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Friday, May 19, 2023

Marjorie Taylor Greene shows her white nationalist cards — again

Marjorie Taylor Greene shows her white nationalist cards — again

“Greene rolls out racist tropes in a desperate bid to paint herself as a victim.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., left, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., argue on the steps of the Capitol after Bowman shouted down Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., who was speaking to reporters following an effort to expel him from the House, in Washington, Wednesday, May 17, 2023. Santos has been charged with embezzling money from his campaign, falsely receiving unemployment funds and lying to Congress about his finances. He has denied the charges and has pleaded not guilty.

I thought MAGA true believer Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., had exhausted her capacity to shock me. But she left me slack-jawed with her latest response to a theatrical feud with Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., in which she accused him of calling her the equivalent of the N-word, described him as physically threatening, and manufactured a new set of lies. Ms. Greene, I’m almost impressed.

The clash began Wednesday evening, when Bowman and fellow progressive firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., reportedly began to heckle Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., on the steps of the U.S. Capitol as he took questions from reporters, calling on him to resign in light of his recent federal indictment. Then Greene began to chant “impeach Biden,” presumably in some kind of bid to divert attention from Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez. (Greene, by the way, introduced articles of impeachment against President Joe Biden on Thursday.) Eventually Bowman and Greene got caught up in an extended back-and-forth during which they chanted at each other in a manner that was less a dialogue than an exchange of miscellaneous talking points. 

“The party’s hanging by a thread!” Bowman repeatedly cried out.

“Impeach Biden!” Greene said in response at one point. 

At another point, Bowman demanded, “No more QAnon,” and Greene replied, “No more CNN.” 

Later Bowman pleaded, “Do something about guns!” Greene retorted, “Right, so close the border!”

If you’re looking for a real point to this exchange, you’re unlikely to find any. Both of them were playing for the cameras, repeatedly smiling as they made a minor scene.

But the next day, Greene’s comments about the exchange with Bowman suggested that something terrible had happened. At a news conference, she said Bowman was “yelling, shouting, raising his voice, he was aggressive, his physical mannerisms are aggressive,” and she added that “I feel threatened by him.”

However, video of the incident exposes Greene’s insincerity: Both of them were speaking at roughly the same volume, chanting, at times even playful. Was Bowman heckling her? Yes. Was he being annoying? Yes. Was he behaving aggressively toward her or trying to physically intimidate her? No.

During her conference, Greene claimed Bowman had a “history” of aggression toward her, but the main example she cited was Bowman allegedly leading a “mob” to chase her out of a New York rally where she spoke on behalf of former President Donald Trump the day he was arraigned in Manhattan in April. I was reporting at that rally, and I can attest to how absurd Greene’s claim is. Greene wasn’t chased by a dangerous mob; she was simply taunted by counterprotesters who drowned out her extremely poorly attended speech. And Bowman was not leading the counterprotesters, who arrived well before him and stayed after him; he was simply following behind her as she got in her car to leave. Video of Greene’s departure does not show him behaving aggressively or inappropriately toward her.

It should not go unnoticed that Greene’s exaggeration of the “threatening” nature of Bowman is racialized. There is, of course, a long history of painting people of color, and Black people in particular, as dangerous as a pretext for visiting violence upon them or dehumanizing them.

At the news conference, Greene also made this amazing statement: “I will tell you what’s on video is Jamaal Bowman shouting at the top of his lungs, cursing, calling me a horrible — calling me a white supremacist, which I take great offense to,” she said. “That’s like calling a person of color the N-word, which should never happen. Calling me a white supremacist is equal to that. That is wrong.”

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It’s not clear what Greene is referring to, but there is video showing that after Greene left her disastrous Manhattan rally, Bowman told reporters that he condemned “any rhetoric that uplifts white supremacy.”

It should be obvious why Greene's comparison is offensive. The N-word is the most heinous slur in American English, the ultimate linguistic symbol of white domination of Black Americans that has no equivalent because there is no comparable history in this country of any other group of people being systematically treated as property, as subhuman, as an underclass for exploitation and undeserving of rights. And the reason it remains so potent today is that racial prejudice and vast racial inequality still prevail across the nation.

By contrast, “white supremacist” is not a slur but a descriptive term. It certainly can be abused to tar someone’s character or make false accusations, but it does not carry the weight or venom of any racial slur, let alone the most abominable one that exists. Moreover, Bowman’s condemnation of rhetoric that “uplifts white supremacy” was fair, considering that Greene has a documented history of subscribing to antisemitic conspiracy theories, associating with Holocaust-denying white nationalists like Nick Fuentes, and is one of the most prominent Trump-aligned politicians in the country. 

If Greene wanted to say she found Bowman annoying, she could’ve said that. Instead in her desperation to portray herself as the victim of a nonincident, she showed her white nationalist cards.”

A.I. Is Getting Better at Mind-Reading

A.I. Is Getting Better at Mind-Reading

“In a recent experiment, researchers used large language models to translate brain activity into words.

