A State of Mind in Windy Weather
October 1, 2014
A conversation with psychologists about hatred, aggression, the Russian mentality, cognitive breakdown, the loss of social sensitivity, and society’s lack of self-confidence
The side mirror showed that the cars in the next lane were a safe distance from me. I switched on my turn signal and merged. I realized right away the mirror had deceived me. My car was almost a millimeter away from the front bumper of a black jeep: I had rudely cut off this “stealth” car. It was clear in a situation like this that no one would try and figure out whether this had been done purposely or accidentally. I was ready, or so I thought, for anything. I knew the other driver might deliberately overtake me and brake abruptly right in front of me. And yet, I wasn’t expecting what happened next. When the person in the car I had cut off drove his jeep in front of me for the second time, I deftly avoided a collision by moving into the far left lane, meaning he simply had no way to pursue me. But he found a way: he drove down the oncoming lane and once again put his jeep in front of me. This time I turned on the emergency lights and stopped. He walked up to my car.
“Well what? Yes, I made a mistake. Yes, I could have caused an accident. But do you realize that after this you did something that could have got us killed?”
“So what? Maybe I would have kicked the bucket, but I would have taken you down with me.”
There was not a shadow of doubt in his eyes, whitened with anger: one could “kick the bucket” for the sake of punishing one’s offender.
It is not that I recall this incident often, but that I have never forgotten it. Because I saw in a highly condensed form what has been happening with people everywhere—on roads, in supermarkets, on social networks.
“She was the godmother of my son, who is now twenty years old. I was very fond of her, and we were very close, but now that she supports all these Makareviches, I am forced to unfriend her. She has turned into a reptile,” writes a woman on a social network.
Those who call themselves liberals are no better. There is a new photo of a famous person who has more or less spoken out in favor of “Crimea is ours” posted several times a day on Facebook. People batter and pelt the photo with words like stones. “Another one has caved in.” “Creep.” “He used to be my favorite actor. Burn in hell.”
There is an amazing trait that unites everyone these days—their means of expressing hatred. “Fascists,” “traitors”: that is what everyone calls each other. And the verbs are also the same: everyone has “sold out,” either to the Americans or Putin.
You have to kill someone and eat them to take their power. Well, or poison yourself.
Dmitry Leontiev (head of the International Laboratory of Positive Psychology of Motivation and Personality at the Higher School of Economics, doctor of psychology, professor in the psychology department at Moscow State University, and Viktor Frankl Prize winner): It reminds me of an essay by Hegel, published two hundred years ago, “Who Thinks Abstractly?” He gives an example: you go to the market, and a market woman tries to sell you apples. You try them and say, No, I won’t buy them; they’re a bit sour. The market woman says something like the following to you. It is my apples that are sour? You are sour yourself, and you have a sour mug. And who the hell are you to give my apples a bum rap? I remember your parents: they were layabouts! So she begins to generalize: you were only talking about the taste of the apples, but in response she—
Attacks you personally?
Leontiev: The personal attack is only a detail. But here everything is brought into play, the broadest contexts. Hegel calls this generalization “abstract thinking.” According to him, it is the market woman, rather than the philosopher or scientist, who thinks the most abstractly, because she cannot focus on anything specific and generalizes everything. From my point of view, this is what is happening in our society. The great philosopher Merab Mamardashvili, who for me is quite comparable with Hegel, said, “The devil plays with us when we do not think precisely.”
And the devil is playing with us now: we have stopped thinking precisely. Say, neither the Ukrainians themselves nor we understand clearly what is really happening in Ukraine. But the huge number of people who never for a moment doubt they know exactly not only what is happening now but also what will happen next horrifies me. The number of clairvoyants and seers has gone off the scales. And the farther they are from the scene of events, the more accurately they know everything.
What is the cause of this epidemic?
Leontiev: It is a symptom of cognitive breakdown. Criticalness—the ability to filter incoming information, separate fact from fiction, and soberly assess the limits of one’s own knowledge—is considered one of the main mechanisms of the mature mind. Now it would appear that all the natural filters have come undone. The mind ceases to function: it just swallows readymade packaged texts and spits them back out. As soon as you try in a debate to clarify or specify something, your opponent, like Hegel’s market woman, responds by expanding the topic of the conversation to infinity, entwining anything whatsoever into it. This is the most important method of the usually unconscious manipulation now being used: lumping everything together. The topic of the conversation becomes fuzzy, and a lot of details irrelevant to it are entwined in the conversation.
