A Walk On the Dark Side

Suppose a loved one of yours is suffering from a terminal illness. Suppose, further, that you receive a bona fide offer to have this person cured by your agreeing to the death of another person, whose identity you will never know. This unknown person could be living anyplace in the world, and will have his or her life snuffed out the instant you agree to the arrangement.

What will you do? The setting in which this question is asked is not conducive to realistic answers. The benefits held out to your loved one will not materialize, nor will a faceless soul on the other side of the globe be facing extinction as a consequence of your answer. In a way, my question is as meaningless as that offered to beauty contestants who are asked: "if you had but one wish, what would it be for?," to which each provides her Pavlovian response: "peace and brotherhood for all mankind." It is because these women know they do not have such a wish that they provide the expected answer. So, too, with my question.

But try to transcend the fictionalized nature of my inquiry. What if the above opportunity could be made available to you, with the cost for your agreement to be imposed on some stranger? It could be a Tibetan goat-herder, or a Florida chiropractor, or someone living a mile from you, but the surrogate will never be revealed. Do you think you might be tempted to seek such an enormous benefit at the expense of a remote other?

Let me try approaching this question from a more familiar angle. Let us suppose that some mysterious foreigners managed to pull off a major atrocity someplace in America, killing close to three thousand people. You become, understandably, both fearful and angry: fearful that you or your loved ones might be vulnerable to attack, and angry that someone could make you feel vulnerable. Your fear is enhanced by the anonymous nature of the attackers, so there is no clear target upon which, or whom, to focus your anger.

A political leader whom you respect informs you that he knows the identity of the forces behind this atrocity. "It is the Lower Ruritanians," he tells you, "who are in league with the Slobovian Liberation Front, who engineered this attack as the first step in destroying America and taking over the world!" This leader then tells you that he has located the center of this wicked conspiracy in Lockstockia, whose national leaders are on the verge of an all-out attack on American cities; an attack that can be averted only if "we" attack and destroy "them" first!

Your fears having been mobilized to a sufficient level of frenzy, you join your like-minded neighbors to demand the most unrestrained retribution against all Lockstockians for their collective guilt for ill-defined wrongs. Those who urge caution are denounced as "traitors," "America-haters," or, perhaps, even "terrorist sympathizers." No amount of military force is regarded as too much to inflict upon such agents of evil; no police-state restraints are beyond the pale of permissibility if a "free" society is to protect itself. Flags must be thrust into the breezes; the leader who advised you of these threats must be deified: to be against this man is to be against God!

When it is later shown that the "evidence" upon which the leader relied to enlist your support had been fabricated out of smoke and mirrors, that his solemn pronouncements were all lies, and that the Lockstockians were no more responsible for the original atrocity than was Elvis Presley’s ghost, such information does little to abate your energies. The truth-tellers are simply added to the list of "enemies" and "traitors" to be exorcised by a more intense devotion to the leader and his purposes. The truth puts the leader in a negative light and reflects badly upon you for having supported him.

Your ego is now under attack from its harshest critic (i.e., yourself). Instead of reassessing your previous commitments — which would further damage a shaken ego by the admission of error on your part — your anger, now unconsciously directed at yourself, intensifies. You begin swinging wildly at an ever-increasing array of shadows whose lack of any connection to one another only increases your suspicion of a widespread conspiracy aligned against America and, by indirection, you.

These hypotheticals — one more fanciful than the other — help to reveal a side to our personality that we prefer not to acknowledge, particularly to our conscious minds. Each of us has a "dark side," inhabited by what Carl Jung called the "shadow," a force derived from our common heritage of being human. Each of us has a wonderful capacity for creativity, love, cooperation, kindness, living peacefully with others, and a desire for godliness. We relish such qualities and want others to think of us as the embodiment of such traits. But we also have this "dark side," wherein reside such attributes as anger, laziness, dishonesty, bigotry, a willingness to kill or use other forms of violence against others, and other tendencies that our conscious mind rejects.

Such perverse traits amount to a form of entropy (i.e., energy not available for productive work) and so we try to dispose of it in much the same way that a manufacturer might choose to dispose of industrial waste: to project it onto others. Just as pollution is a way of socializing costs associated with productive work, psychological projection socializes the costs of dealing with our internal contradictions. In each instance, we are compelling others to bear the costs of our refusal to take personal responsibility for the consequences of our actions.

