“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
― Carl Gustav Jung
I am actually a very cheerful, interested, friendly and enthusiastic guy – so I do sometimes pause and ask myself whether my central theme is in danger of becoming “Everybody is wrong about everything all of the time!” a position which, while fairly common, is not very helpful – most often a thinly disguised exercise in ego and tribalism, rather than a contribution to understanding or compassion.
But right away I’m instantly tangled up in a meta problem which we in the west energetically pretend does not exist (because we’ve been soaking in it so long, we truly cannot see it). I am in a minority of atheists for two reasons. First, I do not assume there is any moral difference between people who have or do not have faith. Lazy categorical sneering contempt could not possibly be a mark of intellectual or spiritual progress, though it is commonly associated with the noisiest of modern atheists.
The other thing which is weird about my atheism is that as a lifelong book-nut I have always understood that even if I stand outside of Christianity myself, my cultural inheritance and intellectual context is and has always been Christendom – both for better and for worse.
The hilarious (because obvious) self deception among so many flimsy atheists who hold themselves apart as if they are clearer and more moral thinkers is that they actually LOVE to indulge in the exact things they most often criticize in Christians – sanctimony and hypocrisy.
“Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge.”
― C.G. Jung
Now – to be clear, I dislike both of these unkind approaches myself – but I don’t dislike them only when they are used by one particular system of thought – I dislike them as methods, if you will, ways of acting in the world – because bad ideas and unprincipled approaches always hurt good people.
Does that mean that all the people who behave in such an unkind and self centred way are bad people? Hell no! We are all flawed, chaotic, complicated – amalgams of good and harmful drives which we are constantly struggling to steer, tame and balance. That’s the human condition – and has been for as long as we have records and stories to indicate.
The reason I find the ideas of Carl Jung so profoundly relevant for looking at the state of the almost completely alienated (and usually miserable) modern western individual, is that he talked often and wisely about what happens when we deny a part of ourselves, and pretend that a certain capacity or inclination for evil exists only in others. This form of willful ignorance (which also blocks full compassion) is both unbelievably dangerous, and now an almost universal feature of our discourse.
In that one sense I will say that yes – almost everyone is wrong about almost every one of our popular arguments, almost all of the time – because we almost always construct a frame that leaves ourselves out of the causes costs and consequences we wish to condemn. Rhetorically strong perhaps (for an audience of tribalists or children), but fundamentally dishonest – and quite useless for building.
I suspect that one reason we pretend ourselves into this trouble so easily and often is a byproduct of a certain sort of proselytizing confrontational Christian tradition which is every bit as active in the modern ultra-moralizing left, as it ever was in any sect of Christians (please tell me I’m not the only one who now hears bizarre jesuitical sophistry everywhere, even from people who once seemed sound and well-rooted in material reality).
Perhaps the strangest sharp-relief here is the juxtaposition of America spending the entire twenty first century ceaselessly at war with countries which did not attack it, ruining the lives of, maiming and/or outright murdering, millions upon millions of people of colour. While at the exact same time “Vanguard Progressive American Thought” has been lecturing everyone about micro-aggressions and reparations. Not – how about we stop actually killing more real human people right now and pause and think for a minute so we don’t go back to doing more of that again five (political) minutes later – but rather suggesting strongly that some active institutional mass violence is really not important – only that injustice which bothers people close to us or is most easily relatable.
“You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.”
― C. G. Jung
I have spent my entire life reading voraciously. History always, science, math, philosophy and great and pulpy fiction too. I even had a few years where I read almost nothing but plays, as I tried to develop the skill required to write effective radio drama. But even though all of this reading lays down a heavy substrate of knowledge interpretation and theory, I still put personal witness first. The fact that I really like people and I’m not into cliques or BS means I have made friends with people from all around the world, and heard a whole treasury (that’s the only way I can look at it) of extraordinary first hand experiences which very few Canadians or Americans ever go through.
I probably see all of that deep sharing as a treasure because I am a writer, and having a library of sharp realities like that often helps me make points more clearly, even when writing fiction. But I especially adore discovering those key precision insights which can change our view on absolutely everything. Like a ‘telling detail’ or a punchy aphorism – economy and high function is an exciting combo.
One of my favourite laboratories for learning about the world was actually a working class version of a laboratory – the busy service shop of the biggest music store in the biggest city in Canada. Not only did we have a couple of fellows from Africa who taught me a great deal, and a mix of Americans and Canadians from right across the continent, we also had a couple of Russians who challenged me to improve my lazy leftist thinking in a whole range of ways which were very helpful for me (if we can’t distinguish between paths toward oppression and those leading toward liberation with the utmost clarity, the program is in real trouble).
I had particularly deep and interesting dialogues with the fellow who worked at the next bench to me – and over time we both developed considerable respect for the other’s intellectual integrity, even where we disagreed entirely about conclusions.
He gave me a wonderful insight into the crazy shenanigans of early post-Soviet Russian politics, and there again proved that even before we in the west somehow decided this would be a non-stop-war century, our news was already completely (and willfully) ignorant about the realities and perspectives of most people, pretty much anywhere else on earth – especially those people and places about which we editorialize endlessly! (I still return to Haaretz regularly to check local sentiments, for the same reason).
He also told me a few tiny little snippets about Soviet era thinking which seemed utterly profound to me – and then a few years later suddenly collapsed into weighing nothing at all, which instantly seemed EVEN MORE PROFOUND because of that change from seeming importance to utter implosion!
One observation was about how unreal it seemed to he and all his school mates when Brezhnev died. There was something so fundamentally supernatural about the way the man was portrayed to the public of the time that his death seemed almost impossible (on an emotional level).
