Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Who Has Ears to Hear?: the Psychology of Political Dehumanization

Conflict and adversity are inherent in living a life.  This is one of the general applications of the First Noble Truth of Buddhism.  Not only does this truth act as the entry to understanding our personal life, it is also a key to understanding our national political life.  In fact, modern Republicanism uses this truth as its currency in trade by encouraging a certain reaction to this truth via the means of both concealing its source by projecting its contents onto objects and objectifying, i.e., dehumanizing, people, and by capitalizing its hidden value by keeping its source in the psyche unconscious. 

Regardless of whether it is called theocracy, plutocracy, or democracy, all political power derives from “the people.”  But this power arises directly from, and as, configurations of the individual and group psyche, not as external structures of physical reality.  The people, as a tribe or nation, will coalesce around those unconscious patterns of political relationships that bring them the most conscious sense of security and hope, without having an inkling that the true source of their political behavior arises from their own psyche.
As Carl G. Jung wrote, "The psychology of the individual is reflected in the psychology of the nation. What the nation does is done also by each individual, and so long as the individual continues to do it, the nation will do likewise. Only a change in the attitude of the individual can initiate a change in the psychology of the nation. The great problems of humanity were never yet solved by general laws, but only through regeneration of the attitudes of individuals. If ever there was a time when self-reflection was the absolutely necessary and only right thing, it is now, in our present catastrophic epoch. Yet whoever reflects upon himself is bound to strike upon the frontiers of the unconscious, which contains what above all else he needs to know."  (From the preface to the first edition of "The Psychology of the Unconscious" in Volume 7 of the Collected Works of C. G. Jung.)  These comments stated in 1916 in the midst of what we now call World War I, are as germane today as they were one hundred years ago as our public failure of self-reflection seems to once again be on the upsurge.

Humanity in general, nations and individuals in particular, are still largely psychically immature and psychologically ignorant.  We ignore what goes on within us by our fascination with what goes on around us, but it is this very immaturity in regards to our own mind, demonstrated by that very ignorance in failing to see the causal connections of our political life based on our inner life, that leads to the exacerbation of life’s normal adversities into outright social and political catastrophes.

Who has ears to hear? We so get caught up in the propagandistic sloganeering and the simplifications of projections that we childishly just listen in fascination or revulsion to the stories being told, instead of actually listening to the telling of the story.  To understand the level of childish regression in our current political environment we just need to listen to the rhetoric.  The easiest entry to evaluating the immaturity of political discourse is to listen to how the politician’s opponents are described.  Does the politician dehumanize those people who are categorized and labeled as the adversary?   (By the term “politicians,” I include both the politician on the stage and the class of “owners” behind them for whom they are mere spokespeople.)

A first step in the process of political manipulation of the people’s general psychic ignorance is the personification of our normal adversity into an adversary.  All life entails suffering, stress, conflict, and adversity.  This fundamental truth can lead us to mature inquiry into its foundational conditions, thereby ultimately leading us to awakening, or we can be led into dependence on our childish fears and desires to be saved from such adversity. The first step in manipulating the people for political purposes is to shape and steer our normal concern with this “truth of adversity” into psychic channels that externalize and objectify our unease and offers the hope of overcoming it by the projection of adversity onto “an adversary.”  Once an adversary is identified and the blame for our adversity is personified thereby, the consciousness of adversity in the social psyche can have a sense of hope in its desire to vanquish “the adversary,” however described. 

In order to allow the unconscious contents to be unconsciously projected (rather than consciously integrated) to capitalize on their political potential, the next step is to dehumanize “the adversary.”  Here is where the question, “Who has ears to hear?” becomes centrally relevant. It is reasonable and normal, even though immature, to personify our adversities onto adversaries. This is not a function that is immediately strange or odd to the conscious psyche.  However, the process of dehumanization is literally strange and odd, and its very existence is what tells us that unconscious archetypal forces are at work in the political life of the people.  That the people "allow" their public imagination to be so manipulated as to conceive of other people as essentially non-human flies in the face of rational behavior, yet it occurs so frequently that it is seldom publically questioned. The lack of public awareness and discourse on political dehumanization is evidence of the unconscious influences coming to the fore in the collective psyche. 

Dehumanization appears in several ways, most frequently as the imagination of demonization, animalization, or medicalization.  Examples of demonization include calling the political opponent a “a devil,” "a demon," “evil” or “immoral”; of animalization include such name-calling as “cockroaches,”, “apes,” “dogs,” “snakes,” etc.; and for medicalization there are terms for people as “a cancer,” “germs,” or “tumors” on society.  It is here that we must have the courage to insist on the integrity of our public consciousness and ask ourselves, our friends, our neighbors, and our fellow citizens, “Who has ears to hear?” when we hear these terms of dehumanization used in public political discourse, whether on the political stage or the pulpit.  Without the individual’s courage to confront this form of political projection, no society will ever mature to a level of psychological health in dealing with adversity.   

This is not the end of the question, but it is certainly the first step in questioning. When we in the USA listen to the usual Republican (and occasional Democratic) discourse that first blames an adversary for social adversity and then dehumanizes that adversary, we can know for ourselves that an unconscious psychic phenomenon is taking place within the public psyche and is being capitalized upon for the political purpose at hand.  That is, there can be a mature political discussion about the sources of social adversity, as well as an attempt to explain certain causal conditions for that adversity, by pointing out the people who may bear responsibility for that adversity without any dehumanization entering the discussion.  But when we hear metaphors, images, or symbols of dehumanization enter into the rhetoric of “the adversary,” then we can certainly hear that unconscious psychic contents are being stirred up to overpower a mature discussion by the use of childish imagination based on fear and longing for safety.  Who has ears to hear?   

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