The polluter (i.e., trespasser) and the projector each generates social conflict through their refusals to internalize all the elements associated with their conduct. Jung tells us that "projection" can only be ended by our willingness to accept our "dark side," to acknowledge that, despite our consciously-held values, we also have less-than-virtuous tendencies that might arise and cause us to take actions we would otherwise reject. This does not mean that we will necessarily act upon such traits, but only that we admit to ourselves that we are no less susceptible to their seductive powers than anyone else. By accepting our "dark side," we have no ego-protective need to project its expressions onto others. In so doing, we "individuate" ourselves from the destructive force of collective, mass-mindedness that is implicit in "projection."

But “projection” remains the course of least resistance to weak minds. A good example of this practice can be found in the United States Senate, which is presently considering a resolution apologizing for the failure of that body to enact anti-lynching legislation over one hundred years ago. As Hitler so well demonstrated, the vicious nature of “projection” is furthered by the propagation of collective guilt. The unjustifiable deaths of over 100,000 innocent Iraqis is a topic the Senate does not choose to explore. Instead, state-sanctioned murder will be condemned ex post facto. Upon the collective heads of senators, long since dead, will be projected the sense of wrong for failing to do what the current Senate is too cowardly to do!

Because of its negative implications, our "shadow" personality prefers to skulk in the obscurity of the "dark side." When mobilized to act, it prefers to hide in the anonymity of the crowd. One rarely sees a person standing alone, in the face of contrary opinion, to announce his or her preference for racism, violence, or the killing of innocent persons. For it to become socially active, the "shadow" must be afforded a sense of safety in numbers that can only arise from the generation of a mob mentality.

Anonymity — both of ourselves as actors and faceless others as our victims — makes it easier for us to disguise our wrongdoing. Returning to my earlier hypothetical, few of us would be prepared to go to the home of another person and kill them in order to get his liver for a transplant for a family member; but hiding our victim — whose identity cannot be known to us — within a crowd of billions, would give most of us little pause.

So, too, with a lynch mob — or its political equivalent, a war. We hide in the mass, waving flags to cheer on others to join in the slaughter of those we have accepted as "scapegoats" for our unresolved anger. Later, when our conscious mind becomes aware that the war had been grounded in lies and deceit, we are too uncomfortable admitting how easily our "dark side" can be mobilized to destructive ends.

Like the member of a lynch mob who later slips away to minimize his embarrassment, we may take down our flags, and replace them with bumper-stickers with the obscure message "support the troops." What message do we intend to create: that we no longer support the dishonest purposes of the politicians and want only to protect the lives of young soldiers? Or, is this but a code phrase meaning "support the war"? I saw one billboard, early in the war, that read: "support the troops: bring them home!," a message reflecting the first purpose. I have more recently seen bumper-stickers proclaiming: "support the war and President Bush," a clear endorsement of the latter intent. With a growing split of opinion about the legitimacy of this war, the "support the troops" bumper-stickers contain an uncertainty that allows people to appear to be on either side of the issue. Such an amorphous message provides the "shadow" with another opportunity for anonymity.

It has been said that the increased destructiveness of political systems over the centuries derives from the fact that our technological capacities have increased exponentially, while our civilizing sentiments have increased only arithmetically. In exploring our "dark side," we might become aware of why placing weapons designed for mass slaughter in the hands of sophisticated killer-apes was not one of nature’s better moves. We might also discover a truth that is uncomfortable for most of us to face, namely, that the explanations for our periodic collapse into collective madness are not to be found in those who manipulate "dark side" forces for their vile ends. The Bushes, Cheneys, Wolfowitzes, Rumsfelds, and Rices did not invent the wicked games played at the expense of others. These people are the descendants of a long line of professional practitioners of realpolitik, and their passing from the political scene will only make way for others now working their way up through the minor leagues of statism.

Shakespeare expressed our dilemma as succinctly as any: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings." The moral slugs who fabricated the excuses for this war, and who helped to mobilize weak-souled men and women into a mindless support for it, are certainly accountable for their wrongs. But instead of focusing our anger upon them — which would be but another act of projection of our own "dark side" onto them — we would be better advised to confront our own existential cowardice. Political leaders amass power only through our moral exhaustion; they are strong only because we have allowed ourselves to become weak. Perhaps in our willingness to get acquainted with our "shadow," we may discover the best defense against those who have mastered the art of manipulating men and women into the subservient but malignant herds that are destroying mankind.