In recent years we’ve seen political activism rise to an all-time high. The streets are frequently chiming with the buzz of protest: we march in Charlottesville, we march for ‘Our Lives’, for women, for science, and so on. Political collectives are increasingly popular, from Blacklivesmatter, Antifa, to The Proud Boys, and besides these still, spontaneous groups which emerge in the fallout of political events like Trump’s election and the Kavanaugh confirmation. The #MeToo movement is yet another example of political goals which have drawn people to the streets. In no other time have political issues been so effective at assembling the masses.
This phenomenon represents a new kind of politics. It’s a politics which is tied strongly to emotion and morality. It also essentializes ideological struggle into a kind of fundamentalism: an us versus them mentality. In my view, these features are enough for us to introduce a new category of activism: mass-minded politics. This is the politics of collective action: of the crowd, of hypnotic chants and posters, of sit-ins and hand symbols.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this development. After all, the civil rights movement would have certainly fit into this category of political action. But in the wake of increasing political polarization, I think it’s time that we cast a critical eye over this kind of politics. By so doing, I hope that we can begin to elevate the standard of political discourse above its current state. Our solutions can only be as good as our conversations, and unfortunately, our conversations leave much to be desired.
Being objective is currently the gold-standard in politics. Facts and statistics are shuffled to the forefront of every political program, suggesting to us that the opposition is on the side of — to use contemporary vernacular — fake news. Every group proclaims itself the exclusive domain of truth and accuses the rest of ignorance at best or deliberate falsehood at worst. Ben Shapiro is a voice of reason battling the regressive and unscientific agenda of the left; Pod Save America is a logical bulwark against the irrational bigotry of the right.
There are, of course, important applications of objectivity in political discourse. Superstition and confirmation bias are powerful and dangerous forces which threaten the edifice of our society. When anti-vaccination groups rear their ugly heads, we need objective voices to provide the relevant scientific data. When a particular conspiracy theory spirals out of control, separating the facts from the fervor is vital. Wholesale rejection of objective truth does occur in certain movements, and when it does, we need to be mindful and act accordingly.
But we should also be suspicious of objectivity as the end-all-be-all of political rigor. For one, it shrinks the territory of reasonable disagreement. When a particular movement is advertised as the side of objective truth, the chance for a productive conversation with opposing groups becomes severely restricted. There can be no discussion of values or definitions — two crucial aspects of any serious debate — when each side considers the other to be in active suppression of science and statistics. What results is a kind of stunted discourse that can no go further than the mutual accusation of irrationality.
Perhaps even more importantly, facts themselves aren’t a sufficient tool for describing our reality. The ‘objective truth’ is itself open for interpretation and subjective input. Consider, for example, the recent controversy surrounding Elizabeth Warren’s claim to Native American ancestry. The complex nature of genetic analysis makes it so that you can express the results of her test in multiple ways. You can say that she might be as little as 1/1,046 indigenous, or you can say that she is 10x more indigenous than the average person from Utah. Both of these are scientifically-valid statements derived from the study, yet the latter is more charitable towards her claims and has (predictably) been proliferated by pro-Democratic news sources. The ‘neutrality’ of objective truth is undermined when the same empirical finding can be presented, as it often is, in multiple ways.
In defense of subjective truth
I believe that a decidedly more subjective engagement is necessary to confront the phenomenon of mass-minded politics. Instead of assessing the internal logical consistency of a person’s political belief, or supplementing their facts with facts of our own, or even convincing them to uphold a separate value system all together, we should strive towards a personal dialogue which uncovers some truth to the question: “what about this issue incites your passion so strongly?” After all, the activists today are not only determined, but deeply sentimental. Only a conversation about one’s personal experience can get to the experiential kernel of their political involvement.
The domain of personal experience opens up the possibility of encountering so-called subjective truths. This term has been widely vilified in our society, especially on the right, which considers it an enabler for unscientific claims and an immoral life of self-delusion. We should all strive to be factual, they prescribe. But as we’ve seen, the ‘objective truth’ is not as straightforward as it first seems. By contrast, one’s subjective truth can shed light on which facts someone is drawing from and how their value system influences this selection.
One great example of the inclusion of subjective truth into political discussion comes from the following Youtube video, which features a Blacklivesmatter activist chatting with a self-identified member of the alt right. Scroll to 7:45 and watch how the faded Blacklivesmatter activist describes the story of her involvement with the group:
“It was weeks and weeks of murders on TV. I just kept seeing this footage over and over of Black people dying. I had this panic attack that comes back once in a while where I think about what I would do if I were killed. And I go outside and I see cops and my heart races. You take your hands out of your pocket. I think ‘Don’t hold on to anything’. Don’t look down because you might look suspicious but also don’t stare them in the face because that’s fucking weird’. And I know after seeing one case after the other, that if I was killed — police said I came at them, I had a cellphone in my hand — that cop wouldn’t go to jail. Nobody would be punished. I couldn’t suffer like that alone. I had to do something. Joining up with Blacklivesmatter has been the most healing and loving experience.”
