgering of one’s debate opponent. But before respectful conversation can begin, we the public (and we, the mental health professionals) need to work towards actively listening to each other in an atmosphere of respect. Finding common ground depends on us figuring out how we can recognize and agree upon basic facts, especially in the age of social media when facts and opinion are interchangeable.

To add a level of difficulty to the task at hand, false information spreads faster and farther than fact. A 2019 study published by researchers at MIT’s Media Lab found that falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than the truth and reach their first 1,500 people six times faster than fact. A person who believes in a conspiracy theory will hang on to that knowledge until they see competing evidence repeatedly over a sustained period that disproves it. Internet rabbit holes — those never-ending pixelated portals into the digital cosmos — prevent this kind of natural correction. YouTube has been called out for the way its algorithms amplify extremist views, though the claim that the site’s recommendations facilitate far-right radicalization is disputed.

Like radio interference blocks transmission, internet static prevents clear communication among us. Let’s face it, many of us spend more time than we’d care to admit on the internet, and it’s where we do the bulk of our communicating. Finding others in the digital universe willing to engage in curiosity-driven discussions rather than indulge in bullying is rare. How do we reach each other when there are such significant barriers to open communication? What does an exchange like this look like?

As it happens, the week of June 14th through the 20th is the fourth annual National Week of Conversation, organized by America Talks and the Listen First Coalition. The two-day America Talks event invites participants to converse with so-called political rivals. Anyone who signs up for the event answers a few questions, including, “Do you approve of the job Joe Biden is doing as President?” and “Should the laws covering the sale of guns be more strict?” These answers help the organization match the participant with someone of an opposite viewpoint, and after a livestream explaining how to join the conversation on June 12, participants join their conversation partners in a virtual breakout room. The conversations take place via the My Country Talks software platform, where “ground rules” will be reviewed and agreed upon before starting. Talking to our friends is a challenge, starting a conversation with a total stranger is America Talks even harder, so America First provides a conversation guide to help get things started. The organization expects at least 10,000 “conversation participants,” and each chat represents one small step towards overcoming the divide and healing wounds.

Will you be joining the conversation?

It’s Been a Busy Month! In Other News:

Dr. Nydia Lisman Pieczanski shared her comments about last month’s topic on why Black men are still being targeted by the police. In response to: “I believe it may be partly due to an underlying, little-known defense mechanism that contributes to the killing of Black men, a mental maneuver known as projective identification” Pieczanski notes that she would consider “unconscious defense mechanism” as another possible reason. Further, she added “I think that it would be important to explore how these murderous actions are unconsciously supported by a long history of discrimination, and a “culture” of identification with the “white slave owner’s mentality. I think that to explain murder due to psychological mechanisms without the social political environment can inadvertently trivialize this ongoing tragedy. You could also describe that the way to close the gap in our society is to tolerate ambivalence and recognize that we all have limitations.” Thank you, Nechy, for your excellent insight, as usual!

Also, please save October 22 and 23 for a conference co-sponsored by the Washington Baltimore Center for Psychoanalysis, the Contemporary Freudian Society, and the Washington School of Psychiatry on how the psychoanalytical community must address the widespread apathy surrounding public understanding of the environmental crisis. “Awakening to the Existential Threat of Environmental Collapse: A New Imperative for Psychotherapists and Psychoanalysis” will focus on the serious threat to humanity caused by global warming and the unconscious processes that are associated with denialism. This conference is dedicated to the memory of Harold Searles. More details will be available in the coming months, but you can find early information here.

In early May, I joined psychotherapist and podcaster Roxanne Derhodge on “Authentic Living with Roxanne” to discuss seeking calm amidst the chaos we’ve endured over the past 18+ months. Take a listen and let me know what you think!

On Thursday, May 20th, I presented via Zoom at the 44th annual meeting of the International Psychohistorical Association. The topic is based on a paper I wrote and which was published in the Spring edition of the IPA’s magazine, Clio’s Psyche. “Healing a Divided America: Finding the Source and Healing the Damage” examines the cultural and rhetorical rift that divides so many Americans today, as well as offer suggestions on how we can repair the damage caused by four years of relentless psychological manipulation.

Tyler Gallagher of Authority Magazine interviewed me on the topic of what we as professional psychoanalysts can do to help unite our polarized society. You can read the interview here and at Thrive Global.

Let’s be social! Follow me over on Instagram.

Thank you for reading, and stay safe.

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Karyne Messina

Karyne Messina

I'm a psychologist and psychoanalyst focusing on helping people heal from toxic relationships