Friday, March 04, 2016

American Authoritarianism and the Shadow

Note: I generally try to avoid getting too political in posts. But I'm really bothered by what I see in the current politics of our country, and the professor in me wants to use this as a moment of reflection--and perhaps instruction.

I teach Classical Mythology from a Jungian perspective. Archetype theory isn’t fashionable with all branches of scholarship, but I have always found it the most useful way of organizing and understanding the symbolic language of myth. In my lectures on the underworld and on the trials of the hero, I always talk about the pseudo-archetype of the Shadow. The Shadow does not represent human evil; it represents those aspects of ourselves that are weaker or less understood. This can include “evil” inclinations; whatever you consciously present to the world, the opposite always has its potential in your psyche, in “shadow”. The key to dealing with the Shadow is confrontation—you have to take a good look at yourself and what you’re afraid of, ashamed of, horrified by, etc. Most of us don’t like to do this; it can be a real ego-downer, and the goal of Shadow work is not to make you depressed or afraid. It’s to make you aware that most of what you’re afraid of exists inside yourself. But again, it is not automatic human nature to do this; most of the time we see the Shadow through projection—it is as though we are in a hall of mirrors. What we see in others that we intensely like or dislike represents usually unconscious qualities in ourselves. It’s good to pay attention to those things, because they tell you a lot about you. We should also not diminish the influence of the Shadow; it can be much scarier than it sounds. The more you acknowledge it as part of you, the less influence it has over you. The more you believe the “devil” is not in you (especially if you think you’re “saved”), the more control the “devil” has over you.

When I discuss the Shadow with my students, I get varied reactions. I have no idea whether most of them “get” it or not. Jungian psychology is difficult for the 18-22 year-old set, unless they’ve had a number of life crises already. Jung himself admits that his psychology is really meant for those “at the middle of life”, which he roughly estimates as age 35. But that doesn’t mean his ideas aren’t relevant to other groups. When I give examples of collective Shadow projection in history, I usually get blank stares; students are removed from the emotional impact of historical catastrophes like the Holocaust. One might “get it” on a superficial level, or translate it to the idea “look at yourself before you blame others”. But now we have a real life example, and we need to pay attention. This is not a drill.

The current Presidential election campaigns have been nothing short of a circus, and most candidates have been acting like clowns. Ultimately, though, this is about the public and not specifically the candidates. There is collective astonishment that this campaign-turned-reality-show is tolerated by intelligent people. This is instructive as to the “Shadow” state of our society. I will point to Trump particularly because he has a segment of voters that demonstrate political extremes. Several articles have come out recently, with this one being the most comprehensive, on the ability to predict Donald Trump’s wins by the authoritarianism of his supporters. This, more than any other factor, has been correlated with his success. But what does it mean to be “authoritarian”? There is a discomfort with change, and a need to control the environment to maintain the status quo by any means necessary. It’s important to note (as the article above does) that supporting Trump doesn’t automatically make someone authoritarian. But one can have an authoritarian response to fear of change. You can look at the appeal of vigilante or “crazy cop” justice movies (Diehard, Lethal Weapon, Deathwish, etc.) or watch heroes killing off zombies with chainsaws to see the emotional response of “blowing away the bad guys”. But as it’s been pointed out, this a really a kind of anti-heroism—the hero goes out to battle, and nothing redeeming has been brought back. You just have a lot of dead (or deader) people. This is Virgil’s subtext in the last books of the Aeneid; unlike the Iliad, you see young boys, barely considered adults, going out to fight and being killed in a senseless bloodbath. War is not glorified in the Aeneid; Virgil writes this at the beginning of the Roman Empire, when Augustus represented a re-established Pax Romana (Roman Peace) after years of brutal civil war.

