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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 11/19/12

Psychological Roots of National Disunity

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The moral philosophies of individualism and solidarity clash upon the withered plain, battling for the soul of America. Conservatives, for the most part, stand behind the former philosophy, while Liberals are tied to the latter. An intense conflict is disuniting the people, and we're all suffering.

There need not be such division and antagonism between the two moral positions. They're not mutually exclusive. The clash over which philosophy ought to prevail turns negative and hostile only because the human psyche is, in itself, so conflict-ridden. Through our resistance and denial, we've been hiding from our awareness the deeper elements of this strife. We suffer personally and politically because of psychological secrets we keep from ourselves.

As moral positions, both individualism and solidarity obviously have commendable aspects. Individualism represents self-reliance and independence, while solidarity or community represents social unity, common cause, and an expansive understanding of self-interest. All these aspects are important to our well-being.

It's the unconscious part of our psyche that's contaminating the debate, widening the divide, and creating unnecessary misunderstanding and hostility. Often we align ourselves with one side or another of a conflict for personal, emotional, or psychological reasons that are hidden from our awareness and have nothing to do with the merits of the debate. We sometimes take stances on political issues to keep our personal blind spots covered up. The patriotism of some Americans, for instance, is strongly flavored by militarism because their bias compensates for irrational fears and a weak sense of self. Political and social beliefs or alignments that are adopted for hidden psychological reasons are likely to be rigidly held, hostile to opposing views, and self-defeating.

Let's consider some hidden reasons that cause people to become partisans for individualism. (Further on, I discuss hidden motivations for embracing solidarity.) Individualists see the government as a dispenser of dependence in the form of welfare, health care, food stamps, social security, disability payments, Medicare, and so on. These individuals, far from simply asserting a preference for standing on one's own two feet, are forced by inner weakness to assert a passionate dislike for any form of dependence. They're denying or covering up their entanglement in unresolved negative emotions (that are common to human nature) such as helplessness, passivity, fear of change, and self-doubt. They project their own weakness on to the recipients of government benefits, which means that, with intense dislike, they "see" in these recipients what they refuse to see in themselves.

Many conservatives and individualists can be found among the poor who often feel marginalized, ignored, rejected, and unworthy. These painful impressions, incidentally, often reflect how, psychologically, they can feel about themselves. By placing individualism in such high regard, they're able to produce a sense of personal value and power. In other words, emphasizing one's individuality can serve as a psychological trick for giving oneself a feeling of importance and strength. As another psychological defense to cover up inner weakness, they're tempted to identify with the right-wing's more aggressive military tilt regarding international challenges.

People from all classes can favor individualism because they believe that freedom must be measured primarily through the rights and privileges of each citizen. This belief, when accompanied by refusal to recognize economic opportunity and government protection as important measures of freedom, can denote an entitlement mentality. Moreover, we can't trust individualism to stand alone as a healthy guide to wise action and behavior because our conflict-ridden psyche produces too much self-sabotage, willful ignorance, and self-serving behaviors. Tens of millions of individual Americans are floundering in unhealthy, unwise, and dysfunctional behaviors. If individually we can't be trusted to do what's right for ourselves, how can individualism as a doctrine be trusted to do what's right for the nation or the world? Along with the self-reliance of the Right, we need the solidarity of the Left in order to find, as Buddhists say, the Middle Way.

What are hidden issues on the side of solidarity? The passionate embrace of solidarity can also be a psychological attempt to compensate for feeling insignificant, unworthy, and powerless. Deep down a person can feel, "I have value because my group sees my value and champions my rights." But this sense of value isn't grounded in one's own person. This illustrates how we can have different defenses--such as the emotional misuse of either the concept of individualism or that of solidarity--for the same underlying dysfunction.

It's true, of course, that solidarity (as it applies to labor unions, for instance) can represent genuine political or economic power. However, it's not an intrinsic or psychological power. Solidarity that's not grounded in our self-development can be crushed by determined opponents. When that happens, people who relied on solidarity for their sense of standing and well-being can be left feeling empty and vanquished.  

People on the Left, too, can have an entitlement mentality. Out of inner weakness, many people take themselves for granted. Now they also can take their government and its largesse for granted, leading to the development of an entitlement mentality.

Everyone at times deals with deep feelings and fears of being utterly alone. Childish fantasies of being powerful and special can collapse into emptiness, passivity, and feelings of abandonment. All that can save us, it might feel, is the cohesion of the collective. From this weakness, we can also embellish upon the sense of being innocent victims of the alleged malice of private interests, with only our group and the government to protect us.

Meanwhile, both sides can contribute to widening the divide when it feels that the other side is "forcing" a point of view down one's throat. This negative feeling is an emotional reaction to humanity's widespread tendency to feel oppressed, controlled or dominated--even when actual control or domination is not the reality--because, in our psyche, we experience a form of oppression that's enforced by our aggressive inner critic or superego.

Recognizing our shared psychology, we can see our commonality. Both sides of the political divide exhibit many of the same psychological weaknesses. Both sides fear being oppressed, one side by the private sector and the other by the public. Both resonate with old irrational fears, and both can display an entitlement mentality. We're all still emotionally unresolved, in varying degrees, with childhood feelings of being passive, helpless, and at the mercy of others. We also fear being seen as worthless and crushed underfoot. To mirror inner conflict, both sides need someone or something to be in conflict with. As well, conflict with our compatriots is close to home, which replicates the intimate proximity of inner conflict. We're more alike than we thought. Insight into our shared psychology makes it easier to transcend our differences.

Harmony will follow when we better understand the hidden dynamics that bind us to conflict. We find inner balance when our personal issues are recognized and resolved, at which time political and social harmony come along for the ride.
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Peter Michaelson is an author, blogger, and psychotherapist in Plymouth, MI. He believes that better understanding of depth psychology reduces the fear, passivity, and denial of citizens, making us more capable of maintaining and growing our (more...)
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