Blog: Institutional responses during the Flint, MI Water Crisis: a Psychoanalytic Understanding

APsaA blog:  from the Task Force on Class and Income Inequality

Institutional responses during the Flint, MI Water Crisis:  a Psychoanalytic Understanding

by Marie Rudden

Psychoanalysts have a considerable amount to offer in understanding the faulty organizational responses to Flint’s water crisis, as our field has a well-developed approach to teasing out unconscious group and organizational processes.

Analysts have long been aware of the kinds of regressions that occur in groups and organizations when their leaders are neither providing adequate structure nor engaging their members in tasks in such a way that they can be realistically accomplished. (Bion,WR. 1961, Shapiro, R. 1991, Kernberg,O.,1998  ). Regressions are seen as irrational behavior that reflects a fantasy uniting the group – a shared fantasy that feels protective to its stability, but that actually detracts from its reasonable functioning.  Bion saw the root of such regressions as stemming from a deep unease in group members in an unstructured or unresponsive setting. Unable to ground themselves in a dialogue with another individual during which they can explain themselves, members fear projections about their actions and what motivates them. If the group has a leader who is not seen as protective, or if the group is challenged or senses that it is failing at its task, members are prone to blame each other , sometimes gossiping or distorting what happened in ways that leave members feeling vulnerable to scapegoating.  A common mode of defense against this danger is for the group or organization to adopt fight or flight attitudes and behaviors, treating outside groups or even some conflicting internal sub-groups as enemies, and thus assuring itself of its own solidity or blamelessness.  Looking at the responses of two agencies, the Michigan Dept of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and the Michigan Dept. of Health and Human Services (MHSS), to the crisis about Flint’s water supply, one can readily see this kind of group regression within the interlocking organizations.

Background:  Flint, MI is a city of 99,000 residents, 40% of whom live below the poverty level, while the rest are largely working class. 56% of the population are African American. In 2014, its finances were transferred to an emergency manager, who moved Flint’s water supply from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River in order to save money. Almost immediately, residents began to complain of foul- appearing and malodorous water, unusual skin rashes and hair loss.  McLaren Flint Hospital stopped using local water to sterilize their surgical instruments, which were becoming corroded, and a GM engine plant also stopped using the water, saying that it was rusting its parts. (New York Times, 1/15/16) In retrospect, it has been established that the river water was corroding the aging pipes of Flint’s water system, causing dangerous levels of lead to leak into its water system.

Institutional Responses and Analysis

Unfortunately, the responses of city and state agencies charged with protecting the safety of Flint’s drinking water were considerably less than adequate- in fact they were primarily concerned with cost-saving rather than with protecting citizens’ water from the start.  Immediately following the switch in water supply, for example, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) failed to follow federal guidelines for establishing corrosion control treatment , instead contending that they could delay corrosion control measures until after two six -month monitoring periods had passed.  This decision was a remarkably short-sighted one, especially as it was known that the water supply pipes in Flint were old and thus subject to corrosive forces, and that Flint River water was far from pristine. As citizens began to complain about their dismal and obvious water quality, they were quickly labelled in emails and memos to the Governor by his aides , acting on information from the MDEQ, as an  “ anti-everything group “,  concerned with “aesthetics” regarding the appearance of their water, rather than with legitimate health issues. (Bosman, Davey, Smith, NY Times 1/20/16  :””As water problems grew, officials belittled complaints from Flint” ). A vivid example of this mindset, coming from within the MDHSS, was found in the experience of Lee Anne Walters, an affected citizen, who called the agency on two occasions in early 2015, the first time to notify them of increased lead levels in her drinking water, the second to discuss the elevated levels of lead in her son’s blood, which was 6.5.  (The CDC lists levels above 5.0 as toxic. ) The state lead poisoning nurse in Lansing reportedly scoffed at her, indicating that the CDC had previously listed levels above 10 as problematic. “He is barely lead poisoned…It is just a few IQ points, it is not the end of the world”. (Siddhartha Roy, Flint Water Study Updates, 12/21/15)

As the crisis continued to unfold, the MDEQ and MDHSS, which had actually gathered data indicating that children’s lead levels were becoming elevated (Flint Water Advisory Task Force, 12/29/2015, Flint Water Study Update, Siddhartha Roy, 12/21/16 ), chose to avoid a searching analysis of their own data, instead explaining it away as an incidental finding. They continued to counter citizens’ complaints as unfounded, and to represent Flint’s water as safe. This occurred despite warnings from the federal EPA, via its representative Miguel Del Toral in February and April 2015, that the state was testing Flint’s water “in a way that could profoundly understate the lead levels.” (Bosman, Davey, Smith, NY Times, 1/20/16)

