Northam and the Mentalization and Empathic Deficits of Power

Towards the psychology and politics of 2042

Posted Feb 04, 2019

Source: Pixabay

We are clearly at a redefining time for our culture. In large part, this is in response to the presidency of Donald Trump, whose campaign and election invoked racism and sexism, both overtly and in dog-whistles. Many of us have felt the need to express our values more explicitly in our work and in the public sphere. (For example, I started leading compassion and self-compassion cultivation workshops, which I hope to bring to community mental health.) On the darker side, Trump’s rhetoric has unleashed what the Southern Poverty Law Center called “The Trump Effect,” an increase in bullying and hate crimes across the country. While some bemoan “identity politics,” as a psychiatrist, I see the emphasis on identity a necessary antidote to the aggression many vulnerable people feel coming at them on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status and so forth. “Our identities are burning,” I wrote last year (“On Han, Soul, the Collective Psyche and Microaggressions,” July 23, 2018) The only remedy to our anger, fear and disconnection is compassion. We must support the part of our identity that recognizes our interdependence and commonality, and the actuality and possibility of harm that we can do each other if we are not mindful of vulnerability borne throughout our history.

This is a moment of redefinition—but particularly for those who hold power, and those whom we allow to hold power. For our society to heal, grow and hold together, people in power must be deeply rooted in the needs and perspectives of all their constituents. The problem is, of course, that historically, our institutions have largely been built around a singular identity: that of straight white men. Many of these straight white men have not been aware of or sensitive to the needs of minorities and women, and many of them have been and continue to outright devalue those needs entirely, for reasons of prejudice or political advantage. See Representative Steve King, for example.

Power itself predisposes to psychological and relational deficits. Lord Acton said over a century ago, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This has been proven in research by UC Berkeley social psychologist Dacher Keltner, detailed in his book The Power Paradox. His work suggests that people gain power based on their empathy and connections to community. However, once in power, their vision narrows and they lose empathy. One example he found was that people driving more expensive cars were less likely to stop for pedestrians waiting at a crosswalk. Turn that into policy, and you can easily see why marginalized populations have poorer outcomes in health, education, housing and overall well-being. Many of us are waiting at the crosswalk while America’s Mercedes SUV goes blithely on its way, and all too often, runs us over. Or, as I like to put it, "the rolling wire-monkey gathers no moss." (Shoutout to Harlow's monkeys which showed the importance of attachment and nurturing.)

If you gain power based on your relationships to and empathy for a narrow community, then you start off “behind the eight-ball” already, in terms of your empathy for the greater, more inclusive community. We learn to mentalize, or understand the inner perspectives of others, based on who we relate to and identify with. If you don’t have relationships with minorities, you could easily become more self-centered, tribalistic and even antagonistic, out of ignorance, a sense of entitlement, or a reaction to your own insecurity as a human being. It should go without saying that relationship must be based on friendliness and compassion.

From that narrow base we have the extraordinary appearance of a medical school yearbook with blatantly racist images in the mid-1980s. This should have caused outrage when proposed or published—not simply buried for four decades. It didn’t because it fell within the legitimacy of a particular identity that held (and until proven otherwise, still holds) power and sway at that medical school. This pains me as a doctor, because our Hippocratic Oath is based on compassion: “First do no harm.” These medical students and the administrators that aided them did extraordinary harm. Furthermore, I am astounded by the sheer cluelessness of Mr. Northam’s sensibility during that time, that he thought it would be okay to don blackface for a dance competition. This underscores his disconnection from Black perspectives and history. Moreover, that he would need a conversation with a Black aide during his gubernatorial campaign in 2017 to understand how wrong this was indicates he has likely been “late to the party” on race issues for much of his adult life. This does not make him a bad or immoral person in all respects—but someone who is demonstrating a longstanding paucity of knowledge and skill in dealing with issues of race. This seems to stem from a lack of significant relationship to people of color, and thus at the very least a ‘blind spot’ to their concerns. A lack of relationship precedes a lack of mentalization and a lack of fully engaged empathy and compassion for the deep wounds Black people have historically suffered and continue to suffer. I’m guessing that a lack of deep relationship must be the reason that no prominent black voices or friends of Mr. Northam have leapt to his defense. 

An overwhelming majority of voices are calling for Governor Northam’s resignation. Many emphasize that this demand is not an indictment of his humanity, but a recognition that he has lost the trust of the Commonwealth of Virginia and its elected officials. 

I think this is a sign that the majority of us are yearning for a “politics of 2042,” the year when there will be no “majority race,” and a hopefully greater recognition of interdependence and sensitivity to both common humanity and the specific needs of vulnerable populations.

The “psychology of 2042” must be predicated on relationship across all identity lines, and indeed a blurring of identity lines. We must be able to ‘mentalize’ across identities, to walk in each other’s shoes. You can do this through relationship, or through learning through art and media. W.E.B. Du Bois's outstanding and still relevant book The Souls of Black Folk is available for free as an e-book, for example.

Dacher Keltner offers the guidelines depicted below for those who are in positions of power – and I would suggest they are good guides for all of us. We all hold power in some way.

Here’s to a psychology and politics of 2042, here in our heartbreakingly ravaged 2019.

 Background image by Ravi Chandra, Hiroshima, August 6, 2007
4 of Keltner's "Power Principles," from the book "The Power Paradox"
Source: Background image by Ravi Chandra, Hiroshima, August 6, 2007

(c) 2019 Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.