07/24/2014 03:19 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2014

Don't Confuse Me With the Facts

In the 1979 movie Annie Hall, Woody Allen brilliantly portrayed the power emotions have over perception. On a split screen, characters Alvy and Annie are simultaneously talking to their psychiatrists:

Alvy Singer's therapist: How often to you sleep together?

Annie Hall's therapist: Do you have sex often?

Alvy Singer: Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.

Annie Hall: Constantly. I'd say three times a week.

The facts are the same; the people experiencing those facts are not. Thus the facts themselves become different.

Of course, the ongoing war between Israel and Palestine is not nearly so funny: lives are lost; families and communities displaced; bilateral paranoid anxieties rise exponentially. And many facts -- of bombardments, tunnels, and numbers killed -- are known. Yet somehow these same facts feel different to different people.

To understand this phenomenon we first must have more basic facts on the table, not hidden from view. For example, Americans have had little access to the large-scale anti-Netanyahu protests ongoing in Israel. We don't get to read about Israeli police attacking protesters who demonstrate against the direction their nation is headed. Other facts, not blocked, get buried in the back pages of our newspapers.

But once we have the facts that there is genuine internal conflict within Israel about whether to bomb Gaza, we can then think about what governs our own reactions. Then we can appreciate the deeper meanings behind the perceptual distortions all around us. For example, Charles Krauthamer of the Washington Post recently (17 July) beat the AIPAC drum so loudly that his term "moral clarity," i.e. Israel good and Palestinians bad, became the mantra du jour -- at least for a few days.

Then, six days later, the UN voted to investigate Israel's Gaza offensive -- a vote opposed only by the US. We said that the investigation didn't take into account Gaza's aerial shelling of Israel and the tunnels it had built, making the probe less balanced. At the same time, the investigation itself avoids immediate accusations against Israel of war crimes.

That there was only one dissenter, however, doesn't mean that truth is with the huge majority. Just remember that only one person out of 535 legislators voted against authorizing the use of our military against "those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States" just after 9/11. Barbara Lee was concerned that there was no clear requirement of what facts were necessary to justify using force. Little did she know then that her fears would come true, that numerous false claims would justify invading Iraq eighteen months later.

One's point of view matters only a little less than does having as much information as possible: they both matter. In my psychoanalytic practice, for example, most patents seem to have different mothers every year or so. They learn different things about themselves as well as about their perceptions of their parents. Some people, for example, hate their fathers and refuse to see anything positive about them because it disturbs their comfortable worldview -- attitudes cultivated over years. One has such views in order to cope with the inexplicable, with disappointments, with yearnings, with fears -- with so many different experiences and emotions. In therapy we re-write our personal histories based on new information, on new points of view.

The same is true in how we approach foreign policy, where different points of view change what would otherwise be facts agreed upon. Several years ago I attended a meeting of psychoanalysts to promote peace in the Middle East. Those who proposed a balanced two-state approach in which both sides took responsibility for compromise were shocked by several Israeli psychoanalysts who considered them one sided. They objected, saying, "Can't you see that by calling yourselves balanced you are totally favoring the Palestinians?" To them, 50-50 meant siding with the enemy, because they saw the truth as really 90-10.

Maybe the late cartoonist Herblock oversimplified things, but somehow I don't think so. At the height of the Cold War, he drew a cartoon of two enraged groups, one with signs "Better Red than Dead" while the other had placards that said "Better Dead than Red." At the bottom of the canyon between those two angry mobs was a child riding a tricycle carrying a flag that read, "Better Alive than Dead."

The unconscious organizes itself to minimize internal conflict, because that can give rise to overwhelming anxiety -- especially when powerful emotions exist in mutual opposition. It is easier to externalize those conflicts by attributing them to the other group or nation. It's so much easier to eschew diplomacy in favor of sanctions and strong-arm attitudes. And these psychic attitudes go beyond normal psychic defenses - they don't aim to minimize internal conflict; they want to eliminate it once and for all.

Claiming moral clarity is a defense in itself, an arrogant use of certainty to avoid really facing facts.