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How Culture Shapes Psychology

In this paper I will be exploring the place where language and culture meet psychology and politics. It is my thesis that language biases communication in ways that are both determined by and influence culture and

that the combined influence of language and culture shape the practice of psychology. Ultimately this plays an important role in working to support the accepted values that dominate our society and to discourage or discredit those values and perspectives that are not dominant.

I begin by adopting the notion of language and communication developed by Jurgen Habermas, the German philosopher. 1 According to Habermas knowledge is always collected for some specific purpose. There is really no such thing as a “neutral” science or social science. Data collection and analysis always has as its driving force a certain set of interests. Likewise language use always has a purpose. This purpose goes beyond the simple communication of concepts, ideas or intent. The very structure of language itself is created in such a way as to bias the outcome of the communication. Habermas calls this bias of knowledge and communication “knowledge constitutive interest.”2

According to Habermas, knowledge and information is always collected for some specific purpose or intent. This purpose or intent is determined by the values, world view or ideology of the person collecting the information. Even the scientist in the laboratory collects data and information from the perspective of a belief system dominated by a scientific and technological set of values that legitimates the scientific endeavor itself. This set of values has no “objective” basis, but is in reality only one perspective about the way the world is and operates. This bias characterizes all language and the acquisition of knowledge and results in “systematically distorted communication.”3

One example of this structural bias of language, though a simple one, is the word “communism.” If one says this word to the average American, the emotional as well as the intellectual response to the word is likely to be negative. This negative emotional reaction is not the result of a balanced, reasoned assessment of communism as an economic system. Rather, it is the result of a systematic program of biasing certain words and concepts in the language in order to pre-dispose or pre-determine the outcome of thought or discourse. We have seen repeated applications of this use of language in political discourse. Most recently Rudolph Giuliani attempted to disparage certain approaches to solving the health care crisis in the United States by referring to calls for “socialized medicine.”

Another obvious example of distorted communication and one that permeates our entire society is advertising. Advertising language is a form of communication devoted entirely to and shaped by a specific interest, namely: the pursuit of profits. This use of language does not seek to engage the rational faculties or result in a balanced assessment of the claims put forth about the product. Rather, it is intended to manipulate the consumer through appeals to emotion, obscuring the facts and outright misrepresentation of the true intentions of the entity who has initiated the communication.

The implications of systematically distorted communication are enormous and go far beyond commercial speech. Language is the only medium by which we individually or collectively relate to one another and engage the world. It is the medium through which we seek the “truth,” in so far as “truth” is knowable to us. If the very language we use is not “value neutral” then the search for “truth” whether on the part of the scientist in the laboratory or on the part of citizens engaged in public discourse and debate is seriously compromised. This has the potential, as Habbermas and others have observed, to call the entire democratic process into question.4 The pervasiveness of advertising language or “hucksterism” has in my view contributed much to the cynicism, alienation and disaffection we see in citizens toward a whole range of social, cultural and political institutions.

Like any other field of knowledge or endeavor, psychology is not immune from the influence of systematically distorted communication. During its early period the field of psychology had radical implications for and stood in opposition to much social and political orthodoxy. Freud, Jung and others drew out the implications of their new discipline in ways that were quite challenging to religion, politics and societal norms. In The Future of an Illusion, for example, Freud employed the insights of psychology, arguing that a belief in God had its source in human psychological need and the needs of ego maintenance. God itself was an illusion kept “alive” due to human weakness at best, or neurosis or psychosis at worst.5

At its outset, the purpose of the psychotherapeutic process as designed to illuminate the sources of unhappiness in the individual. Not surprisingly, much of this source of unhappiness could be found in the social, religious, cultural and political world in which the individual existed, a world that was at fundamental odds with what people needed to live “authentic” and happy lives.6 Building on the early insights of psychology, a whole genre of work evolved that brought into question the wisdom and utility of the structures that western societies had put in place, and which increasingly looked, when taken as a whole as a “toxic culture.”

Over the course of time religious and secular authority attacked psychology, and especially those aspects of it that were challenging to their authority or power. Herbert Marcuse has discussed this attack on psychology in his Eros and Civilization. 7 According to Marcuse the radical aspects of psychology were destroyed or undermined by the same forces employed in our society to undermine any challenges to its authority. The use language, distorted through the association of certain terms and phrases with negative emotions is the primary way this was done. But it was also accomplished through attacks by conservative and religious interests who tried to undermine the legitimacy of questioning the way things are in our society. 8

Ultimately, psychology was brought into line with the prevailing economic, social and political orthodoxy. Psychology no longer served as a foil to the economic, cultural, social and political sources of human unhappiness. The stress was no longer on questioning whether the environment was one conducive to healthy psychological development. Now psychology and the therapeutic process became concerned with reconciling the individual to the society and its values as they existed. This process today increasingly relies on the use of drugs and medication designed to mitigate feelings of depression and unhappiness, with the stress placed on the individual as the source of the problem.9

The solution to the problem of distorted language, a toxic culture and a psychology that has been made to serve the powerful interests that benefit from the current state of things is complicated. Apart from revolutionary change the best hope for reform lies in a series of steps that would limit the power of wealthy interests to shape our language. One approach would be to remove first amendment protections from commercial speech and imposing strict controls on advertising and what can be said in it. Another approach would be to once again make psychology the radical discipline it once was. A third approach might be to follow what Habermas has proposed in trying to create “ideal speech situations.” This entails creating conditions in which genuine human interests can be discussed outside of attempts to distort the process of communication itself.

1 Sources for this section are: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosohpy. And Jurgen Habbermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, Beacon Press, Boston, 1968.

2Knowledge and Human Interests, page 191.

3 Thomas McCarthy: The Critical Theory of Jurgen Habermas. MIT Press, Cambridge, 1982. pg.

4 Noam Chomsky has made this point as well in his Necessary Illusions, 1988, South End Press, Boston and other works.

5 Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, Double Day, Anchor Garden City, New York. 1957 pgs. 47-53

6 Ibid.

7 Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, Beacon Press, 1955, 1966

8 Ibid.

9 I found materials for this section in the Radical Psychology Network.