Interview with Serge Hefez, Psychiatrist and Psychoanalyst

Serge Hefez explains that the mechanisms that lead us to reject the Other are a natural part of human experience, as is the search for contact with the Other. Circumstances, and especially crises, can lead a person to seek refuge in a collective delusion in which foreigners are seen as a threat to be neutralized.

WHY ARE STRANGERS FRIGHTENING?

I’d like to turn that question around and put the emphasis on fear; I’d say instead that it’s fear that makes strangers and foreigners frightening, in the sense that rejecting the other is already a way of crystallizing, of projecting one’s own fear onto the Other, of making the other into a scapegoat. The fundamental mechanism involved is fear. This means that a situation characterized by fear or anxiety — an economic crisis, for example — is a prerequisite for projecting that fear onto an Other who, as a result, becomes the receptacle of fear known as the stranger. In Rwanda, for example, the Tutsi and the Hutu had found a way to coexist together in a sort of peace that clearly included social interaction between the groups. It was only when a crisis situation developed in the country that the Other was transformed into a frightening stranger.

CAN THIS HAPPEN IF THE OTHER IS YOUR PARTNER, YOUR NEIGHBOR OR YOUR CHILDHOOD FRIEND?

Absolutely. In situations where fear is drummed up by fanatical speech, the Other comes to be considered as responsible for all of my own suffering. In the same motion, the Other who has been familiar becomes strange and, eventually, evil. If you think of Nazi Germany in these terms, you can see that although German Jews had been thoroughly integrated into that society, a political party played on existing fears in order to designate this Other as a stranger by focusing on certain characteristics that were attributed to the Other for that purpose.

IN THOSE PARTICULAR CASES, IT WAS A MATTER OF COLLECTIVE FEAR. IS THE PROCESS THE SAME ON AN INDIVIDUAL LEVEL?

For individual people, it is more a question of their particular psychopathology, or the personal paranoia by means of which my own anxiety and anguish are projected onto someone else, who is designated as a threat. As for group dynamics, they show us how quickly a collective delusion can spread throughout a group composed of individuals who themselves are not delusional. Fear or anxiety are the emotions that spread most quickly in a group. If we return to the example of Rwanda, we see how fast fear was able to take over nearly all the group, leading spouses, neighbors and friends to massacre one another. It demonstrates how fragile human beings are when confronted with the group’s power.

DOES THAT MEAN THAT MASS XENOPHOBIA, WHEN IT REACHES ITS ZENITH IN GENOCIDE, FOR EXAMPLE, BUT ALSO WHEN IT REMAINS VERBAL, IS A FORM OF COLLECTIVE PSYCHOPATHOLOGY?

Yes, these are well-known mechanisms of crowd dynamics. In collective psychopathology, the ego loses its boundaries: one is no longer an autonomous individual with one’s own thoughts and feelings. It is as if our borders were being opened up to others such that each person would merge into the group as a whole, in a form of group thinking that, by its very nature, is delusional because the individual’s ability to think and feel for him- or herself has been lost. The mechanism involved in determining what is foreign and strange makes use of strangeness and the uncanny: the other becomes strange, someone who is radically different and is therefore a threat.
When there is normal functioning, the Other can be different without becoming a threat and these differences are usually experienced as enriching, because they provide a way to relativize one’s own self.
The dialectical relation with the stranger becomes unsettling as soon as it becomes uncanny. The uncanny strangeness of the other is rejected when we become afraid of something in our own selves, something that we don’t want to recognize about ourselves. It is a form of blindness to ourselves, and thus also an amputation of the self.

CAN THIS SORT OF FEAR OF THE OTHER ALSO OCCUR WHEN WE ARE “AT HOME,” OR COMFORTABLE WITH OUR OWN CULTURE?

It really depends on what is meant by “being at home” with one’s culture. For me, that means feeling free to criticize it, really to call it into question on a permanent basis, by interpreting, discussing and testing its limits. But that’s just my definition of personal freedom. Some people who have fallen into any sort of fanaticism claim to be very comfortable in their culture precisely because it limits the kind of questions they can ask or prevents them from asking questions altogether; this is a form of totalitarianism, in that it comes to occupy all of their inner space and becomes the mark of their personal identity. We can see the difference between patriotism and nationalism clearly here: to love your country and want to defend it and uphold its values are generally positive mechanisms, but when such patriotism becomes nationalism, anyone who does not share in the national identity becomes a strange and threatening foreigner who is to be eliminated. This mechanism goes so far as to exclude people who had previously been included within the definition of the nation. Here national identity gets worked up about a certain number of identity traits that become exclusionary.

DOES HAVING BEEN A MEMBER OF A MINORITY DETER THIS KIND OF COLLECTIVE MADNESS?

I don’t think so. There are many examples in history of situations in which stigmas affecting one minority suddenly shift to another — the Hutu, who had long been the victims of discrimination, certainly found themselves able to slaughter the Tutsi in Rwanda. On another scale, it would be incorrect to say that there is no form of radicalism or fanaticism among Jewish people at present. Radicalization really is able to make use of whatever kind of cultural identity it encounters, from the moment there is any feeling of impending threat.

WHAT COULD LEAD SOMEONE WHO HAD RECENTLY BEEN CONSIDERED A FOREIGNER TO WANT TO JOIN FORCES WITH THOSE WHO ARE DECIDING WHO IS A FOREIGNER NOW?

It is always possible to find someone who is more foreign than oneself. This form of projection is very deeply rooted in human nature — we spend our lives trying to fight and tame it. In a schoolyard, children are always calling each other names, saying who is too fat, too short, too redheaded, and so on. The pervasiveness of these mechanisms in human psychology also sheds light on why people are always ready to be inflamed by certain group situations. The fact of having once been a considered a scapegoat does not mean that a person is not going to go over to the side of the executioners. Today in France, there are some intellectuals who are prototypical of the assimilated foreigner, and who spend a considerable amount of their energy in deciding who the others, the dangerous foreigners, are.
And yet, we see that, even within these dynamics of groups and mass phenomena, there are also always some righteous individuals who manage to protect themselves against these mechanisms, probably because they have more inner strength, a stronger sense of self-identity and greater personal freedom.

Interview conducted by Antoine Strobel-Dahan
Read this article in French – Lire cet article en Français
© Florence Reymond

© Florence Reymond