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Living in an ‘As If’ World
Gender ideologues pretend to care about the truth, but their position boils down to 'because we say so.'
In 1942, the psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch published a landmark paper in which she described a particular type of person who relates to the world and to other people in ways that appear normal but who, over time, comes across as inauthentic. “Every attempt to understand the way of feeling and manner of life of this type forces on the observer the inescapable impression that the individual’s whole relationship to life has something about it which is lacking in genuineness and yet outwardly runs along ‘as if’ it were complete.” Hence the term she coined to denote such people—the “As If” Personality.
When these individuals come for therapy, they often appear to engage enthusiastically in the psychotherapeutic process, though over time, no progress is made; a feeling of futility might plague the therapist. The challenge is to recognize and address a fundamental dynamic crippling the work: rather than being used to convey meaning, the words employed by the client instead conceal and ward off an internal truth felt to be intolerable. The personality enacted for the therapist’s benefit embodies a kind of performance, the simulacrum of an actual person with emotions and connections to other people, when in fact, the person feels empty inside and unable to engage authentically with anyone.
In the early years of my practice, one client (a highly intelligent and verbal young man) once asked, “If you tell me what you believe my unconscious is saying based on what you hear, how am I to know if you’re right? How do I know if some other formulation isn’t what’s actually true?” It’s ultimately up to the client to decide whether an intervention is accurate, of course, but this young man couldn’t connect my words with his inner world to assess their accuracy, largely because he relied upon language to obscure rather than to illuminate. He appeared to be a willing client, but the way he communicated instead made sure I’d never get anywhere near him.
As the treatment progressed, he began to offer alternative interpretations to my own. “That’s one way of looking at it,” he might say. “But it could also be …” At that point in my career, I viewed such client-therapist interactions through the lens of dependency and the common defenses against it; I would have pointed out how he was relating me as if we were colleagues or co-therapists and couldn’t allow himself to be a client depending upon me for help. While that formulation is true, I would now add this: while it appeared as if we were engaged in a psychotherapeutic process, he was thwarting my attempts to make contact by substituting an alternative reality for each one that I proposed. Therapy became a competition via language to define what was “true”; he ultimately won that contest and moved on.
Historians of psychoanalytic thought view Deutsch’s formulation of the “As If” Personality as a precursor to our understanding of borderline conditions and pathological narcissism, and my own clinical experience bears that out. The use of language to obscure or annihilate hated truths regularly features in psychotherapy with clients afflicted by disordered personalities; helping them to connect with and tolerate acute psychic pain is a central challenge of this work and means developing a more authentic language connected to emotional truth.
In my more recent work with gender-distressed youth, I find myself again confronting this disconnect between language and emotion, but it feels less to me about disordered personalities than a social media-induced kind of dissociation. One teenage girl, trans-identified, talks at length about her daily interactions with her mother, her peers at work and at school, but the space between us feels dead. At times, I have a feeling of futility, that if I try to make sense of the actual words she employs and events she describes, we’ll remain stuck in a place without meaning.
Another client, a highly intellectual young man, uses sessions to expatiate on the socio-cultural construction of gender, explains to me why he rejects masculinity and embraces the feminine, but has no connection with his body. He never masturbates and finds his nocturnal emissions to be disturbing. Now and then for reasons that mystify him, he will begin to weep in session. He feels relieved by his tears but has no words to describe what he might be feeling.
Yet another teenage girl, also trans-identified, adamantly insists upon her desire for cross-sex hormones. Like my other two clients, she has no relationship with her body. She spends much of her free time playing video games online, inhabiting her avatar, and interacting with the avatars of other online players she’s never met in real life. The possibility that testosterone will make her sterile or eventually lead her to have a hysterectomy bothers her not at all; she finds the idea of sexual intercourse to be disgusting and has no intention to marry or have children. She has never masturbated and finds the idea “gross.”
Like many young people who survived the lockdown years by going online, these clients have spent so much time inhabiting virtual worlds that they’ve lost connection with what’s visceral, immediate, and real. They live in a realm of imagination where anything is possible, where infinite malleability has taken the place of a physical world with reality-based limitations. By changing your name and your avatar, you can transform yourself into someone entirely new. The laws governing this alternative space give rise to a belief that you can change the very nature of reality simply by describing it in a different way.
The apparent re-creation of reality via language lends an “as if” quality to their personalities. They seem to have an internal psychic life that’s meaningful to them, they appear to have friends and other social relationships, but their emotional lives lack depth. Because their words have become untrustworthy guides to truth, I’ve taken to teaching my clients about how we human beings come to recognize our own feelings as they arise—when it comes to sadness, for example, through the perception of bodily sensations around the eyes, chest, and back of the throat. With the first client I described above, most times when I ask her to move her attention down into her body, she will begin to cry.
For many young people, social media usage has severed the connection between specific words denoting feelings and the visceral indicators that help us to identify those feelings. The signifier has become detached from the signified. As a result, language becomes a disembodied and self-contained set of internal rules and interrelationships without connection to psychic truth and often external reality.
