One of the deadliest practices we engage in is that of identifying ourselves with a collective entity. Whether it be the state, a nationality, our race or gender, or any other abstraction, we introduce division — hence, conflict — into our lives as we separate ourselves from those who identify with other groupings. If one observes the state of our world today, this is the pattern that underlies our deadly and destructive social behavior. This mindset was no better articulated than when George W. Bush declared u201Cyou’re either with us, or against us.u201D
Through years of careful conditioning, we learn to think of ourselves in terms of agencies and/or abstractions external to our independent being. Or, to express the point more clearly, we have learned to internalize these external forces; to conform our thinking and behavior to the purposes and interests of such entities. We adorn ourselves with flags, mouth shibboleths, and decorate our cars with bumper-stickers, in order to communicate to others our sense of u201Cwho we are.u201D In such ways does our being become indistinguishable from our chosen collective.
In this way are institutions born. We discover a particular form of organization through which we are able to cooperate with others for our mutual benefit. Over time, the advantages derived from this system have a sufficient consistency to lead us to the conclusion that our well-being is dependent upon it. Those who manage the organization find it in their self-interests to propagate this belief so that we will become dependent upon its permanency. Like a sculptor working with clay, institutions take over the direction of our minds, twisting, squeezing, and pounding upon them until we have embraced a mindset conducive to their interests. Once this has been accomplished, we find it easy to subvert our will and sense of purpose to the collective. The organization ceases being a mere tool of mutual convenience, and becomes an end in itself. Our lives become u201Cinstitutionalized,u201D and we regard it as fanciful to imagine ourselves living in any other way than as constituent parts of a machine that transcends our individual sense.
Once we identify ourselves with the state, that collective entity does more than represent who we are; it is who we are. To the politicized mind, the idea that u201Cwe are the governmentu201D has real meaning, not in the sense of being able to control such an agency, but in the psychological sense. The successes and failures of the state become the subject’s successes and failures; insults or other attacks upon their abstract sense of being — such as the burning of u201Ctheiru201D flag — become assaults upon their very personhood. Shortcomings on the part of the state become our failures of character. This is why so many Americans who have belatedly come to criticize the war against Iraq are inclined to treat it as only a u201Cmistakeu201D or the product of u201Cmismanagement,u201D not as a moral wrong. Our egos can more easily admit to the making of a mistake than to moral transgressions. Such an attitude also helps to explain why, as Milton Mayer wrote in his revealing post-World War II book, They Thought They Were Free, most Germans were unable to admit that the Nazi regime had been tyrannical.
It is this dynamic that makes it easy for political officials to generate wars, a process that reinforces the sense of identity and attachment people have for u201Ctheiru201D state. It also helps to explain why most Americans — though tiring of the war against Iraq — refuse to condemn government leaders for the lies, forgeries, and deceit employed to get the war started: to acknowledge the dishonesty of the system through which they identify themselves is to admit to the dishonest base of their being.
The truthfulness of the state’s rationale for war is irrelevant to most of its subjects. It is sufficient that they believe the abstraction with which their lives are intertwined will be benefited in some way by war. Against whom and upon what claim does not matter — except as a factor in assessing the likelihood of success. That most Americans have pipped nary a squeak of protest over Bush administration plans to attack Iran — with nuclear weapons if deemed useful to its ends — reflects the point I am making. Bush could undertake a full-fledged war against Lapland, and most Americans would trot out their flags and bumper-stickers of approval.
The u201Crightnessu201D or u201Cwrongnessu201D of any form of collective behavior becomes interpreted by the standard of whose actions are being considered. During World War II, for example, Japanese kamikaze pilots were regarded as crazed fanatics for crashing their planes into American battleships. At the same time, American war movies (see, e.g., Flying Tigers) extolled the heroism of American pilots who did the same thing. One sees this same double-standard in responding to u201Cconspiracy theories.u201D u201CDo you think a conspiracy was behind the 9/11 attacks?u201D It certainly seems so to me, unless one is prepared to treat the disappearance of the World Trade Center buildings as the consequence of a couple pilots having bad navigational experiences! The question that should be asked is: whose conspiracy was it? To those whose identities coincide with the state, such a question is easily answered: others conspire, we do not.
It is not the symbiotic relationship between war and the expansion of state power, nor the realization of corporate benefits that could not be obtained in a free market, that mobilize the machinery of war. Without most of us standing behind u201Couru201D system, and cheering on u201Couru201D troops, and defending u201Couru201D leaders, none of this would be possible. What would be your likely response if your neighbor prevailed upon you to join him in a violent attack upon a local convenience store, on the grounds that it hired u201Cillegal aliens?u201D Your sense of identity would not be implicated in his efforts, and you would likely dismiss him as a lunatic.
