Jungian Analyst Explains the Psychology of Political Polarization

Here we are, this great country with all our emphasis on the individual, and yet we fail the individual?
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Jungian analyst James Hillman -- psychologist, scholar, culture critic and author of more than twenty books, including the bestselling "The Soul's Code" -- is one of the modern era's most brilliant thinkers on the human and collective psyche.

Now approaching his 85th birthday, I spoke with Hillman as he was recuperating from two years of illness. "It's a new life," he told me. "A lot of reflection instead of ambition." The following is an edited version of the first of a two-part conversation on his psychological perspectives on the American zeitgeist:

Pythia: The Tucson shootings triggered a debate over the ongoing polarization of the right and the left. What is your psychological perspective on this?

James Hillman: We have to realize that our minds are our enemy. The current debate has become very ideological, with certain fixed ideas dominating the discussion. This is a result of thinking in opposites; it goes back to Aristotle, and has to do with an either/or kind of logic: If something is this way, it cannot be that way.

But this isn't how the world really is. For example, most people think that the opposite of white is black. But there are shades of black -- from blackberries, to black coal or blackbirds -- that have nothing to do with white. The point is to learn how to evaluate each issue on its own merits without having to bring up the opposition's point of view. In therapy, when you have a dream of your mother, for example, you don't necessarily have to talk about your father as a supposed opposite.

Pythia: In other words, a conservative or liberal will often have a predictable reaction to a specific issue. But in therapy, an important part of the psychological process involves examining how we think. You seem to be saying that we need more of this kind of critical examination in our political process.

Hillman: I agree, for instance, with some of the extreme propositions from both parties. On the left, I think we should make extreme cuts to the defense budget. On the right, I agree with the extreme proposition that we should close the Department of Education, because it's a total failure. And possibly Agriculture, too, since it's dominated by the Agribusiness giants it's supposed to supervise.

Pythia: So by saying that you have radical views from both the left and the right, how does this address the issue of polarization?

Hillman: It addresses the issue by saying that a person doesn't have to cling to certain ideas just because they're on the left or the right. There are other ways of putting things together so they're not necessarily opposed; there is the idea of collaboration, or the phrase "coterminous," meaning where one appears, the other has to appear. Chinese culture has the Yin Yang symbol, with its interwoven extremes. It seems to me that we lack this kind of complex imagery in the media. Television foments this by bringing two people together from opposing positions -- as if every situation has just two sides.

Pythia: There is a growing weariness among the public with this kind of ideological boxing match.

Hillman: Democrats and Republicans sitting side by side during the recent State of the Union address may have been a psychological breakthrough. Do you remember [broadcast journalist] Fred Friendly? He used to host a television show with Supreme Court Justices, ambassadors and intellectuals from the left and the right. He'd ask very tough questions that produced true intellectual discussion on current issues. That would be one example of how to handle differences without simplifying into polarities -- a word, by the way, that comes straight out of electrical engineering. It's not a psychological term and doesn't help solve a problem for the psyche, as what is psychological isn't as rigid as scientific models of thinking.

Pythia: When it comes to handling polarized political viewpoints, I wonder what you think about Obama? Many on the left have a problem with Obama's temperament; they see him as weak when he's conciliatory to the Republican right.

Hillman: Obama's temperament is a tremendous virtue. At last we have somebody who is cool-headed, who tries to think things through, who can take the pressure, and who can even concede having made a mistake. The speech he gave at the Tucson Memorial was a masterpiece. He walked right into the middle of all these conflicts and the problem of America, and he said something that had real content, and not sentimental. He did not use highly intellectual or rigid ideological language. By referencing the little girl (Christina Taylor) who was shot, and by encouraging us to live up to her expectations of our democracy, he was able to revitalize the American dream and engagement in political life, through her own dream of becoming politically involved. And personally, I think the agreement Obama struck with the Republicans over the tax bill was clever.

Pythia: But many on the left faulted Obama for caving in on this issue. Was this an example of fixed ideology at play in the political arena?

Hillman: Yes, it's an ideological fixation for the left: We must not let the rich get richer. I'm all on the side of the ideological left, but on this issue, I think the left is wrong. Let the rich take their jillions -- they're going to, anyway! This is just how the situation is until the rich begin to convert on their own, like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, who are now trying to change the minds of capitalists. And if the rich have more money because of the tax deal, let's appeal to their capacity for citizenship and hope that they find ways to help the country -- whose condition affects them, too. There are a lot of things that we don't know about that might be going on in the psyches of the super rich.

