The surge in optimism among liberals the world over following the election of Barack Obama in 2008 seems surreal compared to the gloom and despondency enveloping them after the 2016 US presidential elections. With the election of Barack Obama, many believed that liberalism and progressiveness were here to stay.
But today, America seems deeply divided across multiple “us vs them” fault lines—Republicans vs Democrats, conservatives vs liberals, evangelicals vs the areligious, heartland vs coastal states, working class vs elites, feminists vs post-feminists, pro-choice vs pro-life, citizens vs immigrants, Blacks and Hispanics vs White, Muslims vs other religions, Trump supporters vs Trump opponents, Trump vs media, “America first” vs other countries, and so on.
Each side is convinced of the merit of its own stance and believes the “other” is evil and needs to be crushed. What has led to the rise of these fault lines?
Eminent psychologist Carl Jung said that the genesis of enemy-making resides in our unconscious psyche. It is a result of the projection of our shadow onto others. Most of us don a persona which typically consists of ideal personality characteristics that society approves of and reinforces. These include, for example, kindness, integrity, and politeness; unsavoury behaviour and emotions such as envy, anger, greed, lust, and dishonesty are pushed into our unconsciousness.
However, we are not purged completely of these emotions and qualities, sometimes referred to as our darker selves. They remain in the shadow of our psyche, ready to spring up when triggered. Since the shadow resides in our unconscious mind, it is difficult to experience it directly.
But it manifests itself by projecting these attributes onto another person or group, i.e. to a container outside ourselves. When we experience excessive contempt or admiration towards a person or a group, it is likely that our shadow has projected itself onto “the other.”
Shadow projection operates at the group or society level as well, when it is part of the collective unconsciousness. The collective shadow consists of unacceptable emotions, cognitions, beliefs, assumptions, and values, which our culture shuns and forces us to repress. For instance, in some societies, discrimination is seen as unacceptable and members claim to be non-discriminatory in their behaviour.
However, the collective shadow manifests itself in the form of private racism or sexism, and certain groups end up receiving these negative group projections through scapegoating or enemy-making process.
The play of the collective shadow is apparent in the US political discourse today. Over the years, the US has displayed a liberal, progressive, freedom-supporting face to the world and rejected those parts of itself which were riddled by hostility, racism, sexism, aggression, and greed.
The latter aspects were projected predominantly onto the poorly educated, working-class, conservative parts of US society. These forgotten people were relegated to the shadows of the American psyche. They are the ones who have rebelled and demanded that their fears and concerns about key issues such as immigration and globalization be acknowledged. Trump’s actions, seemingly pandering to this part of the electorate, are putting him in direct confrontation with liberals and progressives. The latter see these actions as opposed to core American values and experience them as an affront to the idea of the American nation, built by immigrants on the principles of freedom and inclusion.
Both sides stand in opposition, engaging in slander and partisan behaviour, deaf to each other’s concerns, bound together by mutual hate in an adversarial symbiosis. Driven by paranoia, propaganda, shadow projections, prejudice, victimhood and self-righteousness, each side has insulated itself, and is emphasizing only evidence that reinforces its prejudices and preferences. Neither side demonstrates empathy or considers the views of the other side.
Philosopher Sam Keen reminds us that human beings are also Homo hostilis, the enemy-making animal, along with being Homo sapiens (rational humans) and Homo fabers (tool-making humans).
We are compelled to construct scapegoats or enemies to bear the burden of our unacceptable emotions.
We not only create targets to bear the brunt of our private demons, but we also engage in psychological, political or physical “warfare’’ to kill these external demons. The consequences of collective shadow projections can be disastrous. Shadow projections are about gaining power and enhancing self-image within the in-group.
Hence, they are vulnerable to group think and self-preservation behaviour. Afflicted groups become incapable of examining their own skewed perceptions and self-serving biases. Opposing sides engage in unconscious partisanship and see each other as more aggressive, dishonest, and morally corrupt than either really is.
The 2016 US presidential elections have brought the collective American unconscious into sharp relief. Americans have to confront the collective shadow which is infiltrating their political discourse, if they want to lessen the antagonism between groups evident today.
Unless shadow projections are acknowledged and reintegrated into the collective psyche, polarized groups cannot move towards understanding and collaboration. This does not mean that dysfunctional ideologies and actions should not be questioned or accepted unconditionally. However, the opposing sides need to recognize those fears which are irrational and create animosity towards each other.
They need to accept their role in the creation of fault lines, and understand how they have unconsciously discriminated against and diminished other groups. Our shadow does not contain only negative traits and emotions. It also hosts our infantile side, including our child-like innocence and trust. It is home to our emotional attachments and our undeveloped talents and gifts as well.
The unexpressed, positive potential of collective shadow holds promise. It can help Americans express sensitivity instead of hatred towards their opponents. It can help polarized groups engage in collaborative actions which uphold universal human values. The question is: will Americans rise up to the challenge and claim the constructive potential of the collective shadow?
Kirti Sharda is a faculty member in the organizational behaviour area at Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad, and works on issues related to diversity, talent management and sensemaking in workplaces.