Scientists recorded M.R.I. data from three participants as they listened to 16 hours of narrative stories to train the model to map between brain activity and semantic features that captured the meanings of certain phrases and the associated brain response.Jerry Tang and Alexander Huth

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Think of the words whirling around in your head: that tasteless joke you wisely kept to yourself at dinner; your unvoiced impression of your best friend’s new partner. Now imagine that someone could listen in.

On Monday, scientists from the University of Texas, Austin, made another step in that direction. In a study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the researchers described an A.I. that could translate the private thoughts of human subjects by analyzing fMRI scans, which measure the flow of blood to different regions in the brain.

Already, researchers have developed language-decoding methods to pick up the attempted speech of people who have lost the ability to speak, and to allow paralyzed people to write while just thinking of writing. But the new language decoder is one of the first to not rely on implants. In the study, it was able to turn a person’s imagined speech into actual speech and, when subjects were shown silent films, it could generate relatively accurate descriptions of what was happening onscreen.

“This isn’t just a language stimulus,” said Alexander Huth, a neuroscientist at the university who helped lead the research. “We’re getting at meaning, something about the idea of what’s happening. And the fact that that’s possible is very exciting.”

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The study centered on three participants, who came to Dr. Huth’s lab for 16 hours over several days to listen to “The Moth” and other narrative podcasts. As they listened, an fMRI scanner recorded the blood oxygenation levels in parts of their brains. The researchers then used a large language model to match patterns in the brain activity to the words and phrases that the participants had heard.

A New Generation of Chatbots

A brave new world. A new crop of chatbots powered by artificial intelligence has ignited a scramble to determine whether the technology could upend the economics of the internet, turning today’s powerhouses into has-beens and creating the industry’s next giants. Here are the bots to know:

Large language models like OpenAI’s GPT-4 and Google’s Bard are trained on vast amounts of writing to predict the next word in a sentence or phrase. In the process, the models create maps indicating how words relate to one another. A few years ago, Dr. Huth noticed that particular pieces of these maps — so-called context embeddings, which capture the semantic features, or meanings, of phrases — could be used to predict how the brain lights up in response to language.

In a basic sense, said Shinji Nishimoto, a neuroscientist at Osaka University who was not involved in the research, “brain activity is a kind of encrypted signal, and language models provide ways to decipher it.”

In their study, Dr. Huth and his colleagues effectively reversed the process, using another A.I. to translate the participant’s fMRI images into words and phrases. The researchers tested the decoder by having the participants listen to new recordings, then seeing how closely the translation matched the actual transcript.

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Almost every word was out of place in the decoded script, but the meaning of the passage was regularly preserved. Essentially, the decoders were paraphrasing.

Original transcript: “I got up from the air mattress and pressed my face against the glass of the bedroom window expecting to see eyes staring back at me but instead only finding darkness.”

Decoded from brain activity: “I just continued to walk up to the window and open the glass I stood on my toes and peered out I didn’t see anything and looked up again I saw nothing.”

While under the fMRI scan, the participants were also asked to silently imagine telling a story; afterward, they repeated the story aloud, for reference. Here, too, the decoding model captured the gist of the unspoken version.

Participant’s version: “Look for a message from my wife saying that she had changed her mind and that she was coming back.”

Decoded version: “To see her for some reason I thought she would come to me and say she misses me.”

Finally the subjects watched a brief, silent animated movie, again while undergoing an fMRI scan. By analyzing their brain activity, the language model could decode a rough synopsis of what they were viewing — maybe their internal description of what they were viewing.

A decoded segment from brain recordings collected while a user watched a clip from the movie Sintel without sound. The decoder captured the gist of the scene.Jerry Tang and Alexander Huth, Blender Foundation

The result suggests that the A.I. decoder was capturing not just words but also meaning. “Language perception is an externally driven process, while imagination is an active internal process,” Dr. Nishimoto said. “And the authors showed that the brain uses common representations across these processes.”

Greta Tuckute, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was not involved in the research, said that was “the high-level question.”

“Can we decode meaning from the brain?” she continued. “In some ways they show that, yes, we can.”

This language-decoding method had limitations, Dr. Huth and his colleagues noted. For one, fMRI scanners are bulky and expensive. Moreover, training the model is a long, tedious process, and to be effective it must be done on individuals. When the researchers tried to use a decoder trained on one person to read the brain activity of another, it failed, suggesting that every brain has unique ways of representing meaning.

Participants were also able to shield their internal monologues, throwing off the decoder by thinking of other things. A.I. might be able to read our minds, but for now it will have to read them one at a time, and with our permission.“

Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent Signal First Steps in Bumpy Recovery - The New York Times

China’s Tech Giants Signal the First Steps in a Bumpy Recovery

"The economy is open again, helping Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent claw back in the first quarter from a miserable 2022, though they will likely face continuing skepticism from investors.