Information from Flint citizens, from the EPA and eventually from independent researchers (Finger R., Virginia Tech Professor says Flint’s tests for lead in water can’t be trusted, M Live, 9/15/2015; “Flint Doctor Mona Hanna-Attisha on how she fought government denials to expose lead poisoning of city kids”, Independent Global News, 1/15/2016) that should have stimulated a second look at the organizations’ procedures and conclusions were instead repeatedly met by belittling and derision. These are obvious defensive, flight –fight maneuvers, in which members of the 2 different, interlocking organizations, perceiving that a vulnerability in their decision-making process was being potentially exposed, chose to circle the wagons and to see frightened citizens and independent researchers and agency representatives as complainer/enemies. The shared fantasy of being under attack by “the anti-everything group” obscured attention to the actual information they offered and, indeed, to the agencies’ actual mission.

More than a simple fight-flight regression is at work here, however. There are clearly a pre-existing cultural background within these organizations that must have predisposed them to their initial, excessively cost-saving approach, and to this type of defensive regression.

To Bion’s original three kinds of group regressions (fight/flight, excessive dependency on the leader, and pairing- an excited diversion from conflict by fantasizing/gossiping about romantic pairings), Earl Hopper (2003, p71,72) added a fourth kind of regression that he terms aggregation/massification. In this defensive maneuver, organizations manifest a kind of groupthink (Janus,) to ensure their stability. Hopper notes that the style of thinking and language used in such groups becomes predictably frozen, stereotyped, evasive and full of jargon, such as an excessive reliance on technical terms and procedures. For Hopper, this type of regression occurs most often in defensive, top-down, organizations in which individual contributions within the organization are discouraged and belittled, and in which an overriding set of ideas dominates discourse, undermining flexibility and even group reality-testing.

In the case of Flint, the advisory task force established by Michigan governor Snyder (R) pointed out specifically that the office’s “single-minded legalistic focus is the heart of the problem....part of the ‘technical compliance culture’ “ that led it to fail to grasp that its central mission was to protect the public health. In other words, a culture within the state organizations that valorized their own technical procedures, that discouraged independent thinking within their offices, and that focused on legalities lead to their fatal misdirection. This approach seemed to follow, moreover, from other cultural ideas and values that were operative in the DEQ and MDHHS’s modes of functioning. They reflect one side of the considerable tension exists within the current national dialogue between a vision of government as having a central obligation to protect its citizens (a position usually adopted by liberal Democrats) and a vision of an intrusive central government that imposes costly and unnecessary requirements on state and local governments as well as on businesses (a position adopted by Republicans and conservatives). While both stances have merit, the latter position clearly influenced the attitudes of representatives of the involved state agencies, who reacted to CDC and EPA requirements as if they were unnecessary obstacles being imposed by an overbearing bureaucracy.

Hopper, a psychoanalyst who studied and lectured in Sociology at Cambridge University and the London School of Economics, also finds it essential to analyze the particular unconscious social premises shared by members of particular groups that reflect the larger social settings in which they function ( Hopper, 2003,b). Hopper includes in this analysis shared social but often only partially conscious attitudes toward sexuality and toward class, racial and ethnic groups. In dealing with Flint, dehumanizing attitudes toward poor people and African Americans were clearly present.  For example, when Lee Ann Walters was chided by the state’s lead poisoning nurse: “It’s only a few IQ points, it’s not the end of the world…”, it is hard to imagine that racism did not play a part: would an upper class white citizen ever be reproached in this way? Karen Weaver, the new mayor of Flint, elected in November 2015 for her activist approach to the water contamination, herself has said that that “ lead contamination would never have been permitted had Flint been a rich suburb.” (Bosman, Davey and Smith, NYTimes, 1/20/16.)  Disregard for lower class or African American citizens in Flint may have been part of a wider cultural bias that stresses independence and personal achievement, and sees citizens who are in some way dependent on the state for services, even such basic services as clean water, as unnecessarily dependent and hence, in some way intrinsically damaged and at fault themselves. In this regard, Pinchon- Riviere, a Latin American psychoanalyst who considered basic relations of economics and of power to be relegated to the unconscious or only partially conscious awareness in many societies has something to offer. What is repressed, in groups as in individuals, presses for recognition, only to be heavily defended against by various types of myths and fantasies. Here, the needs of normal citizens are fantasized as stemming from a shiftless, greedy dependency rather than from actual need with a basis in history and in economics.