Here we have a member of a prominent activist group who freely admits that her position is not so much a reaction to given statistical findings (although these may later be used to supplement her position). Rather, she describes her experience with Blacklivesmatter as a method for working through a lived experience: the stress, the panic, the terror of contemplating the possibility that a police officer may misconstrue her actions and kill her. By so doing, she makes explicit that her involvement with Blacklivesmatter is not guided by an objective description of society. She has shifted the dialogue away from an objective discussion and introduced the lived, subjective reality at the heart of all political involvement. So far, so good.
But her alt right interlocutor is guilty of stubbornly remaining in the objective realm and failing to shift into the domain of subjective truth. He could have interceded by saying something along the lines of “I empathize, and I can see why my call for statistics isn’t resonating with you. So let’s go into this personal aspect of your politics…”. Of course, once he enters this gate into subjectivity, he’s not at all obligated to give ground and play nice. It would have been completely valid for him to ask a question like, “Is it healthy for your political beliefs to be informed by, as you admit, bouts of panic attacks?” and “why exclude white people from this fear, don’t you agree that police brutality can cause the unjust death of white people too? So are you denying their subjective experience by insisting that this is a black-only problem?”. So in a sense, he undermined his own chance of having a productive exchange by refused to speak on a subjective level with a woman who lead the conversation in that direction.
As Ben Shapiro gloats, facts don’t care about your feelings. But the facts that shape and influence our political perspectives are hardly a purely-objective repository: our empirical understanding of the world is automatically and unconsciously mapped onto a given value system. Clearly, there isn’t a scarcity of empirical facts when it comes to politics; the digital media age has ensured that. What we lack is a coherent, unifying value system which would orient our prioritization of facts in a productive direction. We speak the same language, but when our fundamental assumptions about the world are different, we get those sentiments so frequently expressed today: talking past each other, speaking different languages, and so on. For that reason, political discourse cannot be reduced to an exchange of objective facts. We must engage intimately with the unique subjectivities that underlie these large and vocal movements.
Jung and the psychological origin of collective action
Living as we are in an era of intense political activism and mobilization, how can we begin to engage with subjectivities? Here, I take my cue from the German psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Central to Jung’s perspective was the idea that an individual’s spiritual path is akin to psychological development; the two have a shared essential quality. This underlying process, which he called individuation, involves grappling with the irrational and darker parts of our psyches — our shadows — and integrating them into the ego. But in order to accomplish this, we cannot rely on our pure-conscious knowledge of ourselves (Descartes’ cogito). If we remain in the territory of what we know, the chaotic presence of the un-symbolizable is rejected and cannot be assimilated. We have to trust in something beyond ourselves; a faith-based disposition is necessary for self-actualization.
The 2014 movie The Babadook illustrates this idea nicely. The heroine is plagued by a morbid presence, a dark and menacing shadow-figure animated by her son’s picture book. Her life is increasingly threatened by his presence as he creeps up to her when she sleeps and materializes while she’s driving. Finally, during the climactic moment of the film, she stands up to the monster in an act of immense courage and by so doing banishes it away. However, she doesn’t destroy it. instead, it’s made to live in the basement, and at the resolution of the movie we see her making frequent trips to feed it. It is controlled, but not destroyed. The Babadook, which represents a shadow threatening to destabilize our lives, could not have been simply eliminated but rather needed to be integrated into the heroine’s life. The woman from The Babadook may or may not have been religious, but her moment of confrontation was nonetheless an act of faith: less of a formalized system of practice, and more of a tool for grappling with the forces of the psyche which allows their integration.
How does all this relate to political action? In his book The Undiscovered Self, Jung predicts that as faith disappears from an individual’s personal life, it can become mobilized for political activity. The declining prominence of religious value structures, he warns, will have a dangerous political effect: the growth of mass-minded collectives. Swept up in fanatical fervor, these groups operate in highly emotional states and are guided by what Freud would describe as id-level impulses. This is a result of the sublimation of faith in god into faith in higher institutions and political programs. But even moreso, it is a result of an individual’s deferral of personal responsibility and introspection towards a collective goal:
“Instead of moral and mental differentiation of the individual, you have public welfare and the raising of the living standard. The goal and meaning of individual life (which is the only real life) no longer lie in individual development but in the policy of the State, which is thrust upon the individual from outside and consists in the execution of an abstract idea which ultimately tends to attract all life to itself.”
“…responsibility is collectivized as much as possible, i.e., is shuffled off by the individual and delegated to a corporate body”
This passage reflects a kind of conflation of self-work and the work of the state: self work is moral and mental differentiation which confronts the evil within, whereas the state’s work is a political agenda which confronts an imagined external evil. In this way, the responsibility of self-reflection and personal virtue is deferred to an ideological body which imposes its own set of virtues. What results is a kind of “wholesale virtue”: regulations on halloween costumes, what words you can and can’t say, what Hungarian Jew to be suspicious of (Soros) … anything, really, but uncovering your own virtues through a developmental process.