A Baidu AI robot at the company’s headquarters in Beijing in 2021.
Florence Lo/Reuters

Eight months ago, the future of China’s largest internet companies looked grim. Covid-era lockdowns crushed sales and Beijing’s harsh tech regulations had spooked even audacious China investors. Shares of Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent dropped to some of their lowest levels in several years.

With China’s economy now reopen, the tech giants this week released earnings reports that showed initial signs of recovery. But the financial results, the first issued since the end of “zero Covid” restrictions, also reflected the uneven pace of China’s economic rebound and signaled that the companies’ makeovers, while underway, are likely to be rocky.

Baidu, China’s leading internet search business, and Tencent, owner of the ubiquitous messaging app WeChat, both recorded double-digit revenue growth in the first three months of the year over the same period in 2022, marking the first time in over a year they had reached that level.

Revenue rose 10 percent at Baidu, which said on Tuesday that strong digital advertising sales had continued into the current quarter. Tencent on Wednesday attributed its 11 percent revenue climb in part to a rebound in digital payments as Chinese consumers began to spend money again after a long dry spell. Tencent, China’s dominant video game company, also benefited from easing restrictions on gaming licenses last year after a nine-month freeze.

On Thursday, Alibaba reported that revenue rose 2 percent compared to the year prior, below analyst estimates. Its core online e-commerce division and cloud computing unit reported sales declines in the single digits, though online shopping began to rebound in March, the company said.

The reports followed a turbulent two years for tech companies under Beijing’s tight regulatory grip. After Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma, criticized financial regulators in 2020 for stifling innovation, officials halted the public offering of Ant Group, a financial technology company built by Mr. Ma.

Qilai Shen for The New York Times

In January, a month after China abruptly reversed its “zero Covid” restrictions under public pressure, a top official at China’s central bank said the campaign against tech companies was “basically complete.” China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, is now hoping the country’s tech industry can provide a lifeline for growth. And spurred by an escalating tech competition with the United States, China is eager to nurture its beleaguered titans back to life.

“The worst time policy-wise for them is over,” said Tian Hou, the founder of TH Data Capital, a data analytics company in Beijing. “The government now wants to use these internet companies to create more jobs, innovate, and catch up with the United States.”

The initial investor reaction to the companies’ first quarter results was muted. Shares of Baidu and Tencent were roughly flat this week in Hong Kong, though both have rallied since October. Alibaba’s stock fell roughly 6 percent on Friday, but was down about 2 percent for the week.

The companies’ fortunes will remain tied to China’s economy. Local governments are saddled in debt. The property sector, long a stimulant of growth, is sputtering. Data released by China’s National Bureau of Statistics for April underwhelmed analysts: Chinese were spending more on food, but appeared to avoid items like cosmetics and cars. Youth unemployment reached a record of 20.4 percent.

“People are going out on holiday, but they’re not spending compared to prepandemic levels,” said Bruce Pang, chief economist for Greater China at Jones Lang LaSalle, the global real estate and investment advisory firm. “They’re cautious because they have low confidence in job prospects and future sources of income.”

Qilai Shen for The New York Times

Alibaba is in the midst of a dramatic overhaul. It announced a major reorganization in March that split the company into six units. And this week it announced a spinoff of its prized cloud division, which the company said would be completed within 12 months to prepare for a public listing. The e-commerce giant also said it is exploring a public offering for its grocery chain and logistics arm, after a series of regulatory probes held up many promising tech firms from going public.

The breakup of Alibaba, one of China’s most iconic corporate empires, showcases the level of reassessment happening in the tech sector. For years, China’s internet firms swelled as millions of Chinese went online. Recently, that migration has reached a ceiling, and companies are competing intensely for the same customers.

All three of China’s big internet companies are hoping to tell investors a new story, one pegged to artificial intelligence, the new technology underlying services like ChatGPT that are promising to unseat old ways of doing business.

Daniel Zhang, the Alibaba chairman who will also serve as chief executive of Alibaba’s soon-to-be independent cloud unit, described A.I. as a technology that will “reshape every aspect of our society.”

The companies are hoping that investments in artificial intelligence will pay off for their cloud computing units, a technology that underpins A.I. services. Baidu said its A.I. cloud division reported its first profit last quarter.

Earlier this year, Baidu and Alibaba unveiled artificial intelligence systems similar to ChatGPT, which was developed by the Silicon Valley research lab OpenAI. Baidu said it had requested approval for the go-ahead after China’s cyberspace watchdog released guidelines for the A.I. systems in April.

Tencent has made “good progress” on its own A.I. model, the company said on Wednesday, with teams planning new A.I. offerings, though it did not elaborate further. 

The companies are focusing their A.I. services on enterprises or businesses — in part because chatbots with mass appeal could disrupt China’s firm hold on information. Alibaba and Baidu each said that more than 100,000 enterprises had lined up to try their artificial intelligence products.

Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent are engaged in makeovers at a difficult time. Beijing’s grip on the economy is tighter than ever. Intensified rivalries with the United States have deprived Chinese companies of the access to some cutting edge microchips necessary to develop the most advanced artificial intelligence systems. And analysts say that a lucrative pool of domestic customers — China’s state-owned enterprises — are spurning private cloud-computing providers in favor of government-backed alternatives.

Recently, U.S. officials have called for a review of Chinese cloud providers such as Alibaba on national security grounds. Alibaba said Thursday that its cloud business declined last quarter in part because a major customer had backed out of its international service for “non-product reasons.”

Those difficulties, both in China and abroad, are keeping some investors away, knowing that the internet companies are not likely to return to the growth rates they had a decade prior. Others think they deserve a second look.

“I would suggest to forget the past,” said Kenny Wen, head of investment strategy at the asset management company KGI Asia in Hong Kong. “Now they are coming back and we’re seeing gradual improvement. We need to give them a new evaluation standard.”

Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent Signal First Steps in Bumpy Recovery - The New York Times

Opinion | Vivek Ramaswamy Is the Latest in a Line of Politically Problematic Tech Bros - The New York Times

Vivek Ramaswamy Is the Latest in a Line of Politically Problematic Tech Bros

Vivek Ramaswamy speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 3, 2023.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

"Here’s a question that vexes me: Why does it seem that so many men who have been successful in the tech sphere and then waded into politics prove so problematic on issues of diversity and equity?

Vivek Ramaswamy, a hedge fund analyst turned biotech executive, is the fifth-ranked candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, going by the Real Clear Politics polling average. But he makes up for his modest numbers in exposure — announcing his candidacy in a Wall Street Journal opinion essay, pandering to the National Rifle Association at its convention and making the cable news rounds. He’s also the author of several books, including “Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam” and “Nation of Victims: Identity Politics, the Death of Merit and the Path Back to Excellence,” and ‌has largely staked his campaign‌ on anti-wokeness.

Ramaswamy has tried cozying up to ‌Donald Trump — who leads Republican primary polls by a wide margin — including by saying in February that he doubted he’d wind up as one of the targets of Trump’s trademark vitriol “because we’re friends. I think we have a deep, mutual respect for one another. We’re both energetic people.” And many of Ramaswamy’s views aren’t far from those of Gov. Ron De‌Santis‌ — who is polling a distant second behind Trump and is another anti-woke crusader.

When he began his campaign, Ramaswamy tweeted: “We’re in the middle of a national identity crisis. Faith, patriotism & hard work have disappeared. Wokeism, climatism & gender ideology have replaced them.” His tweet came with a video that quotes Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech — the only King speech Republicans ever seem to quote.

Ramaswamy has checked many of Republicans’ current ideological boxes, sayinghe wants to “shut down” the F.B.I., declaring “I will end affirmative action in America” and calling for raising the voting age to 25 unless younger voters enroll in the military, work as first responders or pass citizenship tests. So it’s not surprising that he’s quickly become a darling of the right. What initially surprised me, though, was an essay this week in Politico Magazine by the former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang — a lawyer turned tech entrepreneur turned politician — advising Ramaswamy on how to win the Republican nomination.

But after I thought about it for a moment, I realized it’s not that surprising, after all.

I started out admiring Yang. When we met on the set of “Real Time With Bill Maher” in 2019, I was impressed. He had a refreshing way of explaining his policy proposals, particularly the economic ones‌, with clarity and charm. I called him a “futurist among conventionalists and Bolsheviks.”

A few months after dropping out of the race, he voiced qualified support for reparations, telling Time: “This country was built on the backs of slaves, and we owe them a massive debt. And I’m for H.R.-40, the bill that explores what reparations would look like,” a statement that suggested that he understood the centrality of race and racism in American history, regardless of where anyone might come down on the issue of reparations.

But the more he revealed ‌himself, particularly around racial issues, the more ‌‌I was ‌put off: His campaign-trail jokes that ‌‌lean‌ed into the Asian American model minority stereotyp‌‌e — “the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math,” “I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors‌” — caused‌ ‌a lot of Asian Americans‌, and me, to bristle‌.

In the early days of the pandemic, in a ham-handed attempt to address rising anti-Asian hate, Yang wrote, “We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our Americanness in ways we never have before” — as if the problem were Asian Americans failing to prove their Americanness and not vile anti-Asian sentiment.

‌During his run for mayor of New York in 2021, he said, “I moved to Georgia to help win the Senate,” which struck me as trying to give himself too much credit for the electi‌on of two Democratic senators that year — and not enough credit to Georgians who’d worked for years to protect voting rights.

Last year ‌Yang ‌defended the podcaster Joe Rogan for his use of the N-word, tweeting, “I don’t think Joe Rogan is a racist — the man interacts with and works with black people literally all of the time,” before ‌deleting the tweet and apologiz‌‌ing.

