"History is the sumtotal of the things that could have been avoided" - Konrad Adenauer, West German Chancellor 1949-63.
The collective unconscious stores up unresolved issues, feelings, public visions and memories, hopes and dreams, buried social fears, pain and pathos. These bundles of buried energy ferment and ruminate, emerging in roundabout ways across the generations, expressed through strongly-held convictions, long-standing prejudices, recurrent tendencies and periodic bursts of genius or tragedy.
There are two layers to world events – the ‘official line’ and the ‘hidden agenda’. The ‘official line’ is what we publicly subscribe to, whether we agree or disagree with it. It’s the collective ego, embodied by governments, institutions, respected public figures, diplomats, news bulletins and all that is ‘acceptable’ and ‘normal’. We all identify with such given ‘official’ norms in our own lives too - whatever the response we make to them.
Then there are hidden agendas, underlying dynamics and unconscious scenarios with a life of their own. The collective unconscious contains facts and fictions, horrors and romance, shadows and rays of light. When it erupts, unrest, dissent and breakthroughs emerge, or public opinion suddenly shifts.
When Princess Diana died in 1997, a tearful upwelling of suppressed sorrow moved millions, for inexplicable reasons. Diana was gone – yet, underneath, something else was being born. This was but one example of the working of the mass unconscious.
All this is fine when it helps humanity, as in the ‘freedom and democracy’ movements in 1989 or the immediately postwar UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1945. However, when dreams fail, as in Tienanmen Square in 1989, things get tough. At times the collective unconscious can be dangerous: in the 1991 Gulf War and the 1994 Rwanda massacres people’s worst nightmares were fulfilled. Hellish scenarios can also be helpful: the late-80s Chernobyl explosion and Ethiopian famines catalysed public feelings saying "no more" and "not this".
Society can go to great lengths to cover up its dishonesties and half-truths. During the Cold War, Westerners believed Communists were almost sub-human – this conveniently covered up the many inhumanities occurring in the West. Later, this dehumanising ‘Commie’ projection shifted to Muslims, who were suddenly all seen to be potential suicide bombers. Unless healed, this tendency to project can switch mercilessly to others too.
All cultures have their prejudices – Indians and Pakistanis, Taiwanese and Chinese, Arabs and Europeans all have antipathies, derived from past events, underlyingly anticipating the worst in the future. Saddam Hussein, scapegoated by the world, was once favoured and courted by it when he was considered good business. Nelson Mandela, almost sanctified, was once shunned as a black terrorist up to no good.
Humanity is essentially one being – with many constituent and sometimes-conflicting sub-parts to it. In this family dynamic, we conflict with those who remind us of our own shame, regret or fear. Yet, in this light, those who irritate or diminish us are part of us. Our responsibility is to acknowledge our own contribution to such problems - it takes two to tango. We need to own up and quit blaming others for our problems.
In the late 1980s the Soviets opted to forgive Western aggression and ‘wield the ultimate weapon’. They stopped the marching music and ended the Cold War. Similarly, on ‘Victory in Europe’ day in 1995, a generation of combatants (largely) forgave the past and retracted their residual bad feelings, healing much more than the shadow of WW2.
In the Twenty-First Century we have lots of ‘owning up’ to do. Past negativities need consigning to history. Shadows need healing through citizen interaction, mass-handshaking and forgiveness. This is very real: mothers’ losses, nations’ defeats, brutalities, betrayals, lies and grinding hardships impact emotionally on whole societies.
Scarred and bruised, we react disproportionately to events, making mountains out of molehills. Israelis are touchy about security. China frets quietly over foreign intrusion. British suspect French, Greeks suspect Turks, Zulus suspect Xhosa. We fear that others will do to us what we actually do (or have done) to them.
This can work positively too: Germany and France, combatants of the past, now cooperate. South Africa and Russia, with histories of internal oppression, have avoided vengeful civil wars – though social pain still leaks out though high crime rates and corruption.
People’s hidden feelings have a big effect on social and international relations. Symbolism gets tied up in events, inflating their significance for better or worse. Denial and avoidance of our own errors need to transform into social truth-processes which, though painful and risky, can heal old wounds and stop inherited shadows being dumped on our descendants.
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