Elon Musk and Free Speech: A Psychoanalytic Perspective
Elon Musk has recently purchased Twitter, his views on free speech being a seemingly key motivator in his decision
Psychoanalytic psychotherapist Ajay Khandelwal explores the difference between uncensored speech and free speech
The only space rocket I've designed was made from a Fairy Liquid bottle with a valve attached. The only car I've designed was in pencil and paper in an art class at school. Frankly, I don't see the answer to the world's problems being a community on Mars. I don't see the answer to consumerism and pollution in being the purchase of a new Tesla car. So, what would a mere psychotherapist know about Elon Musk and his recent purchase of Twitter for 44 billion dollars?
Twitter is a reflection of our times. Short, sharp, on point. We live in an era when long form essays and psychoanalysis are considered outmoded. Who has the time to read 10 pages? Who can afford to see an analyst several times a week?
Depth and reflection are out of fashion in our healthcare systems and our culture. We seek concrete measures, metrics, fast results. Our patients seek a mantra, or a tablet that can provide salvation. We seek something we can digest and metabolise quickly. We love stories of transformation, surface, speed and efficiencies.
Perhaps we like Twitter because we need to do something with our hands? We used to smoke, drink tea, knit, and have sex. Our hands were busy; now we have phones which act as additions to our body, which require our hands to swipe and scroll. (For more on this, see Darian Leader's book Hands)
The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas has argued that the world has become horizontal, where everything is equivalent. Vertical thinking, where there is a hierarchy of thinking, has become harder and harder. Twitter celebrates the horizontal, where each person's view is the same. That is what its fans celebrate, but there is a loss. Trump did lose the election, and the experts are right.
Where politicians fail, Elon Musk sees an opportunity to improve the lot of humanity. From a psychoanalytic perspective we might say Elon Musk has raging amounts of narcissism and mania. He likes to be talked about and thought about, and that is exactly what I am doing here in writing about him.
Who hasn't spent at least some of their waking hours thinking about Elon Musk? His takeover of Twitter has resulted in him featuring in news bulletins around the world. In fact, perhaps he gets more attention this way than he does by launching a rocket into space. We all read accounts of his manic activity, not satisfied with running one huge company. He runs many others. He appears too busy to take part in ordinary life. When Tesla was having difficulties in hitting its production schedules, there were stories about him basically staying in the factory 24/7.
So should we feel pity for him or should we be envious? What should we make of his incredible work ethic? Perhaps we need individuals with a fair degree of narcissism and mania to undertake such huge gambles in our civilisation and culture?
Indeed, it could be argued that Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, had good amounts of narcissism and mania. Otherwise, how would he be able to have written so many books? How would he be able to spread his revolutionary new ideas? How would he have been able to bring up six children? And how would he have been able to have dealt with his unpopularity? Mr. Musk has crashed a fair few rockets and many cars.
It seems to me his latest venture is perhaps the most complicated. Psychotherapists have spent a lot of time thinking about free speech. People consult therapists so that they can say what they really think. Outside they may have to put on a front to their family, employer or society; but in the consulting room, they can speak freely.
Freud started off with hypnosis to get his patients talking. Maybe he even put his hand on their forehead. Then he asked them to lie on a comfortable couch while he sat behind them. He created a private and confidential space which made it easier for them to speak freely. His consulting room was full of rugs and ornaments. Patients had a positive transference to him and this made them less inhibited. His dog would sit by his feet and add another dimension to the work. Since then things have changed, but perhaps not a great deal.
Each therapist begins their sessions differently. I wonder if the silent therapist is in the minority. Perhaps, in London at least, the session maybe with some chat, echoing the vibrant activity of the city outside, before the patient really speaks. Some therapists begin with “say whatever is coming into your mind without censoring it”; others may begin with the more ordinary, “so how are you?”
Each analyst has their own character, their own ritual, and it quite possibly changes with each patient. Some people find a receptive and unhurried silence the perfect environment to speak freely; others may find it intimidating and feel they require permission to begin speaking. The point is that most therapists wish to create a dream-like atmosphere, free of inhibition and judgement. Our minds are good at editing, erasing, and distorting our experiences. We may be out of touch with ourselves; we hide things from ourselves and our therapists; we may swerve the truth. Some therapists may point this out; others may proceed cautiously with the concern that any perceived criticism may halt the patients free associations and ability to speak.
It may take days or several years for an individual to speak freely. Perhaps longer term therapy becomes one of the few places left where this is possible. Interestingly, it takes two minds to think our thoughts. The therapist listening allows the patient to think original thoughts.
What happens on Twitter? It allows a type of non-thinking. It allows a type of disassociation, group-think, hatred and violence. In therapy, the therapist's consulting room and mind can act to contain hatred and negative feelings. These can be spoken about and thought about. On Twitter there maybe moderators that seek to censor some of the most vitriolic outpourings. Yet it also seeks to amplify and generate controversy. It seems to generate splits rather than dialogue and depth.
Musk has said he might introduce different levels of Twitter, just like we have film ratings. So users can chose to have adult or safe settings. He has introduced paid verification for users. But he will never really introduce free speech. Twitter is banned in China and he builds his cars there. He needs money and advertisers are controlling what he says.
Leaving these problems aside, the animus filled nature of much communication on Twitter means that while there may be uncensored speech, that is not the same as free speech.
Ajay Khandelwal is a verified Welldoing psychotherapist in London and online