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Politics & Policy

Jungian Shadow Politics

Carl Jung (Wikimedia Commons)

A funny video dissecting the philosophical problems in Star Wars: The Last Jedi is an unexpected spur for an explanation of the intensity of our national political divisions, but its discussion about the theories of psychologist Carl Jung can easily be applied to the deep emotions driving the furious hostility in our national discourse.

Jung’s theory, in a nutshell:

Carl Jung believed that scapegoating revealed something fundamental about our psyche. He maintained that we all have a “shadow” side to our personality. As he wrote in Archetype and the Collective Unconscious, “The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself.” Our shadow aspects cause us anguish, and much of our mental energy is enlisted in the denial of our perceived imperfections, but we cannot see our shadow aspects except through projection. In Alchemical Studies, Jung wrote, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making darkness conscious.”

In short, we all have parts of ourselves that we’re not proud of and sometimes deny exists: hate, lust, greed, selfishness, cruelty, jealousy, narcissism, laziness — you can probably think of some others. Some argue that the traits we dislike most in other people are the traits we (consciously or sub-consciously) dislike most about ourselves. And sometimes we can become so adamant to deny that aspect of ourselves that we seek it out and furiously denounce those traits in other people.

If we on the right are honest, we’ll recognize that there are times we both personally and collectively don’t live up to our own values or how we want to see ourselves.

We have religious leaders who get caught in embarrassing sex scandals, and we have people who think of themselves as believing in “family values” but who are deadbeat dads and irresponsible mothers. We have business leaders who do prioritize profits over the well-being of their employees. Irresponsible gun owners exist. Bad cops exist. Not everyone who wears our country’s uniform does so with honor and distinction. We tout the value of hard work but get lazy. We denounce big government but relish its spending when it benefits us personally.

And if liberals are honest, they’ll recognize that there are times that they both personally and collectively don’t live up to their values or how they want to see ourselves. They talk about the need to prioritize the collective good while amassing great personal wealth. They take private jets to climate-change conferences. They’ll talk about the need for gun control while enjoying the safety of armed private security services personally or at their workplaces. They’ll talk about the need for tolerance of differing viewpoints and independent thought, while calling for people to be fired over social media posts. They’ll tout the importance, even necessity, of higher education, without really probing whether college gives students their money’s worth or whether colleges are really preparing young people for the working world. They talk about the importance of women’s rights, right up until the moment their jaw-dropping harassment and assault scandals come out.

Both sides will tout the importance of equality of opportunity . . . and then indulge in a little nepotism or hire a friend.

How do conservatives generally see liberals? Decadent, weak, sexually deviant, wildly hypocritical, greedy and in denial about their own greed, elitist, smug, hedonist, foolish, lazy and comfortably dependent upon the support of taxpayers, and unpatriotic among other faults.

How do liberals see conservatives? Hateful, intolerant, sexually repressed and/or secret deviants, wildly hypocritical, selfish, greedy, ignorant, callous, provincial, and xenophobic, among other faults.

In other words, each side of our political divide thinks the opposition is rife with the traits that they disdain the most in themselves, traits that they like to believe they have successfully purged from themselves personally and from their most important allies.

This isn’t really about political differences anymore; this is about needing an enemy that embodies everything we can’t stand – about the world, yes, but probably about ourselves as well. Nobody explodes with rage about a complete stranger’s prom dress unless they’ve got an enormous amount of anger within them that’s just itching to find a suitable target.

One of the great ironies about this moment is that the world has provided Americans with no shortage of nearly universally recognized genuine enemies: ISIS, al-Qaeda and all of the other assorted jihadists, drug cartels, authoritarian regimes, gangs, sex traffickers, hackers and cyber-criminals, arms smugglers. For Pete’s sake, slavery still exists.

In that light, how much anger should be spent on the social-media controversy du jour, celebrities’ comments about politics, or the latest abominable utterance of little-known political candidates? We probably don’t see ourselves in jihadists, brutal regimes, or modern slavers. But we do see a reflection of ourselves in our counterparts on the other side – after all, they’re Americans. They grew up in the same national culture that we did, shared many of the same experiences that we did, and yet somehow they developed viewpoints that are diametrically opposed to our sense of right and wrong! That’s frightening, and something that triggers the urge to lash out.

In other words, our political debates . . . aren’t all that much about politics anymore, at least as traditionally defined.

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