Neo-con psychoanalytic blogger, Shrinkwrapped, has discussed the innate human resistance to changing opinions (here and here). He draws from self psychology and object-relations theory to explain why opponents of America’s involvement in Iraq don’t change their minds and agree with his support for the war in spite of the facts which, if he is to be believed, speak for themselves. While his explanation for why we humans find it difficult to change our minds might be news to his lay readers, there is nothing unfamiliar here to anyone with an understanding of contemporary psychoanalytic theories. There is also a great deal of evidence from the cognitive sciences to support his conceptualization of resistance to changing minds.
In and of itself, Shrinkwrapped’s explanation for why human beings resist change is fine. The problem is that he arbitrarily hitches his neo-con wagon to it, creating an air of ‘scientificity' around his political beliefs. Shrinkwrapped begins with the certainty that everyone who disagrees with him on a single political position is out of touch with reality. Then he offers a generic description of the difficulty all human beings have with changing their minds, as if it is only this universal resistance to changing one’s mind that keeps the rest of humanity from jumping on the back of his personal hobby horse. In fact, Shrinkwrapped’s explanation for resistance to change is applicable to all human beings, of all political persuasions, including neo-cons like Shrinkwrapped.
Predictably, Shrinkwrapped's observations have also triggered a great deal of naïve self-congratulatory posting in his comments section as his fans confess their personal tales of conversion from mindless liberalism to conservative realism.
'My name is John and I am a liberal. Today is the 5th anniversary of my political sobriety.'
(responding in unison) 'Hi John,'
Neo-cons are tickled pink (oops) by the notion that they might just be the changiest folks around. They are proud to have escaped what one commenter called ‘the laws of psychic determinism,’ presumably without resorting to years of personal analysis. As they pat themselves on their collective backs (oops! again) for being such psychologically healthy and changey people, they don’t seem to notice that there are plenty of conservatives who don’t support Bush or the war. Many of these conservatives changed their minds after initially supporting the war and Bush.
Change By Mugging
Neo-cons are fond of Irving Krystal’s explanation that he abandoned liberalism for conservatism because he was ‘mugged by reality.’ Post 9-11 converts from liberalism to neo-conservatism often assert that they, too, were mugged by reality. As they ponder the 'cascade' of mind changes they experienced in reaction to 9-11, I offer yet another dose of reality:
Many conservatives feel that they’ve been mugged by both the reality in Iraq and what they perceive as incompetence and duplicity in the White House. They’ve examined the data and changed their minds without experiencing intolerable instability and without triggering a cascade of identity changes in the realm of their multiple relational selves per Shrinkwrapped’s discussion of change. These conservatives haven’t had to reevaluate everything they believe or become liberal ideologues in order to conclude that the war was a terrible mistake. That is because there is nothing intrinsic to conservatism that makes support for this war inevitable. For many conservatives, the war was a policy decision rather than an ideologically determined position. Neo-cons have a great deal of difficulty with this distinction.
Neo-cons Are Neo-Converts
Words and names fascinate me. They can have multiple meanings and often contain conscious, as well as unconscious, narratives. In a previous post, after I referred to Shrinkwrapped’s political analyses as oxygen starved, I realized that the word shrink-wrapped describes something that is sealed in an airtight package that admits nothing new. Shrinkwrapping, then, is a defense against change. Sometimes this is a good thing and sometimes it is not. It’s an ironic name for one who is certain about his own positions as he examines the resistance to change in others.
As I think about the word ‘neo-con,’ I think of how it stands for new conservative as distinct from old conservative. Perhaps it is within this distinction that we can find the reason that neo-cons have had greater difficulty changing their minds about the war than lifelong conservatives have had.
From the intellectual beginnings of the neo-con movement to the testimonials of Shrinkwrapped and his fellow neo-con bloggers, the neo-con movement is largely a conversion movement. These new conservatives are also neo-con|verts to a conservative sect with its own political tenets that are distinct from other brands of political conservatism. For example, many conservatives would prefer that the United States eschew foreign entanglements as much as possible, in contrast to neo-cons who support a robust, even dominating, presence on the world stage accompanied by aggressive efforts to influence world affairs. Neo-cons often confuse the foreign interventionist tenets espoused by their neo-con founders with conservatism more broadly. And, in a manner that sometimes comes across a bit like a thought disorder, one often hears neo-cons blathering on about liberal ignorance on economic principles as if citing such ignorance represents vindication for neo-con support for the war by virtue of linguistic proximity to discussion of their position on the war.
Conversion Does Not Change The Mind
What many of us appreciate about the converted, including neo-con|verts, is that their conversions sometimes occur in reaction to a serious narcissistic injury or a series of such injuries. When some event or series of events devastate a defensively constructed belief system that serves to protect the narcissist from any realistic sense of personal vulnerability, the narcissist may undergo a belief renovation that restores the shattered sense of invulnerability and personal supremacy. This is one of the reasons why conversion experiences tend to engender an air of smug confidence among the converted. Rather than indicating character that is hospitable to change, wholesale conversion often represents a defensive cosmetic change in response to a psychological emergency.
Converts tend to be rigid, militant and defensive when it comes to their beliefs. They have trouble dealing with any data that is not easily assimilated into a rigid set of tenets associated with their conversion experience. Among 12-steppers, such rigid adherence to ‘program’ details that have not been deeply tested and integrated into character is sometimes referred to as ‘white-knuckle sobriety.’ This expression refers to a recognition that changes in the reformed alcoholic’s outward behavior with respect to the consumption of alcohol do not necessarily indicate that an underlying characterological change has occurred.
In fact, it is characterological rigidity that often puts an individual at odds with reality in the first place, causing such a person to hit bottom after repeated muggings by reality. The puncturing of a narcissistically defensive belief system can precede a cascade of defensive belief changes without any alteration in fundamental underlying character. Converts of this type remain as resistant to change, and as inhospitable to new data, as they were prior to the conversion experience. If anything, since the conversion experience is often an emergency measure, characterological defenses only intensify following mugging-driven conversions. It is also no surprise that converts are often bedeviled by frustration with those who don’t share their views. The narcissistic character does not fully recognize the independence of another person’s psyche.
Although outward changes in the convert’s behavior can sometimes be beneficial, as in the case of an alcoholic who quits drinking, ‘dry drunks’ are still prone to belligerently traveling far down wrong roads despite cautionary data that are everywhere. Unfortunately, when a belligerent, dry-drunk, convert occupies the White House, we are all forced to hit his next bottom with him as he drives headlong into the next mugging while ignoring all of the warning signs of trouble ahead.