This is the unedited letter sent to the @PsychMag website.
“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” – George Santayana
It seems fitting that in the current political climate, that we can look to some analytic concepts to try and understand the result of the referendum the UK has just taken part in. Some of the concepts have been condensed in order to be expressed, but I hope I can explain enough of my thought for it to make sense.
Transference is about understanding the past and our relation to past experience in the present in order to heal wounds and to move forward with knowledge of what we can change and how we react.
We need to understand our relationship with the world and our place in the past, in comparison to our relationship and place within it in the present.
Britain was once a world super-power. It held an empire, which colonised and benefitted from imperialism at an unprecedented scale. It was able to enforce and control its will on the colonies it owned and as such, it reaped the benefits.
Contrasted with today, the UK is still an economic behemoth, however, its imperial domination is severely diminished. The empire is gone and nations once under rule celebrate their independence from the UK, despite living with the consequences of empire, both good and bad.
Consciously, the UK is aware of this, but the collective unconscious is distorted and exaggerated to not accept it – to hark back to an age bygone, whereby the will of Britain is exerted on others for the benefit of Britain. The rest of the world has had a counter-transference reaction to the UK and this is evident in the discourses put forward by various formerly colonised nations and their diaspora, which the UK is struggling to accept.
Jacobs (2004) indicates that if we use a post-modern construction of the way we think about transference – we’re not sure of anything and subsequently, our relationships to others are built on perceptions and misperceptions. This is important, because they can be distorted.
Since the end of the referendum, there has been on-going dissection of the reasons as to why the UK voted with a slim majority to leave the EU. Amongst the issues raised by the Leave campaign, there were economical, sovereign, and emotional reasons as to why the UK should leave.
Chiefly amongst those, were the emotional reasons as to why. I say this, because economically, we have seen the effects of the outcome on the markets and the pound and soon we will see the effects on upcoming budgets set by the chancellor (whomever that may be) and this was forecast and explained by various experts.
Similarly, issues around sovereignty were also counter-argued and understanding that the European Court of Human Rights generally were a good thing could be conveyed with a cogent argument – for example, the overwhelming majority of cases sent to the ERHC (1997 cases) from the UK in 2014 were struck out – only 27 were upheld as breaches of convention, which would indicate UK compliance with European law.
However, the emotional reasons become hard to dismiss with fact. It is hard to concisely convey that the emotional desire to leave the EU has been carefully and considerately influenced by a portion of the media in an insidious manner for well over ten years.
However, it is easier to highlight some of the on-going and current rhetoric that has been displayed since the introduction of the narrative around the migrant crisis, anti-Muslim rhetoric, isolated incidences of use of Human Rights law as negative and the border policy, which has preyed on the fear of the general population.
It has been helmed by (but not restricted to) a charismatic, boisterous character leading a political party which has re-packaged some of the fascist sentiment of the right wing into manageable, bite-size chunks and has been mixed alongside economic and sovereign misinformation in order to seem more palatable. Stop me if I’m invoking a sense of history here – but the mechanisms in place have been seen before and used to devastating effect between the years 1933 – 1945.
Interestingly enough, the use of those same mechanisms had a direct impact on psychology and psychoanalysis – Sigmund Freud left Vienna in 1938 at the behest of Ernest Jones to live in London, for example. Post-war, it also had a direct impact within social psychology via experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s (also directly leading to changes in ethics when conducting research with human participants) and leading to an understanding that people will obey authority.
So with regard to a feeling of threat that has been created and a sense of futility about it that has been fostered, the people most susceptible to distortion of fact, relationships and emotions judging by the data were social grades D & E – the people with the least amount of power. People aged 45-65+ voted to leave the EU (over 50%) whereas those 18-44 voted to remain (over 50%) and it could be argued that due to a distorted relationship with memories of the past, this is what influenced the vote.
At time of writing, the effects of the vote have cause turmoil in the markets, in the economy, and in the democracy. The country has lost a leader. The Conservative party has to elect a new leader. There could be a snap general election in the third quarter of the year. The opposition is trying to formulate a plan to affect the upcoming election. There has been no issue of article 50 and so on and so forth. In immediate terms, the people who have affected the vote have voted against themselves and their best interest. Cornwall has received £1bn of EU redistributed money (Eden Project, Newquay Airport & Broadband infrastructure) in the last 15 years and that is more than it has put in, yet voted 56.5% to leave.
However, this result could also be viewed as a defensive mechanism in play. Ferenczi (1933) introduced the idea of identification with the aggressor, which in this instance could be considered as the people calling for the referendum. Historically, in the context of the UK, this has been the right wing (especially the extreme right) in opposition to the general socialist stance of the EU, but in a present context we can view this as anyone with a leaning towards neoliberalism in politics.
Frankel (2002) explores this idea in greater detail in the paper “Exploring Ferenczi’s idea of identification with the aggressor,” but the premise is that habitually, people identify with the aggressor, even in instances where there is no severe trauma. It is the tactic of those in a weaker position (such as those in socio-economic categories D & E) as a form of defence to identify, assimilate and to relieve stress through the mechanics of subordination, divination and acting out the things that they feel will save them.
This acting out has not just been about voting out – there is now a substantial air of fear which has been displaced and encouraged by the Brexit vote – which has included a spate of racist incidents which have been catalogued online, with an increased incident rate of 57% and has been thoroughly condemned by the Prime Minister.
Even this outpouring of racist sentiment could be viewed as a defensive projection of the fears of the people delivering them to the people receiving them. It’s too hard to affect change against a whole system designed to misinform, misinterpret and misunderstand the thoughts and feelings of those who have been hurt, but it’s easier to project them on to those who are also affected by the myriad of historical socio-economic decisions taken to foster such hatred.
We only need to look at the eight stages of genocide (Stanton, 2008) to understand the beginnings of where we could be.
With regard to the original reason of this letter, I replied to a tweet asking “Can we expect a large number of psychologists beliefs to be shaken to the core?” to which I replied “Nope… If anything we should be the harbingers of pessimism.” I said that with some element of playful sarcasm, but it is a position I do believe in, at least in part. We owe a lot to the theorists that have come before us and have studied the human condition intensely since the devastation of a war that enveloped the world – a devastation that some communities are still struggling to cope with in 2016.
We also owe it to them to try and understand their theory (or enhance it if possible) in wider social contexts and historical trends.
Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.
Isn’t that what therapy attempts to highlight?
Senior Counselling Psychologist Trainee
Roehampton University, London.
Ferenczi, S. (1933). Confusion of tongues between adults and the child. The language of tenderness and of passion. In Final contributions to the problems and methods of psycho-analysis (pp. 156–167). London: Karnac Books, 1980.
Frankel, J. (2002). Exploring Ferenczi’s concept of identification with the aggressor: Its role in trauma, everyday life, and the therapeutic relationship.Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 12(1), 101-139.
Jacobs, M. (2004). Psychodynamic Counselling in Action. SAGE.
Stanton, G. H. (1998). The 8 stages of genocide. Genocide Watch, 1.