Only when our ego-identities become wrapped up with some institutional abstraction — such as the state — can we be persuaded to invest our lives and the lives of our children in the collective madness of state action. We do not have such attitudes toward organizations with which we have more transitory relationships. If we find an accounting error in our bank statement, we would not find satisfaction in the proposition u201Cthe First National Bank, right or wrong.u201D Neither would we be inclined to wear a T-shirt that read u201CDisneyland: love it or leave it.u201D
One of the many adverse consequences of identifying with and attaching ourselves to collective abstractions is our loss of control over not only the meaning and direction in our lives, but of the manner in which we can be efficacious in our efforts to pursue the purposes that have become central to us. We become dependent upon the performance of u201Couru201D group; u201Couru201D reputation rises or falls on the basis of what institutional leaders do or fail to do. If u201Couru201D nation-state loses respect in the world — such as by the use of torture or killing innocent people – we consider ourselves no longer respectable, and scurry to find plausible excuses to redeem our egos. When these expectations are not met, we go in search of new leaders or organizational reforms we believe will restore our sense of purpose and pride that we have allowed abstract entities to personify for us.
As the costs and failures of the state become increasingly evident, there is a growing tendency to blame this system. But to do so is to continue playing the same game into which we have allowed ourselves to become conditioned. One of the practices employed by the state to get us to mobilize our u201Cdark sideu201D energies in opposition to the endless recycling of enemies it has chosen for us, is that of psychological projection. Whether we care to acknowledge it or not — and most of us do not — each of us has an unconscious capacity for attitudes or conduct that our conscious minds reject. We fear that, sufficiently provoked, we might engage in violence — even deadly — against others; or that inducements might cause us to become dishonest. We might harbor racist or other bigoted sentiments, or consider ourselves lazy or irresponsible. Though we are unlikely to act upon such inner fears, their presence within us can generate discomforting self-directed feelings of guilt, anger, or unworthiness that we would like to eliminate. The most common way in which humanity has tried to bring about such an exorcism is by subconsciously projecting these traits onto others (i.e., u201Cscapegoatsu201D) and punishing them for what are really our own shortcomings.
The state has trained us to behave this way, in order that we may be counted upon to invest our lives, resources, and other energies in pursuit of the enemy du jour. It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that most of us resort to the same practice in our criticism of political systems. After years of mouthing the high-school civics class mantra about the necessity for government — and the bigger the government the better — we begin to experience the unexpected consequences of politicization. Tax burdens continue to escalate; or the state takes our home to make way for a proposed shopping center; or ever-more details of our lives are micromanaged by ever-burgeoning state bureaucracies.
Having grown weary of the costs — including the loss of control over our lives — we blame the state for what has befallen us. We condemn the Bush administration for the parade of lies that precipitated the war against Iraq, rather than indicting ourselves for ever believing anything the state tells us. We fault the politicians for the skyrocketing costs of governmental programs, conveniently ignoring our insistence upon this or that benefit whose costs we would prefer having others pay. The statists have helped us accept a world view that conflates our incompetence to manage our own lives with their omniscience to manage the lives of billions of people — along with the planet upon which we live! — and we are now experiencing the costs generated by our own gullibility.
We have acted like country bumpkins at the state fair with the egg money who, having been fleeced by a bunch of carnival sharpies, look everywhere for someone to blame other than ourselves. We have been euchred out of our very lives because of our eagerness to believe that benefits can be enjoyed without incurring costs; that the freedom to control one’s life can be separated from the responsibilities for one’s actions; and that two plus two does not have to add up to four if a sizeable public opinion can be amassed against the proposition.
By identifying ourselves with any abstraction (such as the state) we give up the integrated life, the sense of wholeness that can be found only within each of us. While the state has manipulated, cajoled, and threatened us to identify ourselves with it, the responsibility for our acceding to its pressures lies within each of us. The statists have — as was their vicious purpose — simply taken over the territory we have abandoned.
Our politico-centric pain and suffering has been brought about by our having allowed external forces to move in and occupy the vacuum we created at the center of our being. The only way out of our dilemma involves a retracing of the route that brought us to where we are. We require nothing so much right now as the development of a sense of u201Cwho we areu201D that transcends our institutionalized identities, and returns us — without division and conflict — to a centered, self-directed integrity in our lives.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.