Post-Truth, China, and Psychoanalysis

Wednesday, January 18, 2017
Hong Kong, China

Dearest Tolerant Readers,

Every year, the Oxford English Dictionary selects its favorite word for the year. For 2016, just past, they chose the word “post-truth.” What a sad commentary on the state of the world! They considered the idea that whatever you think, write, tweet, issue a press release regarding, etc, somehow transitions into “truth.”


The strange reality of the post-truth world became dramatically evident to me when I met with two sets of psychoanalytic students here in Hong Kong. Last Saturday, January 14th, two lovely psychiatrists met me with dinner to discuss a presentation I was making and to share life experiences. Then, just last night, another psychoanalytic student and I had dinner. The former two women were from Hong Kong; the latter one grew up in Beijing. Here are the different realities they presented to me:

The first set of students told me of the story of the arrest of several Hong Kong book sellers, one of whom either wrote or sold a book about the President of China’s extramarital affairs. The way these two women told the story was horrifying. After many years of enjoying the equivalent of democratic freedoms, and after a promise by Chairman Mao that Hong Kong would exist as a “separate system” some 50 years after its merging with the mainland in 1997, several of these bookstore managers were arrested. They simply disappeared, and for several months at a time. Such fascist, dictator-like behaviors on the part of China’s leaders was unprecedented for those who live in Hong Kong. Loved ones had no idea of the status of their arrested family members. Some feared they had been killed. They abruptly “appeared” in mainland China some months later. All but one of them, who had only a girlfriend and no wife or children to protect, expressed shame at their democratic activities. These students expressed nothing less than horror at the arrests. They were particularly afraid for their children, worried such fascist, authoritarian governmental behaviors become the norm.

In stark contrast, and literally just last night, an equally intelligent student who was reared in Beijing — and therefore naturally more friendly to mainland China — suggested these women might have been over-reacting. She wondered if the information they obtained about the arrests, and the disappearance of these bookstore managers for months, may have been exaggerated. What different, and even paradoxical, narratives!

I had been planning to write just a few days ago expressing outrage at the disappearance of bookstore managers, and at the threats of democracy to Hong Kong. As I sit here writing tonight, I am still leaning that way. However, the information presented by the other student, last night, was equally compelling. All of this brought to mind the many writings by Noam Chomsky regarding the way that information is presented to all of us global citizens. Truth is, we never really know the accuracy of what is presented to us — whether appearing in the NY times, the Wall Street Journal, or wherever.

In terms of my own emotional response, I felt the most affected by those students in Hong Kong who worry about an authoritarian government adversely affecting the way of life they have enjoyed since the UK established a settlement here in 1841. Arguably the most compelling is the story of these bookstore owners simply disappearing — without a trace — raising questions as to how they were treated, what effect their sudden absence had on their loved ones not to mention them, and more.

In terms of the relevance to the practice of psychodynamic psychotherapy, this disturbing political information brings to mind the day-in and day-out work of the psychoanalytic psychotherapist. As Nietzsche argued towards the end of the 19th century, ALL information in our minds is based on interpretation. If you imagine the women as patients, their subjective experiences of “reality” differed greatly. The first set views what is happening in Hong Kong as ominous — a literal threat to them and the future of their children. The other set interprets recent events as benign, indicating mainland China as prone to gradually grow more open and liberal and ultimately integrating Hong Kong and its surrounds with little negative consequences.

I have no idea where the truth lies. I take some refuge — perhaps legitimate, perhaps not — in the sanctity of the individual psychotherapy session. It matters little, if at all, what is the nature of the “reality” the patient presents. If they are hearing voices commanding them to hate themselves, then so be it. The depth psychotherapist, regardless of his or her theoretical orientation, would listen to their subjective report as if it were truth. Psychoanalysts’ work depends on them at least beginning with a frank acceptance of the patient’s reality.

Ah, what a bubble in which we psychoanalysts live!! I suppose the moral of this story is this:

We psychoanalysts should celebrate the freedom in which we receive our individual patients. If they view themselves as inadequate despite their success, as hearing voices despite no evidence of same, or as unhappily married despite ample evidence of their receiving amazing love from their romantic partners, then so be it. We need do nothing but proceed with the honest assumptions and beliefs they present.

However, since we all live in political contexts, the actual truth of what is occurring in the world MATTERS. It is our duty, perhaps our burden, to devote time away from the consulting room trying to figure out what is actually occurring in these trying times.

Submitted with care and worry,


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