Confronting Shame-Based Politics: The Biggest Challenge of All

Originally posted on The Huffington Post, April 24, 2012

What an incredibly boring and uninteresting world it would be if one needed nothing more than a surface understanding of things in order to take action against wrongs.

Over 40 years of professional experience has taught me that deep unconscious forces, of which we are by definition largely unaware, govern the vast majority of human behavior. At a minimum, unconscious factors impact human behavior significantly. Why else would so many sensible, rational appeals and policies that purport to solve our most pressing problems (e.g., gun control, health care, greater investment in education, etc.) not only fall on deaf ears, but be resisted so vehemently?

Sadly, most people are not only unaware of such forces, but as a result, they are often extremely defensive and hostile towards any discussions of them.

To be perfectly clear, although I am a Fellow of The American Psychological Association and thus have a considerable background in psychology, I have never been a practicing clinician or therapist. Instead, I am a psychoanalytically educated social philosopher/scientist. As a result, I regularly use psychoanalysis and psychodynamics to help explain complex, human behavior. Along with history and literature, psychoanalysis is one of the very few fields that delve deeply into the psyche in the attempt to produce sophisticated explanations of human behavior.

This is precisely why I find NYU psychiatrist James Gilligan’s recent book, Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others, so important. Gilligan makes an extremely powerful case in explaining how and why lethal violence, whether in the form of homicide or suicide, has historically increased significantly under Republican presidents and declined just as significantly under Democratic presidents. Indeed, lethal violence regularly reaches epidemic levels under Republican presidents. Even under Democrats, it is still way too high compared to other developed nations.

The link is as follows: While Republicans perpetually talk about getting tough on crime, they actually need high crime rates to get and stay in power. Because Republicans are motivated chiefly by helping the rich maintain their wealth, pitting the lower middle class and working poor against the chronically unemployed and unemployable poor — who are seen as the primary parties largely responsible for crime — is a great way of diverting attention away from the fact that unemployment, income and social inequality — all of which are major factors responsible for crime — actually increase substantially under Republican presidents. This is precisely why Gilligan sees some politicians, mainly Republicans, as more dangerous than others. Unfortunately, there are enough dangerous Democrats to go around as well.

More importantly, as a psychiatrist, Gilligan digs deeper for the underlying unconscious elements of human behavior. Republicans, and the Red State constituents they represent, are governed largely by a shame-based morality or ethic. Democrats, and their Blue State constituents, are governed largely by a guilt-based morality.

Shame is the deep, persistent feeling that, “I am bad.” On the other hand, guilt is the feeling that, “We or I did something bad, but we are not necessarily or inherently bad ourselves.” Suffering shame by say being fired or chronically unemployed, often leads to feelings that one is irredeemably bad to the depths of one’s core. This in turn often leads to powerful feelings of wanting to strike back with intense acts of violence against others (homicide) or oneself (suicide). Whether “they” or one’s self is actually responsible is besides the fact for in the wounded psyche everything and everyone is bad and therefore at fault. Red States intensify such feelings because they have a culture that inculcates and legitimizes violence, and therefore, in subtle and not so subtle ways encourage its use.

In contrast, under guilt, one is motivated to help those who through no fault of their own have suffered, e.g., racial discrimination, unemployment, etc.

Understanding such forces is crucial in attacking issues such as gun control, which are completely out of control. Even though the vast majority of both NRA and non-NRA gun owners are for tighter gun control laws, fear and shame are still the primary factors driving gun ownership to record highs. But fear and shame cannot be approached directly, for one is generally too ashamed to admit one is ashamed!

If shame is indeed one of the most powerful unconscious forces behind so many of our failed attempts to curb our most pressing social problems, and if it is difficult to approach directly, then how can we confront and combat shame itself?

There are at least four different ways, none of which are sufficient by themself. The first is obviously books such as Gilligan’s, which point out the complex factors and overall patterns responsible for shame. Sadly, because they confront shame too directly and are largely cognitive in nature, they reach only a very small percentage of the population, mainly highly educated liberals, who are already less prone to shame. Nonetheless, they are necessary even if they are not sufficient. Without understanding the factors responsible for shame, it is extremely difficult, if not virtually impossible, to fashion truly effective ways of combating it.

The second way is of course individual therapy. Again, this only reaches a very small percentage of the population, mainly highly educated liberals. And, it does not treat a whole society therapeutically that is suffering from shame.

The third of course is ongoing, sustained programs and efforts in education. The earlier and the younger we intervene with children the better. But imagine the howls of protests from conservatives who are already paranoid about “government stealing the minds of children.”

The fourth is the most effective. It consists of carefully orchestrated public service campaigns that feature prominent, charismatic figures from all walks of life (business, entertainment, sports, politics, etc.) that have successfully faced and overcome shame. Powerful personal stories are the main ingredient. And, of course, celebrities are the story.

Ideally, we would use all four together so that they could reinforce one another. Indeed, we especially need the first to inform the fourth.

With great insight, the brilliant English writer and wit Jonathan Swift said it best of all: “You can’t reason a man out of what he was not reasoned into in the first place.” I couldn’t agree more!

Reason — the first way of combating shame — is always necessary in attacking great social issues and problems, but it is never sufficient in and of itself.

I have no doubt that violence has reached epidemic proportions in American society. It has been an epidemic for far too long. Therefore, addressing shame — one of the most important causes of violence — is a major priority.

Nations are judged not by the easy problems they solve, but like slavery and civil rights, the difficult problems they finally have the will to face.

Originally posted on The Huffington Post, April 24, 2012

About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Affiliate with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
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