Psychology issues are the heavy artillery and heavy armor on the battlefield of our dissension. A variety of these issues are besieging national unity. Civil conflict reflects the extent of widespread neurosis and ignorance of depth psychology. The psyche of citizens is being poisoned by divisive political propaganda that poses as news and informed comment.
We tend, as well, to be highly resistant to deeper truth about ourselves. Rich or poor, liberal or conservative, we staunchly protect our egotism and tribal identifications. We resort to blaming others to cover up our injustice collecting, our largely unconscious readiness to feel victimized and disrespected, and our quickness to become negative, reactive, and cynical.
In this post, I address another psychological factor in civil unrest, the manner in which people unconsciously maintain and even embrace a sense of uncanniness concerning themselves and the world around them. (The word uncanny is a psychological term found here at Wikipedia.)
Uncanniness has a long history in personal and world affairs. People who resisted the scientific discovery that the Earth was round instead of flat experienced a sense of uncanniness. People who resisted the scientific discovery that humans have evolved from primates experienced uncanniness. Even those who, at the time of these discoveries, accepted these truths intellectually would likely have felt some uncanniness in their delayed reaction to accepting them emotionally.
From the time of childhood, humans try to avoid the challenge of dealing with reality. Stubbornness, defiance, and temper tantrums are expressions of a child’s resistance to reality. Children usually experience uncanniness when they first hear what is required of their mother and father to produce babies. Uncanniness softens the blow of having one’s illusions shattered, thereby temporarily lessening inner fearfulness. A serious problem arises when uncanniness persists and the individual is unwilling, at an unconscious level, to break through into what is real and true. That’s when irrationality, paranoia, and conspiracy theories flourish.
At the best of times, life can be confounding. We humans struggle mightily to make sense of it. Most of us eventually adopt belief systems, including ones that are irrational or lead us into self-defeat, in order to quell inner fear, which itself is a lingering effect of childhood helplessness and irrationality. The personality we adopt is also, in part, an accommodation to inner fear and inner conflict.
Rapid social and technological changes stir up this inner fear. Too much change in too short a time is going to overwhelm us, Alvin and Heidi Toffler warned in “Future Shock,” their 1970 bestselling book. Nonetheless, we can, when brave or insightful, become less fearful, assimilate these changes, and live in peace and harmony.
It’s important now to be more aware of our unrecognized inner fears. In America, we built a vast nuclear arsenal to deal with perceived threats, but inner fear was a factor in the building of that arsenal. Nuclear weapons gave us the illusion of safety, but other countries soon built their own. The world has been living for more than seven decades with the uncanny prospect of nuclear annihilation. If we had been more evolved, more psychologically astute, we could have, through diplomacy backed by genuine sincerity and even love, avoided this danger. The world is now living with a new uncanniness, the growing possibility that our world will be radically altered if not destroyed by climate change.
As mentioned, uncanniness has its own allure, an ignorance-is-bliss effect. The allure of the uncanny is also emotionally thrilling, which accounts for why people read mysteries, thrillers, and horror stories and watch scary movies. Inner fear can be tantalizing and manageable when we absorb it in just the “right” dose, and the feeling of uncanniness, in moderate doses, enables us to do this. But moderation is missing at President Trump’s political rallies where the people present are inebriated on irrationality.
Uncanniness might feel good in a perverse sort of way, yet it tends to be paralyzing. It’s the passive feeling that the individual is only an insignificant witness to an unfolding spectacle and has no responsibility for the outcome of events. Eventual self-defeat in such passivity (for instance, climate change unchecked) is discounted because the individual’s first priority, through the haze of uncanniness, is to minimize, though not address, inner fear.
Psychological self-development always takes effort, and it often takes courage, too. It’s easier to remain obtuse, with one’s intelligence dulled as it hides out behind denial and psychological defenses. In fact, uncanniness in itself operates as a psychological defense. The defense goes like this: “I’m not afraid. I’m not passively and fearfully overwhelmed by these changing times. Look, everything is unreal. There’s nothing real to be afraid of. It’s all just crazy! What can anyone do?”