‌‌In March on his own podcast, he questioned the Democratic Party’s decision to make South Carolina‌ — ‌a state ‌‌where most ‌Democratic voters are Black‌‌ — ‌the first primary on ‌‌its ‌calendar, suggesting ‌that ‌the move‌ ‌sent this message: “Sorry, rural white Midwesterners, not a priority for the Democratic Party anymore.‌”‌

When you add all of this up, you get the sense that what Yang is offering is a less barbed but still disingenuous platform of anti-wokeness, that now a big part of his brand is downplaying the significance of race.

Why? Was this how he always felt but he was able to hide it when he needed the votes of a diverse Democratic electorate?

Or does it illustrate the way that a type of politician — in this case, tech bros, who often position themselves as apart from career politicians and fancy themselves as forward thinkers — can perpetuate positions on race issues that are dismissive, corrosive and backward?

Ramaswamy and Yang certainly aren’t the only examples. The billionaire Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal and was an early Facebook investor, has been described by The Times as “the right’s would-be kingmaker.” When he spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention, he said: “Now we are told that great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?”

The Republican Party that he has supported cares, and it is engaged in a relentless campaign of anti-trans legislation in states across the country. Thiel is also an author of the 1995 book “The Diversity Myth,” which argued against “the extreme focus on racism.”

At the moment, perhaps the highest-profile political tech bro is Elon Musk, who styled himself as a free-speech champion when he bought Twitter but appears to use the site mostly as a soapbox to make his views explicit. He has tweeted about “owning the libs,” encouraged people to vote Republican in last year’s midterms and mocked shirts with “#StayWoke” printed on them.

Success in the tech sector has lent all of these guys an undeserved gravitas and a gloss as unconventional businessmen. (That, you’ll recall, is part of how we wound up with Trump.)

In the end, though, they’re just pandering to voters who want to wish away the complexities of our nation’s story — those who appear to believe that making America great means condescending to so many who’ve fought, for generations, for equality. As political figures, they’re not innovating. They’re peddling ahistoric drivel."

Opinion | Vivek Ramaswamy Is the Latest in a Line of Politically Problematic Tech Bros - The New York Times

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Microsoft Says New AI Shows Signs of Human Reasoning - The New York Times

I’m a Couples Therapist. Something New Is Happening in Relationships.

"For more and more of Orna Guralnik’s patients, the ideas behind Black Lives Matter and #MeToo are leading to breakthroughs at home.

Orna Guralnik in her office holding a mug and sitting in a chair with her shoes off.
The couples therapist Orna Guralnik at her office in New York City.Dina Litovksy for The New York Times

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One afternoon in 2020, early in the pandemic, I met Syl’violet and Matthew for a virtual session. Young, idealistic, deeply in love, they were also prone to dramatic fights. In this session Syl’violet, a vivacious essayist and spoken-word poet, was trying to describe the ways she felt Matthew, a measured medical student, was trying to control her, in this case by trying to dissuade her from buying a slushy. He thought they should keep to a tight budget until after he became a doctor and achieved financial stability. Then she could have “all the slushies you want later.” Syl’violet found his reasoning maddening, especially since he seemed to imply she was reckless.

On the face of it, the fight seemed insignificant, but then an exchange took place that changed the tenor of the argument, connecting us to the underlying roots of the issue. “I have trouble envisioning that finish line,” Syl’violet exclaimed, tearing up, “because the plan that he’s talking about? My life has always been: The plan never works. You can do all the right things, you can obey all the right rules and get [expletive].” For a moment, Matthew continued to try to reason with her and convince her of his sound financial strategy. “I know that sounds very conceited, cocky,” he said, to which Syl’violet whipped back: “No! It sounds privileged!” She described her family’s relationship to money; they’d had nothing but trauma for generations. Syl’violet resented Matthew’s pride in his plan. “A privileged setting gave you access to all these things,” she said. “You’re taking ownership over it like, ‘I did it according to plan,’ as if, like, if other people did it according to plan, it would work out.”

With the mention of the word “privilege,” Matthew came around to realizing they were talking about forces larger than themselves. Each of them was African American, but he came from a financially stable family; his parents, a firefighter and a bank manager, followed a middle-class trajectory and did well. “Let me rephrase,” Matthew said carefully, signaling to Syl’violet that he could see how his certainty about his future reflected his class background: “I recognize that if it wasn’t for my parents’ credit score, my loans to get — OK — so, I get that.” As the relevance of class and race came into focus, Syl’violet’s rage transformed into deep sorrow, generations of poverty weighing heavily on her. “I cannot stop thinking that we’re going to go bankrupt.” She worried that they might even be evicted. “I wish I could believe what you believe,” she told Matthew. He replied, his voice growing tender: “We have the same life now.” He looked at her, exuding care. “We have to live with the idea, the thinking, the viewpoint, that we’re going to die old together.”

