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General News    H4'ed 11/17/18

Are You "Fixed" or "Fluid" -- Or Mixed? (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) November 17, 2018: Over the years, I have watched many episodes of Criminal Minds on CBS. In each episode, profilers from the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit in Quantic, Virginia, fly to different places in the U.S. to assist local law-enforcement authorities in tracking down and apprehending a serial killer. The crimes in each episode are gruesome, to say the least. But the FBI profilers use certain aspects of each crime (i.e., the criminal's behavior in the crime) to construct a profile of the criminal, which helps them and the local police catch the criminal. So I guess that I would have to say that I am interesting in psychological profiling.

In their book Prius or Pickup?: How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America's Great Divide (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, professors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, construct a psychological profile of Americans based on responses people give to four questions on opinion surveys.

More specifically, Hetherington and Weiler use the responses to establish a spectrum of opinions. At each of the two extremes on the spectrum are the people who answered the forced-choice questions in one consistent way or the other -- all A's or all B's, as it were. Next to the two polar opposites on the spectrum come people who answered three out of the four questions either as A's or as B's. Next to these two alignments on the spectrum are people who in one combination of responses or another evenly divided their answers -- two A's and two B's. From these various psychological profiles, Hetherington and Weiler then use the responses to certain other items in the opinion surveys to discuss their other preferences -- that is, the preferences that all or mostly A's and the preferences of all or mostly B's, and so on.

Now, to help us understand Hetherington and Weiler's psychological profiling, I want to turn to Michel Foucault's rather psychological thought in his posthumously published book Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling: The Function of Avowal in Justice, edited by Fabienne Brion and Bernard E. Harcourt; translated by Stephen W. Sawyer (University of Chicago Press, 2014; orig. French ed., 2012). In Fabienne Brion and Bernard E. Harcourt's postscript "The [1981] Louvain Lectures in Context" (pages 271-321), the editors end their discussion of Foucault's thought with the following statement, which I see as relevant to understanding Hetherington and Weiler's psychological profiling:

"In the end, this leaves us free to guide ourselves by that 'only kind of curiosity . . . that is worth acting upon with a degree of obstinacy: not the curiosity that seeks to assimilate what is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to loosen one's hold on one's self.' That curiosity, in other words, which might enable us to loosen ourselves from the engagements and interests that attach us to our identities, and from the fear that we will find ourselves naked if we undo these identities without daring, like Diogenes, to embrace our act. Foucault suggested that there is militancy in the Cynic life 'that returns the beneficial sovereignty of the bios philosophikos into combative endurance.' If the study of government through truth means examining speech acts by which individuals constitute themselves as subjects and tie themselves to identities given as their truth, then to oppose the courage of truth to the power of truth may mean inventing a philosophical clinical practice of the subject that enables subjects to loosen themselves from the identities by which they are governed" (page 310).

Now, to be sure, there are certain other relevant ways in which to understand Hetherington and Weiler's psychological profiling. However, Foucault's description of "loosen[ing] one's hold on one's self" strikes me as an apt and adequate way to establish a psychological framework for discussing the basic shift from one polar extreme (all four responses in one certain pattern) on Hetherington and Weiler's spectrum to gradations away from answering all four items that way.

Another way in which we can understand Hetherington and Weiler's psychological profiling is to turn to John Bradshaw's self-help book Healing the Shame That Binds You, 2nd ed. (Health Communications, 2005; orig. ed., 1988). In Foucault's terminology, in as much as one heals one's toxic shame that binds one, one tends to "loosen one's hold on one self."

Hetherington and Weiler refer to one polar pattern in their psychological spectrum as "fixed." In Bradshaw's terminology, the "fixed" pattern represents being bound by toxic shame.

Hetherington and Weiler refer to the other polar pattern in their psychological spectrum as "fluid" (i.e., the opposite of "fixed"). In Bradshaw's terminology, the "fluid" pattern represents recovering from the toxic shames that binds you. In Foucault's terminology, the "fluid" pattern represents "loosen[ing] one hold on one's self."

Still another way in which we can understand Hetherington and Weiler's psychological profiling is to turn to Richard Hofstadter's book The Paranoid Style in American Politics (Knopf, 1965). The people whose four responses are described by Hetherington and Weiler as representing the "fixed" polarity on their psychological spectrum tend toward the paranoid style in American politics. No doubt Trump embodies the paranoid style in American politics.

For a relevant psychological profile of Trump, see the psychiatrist Dr. Justin A. Frank's book Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President (Avery/ Penguin Random House, 2018).

In Hofstadter's terminology, people who embrace the paranoid style in American politics see the world as good-guys versus bad-guys. Similarly, in Hetherington and Weiler's terminology, people whose responses are all at the "fixed" polarity tend to see the world as good-guys versus bad-guys -- with themselves as the good-guys and the other guys as the bad-guys.

But here's the catch that Hetherington and Weiler note. People whose responses all or mostly tend toward the "fluid" polarity also at times tend to see the political world as good-guys versus bad-guys -- with themselves as the good-guys and the other guys as the bad-guys.

For example, in the 2016 presidential campaign, former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic Party's presidential candidate, was recorded as characterizing certain Americans as "deplorable" -- in plain English, bad-guys. Of course, she subsequently apologized for this characterization.

More generally, Trump campaigned against so-called "political correctness." It seems to me that so-called "political correctness" is a shape-shifting and in that sense a "fluid" concept. But Trump was cheered on by the crowds at his rallies when he explicitly referred to so-called "political correctness." For him, it was an effective rallying cry. But why? I think that the targets being "corrected" by so-called "political correctness" did not exactly appreciate how they were being portrayed as the bad-guys by the self-appointed good-guys advocating so-called "political correctness."

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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