LFC makes three brief but interesting comments on my piece about Kavanaugh’s presentation and what it reveals about him. Here is the first: “I agree w/ certain aspects of the post but I think it's somewhat hazardous to engage in this sort of psychoanalysis-at-a-distance of someone one 'knows' only as filtered through the media reports about his life or through his televised testimony. Hazardous, but not necessarily completely groundless.”
I want to take a moment to push back against the tendency to discount or discourage evaluations of the motives and personalities of others as “armchair psychoanalysis” and hence unwise. [By the way, since psychoanalysts, in my experience, always sit in armchairs, we need some other phrase of disparagement.] As anyone will know who has watched my video lectures on Freud, I insist on the impossibility, even for Freud, of engaging in psychoanalysis at a distance, as it were, so let that be understood as given in what I am now going to say.
Human beings [and many other mammals, as it happens] are constantly observing others, forming judgments about their motivations and probable future behavior, and adjusting what they think and do accordingly. Let me give you several familiar examples.
Every time we get in a car and drive, we engage in on-going observations of and judgments about the other persons driving on the same roads. When I drive from my home to the entry to the nearby Interstate, on my way to RDU airport, there is a stretch of two lane country road on which people routinely drive 50 or 60 miles an hour. That means that the cars in the opposite lane and I are approaching one another at between 100 and 120 mph. My survival depends on making snap judgments about the reliability and probable behavior of people I do not know and will never meet.
When I walk on a busy street in midtown Manhattan, I am walking alongside or counter to people very close to me, and I must make a series of judgments about their probable next steps if I am to avoid bumping into them. At the same time, I am alert to any walkers whose behavior deviates from the norm in ways suggesting that they are mentally disturbed or potentially dangerous. [I am old enough to recall when someone speaking loudly to no one at all was a sure tell. Now, they are probably on their cellphones. It took me a while to adjust to the new reality.] It is of course not just human beings who engage in this sort of ongoing interpretation. As I fanatic viewer of nature shows on TV, I am aware that predators like lions and cheetahs will observe a herd of Impala or Wildebeest and instantly spot the one animal whose slightly abnormal behavior is a sign that it might be injured and hence easier to kill.
When young people go to Singles bars [I am told], they acutely observe their fellow patrons looking for signs that someone might be receptive to a come-on.
And so forth. Interpreting the behavior and divining the motivations of other people is one the principal things we humans do, and natural selection has made us really good at it. So when I observe a wildly deviant bit of behavior like Kavanaugh’s Judiciary Committee testimony, and draw from it conclusions about his character and motivations, I am not engaging in armchair psychoanalysis. I am simply engaging in the oldest human activity: people watching.