Political Discourse and Projection of the Shadow

As I promised last week, here is the next in a series of essays that attempt to identify ways to dialogue creatively about the present political divide. I will make use of several perspectives over the next few weeks to help us excavate a deeper and hopefully more comprehensive understanding of this intractable issue. I begin with an “archetypal” perspective in this essay.

No theorist is ever completely “right.” Inevitably, gaps in understanding a theory will exist and some speculations will turn out to be flat out wrong. Given that disclaimer, I want to credit Carl Jung for shining a useful light onto much of human experience, both on the experience of the individual and on the nature of relationship, when he wrote about the archetypal nature of reality.

An archetype can be seen as a symbol that carries a more complete meaning for human experiences and interactions than is easily seen. An archetype always represents a kind of wholeness, at least theoretically. But in actual practice, we tend to notice only the parts of an experience that we like, and we ignore (meaning, remain unconscious of) the parts that we do not like and do not want to accept as belonging to our personal being or experience. (Of course, there are some people who always notice the bad parts and leave the more pleasant parts in the unconscious realm.) Either way, the wholeness of reality always includes that which is conscious and that which remains unconscious.

So, what does this archetypal perspective have to do with the political divide? The answer becomes evident when we look at what happens to the unconscious part of the archetypal experience. According to Jung’s understanding, the unconscious part (the part of the experience we don’t want to own) still belongs to our reality whether we accept it or not. Jung referred to those unconscious contents of the archetype as its shadow – or I could call it “our” individual or collective shadow. Because all parts of the archetype will necessarily manifest in some way eventually, we need to identify where and how the shadow shows itself. Jung demonstrated that we tend to “project” parts of ourselves and our experience that we do not “own” onto other people. Think of an old movie projector. The film is in the projector; the light shows through it, but the picture is seen out on the screen, perhaps quite far away from the projector. If we simply conclude that the picture exists “out there” we typically do not imagine that what we see actually comes from us. We human beings function as the “screens” for one another’s projections – at least for the ones that loosely resemble similar characteristics in ourselves.

Assuming that Jung’s archetypal theory is true enough, let’s look once again at Paul Krugman’s articulation of the “Two Moralities”(the full article can be found here)
He defines the political split in this way:

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state – a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net – morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.
The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

Now, here is where this process gets difficult. Our job is to see the shadow side of each of these statements and see how that shadow is then “projected” onto the other. (This does not mean that all statements have equal value, either practically or morally. It is only to say that conversation is more useful if we can see the potential short-comings of our own position and the potential benefits of the other. Without such an admission, there can be no conversation at all.) By the way, it is always easier to see our adversary’s shadow than it is to see our own.

When we look at the shadow side of Krugman’s first statement, we might see that the practice of “welfare” can deal with material needs without ever promoting the growth, healing, or motivation of the recipient. Welfare, as helpful as it might be, also brings with it the danger of fostering more dependency. When that shadow is projected, it looks like the position of the other side hurts the very people who need help. It can objectify them and inadvertently restrict their freedom.

The second statement has a shadow side, too. Whatever that side “earns” in an atmosphere of “freedom” has to come from somewhere, and often the laws that support that kind of earning give a disproportional advantage to those who already have money. Said differently, laws always help some people and restrict the freedom of others So, that side can accuse the other of restricting their freedom while ignoring how much their freedom restricts the freedom of others.

These shadow statements are just examples. We could find other manifestations of the shadow in each of the statements.

The archetypal perspective implies that the only power we have to bring more health and well being to our discourse comes from looking honestly at our own shadow side, dealing with those realities humbly, so we can see reality more fully. I believe, and archetype theory implies, that every good plan comes with a cost. Our ability to make good choices depends on keeping those costs in our conscious awareness. If, however, we remain unconscious of the costs, surely our adversaries will throw them in our collective faces, but not in a way that we can own and integrate them into our decisions.

Jung once wrote that the most important thing anyone could do to promote world peace was for each individual to deal with the personal shadow. This approach requires us to have some appropriate humility, but perhaps the gain in community health turns out to make it a good deal for all.

We find lots of resistance to looking at the shadow side or our own position, perhaps because so much energy goes into vilifying the adversary’s shadow and denying the value of the adversary’s stated position. If winning the next election and remaining in power is the only value driving the process, the possibility of identifying and integrating the shadow is practically impossible. It is even more impossible if each side is waiting for the other to make the first overture towards wholeness.

I don’t know how to foster the archetypal perspective in current political discourse, but we can all start with ourselves. We’re not talking about nuclear disarmament here, but the stakes are almost as high. Let’s get to work. Withdraw those projections and integrate them into your wholeness.

You may think there are shadowy implications in this essay, but it represents the way I see things.
How about you?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

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