In our daily interactions with other people, we usually assume that the words they use to communicate accurately represent the meaning they intend to convey; this fundamental assumption underlies all cooperative efforts to engage with other human beings. But in our modern world, it’s increasingly difficult to believe that much of the language exchanged conveys meaning or objective truth, especially in the contentious realm of social media. Like my patients described above, the public language deployed in this space often serves to deny or obscure truth, to replace it with an alternative reality constructed via language. Life on Twitter often boils down to a war of words to determine whose version of “reality” will prevail, a dynamic obscured by the misleading appearance that both sides are using language in the same way.
In her keynote address last month at Genspect’s historic “The Bigger Picture” conference in Ireland, Helen Joyce, author of the book Trans, drew attention to this issue. While proponents of the affirmative care model for gender-distressed youth speak and write in the empirical language of fact-based science, they actually disdain it. Gender ideology is like a cuckoo bird invading the nest of empiricism says Joyce, appropriating its language and apparently respecting its methods while all the while subverting them. Like my long-ago patient who spoke as if he was authentic and in contact while deploying language to obscure truth, the gender ideologues publish studies in professional journals, written in language that appears to respect the empirical method but actually undermines its assumptions and replaces objective reality with their own disembodied version of “truth.”
The work of Jack Turban, for example, relies upon copious footnotes and citations to other studies which, upon closer examination, either have nothing to do with the position he claims they support or directly contradict it. Turban writes as if he were devoted to the scientific method and its standards of proof but actually cares nothing about them. Colin Wright, Jesse Singal, and Leor Sapir have devoted thousands of words to debunking Turban’s claims, highlighting his factual errors and misleading citations; for those of us firmly rooted in reality, their efforts are crucial, but for Turban and his acolytes, they are irrelevant. Gender ideologues only pretend to care about empiricism, mimicking its techniques for understanding objective reality; what they really intend is to replace immutable facts and objectivity with their own subjective version of the truth.
This dynamic reflects core tenets of post-modern thought and critical theory, where so-called reality is supposedly determined by the discourse around it, and whoever controls that discourse has the power to determine what counts as “true.” While it appears as if gender ideologues are engaged in good faith debate over what scientific studies can tell us about, say, the reality of biological sex, their position really boils down to “because we say so.” They amass flawed and flimsy studies published in professional journals and devote entire books to “proving” sex actually occurs along a spectrum of possible expressions, all in order to control the discourse around the nature of sex. Objective truth is irrelevant; whoever speaks with the loudest voice gets to decide what is true.
Helen Joyce’s observations were inspired by a philosophy symposium she attended focused on the work of British philosopher Roger Scruton; she was particularly struck by his delineation of two opposing views of human nature that give rise to very different ideas about how a society should be governed. One views human nature as a blank slate and believes it can be improved and eventually perfected; from this perspective we are evolving toward an ideal society. The other, “constrained” by the facts of biology and our evolutionary heritage, believes humans cannot fully transcend their bodies, and society must therefore pass laws and uphold traditions that restrain the more brutal aspects of our nature. The American economist Thomas Sowell believes these conflicting visions characterize the conservative versus progressive debate in the United States.
On a broader level, these opposing views also help us to understand the current battle about sex and gender, especially on social media. On the one side we have proponents of biological reality who hold that facts are facts and sex is real; they believe in the scientific method and esteem empiricism as a mode for apprehending truth. On the other, we have those who behave as if they care about the scientific method, but in fact care only about wielding power.
Just as Helene Deutsche’s landmark paper led to deeper insights into borderline states and pathological narcissism, recognizing the as if quality of contemporary discourse helps explain why our society exhibits so many features of the Cluster B Personality Disorders. Disordered personalities characteristically display overly emotional and irrational forms of thinking along with an unstable sense of self and its relation to others. As patients, they at first appear to engage in the psychotherapeutic process but remain quietly hostile to the process. They will defend their fragile sense of self in often hostile and verbally abusive ways against attempts by their therapist to illuminate painful psychic truths.
Due in part to the rise of social media and the increasing influence of virtual online spaces, young people today inhabit an as if world that mimics reality but actually denies many hated truths about it—that sex is real, binary, and immutable, for example. Adopt a new avatar or change your pronouns and you can become somebody else, even alter your sex. Your subjective belief about who you are overrides objective truth. And if anyone should challenge your self-image by asserting so-called “facts,” you are justified in weaponizing language and hurling abuse to ensure that objective reality will not prevail. Rage, invective, and crude insults to dehumanize the other are the order of the day.
Welcome to Twitter, a place where daily interactions between two conflicting visions of human nature resemble one prolonged eruption of borderline rage. On one side are those who insist reality must be what they say it is; they feel sorry for themselves and persecuted by those who, on the other side, assault them with facts and arguments about objective reality. It takes a non-defensive therapist with a high tolerance for pain and a strong sense of self to work with disordered personalities, in part because they so often attack your own sense of self-worth when they feel threatened; it’s no wonder that even the rationalists ultimately resort to contempt and abuse as Twitter discourse descends into name-calling on both sides.
How are we to heal a disordered society such as ours? Most of the time, I’m cautiously optimistic that the Colin Wrights and Jesse Singals of the world will eventually prevail and, through dispassionate analysis and assertions of fact, reinforce our connections to objective reality. But sometimes, in the dark of the night, I worry that the proponents of radical subjectivity will win. Like my long-ago patient who defeated my efforts to connect him with psychic truth and who ultimately destroyed his own treatment, they will shout the rest of us down with brutal abuse, in the process annihilating all the glorious achievements of Western Civilization and the Enlightenment.
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