A portrait of a couple on a big blue chair.
Syl’violet and MatthewDina Litovksy for The New York Times

One of the most difficult challenges for couples is getting them to see beyond their own entrenched perspectives, to acknowledge a partner’s radical othernessand appreciate difference and sovereignty. People talk a good game about their efforts, but it’s quite a difficult psychological task. To be truly open to your partner’s experience, you must relinquish your conviction in the righteousness of your own position; this requires humility and the courage to tolerate uncertainty. Coming to see the working of implicit biases on us, grasping that our views are contingent on, let’s say, our gender, class background or skin color, is a humbling lesson. It pushes us beyond assuming sameness, opening up the possibility of seeing our partner’s point of view.

I’ve been working as a psychologist seeing individuals and couples since the mid-1990s, and in the past eight years, I’ve witnessed a tremendous change in the kinds of conversations couples can have. Not long ago, if I would ask a couple about the ways class or race played out between them, I’d typically be met with an awkward shrug and a change of topic. But recent events have reshaped the national conversation on power, privilege, gender norms, whiteness and systemic racism. Together these ideas have pushed us to think, talk, argue and become aware of the many implicit biases we all carry about our identities, unconscious assumptions that privilege some and inflict harm on others. These insights have also made it easier for people to realize there may be plenty of other unconscious assumptions undergirding their positions. I’ve been surprised and excited by the impact of this new understanding, and it has all made my work as a couples therapist easier.

There has, of course, been ferocious pushback against many of these ideas, claims that they are divisive or exclusionary. #MeToo, B.L.M. and trans rights have been weaponized in service of the culture wars dominating the media. But in my practice, I’ve found that engaging with these progressive movements has led to deep changes in our psyches. My patients, regardless of political affiliation, are incorporating the messages of social movements into the very structure of their being. New words make new thoughts and feelings possible. As a collective we appear to be coming around to the idea that bigger social forces run through us, animating us and pitting us against one another, whatever our conscious intentions. To invert a truism, the political is personal.

Some five years ago I started working on a documentary series called “Couples Therapy,” created by the filmmakers Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg and Eli Despres and airing on Showtime, that chronicles 18 to 20 weeks of therapy with couples who courageously volunteer to have their sessions filmed. (The couples in this essay were filmed for the show, which makes it possible for me to write about them; only some of those who are filmed end up on air.) We are now several seasons in. I was drawn to the project knowing that the directors were committed to an honest, vérité portrayal of therapy, and to looking at the social factors that thread through people’s lives and relationships.

I am also trained as a psychoanalyst. Psychoanalysis is about exploring unconscious motivations behind thoughts or actions. It allows people to gain access to how early experiences — vicissitudes of attachment and trauma — have shaped them, and to expand their capacity for thought and feeling. For couples, I incorporate systems thinking, a practice that focuses on the system — a couple, say or a family — and interprets how each individual unconsciously behaves in ways that serve the system as a whole.

But what we mean by “unconsciously” is an ongoing debate. Freud was known in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for his singular focus on the private, interior world. In particular, he wrote about the epic battle between unconscious drives and forces of civilization. Traditional psychoanalysis has mostly focused on early scenes between the young and their caregivers as shaping the psyche, leaving the sociopolitical context to other disciplines. I am of a later theoretical school that, rather than seeing civilization in conflict with the self, sees the social contract, our relationship to the collectives we belong to, as nested in the deepest corners of our unconscious. For me, psychoanalytic exploration is just as much about our deep ethical dilemmas regarding how to live with one another, and our environment, as it is about early family dramas; my patients’ repressed experiences with the ghosts of their country’s history are as interesting as with their mothers.

Over the years, I’ve come to see that one of the most pernicious issues couples struggle with is working through wrongdoing and blame. The claim “You hurt me” often sends couples spiraling. People want to feel like good and lovable beings; their intentions make perfect sense to themselves, and they hate being interpreted as selfish. In psychoanalytic jargon we often say, “No one likes being the ‘bad object.’” In fact, there are few things people resist more than being held responsible for causing harm. It immediately threatens to overwhelm the “offender” with shame (Am I a bad person?) and guilt (Have I caused irreparable damage? Should I be punished?). Yet serious hurt that goes unacknowledged leads to the accumulation of resentment and a deadening of the relationship.

Our ongoing national conversations about systemic biases have made it easier for couples to acknowledge wrongdoings by easing people into the idea of unconscious complicity. Accepting that you are part of a complex social system and implicated in its biases no matter what you tell yourself can also help you accept that in other aspects of your life, you are partly governed by unconscious forces you do not necessarily recognize. In Freudian terms, the ego is not a master in its own house. In other words, to know if you’ve caused harm, it is not enough to ask yourself, “Did I intend to hurt the other?”; you may need to listen to the feedback of others. These insights can have ripple effects beyond an awareness of specific biases, becoming relevant in many aspects of our lives — in our relationships with partners or children, in reviewing our life history. As my friend Nick described it: “Everything about me was raised to believe I am not racist or privileged, but in recent years I realize how easy certain things have always been for me simply because I’m white. I am humbled. And that has changed the way Rebecca and I talk with each other.”

