Friday, May 12, 2017

The Psychology of Tyranny

Contemporary culture is doomed as long as it ignores the realities of the unconscious.  As outlined by Jung, the theory of the unconscious was a major advancement in human civilization, a potent tool for making true progress, and we've thrown it away.  It's as if a few years after its discovery, electricity was discarded.  All the mechanistic and reductionist substitutes from neuroscience, behavioral psychology and computer sciences won't cut it.   This arrogance is our undoing.

Deep in the unconscious is a social need for the group to nurture and protect and define the individual.  Also for the group to partially but powerfully define itself in contrast to other groups.  All that is virtuous becomes the property of your group, and all that is evil defines the other.

In the 1950s Jung applied this analysis to the Cold War.  There were differences and conflicts between the West and the Soviets that were real, with real consequences.  But each side exaggerated an evil cartoon portrait of the other in order to get the public support necessary to spend resources on arms and related activities of defense and aggression.  The power of the unconscious was engaged.

Now the spell of the Cold War is over.  The thermonuclear weapons still exist, and the missiles to deliver them, and the political conflicts still exist, though all at a somewhat smaller scale.  But it's the spell that has been broken, to such an extent that the real political threat, a potentially existential political threat, of Russia interfering in US election processes and perhaps burrowing within the White House, does not evoke the frenzied reaction it would have decades ago.  The opposite appears to be true.  It barely seems to register as a threat at all.

But back then, it was potent far beyond conscious control.  The US and the West demonized the Soviets, and anything that could be labeled communistic.  "It is the face of his own evil shadow that grins at Western man from the other side of the Iron Curtain," Jung wrote in "Approaching the Unconscious," his contribution to a book of essays meant for the general public that was published a few years after his death in 1964, titled Man and His Symbols.

That specific enmity is apparently over, but in the US it has largely been replaced by an internal one.  It goes by the name of "polarization" of political parties, but it is much deeper and more profound.  Especially reflected in the 2016 election, it has become a divide as psychologically, culturally and politically profound as the US v. the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

One potent example: neither side believes anything that the other side says.  And that extends to previously common media forms and outlets, as well as previous sources of authority such as academic experts and scientists. The standards that used to apply to judging accuracy and credibility are irrelevant, perhaps even more cartoonishly than in the Cold War.

In fact I can't get the image of living in a cartoon world out of my mind.  Perhaps we are that much less literate or that much more ignorant.  But the defining role of the unconscious seems like a very large component.

This all applies to the situation we and the whole USA find ourselves in this moment.  It's all evident in two pieces that appeared today.  One is a an opinion piece titled "GOP's choice: Love America or Back Trump."  The premise has to do with the kind of norms common to both parties in the past, and eventually operational in the Watergate crisis, derived from the Constitution, written and traditional law and standards.  All are at the very foundation of our Republic, our culture, our self-defined nation. That's what the author means by "love America." But it is not yet clear that these norms are accepted or seen the same way by leaders and members of both parties anymore, either institutionally or among voters.

The other piece delineates the consequences of this extreme polarization in the current Constitutional crisis.  Philip Bump in the Washington Post hauls out the statistics to show that while the current White House regime has historically low poll numbers overall, it is fully supported by 84% of Republicans.

According to this analysis, the White House incumbent's support and the overall R support for their own party are just about the same, and they are replicated in virtually every answer to questions on policy as well as overall approval.

The numbers suggest a potentially terrifying thought: that the already extreme R party has become a party that identifies with our apprentice dictator, especially as the media outlets that Rs believe are credible remain loyal to him.

He has taken the reigns of the unconscious, and with them he might yet become the complete dictator.  Bump writes that without a significant drop in R party loyalty to him, there is no political motivation for R officeholders to hold him accountable for high crimes and misdemeanors, or even to risk investigations.

Democratic voters do not possess all virtue, and must be careful to spot their own shadow in their portrayals of Republicans.  President Obama said as much the other day: "At such moments, we need courage to stand up to hate not just in others but in ourselves. At such moments, we need the courage to stand up to dogma not just in others but in ourselves."

This point, easily dismissed as cliched or wishy-washy, is actually a profound warning about the power of the unconscious.  But neither does this or anything else said here imply that the two sides are equally right and wrong.  It is clear that the unconscious in the form of anger, bitterness, envy, fear and hate is in the saddle and rides the Republican party.  If that cannot be overcome, the Republic is in real peril.

1 comment:

Bill Thompson said...

Very thoughtful piece. I posted it on facebook.