Pythia: You mean that the rich may themselves be harboring new perspectives on their wealth?

Hillman: Exactly. I can't imagine that the rich or the conservatives are utterly closed off from the changes going on in the collective psyche. But the ideological left locks us into a fixed view of "the other"; this traps them in having to be worse than they may possibly be.

Pythia: Are you saying that the liberals' fixed view of the right might actually be helping to create the "enemy" that they're locked in battle with? But isn't the right just as guilty in this as the left?

Hillman: I'm not saying that there aren't some fanatical activists on the right. But I'm on the left, so I'm trying to bring more psychology to their situation. And the ideological left runs a danger of continually nailing the coffin on the enemy. By fixing the opponent, it puts them in a box and omits the possibility of the kind of transformation exemplified by John Dean, Nixon's lawyer, who then testified against him during the Watergate hearings. But if a political party is seen only this way or that way, then we prevent what else might possibly be going on in their psyches, and we're not bringing any insight to the process.

For example, if I have a wife and I only see how mean-spirited and quick-tempered she is, and I see her that way all the time, then she becomes fixed into that character definition, and nothing else.

Pythia: In using marriage as an example, you're implying a relationship. Does this mean that both the Democrats and the Republicans are overlooking the fact that they're in an intimate relationship -- instead of being unrelated strangers? I admit I feel that way sometimes when I listen to Glen Beck.

Hillman: It's clear everyday that the left and the right are in a marriage. Fox News' Bill O'Reilly talked obsessively about MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, and Olbermann talked obsessively about O'Reilly; they were locked in a marriage. And for all that the liberals want to mock Glenn Beck, he is talking about American history and political theory that the left neglects.

Pythia: I agree. But what you seem to be saying is that just as in therapy, there needs to be more reflection on the country's past.

Hillman: Even MSNBC is "leaning forward." But I'd like to see it lean backward, which is what the word reflection means. What, for instance, is in the shadow of these fixed ideals? One thing that's being ignored is history. In a certain way, the liberal world has been lax about standing for true American history. I think of Howard Zinn and his leadership on this subject.

Pythia: Besides ignoring the past, what might be some other effects thinking in opposites has on our culture?

Hillman: It leads to the extreme moralism in our society, which declares one side good, and the other bad, and then the "other" becomes evil. All of which leads to conquest, warfare, victory and those other destructive Western ideas.

Pythia: Indeed one of the ongoing debates after the Tucson shootings was whether the climate of violent political rhetoric contributed to what happened.

Hillman: My perspective on this is a little different. I think that this kid was made a loner by an American educational system in which there is no room for the weird or the odd. The moment Loughner began to become schizoid [isolated from society] in class, he was thrown out; he became lost in the great Tucson mass of people -- he wasn't being held by anything.

Pythia: So instead of political polarization, or the lack of a stronger mental health system, you see this tragedy as related to our educational system?

Hillman: We need to have an educational system that's able to embrace all sorts of minds, and where a student doesn't have to fit into a certain mold of learning. Our educational system has become so narrowed to a certain formula, that if you go through a weird phase, you're dropped out -- often at the age of schizophrenia, 19-23 -- and that's the danger. And in addition to that problem, you've got the availability of guns and the pressure of a society that can't take the peculiar. But I can imagine that this young boy did not have to do this shooting.

Pythia: If you can imagine that this tragic shooting didn't have to happen, then what do you imagine might have happened instead?

Hillman: He would not have been thrown out of school; and he would have spent some time with his teacher, who would have made an effort. We also need a kind of counselor who isn't tarred with the brush of making psychological "assessments," and where he wouldn't have been cursed with the idea of insanity. Right there is an insult. Instead, we need a school counselor who is more like a wise man or woman and who would listen to a guy like this without pathologizing his concerns. The problem with the educational system is that it lacks love.

Pythia: You're talking about bringing back a person's humanity, so that they aren't de-personalized, which only increases their marginalization.

Hillman: Right. Instead of having that kind of discussion, we have a factual examination of the incident and talk about reducing the gun clips from 31 bullets to 10. But the boy himself is left out of the discussion.

Pythia: Here we are, this great country with all our emphasis on the individual, and yet we fail the individual?

Hillman: Absolutely. The person becomes an oddball, a kind of isolate, cut off from everything.

Pythia: So this kind of psychological perspective on America's problems begins with more careful reflection...

Hillman: And a little more curiosity about people and events. And we don't have that -- we really don't.


Next up: Part Two of my interview with James Hillman on "America and the Shift in Ages."

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