One of the most difficult challenges for couples is getting them to see beyond their own entrenched perspectives, to acknowledge a partner’s radical otherness.

A shift in our vocabularies has also played a role. Language tends to evolve to better accommodate experiences of the dominant social group, leaving other experiences obscured from collective understanding, and thus silently perpetuating bias and harm. When these gaps are filled by new concepts, social change can follow. The expanding lexicon around bias and privilege includes terms like “white fragility” or “white tears,” referring to white people’s defensive refusal to fully engage with accountability; other phrases like “virtue signaling,” being “a Karen” or “performative allyship” underline the difference between honest and fake engagement with questions of ethics, morality and responsibility. These terms have implications beyond race, and I’ve seen them work their way into the therapy room. They’ve helped couples see the difference between the wish to receive forgiveness and assurance of your goodness and actual concern for the one you offended. Analysts call this distinction the difference between guilt and guiltiness. Guilt entails feeling bad for having harmed another; guiltiness is the preoccupation with yourself — whether you are or aren’t guilty. This preoccupation is all about warding off shame, which blocks concern for others.

Questions of guilt hovered over another couple I worked with. He had recently cheated on his wife. They were generally deeply supportive of each other, but after she found out about his transgression, she was terribly upset and also confused. Their attempts to talk about what happened were halting. #MeToo rhetoric was woven into their discussions, functioning as a superego, shaping and inhibiting what they could even think. She said that she felt that the lessons of the movement were telling her not to forgive but to leave him — “Especially now, if a woman is being wronged, you get out.” It was hard for her to know how she actually felt about it all. Early on, he couldn’t separate remorse from fear. He was terrified of getting into trouble, and guiltiness prevailed. His voice was hushed while he scrutinized me intently, worried about how he would be perceived: “There are a lot of men in this business right now who have taken positions of power and use them to have sex with people.”

They were both white and understood their privilege and were apologetic about it. She often undid her own complaints — “I levitate out” — by having the thought, “Oh, poor cis white woman.” He was uncomfortable, too. He talked about reading the news “about another Black or brown person being killed. And it’s just like I feel a little — well, I feel guilty, to be honest, to be sitting here.” The lessons of the Black Lives Matter movement initially can provoke such paralyzing guilt and shame that people become defensive and stop fully thinking. Yet over time, I’ve found, the ideas can inspire deep psychological work, pushing people to reckon with the harm that has been done, the question of whom should be implicated, and the difference between virtue signaling and deeper concerns. These are tough and important lessons that can carry over into intimate relationships. In this case, the husband described a new understanding about the ways he exercised power at work: “Hold on. Have I been an ally? Has it just been optics?” These insights extended even to his way of speaking about his transgression. He had been rationalizing his behavior by saying that his wife was not giving him the attention he needed. But moving beyond what the couple called “optics,” now he was asking himself for a more thorough accounting of what his cheating was really about, and how it affected his wife. He explained how lonely he was if she traveled; he felt left behind and discarded, a feeling deeply familiar to him from early childhood. Acknowledging his vulnerability was hard for him, but it opened up a series of honest conversations between them. “I convinced myself she does not desire me,” he said. “I’m not the popular guy. I’m not the strong guy.” He linked those feelings to insecurities he felt as a teenager, when he suffered chronic teasing from kids at school for being perceived as effeminate.

This new, nondefensive way of talking made it possible for her to understand how his transgression hit her where she felt most insecure, and he could see it, generating remorse and forgiveness between them. She described how it had become easier for both of them to “check” themselves for their impact on the other person, and quickly “notice or apologize.” In one session she said, smiling: “You were a jerk to me yesterday, and then you apologized a couple hours later. You recognized that you took out your frustration there on me because I was an easy target.” He realized that he stopped skimming over ways he caused others pain: “I actually was just thinking therapy and the Black Lives Matter movement have made me keenly aware of the words that just came out of my mouth, and the understanding that she reacted adversely to that, instead of me just going, ‘We move on, because that’s awkward.’ There’s a need now to address it.” He continued: “ ‘Did I just upset you? What did I do to just upset you?’”

Couples work always goes back to the challenge of otherness. Differences can show up around philosophical questions like what is important to devote a life to, or whether it is ethical to have babies with a climate crisis looming; or it can be closer to home, like whether having a sexual fantasy about a person who is not your partner is acceptable; or even as seemingly trivial as the correct way to load a dishwasher. Whatever the issue, differences can become a point of crisis in the relationship. Immediately the question of who is right, who gets their way or who has a better handle on reality pops up. Narcissistic vulnerabilities about self-worth appear, which then trigger an impulse to devalue the other. Partners try to resolve such impasses by digging in and working hard to convince the other of their own position, becoming further polarized.