Above all, what Jung teaches us is that a person’s connection to a popular political movement is hardly a rational deliberation, but rather an intimate subjectivity. It therefore cannot be confronted with facts:
“We are faced, not with a situation that can be overcome by rational or moral arguments, but with an unleashing of emotional forces and ideas engendered by the spirit of the times; and these, as we know from experience, are not much influenced by rational reflection and still less by moral exhortation.”
Although, paradoxically, the system is fueled by a philosophy that elevates facts above all else:
“One of the chief factors responsible for psychological mass-mindedness is scientific rationalism, which robs the individual of his foundations and his dignity.”
In a sense, this is what makes mass-minded movements more dangerous than, say, religious fundamentalism: the latter relies on faith, whereas the former believes itself to be a truth made obvious by the clarity of empirical validation.
Sowell and the quest for cosmic justice
Justice is a word that tests the practicality of language. No one is confused by its meaning; we all have an innate sense of what it is. And yet, our personal impressions of it can often be completely different and even contradictory. Moreover, it’s a word that conforms to our own lived experience. Does anyone publicly consider themselves unjust? Under this light, it’s remarkable that we can even use such an allusive word successfully in conversation.
For Thomas Sowell, disagreement on the precise nature of justice is a major contributing factor to the rise of collectives on the political left. These movements, he argues, are guided by a quest for cosmic justice, a claim he outlines in his book of the same name. To arrive at this conclusion, he first elaborates on the nature of social justice, the self-identified project of many progressive ideologies. As we commonly understand it, the historical form of social justice sought to establish an equality of people in terms of their State-given rights. This was the popular goal of the collective: they called for specific political actions which made their political treatment of all identity groups the same.
But these days, Sowell believes that the masses are thinking not of political inequalities — which, let’s face it, have been largely eliminated — but so-called ‘spontaneous inequalities’. To understand these, we have to move away from thinking about political desires but rather of social ones. Schopenhauer, for example, says that in society people have among other basic wills a ‘will for status’. Spontaneous inequalities describe the inherent attributes of people — as Sowell lists them, parental guidance, attractiveness, intelligence, and so on — which make this social competition easier for some and harder for others. But these inequalities, far from being imposed by the state, are simply produced by nature: cosmic. Thus, Sowell concludes that what contemporary social justice movements actually desire is justice in the sense of an underlying order of reality.
To make the intersection between Sowell and Jung, we should consider the subjectivity at play within this collective. What kind of good/evil dichotomy is at play in the psychologies of modern social justice advocates (or, by their more common name, social justice warriors)? By their nature, they are oriented towards the cosmic order. So do they look upon a cosmic creator and attribute evil to him? Do they find an evil inherent to the fabric of Nature? Of course not — as scientific rationalism suggests, there is no inherent fabric, and there is no God. So instead, they re-appropriate the evil into into those who reject their supposed project to correct the evil. This contributes to the moral essentialization characteristic of these groups: the opposition almost necessarily must become evil incarnated.
The cosmic and pseudo-religious roots of mass-minded politics is even more evidence, I claim, that a subjective engagement is necessary. How can statistics possibly change the state of affairs that both Jung and Sowell attest to?
Conclusion: a new standard for political discourse
These theoretical ventures into Jung and Sowell must be related to our lived experience. They can most closely inform our lives, I think, by serving as basic principles for a higher quality of political discourse. The first lesson is, paradoxically, to look past an objective perspective and use of empirical facts for a while. The subjective experience of the person with the opinion is an important component of their ideology. This leads to the second lesson, with is engaging in a personal dialogue. This requires both sensitivity and patience, but it does not need to be passive. Because this is a political discourse, there must be certain political goals being aimed at. The relevant question, in the settling of a personal dialogue, becomes: are the the links you’re making between your lived experience and specific political activities reasonable? And this is where facts and figured might be essential.
By framing the issue in this way, I’m seeking a middle path between objectivity and subjectivity. We can affirm the validity of personal experience while still scrutinizing political projects. That is the standard of political discourse I would love to see become more popular in our society.
2 thoughts on “Jung, Sowell, and the psychology of mass-minded politics”
I absolutely loved reading this post. You are so on-point.
I have been convinced for a long time now that rationalism and objectivity have run their course. After all, we live in the era of quantum physics where we know that the observer impacts the observed. This is the only way to make sense of the world. We all have subjective, lived-experienced that we draw our information about the world from. We have all been told stories growing up that we’ve internalized as truth. It is generations upon generations convincing us what to believe, and continue to believe we do. Most of us walk around reacting to life, never questioning our values and belief systems and where they came from. We accept that objectivity is the golden standard, despite the fact that none of us make decisions purely objectively. Nor should we. We are subjective social beings who influenced by the ideologies we grew up with, not purely rational individuals who constantly make objective choices. This is why engaging in personal dialogue works (case and point, restorative justice initiatives).
Apparently that’s my two cents.
your reference to restorative justice is a great one. I agree that it’s a testament to the power of personal dialogue. the trials during post-apartheid south africa may be of interest to you. thank you for your comment