The other was classic folk wisdom. When I asked how the Russian people were able to tolerate such demented leadership so often, he smiled and said, “Back in the days of the Tzar, the peasants always used to say the Tzar really was a good guy at heart, it was just those terrible advisers around him who were causing all the problems with everything.”
I bet at least half of you just did what I did at first. “Ah, the strange effects of the legacy of a peasant mentality, still active in a technological society!”
I will say first that there actually is a lot more than nothing to be asked or studied in that direction. Always remembering the touchstone “Variation between individuals exceeds variation between types,” the popular idealistic concept that different cultures do not have very different strategies and see different outcomes from them can only possibly be based on theory and ignorance. Talk to more people who are less like you, and you’ll learn better (and lots) real fast!
BUT – and here is where that ‘insight’ imploded – all through Clinton’s presidency I heard leftists excusing the destruction of welfare supports, prisons for profit, massive legislative gifts for the financial sector and the conversion of higher education into a form of financial predation on the young. Even when he sexually assaulted a young woman right in the Oval Office – proud feminist tribalists everywhere found ways to say that all other sexual assault was bad, but he was just being Bill after all. Rules are rules (and proof of character) right up until you need to bend them for the ruler you favour.
More recently, I keep seeing people online typing things like “I think Biden is really a classic centre left liberal at heart.” The Tzar is actually a great guy, it’s just all those darned schemers around him that prevent his beneficent sweetness from being showered upon the people. Peasant mentality?
The Iran Nuclear treaty – which everyone said Trump was foolish to abandon? (and I agreed) Still not done, and the chances for it are receding fast. Peace in Ukraine? The entire American state opposes it – financial, military, strategic and propagandist (media). They see all that death as a market.
The Russian army is doing something which is thoroughly horrifying to everyone who lives in the west – those smashed cities look just like our own, after all. But the clearest proof of the reverberations, costs and pain of that horror is buried in our own behaviour and denial. We are still freshly drenched in the blood of our own two decades of war – fighting resolutely against International law, the Geneva convention, national sovereignty, regional stability and the environment.
And to prove our moral high ground Biden has bespoke kneepads ready for his trip to beg the Saudis – because the stark reality is that when you add up the left and right, rich and poor, blanched and colourful, the American State as a whole remains a desperate pathetic junkie who will do absolutely any shameful thing for another hit of oil.
“Gotta get well!” (sorry, just couldn’t resist).
“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
― C.G. Jung
Where all the tribalists are wrong is in their common idea that there is such a thing as one correct mindset. We can (and should) distinguish between healthy and productive thinking and harmful or destructive mental traps, but as I have observed before – you’d be utterly amazed at how many different approaches you can take to designing an aircraft, which really do fly quite nicely! Same goes for being humane, clever, helpful or productive.
What’s more – and this used to be far more widely recognized – we are all much richer when we are different and cool about it – when we share our best freely, without constant spats about differences of opinion and interpretation. When we actively do freedom by offering it to others in the form of simple respect, instead of falling into the trap of sniping at others from a remote distance for failings which are usually well within the range of error of our optics! (unfair right on the surface of it, and in cases of extreme confidence, outright malevolent).
“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”
― C. G. Jung
I encountered another mental image more recently that goes well with that lovely line from Jung. “The wake does not push the boat”
There are actually a lot more people asking the question – “what can I do right now which is moral and helpful?” – than any of us can easily understand. This is because the modern tribalist only thinks their own brand of hope is real hope, and we therefore habitually fail to value and recognize (let alone link up with and mutually strengthen) the positive aspirations of those in other cultural tribes.
Nobody wants to see civilization destroyed by global war, nobody wants to see the destabilized climate burn our species off the face of the earth.
I mean that. There are a few bits of corporate math which advocate for the desirability of both of these horrors, and we can all recognize that there is a small group of wildly over-empowered and essentially sociopathic business school graduates who act as a priestly caste advancing those fraudulent (but very profitable) entirely avoidable global catastrophes. But as long as we’re talking about ordinary working and middle class people who are trying to have a decent life and treat those around them well, we are actually way more in agreement than we think we are. So why do we spend so much of our energy fighting each other?
Because it is crucially important to the people who control the economy, own the press and corrupt the government with those outrageously sociopathic ideas, that we do not ever stop raging at one another for long enough to recognize their decadent corrupt aristocratic class for what it actually is – completely without any morality or humane principle whatsoever – and then unite as one in a popular front, to throw them all out!
Not such a sophisticated revolutionary program, I’ll admit. But it is at least clear, directed, purposeful and ambitious. I swear we are not going to get anywhere when it comes to working through the uncountable traumas of our history if we refuse to confront the immediate ongoing mass violence being done in our name all around the world for the sake of consumerism and energy hegemony – to nature, to the future we leave for our children, to other individual precious humans right now, and to the humane spirit itself. Controlling the lethal consequences of our own predation for consumption is job one, folks – and there is no one but us (citizens) who can do this necessary work.
“The System” – the whole creaking structure of our own irresponsibly delegated democratic power – technocratic sociopathy itself (which is fast getting worse, with the increasing content ‘supervailence’ of clumsy and inarticulate AI on behalf of interests already too powerful, and proven to be corrupting) somehow remains a subject highly resistant to precision aphorism – at least thus far.
Perhaps as one small clue to our insistence on math and hubris instead of clear sighted courage and great heart, someone far cleverer than I could provide me with a clear and spiffy algebraic plot indicating pi in the phase?
(Got to start someplace, right?)