The challenge of otherness may be easiest to see when we think of racial differences. This was certainly true for James and Michelle. Michelle was a calm, gentle, somewhat reserved African American social worker, and James, at the time a police officer, was a slight, wiry white man whose face did not reveal much feeling. They came in with classic conflicts around division of labor and differing parenting styles, and then the pandemic hit. Quarantined, working remotely and home-schooling their 3-year-old son, they started fighting about Covid protocols. Michelle was aware of the way that Covid was devastating Black communities and wanted to be careful. James, along with his fellow police officers and his conservative parents, thought the concern was overblown. Discussion about how race shaped James and Michelle’s experiences and ideas routinely dead-ended. If Michelle tried to bring up the topic, James would insist, “I don’t see color,” and say he didn’t know what she was talking about. In our sessions, Michelle sounded hopeless: She wanted him to understand how traumatizing Covid had been for Black people. But she was frustrated by his inability to acknowledge real difference, as if everyone was the same race. “He’s of the mind-set that ‘I don’t see color.’” She continued setting out his thinking: “ ‘I don’t want to hear what you have to say because that’s not how I think.’” That point of view “obviously angers me,” she said. James would shrug, expressionless. Michelle was describing the infuriating experience of trying to break through a barrier: Her husband wasn’t consciously aware that whiteness was a perspective that was constricting what he could imagine or comprehend.

After George Floyd was murdered and protests of all kinds erupted across the country, the dynamic between James and Michelle started to shift. Psychoanalysts are often interested in people’s fantasies, the scenarios running under the hood of conscious thought that express hidden desires and fears. When I asked James and Michelle about theirs, they shared apocalyptic ones: Each was imagining a full-on race war. Michelle imagined loss of all contact and trust between Black people and white people. James, who seemed uncharacteristically tense, saw himself on one side of a divide and was envisioning an “all-out physical combat.” “With whom?” I asked. “With anybody outside of this household. Anybody that tries to come and take anything from us because they’re struggling to survive and they start looting to feed their family, they’re now coming to my house.” Yet over time, as the conversation about Black lives continued, his own identifications became more complex and nuanced. He still felt loyalty to his fellow police officers and his conservative family, but he became aware that those feelings were now in tension with Michelle’s beliefs and what he was witnessing on the news about police violence against Black men and loud public demand for police reform.

A portrait of a couple on a chair. Their son is lying on the floor.
Michelle and James with their son.Dina Litovksy for The New York Times

James’s changing internal landscape was reflected in his clear distress about “the all-out chaos that a large conflict can bring if we’re further divided in this country. You wouldn’t know who to trust from place to place.” Not knowing whom to trust also meant he could no longer trust his old belief system — in which it was clear who was “good” and who was “bad.” This disruption was creating new concerns and fantasies. Rather than fearing looters, he now feared polarization: “Michelle might be able to seek refuge somewhere where I might get shunned, or vice versa.” He was terrified that they wouldn’t be able to keep their young child safe.

Interestingly, engaging with the question of systemic racism did not polarize Michelle and James but rather helped them do the important psychological work that I doubt I, as their therapist, could have inspired in them on my own. Something began to shift inside James, and he was no longer assuming sameness. He was no longer imposing his version of reality on Michelle, but rather “mentalizing” — understanding his and her mental states as separate and different subjective experiences: thoughts, feelings, beliefs and desires. In a meaningful moment he said, “I know it hits her harder than it does me.” I was moved to hear James plainly state: “We can never truly know what each other goes through because we’re not each other. So all we can do is be in as much understanding as possible.” He also recognized that he felt less defensive, “because she’s not directly attacking me.” And he saw a way for the two of them to remain connected, despite their difference. “We could get into a debate or an argument and be on opposite sides of the spectrum, completely juxtaposed, and manage to come through it and learn something about another perspective.”

Michelle, who often described herself as guarded, also began to drop her defensive posture. She was looking at him fondly, her voice warmer. “These are things that I never really heard him fully articulate, particularly about his insecurities and feeling caught in the middle. That’s helpful for me to hear, because it makes me more conscious and aware of how he’s feeling.” For the first time, they were each entertaining multiple perspectives. Love is ultimately measured by people’s capacity to see and care about the other person as they are; succeeding in this effort is how people in relationships grow.

Dr. Orna Guralnik is a clinical psychologist, a psychoanalyst and an academic who serves on the faculty of the N.Y.U. postdoctoral program in psychoanalysis, teaching a course in identity and politics and psychoanalysis with culture in mind. She is also the therapist on the Showtime documentary series “Couples Therapy.” Her writing centers on the intersection of psychoanalysis, dissociation and cultural studies. Dina Litovsky is a Ukrainian-born photographer who moved to New York in 1991. In 2020, she won the Nannen Prize, Germany’s foremost award for documentary photography.

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