The meaning of the word “opinion” has been devalued in our country. Any nonsense that occurs to someone is labeled an opinion. This assumption that all opinions are equal is a product of so-called postmodernism. Earlier, when experts were asked for their opinions, it was assumed they were the products of intellectual work in the fields in which the experts were professionally employed. It is then that real discussion can unfold, and we can find someone who can be trusted.”
Nowadays, on the contrary, there is often no trace of analytical and intellectual work in what are commonly referred to as opinions. A person gets some “kind of, like” bit of information from somewhere in left field. These “opinions” are not rooted: they can easily switch to their direct opposites. So I am very skeptical about the figure of eighty-five percent of the population who, according to pollsters, now support everything the Russian president does in Ukraine. This is largely a weather phenomenon. The wind has inflated this degree of support, but when it blows in the other direction, it will fall below zero.
You mean the majority of Russians have a heightened psychological “meteodependency” on the political climate? On the stance of the authorities?
Leontiev: What is the “Russian mentality”? Everything said about the peculiarities of the Russian psychology wholly conforms to the psychology of a normal child. This includes a rich mental and emotional life, but a spontaneous one. Hence the inability to control oneself, to keep promises. Small children can be quite cruel: they do not know what pain is, and do not value life. Our country has had a prolonged childhood; we have not succeeded in growing up. Life, both one’s own and that of others, has a low value.
Many things are caused by the inability to link cause and effect. There is no sense of time, of the dynamics of change: Russia is worried about territories, about not giving an inch. We have virtually no social institutions. The State Duma is like a kindergarten during naptime, when the minder has left the room. Everyone is bawling about his or her own thing.
Maybe it is time to replace the concept of “state of mind” with the concept of an “instinctual state”?”
Leontiev: I would rather speak about a state of mind in windy weather. Thinking is energy consuming, and people who have failed to grow up find it easier to throw words around. The fundamentals of humanity’s survival are simple and sound. They unite rather than divide people, despite all their differences. For example, it is good when people live, and bad when they die and kill, even under the most plausible pretexts. But we have a divided society, and in this situation it is important not to contribute to the polarization. It is a virus that has infected the country
Olga Makhovskaya (fellow at the Institute of Psychology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Ph.D. in psychology, and writer): I would say that what is happening today is a reflection of the country’s biggest fault: we have frittered away our values. When they answer any question—whether to fight or not fight with Ukraine or the whole world, whether they are for or against Putin—people are guided by their fears rather than values. And I can say that there, at Maidan, even before the war the protest was not as encapsulated as it is in our country. Encapsulation is when everything happens in cliques: I go to a protest rally with my friends, but as for everyone else, I do not really know or understand how they live. When there is no overall consolidation, you are among a circle of friends but in a society of strangers. It is extremely difficult to get past the bouncers at the door. In Ukraine, there is definitely not this stark opposition between the intelligentsia and people of the land, for example. There, the latter are in fact the most respected, because the land will always feed you, whatever the regime. And these are grounds for personal dignity. They have greater reserves of values there than we do. There is a Russian proverb that says money cannot buy you love. But there is no comprehension that money cannot buy you anything valuable at all—neither freedom, life, talent nor friendship. It is these things that have failed in Russia today.
I think it is not just a matter of events in Ukraine. This segment of people who think alike, a whopping eighty-five percent, is also encapsulated. A person who is willing to kill someone else and himself in the process is not trying to clarify your stances on these issues. He is just ready to kill.
Makhovskaya: From my point of view, the figure of eighty-five percent is rather an indicator of society’s extreme lack of self-confidence than of public opinion. When a survey on happiness, for example, is conducted, and the vast majority says it is insanely happy, politicians see this as a lovely figure. But any psychologist will tell you that such uniformity indicates a state of helplessness. This is a society of old people and little children—of old people, who suffer from diminished intellect and have no future, and of children, who because of their age cannot be independent.
