Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist who worked closely with Sigmund Freud before founding his own school of thought, composed a short book in 1957 that was translated into English by the Atlantic Monthly. The Undiscovered Self may have been Jung’s answer to Sigmund Freud’s similarly late-career consideration of world politics, Civilization and It’s Discontents. The great ethnologist and psychologist wrote some surprising things about modern Western government in this book’s opening chapter. Referring to the global conflicts of 1957, he describes the way these conflicts ripples through the social structure of every nation in the world:
What is the significance of that split, symbolized by the “Iron Curtain”, which divides humanity into two halves? What will become of our civilization, and of man himself, if hydrogen bombs begin to go off, or if the spiritual and moral darkness of State absolutism should spread over Europe?
Jung writes (in Nietzschean tones, but in the language of psychology) of the conflict between the “subversive minorities” (which may be presumed to refer to ideological or economic as well as ethnic minorities) and the “stratum” of established power. He writes of what happens when an entire society — not the individuals within the society, but the society itself, begins to go insane:
Rational argument can be conducted with some prospect of success only so long as the emotionality of a given situation does not exceed a certain critical degree. If the affective temperature rises above this level, the possibility of reason’s having any effect ceases and its place is taken by slogans and chimerical wish-fantasies.
The amazing thing is, Sarah Palin hadn’t even been born when Carl Jung wrote these words. Some things never change, but the more things stay the same, the more I wonder if things around the world might go better if more people read Carl Jung (and Sigmund Freud, and William James and other classic psychologists) and more often thought about the deeper undercurrents that affect our so-called “rational democracy”, not just in 2008 but always.
Jung’s most unique contribution to psychology was to focus on our public shared self, the foundation of a “collective unconscious” that each of us carry within us. Since the 2008 Presidential election has been so intense and so emotional for many Americans, we may have been feeling the extra pull of the collective unconscious lately. Why do we feel so strongly about the things we feel strongly about, and how is it that other people can feel differently? In the end, are we really just fighting between tribes?
Well, you take a look at the electoral map and tell me.
I’m no more able to rise above my cultural background than anyone else — I’m a blue-state cliche, a pacifist socialist Buddhist Jewish pro-choice liberal married Saturn-driver with kids and a software job who watches Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow because I like to. I hate being a cliche, but this is who I am. I know many red-staters live out their cliches with all the conviction in the world too. Even when we manage to reverse our ingrained trends and adopt contrary political beliefs, we carry our cultural heritages within us in an endless number of ways.
As we await the final outcome of this slightly crazy election season, let’s pause to think about the electoral map in a different way. Whether we grow up in a red state or a blue state, that color runs deep inside us, and sometimes when a bunch of people are arguing about something, they may actually be arguing about something completely different, though none of them manage to figure it out. I have a feeling this happens a lot. It’s worth a moment’s reflection.
Here’s an idea: strip all the ideology away and see if the 2008 election boils down to anything. Here’s what I think you’ll find: a fight between tribes. Look at the map — there are no ideas there, just rivers and mountain ranges and time zones. So, America, why are we in the tribes we’re in, and what can our tribal affiliations tell us about ourselves?
I don’t know the answer. Carl Jung might have some ideas, or maybe you do.
This is the final installment in the blogging experiment “Big Thinking”, in which we tried to gain perspective on various topical issues during an exciting electoral season by examining the ideas of Thoreau, Wittgenstein, Kundera, Tolstoy, Plato, Mill and Jung.
Literary Kicks endorses Barack Obama for President. California, stand up for gay civil rights. John McCain, don’t let the door hit you in the ass. Thank you, readers and commenters, for being a part of the “Big Thinking” project.