Listen to this article
I suspect many of us have experienced something like the following scenario from one side or the other: a friend suggests you are attracted to someone; you deny it forcefully. They take this as a confirmation of the feelings they’re attributing to you: with a knowing smile, they say, “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” You express even stronger denials, thus providing them with even more evidence that they’re right in believing you’re denying your true feelings. You can’t win.
We may or may not believe in the tenets of psychoanalysis but most of us are implicitly Freudian: quick to attribute unconscious motives and interpret denial as evidence that we’ve got it right – “Oh, I touched a nerve there!” In Freudian thought, a defence mechanism is the ego’s way of coping with anxiety-provoking feelings and desires, in this case by unconsciously reversing them. So aggression cloaks itself as affection, attraction as hostility and so on.
Let us not get involved with the logic of this. And let us acknowledge that there may be some truth to such defence mechanisms. But surely this kind of interpretation is far overused, and we are simply wrong in believing that an exaggerated reaction by itself proves the existence of the opposite feeling.
In this case it may indeed be true that you’re failing to acknowledge a feeling that is lurking outside your consciousness. But there may be other reasons for having a strong reaction to the suggested unconscious desire: you could feel generally uncomfortable about your own attractiveness and romantic potential, for instance, or you might just find the idea ridiculous.
Besides, you’re quite entitled to feel infuriated at the knowing smirk and suggestion that you’re protesting too much, as this means that the other person is completely ignoring your point of view instead of engaging with it.
Your exaggerated reaction is bound to say something about your experience of yourself and the world. But it’s not clear from your denial what that something is, and unwise for anyone to assume they know without further inquiries.
Rational argument is difficult. To refute a position you disagree with requires careful reasoning and the marshalling of evidence. That is too much like hard work for many, who use the word “refute” simply to mean “reject”, as though a sweep of the hand is argument enough.
Should bold rejection not be enough, there is a rhetorical ploy you can use when, through laziness or lack of intellectual firepower, you cannot come up with a good counter-argument: make the debate about the motivations of your interlocutor, rather than the substance of her argument. This works best if the drives you identify are said to be unconscious. That way, when she claims your objection is beside the point, she will look defensive and evasive, even though it’s you who has neatly avoided the central issues. After all, everyone knows the lady doth protest too much.
This way of “psychologising” a debate comes in many forms. Recently, for example, someone criticised something I had written on the basis that I was just trying to be controversial, as though this stranger could glean my deepest motivations. Accusing the speaker of “just” being controversial is a neat way of sidestepping the heart of the dispute.
Another form of psychologising is to discount an opinion because “he would say that”. While it is true that you should be wary of the views of a brewer on alcohol taxes, it would clearly be ridiculous to dismiss the views of Christians on religion, social democrats on the economy or head teachers on education. That people’s opinions tend to cohere with their life and thought is neither surprising nor suspicious.
Of course, often beliefs and arguments are motivated by desires and interests that distort reasoning. But if that is indeed the case, the distortions should be made manifest by weaknesses in the argument. Address the argument, not the arguer, is a fundamental principle of rational debate. Any protest against that is too much – but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published