What is happening in our country today—the intolerance and hatred—is directly linked to the state of being in an axiological and normative vacuum. The social psychologist Durkheim called this condition “anomie.” It happens when old institutions, functions, and norms have been destroyed, and new ones have not yet formed. The main conditions for the emergence of a new set of values are the consolidation of society and an optimistic view of the future. But in Russia, values are promoted that divide people and narrow their horizons: money, power, and pleasure. Transient values camouflage the lack of eternal values—“Thou shalt not kill,” for example—of the old conservative attitudes to work, education, patience, love, and mercy.
Perhaps the Soviet legacy could also be making itself felt in this case. At school, we were made to memorize Nekrasov’s lines “The heart grown weary of hating / Will never learn to love.” But no one told us about the saying of Confucius: “If you hate, it means you have been defeated.”
Makhovskaya: What we remember in childhood is quite important, because we pass it on to our own children as a cultural code. If you cannot love because you cannot hate, it means you must hate: it is a terrible thing, of course, to send this message to schoolchildren. But nowadays there are no less alarming signals, first and foremost, the loss of sensitivity among most citizens. Social sensitivity is a sympathetic attitude to the problems of groups of people to which the individual himself or herself does not belong. Television has “scorched” its viewers by constantly raising the sensitivity threshold.
Why does everyone call each other fascists nowadays? What is the cause of this?
Makhovskaya: It is similar to the children’s game of good guys and fascists [i.e., something like the Anglophone games cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers]. Psychologists believe that the unbearable fear of death is overcome in such children’s games. Given the depth of the trauma caused by World War Two, a trauma passed from generation to generation in Russia, the power of post-traumatic stress syndrome and the relief a small victorious war gives to “inflamed” consciousness are understandable. Despite the fact we won World War Two, psychologically we have been left unappeased, inconsolable, and uncertain that it will never happen again. On the contrary, we have always been reminded that the enemy never slumbers, that we have to be prepared. We live with the convulsive readiness to attack or flee. Sooner or later, individuals cannot contain themselves and enter into conflict; an insignificant occasion can serve as the trigger. The abusive fascist phraseology comes from this same source.
There is another factor that affects how events are perceived—group favoritism. Members of one’s own group are perceived as better, more educated, smarter, prettier, and broader-shouldered.
I will illustrate what you are talking about with a quotation from writer Zakhar Prilepin: “[U]krainian POWs and Russian POWs differ even physiognomically. The Russians are whiter; their eyes are more bewildered and kinder. [The Ukrainians] are darker. They do not look you in the eye; there is something hunted and angry about them at the same time. Almost all of them are shorter than me.”
Makhovskaya: It is a classic example. When we at the Institute of Psychology of the Russian Academy of Sciences studied how Soviet viewers perceived Americans during the first spacebridges with the US, we discovered that a couple weeks after the programs people could not recall either the faces of the “enemies” or what they had said. But as they tried to recall what they had seen, they confidently insisted the Americans were “reptiles.” They recalled the “good guys” in detail, with a tendency to add height, texture, and beauty: the people who had gone out to do battle with the ugly dwarfs from the US were simply cartoonish epic heroes.
Sadly, the level of our psychological culture is such that we do not cope with these cognitive distortions. Even more frightening is that this is the level of the politicians and their servants who induce hatred and broadcast negative stereotypes to the whole country.
Editor’s Note. I usually do not have much truck with psychologistic explanations of political and social phenomenon, especially when it comes to Russia, where even before the onset of Putinism 3.0, the popular, public and academic discourses, both liberal and nationalist, were lousy with all-encompassing exegeses of Russian society’s ills (or virtues) based on a supposedly unique, perennial or horribly mutated (as a result of Stalinism, serfdom or perestroika—take your pick) mindset or mentality shared by most Russians or certain classes in Russia. The article translated above certainly possesses many of this approach’s defects, but in its own clumsy way it gives some insights into the zeitgeist in the country right now, details usually ignored or dismissed by, say, local leftist commentators, eager to inscribe everything going on into a more palatable, boilerplate “anti-capitalist” narrative. Whether we like it or not, the sheer hysteria of recent months and its effects on people’s sense of their possibilities, responsibilities, and limitations becomes a factor in political and public life every bit as material and potent as the Putin oligarchy’s need to bolster its financial fortunes or generate new venues for state-sponsored highway robbery.
Photo courtesy of The Daily Mail