One of the hardest lessons that’s been forced down our throats in the last decade or two has been the intransigence of tribal, ethnic, religious, and racial hatred. In instances around the world involving hundreds of millions of people, collective fear and loathing have been enough to justify the most horrendous acts of violence. For those of us who blithely assumed that material values and individualism had increasingly come to supersede traditional cultural heritage, it’s come as a shock to learn, time and again, that whether a person is Sunni or Shia, Hutu or Tutsi, Kikuyu or Leuo, Turk or Kurd could still so often prove to be a matter of life or death. Complicating, contradicting, or perhaps provoking this story of crosscultural hostility is the parallel reality of the unprecedented intermingling and intermarrying of different peoples from different backgrounds in our newly globalized human community.
In case you were under the impression that group and tribal loyalties dominated life only in less advanced and enlightened countries than ours, you’d be wrong again. Just listen to how raw the whole immigration “debate” has become in the U.S. Of course, nativism is an old and ongoing story at the dark margins of American history. What newcomers haven’t had their turn at being bashed by “real” Americans (themselves most likely descendants of once-despised outlanders)?
Even in our supposedly “individualistic” society, people identify deeply with their group or “tribe.” Particularly in times of social, economic, or political upheaval, many people are less concerned with their personal psychology than with their group affiliation. The deeper the crisis, the more we become our group: we think like our group, feel like our group, and are ready to fight for our group.
What does psychotherapy make of this roiling stew of boundary-dissolving human complexity? What, as professionals, do we think about the confounding impact of national, ethnic, and cultural differences on identity, self-image, and relationship? Not much, as it turns out. As a field, psychotherapy hasn’t gotten with the program, to say the least. Unfortunately, with some shining exceptions, psychotherapists still seem to hold to the old model of a client as the typical eastern or western European, whose problems are exclusively such things as a troubled childhood, difficult marriage, disobedient child, and feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, or depression. This view of our client base is completely out of touch with the social changes that have taken place in recent decades. As Michael Ventura writes in “The New Social Mind” in this issue, “The world will never again be the world out of which psychology developed.”
In “The Immigrant’s Odyssey,” therapist Priska Imberti, herself an immigrant, writes movingly about the need to understand the balance between helping immigrant clients mourn their losses and celebrate their successes–a balance that’s necessary for them to recover from the traumatic aspects of their displacement and relocation. But this issue doesn’t present new treatment models, therapeutic answers, or easily learned strategies for becoming a multicultural specialist. Instead it poses the larger question of how psychotherapy might illuminate the transnational, transcultural currents that increasingly underlie conflicts in the U.S. and around the world.
We need to begin to consider how we can transform our way of thinking about people and their problems to incorporate the messiness, intensity, ferocity, and glorious potential of what we might now call the Era of the Immigrant, in which “minorities,” taken together, may soon be majorities in every developed country on earth. As Ventura reminds us, the current task of psychology is “to begin to understand not only what new social mind is being created before our eyes, but what new social mind is emerging in our own heads.”
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.