But even outside the context of war, the authoritarian tendency is one for gaining forceful control over an external event, and the central motivation is fear. Everyone has authoritarian traits, just as everyone has narcissistic traits. If you ask my co-workers, I can be very authoritarian when I feel my department is given the short end of the stick by those outside. When it comes to my own life, I can be very controlling. However, this doesn’t extend to others—everyone should be able to live the life they want, whether they agree with me or not. A couple of other examples—my father has a lot of traits that might be construted as authoritarian; he’s always been staunchly conservative Repbulican, and big on “blowing away the bad guys”. However, my father doesn’t like Trump at all, and when it comes down to it, he adapts to societal change fairly well—he is indifferent to things like gay marriage, for instance. By contrast my mother is someone who fears change, and yet that again applies only to herself and her family; when it comes to the outside world, she is quite liberal, even if she has a hard time accepting certain societal changes. So, while there may be “classic authoritarians”, the amount of authoritarianism displayed is directly related to one’s fear response to a threat. Completely non-authoritarian personalities can act in authoritarian ways. Like all other “Shadow” traits, this doesn’t make someone “evil” or even hateful.

So, how does all this relate? What we are afraid of is, by Jungian definition, ‘“in Shadow”. There is no “one right way” to deal with the Shadow; it depends on your own environment, culture, challenges, strengths, and weaknesses. Nonetheless, if we are going to live in a society that is able to flow with change and give real equality to all its citizens, we have to look at it—you can’t blame others, and there are no simplistic solutions. There are individual Shadows, and a country can have a collective Shadow. As Jung noted, “the brighter the light, the darker the shadow”, so one needs to be suspicious of efforts to “protect” the citizenry from the “evils” of a particular group or country. Those who have taken my classes know how I feel about the so-called “battle between good and evil”. There will always be conflict, always people with radically differing views. We live in a society that, while not perfectly pleasing everyone, allows everyone to have their views without punishment or censorship, at least by the law. There will always be a dynamic where one ideology may gain mainstream preference over another. This has for thousands of years been known as “the wheel of life”. The best place for you to be is in the center, not disoriented by the ups and downs. This is more difficult for us that it seems.

You can recognize the Shadow when you see scapegoating. If change makes you uncomfortable, if you feel a great threat from the outside, the natural thing to do is to put up a wall and blame an outside person, group, or ideology. But your fear of whatever it is—ISIS, gay marriage, atheists, the government—ultimately it’s not about any of those things. It’s about you. And that is what it means to confront the Shadow. What you are really afraid of is a loss of control and liberty to be and do what you want—and this is certainly credible. But it’s also a denial of how the world really is—there is always going to be suffering, conflict, and clashes. Most of the horrors we envision never happen. The question becomes—how to do we choose to deal with it? And does our choice help the problem, or only make it worse? And most importantly—how do we negotiate problems that are unsolvable? We may not be as lucky as Oresetes, who had Apollo and Athena rooting for him against the Furies when he was stuck in an impossible situation. Sometimes you have to negotiate things on a day to day basis.

In addition, we live in an era of too much information, and most of it questionable or useless. We often just want everything to go away, but we can’t help being bombarded by images unless we stay away from the Internet and all media. It is not surprising that we live in a society where younger people don’t want to be bothered with social and political questions, or with furthering their education; they have been bombarded since childhood, and just want to escape from it. But it is a part of growing up; you can’t stay in childhood forever, you have to develop resiliency. Most importantly, you have to not be afraid of the world, and when you do feel fear, don’t become immobilized. It’s your life to live, and you should not let the collective Shadow frighten you into betraying yourself. Regardless of who you support in this election, or what your personal response is to external crises, remember—most of what you are afraid of is within yourself, and most of it is what “could happen” rather than what “is”. Reflect on that, and treat others with the decency you’d want for yourself from them. Aggressiveness and bullying are not signs of leadership; they are signs of fear, weakness, and an inability to face realities. We all long for simple solutions, but take a deep breath and realize that not everything is simple, and if you can master your own fears, the others will fall from significance. Remember also that the great thing about America is your freedom to be who you are and what you want, and this necessarily means living with difference. There is no need to silence or disenfranchise those who are different from you; we’re all humans after all.

Lastly—go back and brush up on your world history. Our country is in panic mode in response to crises, some real, many imagined or invented by the media. There is much to be learned from what has happened in other places in the past. Expose yourself to viewpoints different from your own. Education is not a liability; it is power. And real discourse is important, not shouting down the opposition—if we can’t find common ground, we will be destroyed faster than a Florida community in a sinkhole. Demand this from your politicians, and don't be sucked in by cheap pandering.

You might say, "What do I have to do with it? Focusing on myself doesn't change anything else." Actually, yes it does. Societies are made up of individuals like yourself; if we don't change individually, nothing changes collectively.

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