When an individual adopts this defense, he or she is inwardly desperate to maintain it. The irrationality of the defense is then embraced for the purpose of suppressing inner truth concerning one’s emotional resonance with inner fear and one’s unwillingness to confront and deal with that fear. This makes uncanniness psychologically alluring, a defensive weapon for those who refuse to grow psychologically.
President Trump echoes this psychological inner state when he appends to many of his statements the term, “Who knows.” He’s not really asking a question. Instead, he’s proclaiming a meme for a post-truth era, to the effect, “Nobody knows!” Hence, the implication: “Nobody knows the truth, and that’s just the way it is.” People are invited to live under Trump’s protection in a Neverland world of illusionary safety. Millions have accepted his invitation to believe that Obama was born in Africa, the media carelessly and maliciously produce fake news, and climate change is a Chinese hoax. The uncanniness of such claims corresponds with the uncanniness his followers readily embrace. Trump is one of them because, psychologically, he lets them off the hook. Like him, they decline to grow psychologically.
The passionate attacks on the media show how some people, in the throes of uncanniness, don’t want truth. Truth is the enemy of those who embrace uncanniness as a psychological defense against inner fear and as an evasion of our human responsibility to become smarter and wiser.
Uncanniness is linked to emotional residues of infantile omnipotence. This infantile illusion of being all-powerful serves as a compensation for the passivity forced on the child by his dependence and helplessness. This omnipotence is a gratifying impression that also might serve the child’s will to live. Trump displays aspects of this infantile omnipotence, particularly in his charged negative reactions to those who thwart or defy him. His followers experienced his grandiosity when it was on display for years on his reality TV show. When he became a candidate for president, they could, by bonding and identifying with him, feel the old self-glorification in themselves. The remnants of infantile omnipotence can be reawakened in some people, especially in those who are most mired in their passivity and most handicapped by it. Through Trump, people reawakened that lost fantasy world with its accompanying uncanniness, euphoria, bravado, and sense of being powerful. In doing so, they sacrificed rationality.
Many people will never become conscious of their deep, frozen fears. Unfortunately, it means they’ll continue to project their fears outward onto others or circumstances, making it feel to them that their fears are based entirely on real external threats. Hence a defense: “I’m not weak and afraid of being defeated or overwhelmed by outside malice. Look at how I want action building a wall on the southern border. Look at how much I love my guns which empower me.” Regulation of guns is felt as disempowerment, a feeling with which many fearful individuals unconsciously identify, while simultaneously denying and repressing doing so.
The extent of psychological weakness in the human psyche is also tragically displayed in the opioid crisis and other addictive behaviors. A sense of futility is easily adopted as a result of this lack of emotional resilience. Meanwhile, we all have to endure the uncanniness of repeated mass killings by domestic terrorists using assault weapons—and then observe paralyzed politicians failing to respond appropriately.
Another psychological defense adopted by those who embrace uncanniness involves thoughts, feelings, and acts of violent aggression and hatred. Psychological defenses can be highly self-destructive. Hatred and violent aggression are experienced and then employed as an unconscious defense, to this effect: “I’m not helplessly at the mercy of changing times. I’m not passively overwhelmed by all the chaos taking place in my life and the world. Look, I’m angry and feeling aggressive. I’m feeling hateful toward those who are upsetting my sense of how things are supposed to be. I’m even thinking of how I can hurt them or destroy them.”
People employing this defense become excited as they bypass inner fear and express aggression through an “aggressive” movement. The negative, emotional intensity with which such a defense is employed often has to be escalated, meaning more anger and rage, in order for the defense to continue to be effective at hiding inner truth.
Trump stokes anger and rage from his followers because this irrationality, itself a cover-up for emotional weakness and self-alienation, is the enemy of truth. His business career has involved hiding from truth in the shadows of corruption. Having Trump as president has produced uncanniness in many good citizens of all political persuasions. We mustn’t be paralyzed by the uncanny effect.
Reality is the raw material with which the conflicted psyche stakes out its version of truth. When emotionally entangled in uncanniness, the individual is making an inner choice to ignore reality by adopting titillating mindlessness and living in a sanctuary of passivity, for the purpose of evading the challenge of becoming a mature, evolved human being.