Browsing the Quora lists, I stumbled on a thread about whether the death penalty was ever justified. A former FBI agent related a case of a family murder that haunted her. Just her dry recitation of the facts chilled and nauseated me. I thought she would conclude with support for the death penalty, but she didn’t. She came out against retributive justice.
In his Power of Myth series, Joseph Campbell related the tale of a samurai who stalked an evil man and had him at bay. As the samurai prepared to kill him, the man spat in his face, and the samurai sheathed his sword and left. His code of honor forbade him from slaying in anger.
Suspending judgment and action when we’re worked up is civilized behavior. And in this age of addiction to social-media outrage, it bears examining in light of what the psychoanalyst Carl Jung taught.
Our visceral reaction against evil is an encounter with our own, unconscious potential for evil.* Likewise, we unconsciously recognize our latent powers in those whom we admire. The deeper our emotional reactions, the closer to the most primitive, collective reach of the psyche, the realm of gods and monsters. Jung observed that we naturally become cocooned in our projections, increasingly rigid and limited. The hard task of breaking this cocoon, of becoming more fully your Self, is to make your projections conscious, to recognize and own up to them. Every genocidal campaign represents a failure of this personal responsibility on a monumental scale.
If you’re addicted to outrage on social media, like I have been, you are distracting yourself from a challenging self-encounter. It’s only natural. We evolved to selfishly appropriate the grievance of our tribes and to lay the burden of our own weakness on the shoulders of heroes. But we also evolved a higher function of mind, a capacity to reject the easy path. To pursue our own greatness. To own our own shit.
*I do a thought experiment on myself to test my projections. I call it the Evil-Robot Test, or the Terminator Test. Imagine a crime that gets you worked up. Consider your thoughts about the perpetrator, your construction of their personality and motives. Then consider your probable feeling toward an emotionless robot that performed the same deeds. Our theory of mind — our ability to relate to our non-robot construction of another person — is an essential survival tool. The better our theory of mind, the better we can befriend, seduce, exploit, overcome, or avoid others, as necessary, but it is always incomplete and a reflection of our own capacities.
Another thoughtful post. I enjoy delving back into Jung from time to time. I had missed the statement you refer to about being hemmed in by our own constructs so we cannot grow, though not the gist of if. I was an early fan of van Vogt and his Null-A novels; the map is not the territory, the word is not the thing itself. A few years later I was working on a series of newspaper articles about traffic deaths in Pennsylvania. Some thoughtful administrator had concluded that we had tons of assumptions about the causes–projections as it were–but unsound basis for such projections. So he or she created an accident response team of three members: a state trooper, a highway engineer–and a psychologist. With support from the auto insurance industry, the team took a motor home to random collision sites and interviewed survivors and studied the locations; total candor was sought by absolving all participants in a studied crash of any legal liability, civil or criminal. Everybody with insurance got their coverage as if the wronged party and signed away any tort.
One of the most remarkable (to me) findings of the psychologist supported the Null-A concept in a striking way: the road we drive is not the road before us. It is the road in our mind. When victims of a crash said “he came out of nowhere” they were being quite literal; the colliding vehicle had never appeared on their mind map of the road, as opposed to the actual road before them on the day of the incident. He hypothesized drivers who first drive nervously and carefully,then relax more and more as familiarity breeds not necessarily contempt but benign inattention: never had a wreck here before. The bubble of never had a wreck here before gradually expands to include all driving–Until Uncle Willy from Wisconsin drives into the equation,having driven all night to visit his nieces, and “comes out of nowhere” by appearing on the actual highway which bears a resemblance to the highway driven daily–minus Uncle Willy. You can’t miss what you can’t see–and you’re driving by your mind map, not the territory out the windshield. He despaired of any kind of educational effort that would have an effect on this, and said given the statistical law of large numbers, highways and byways were always going to be lethal as long as there was traffic.
My interview made interesting reading, and I thought I had taken heed in my own driving. But only a couple years later I was living in a rural place in Florida and driving into Tallahassee to work.
Up to the state highway, stop, turn right; an easy commute way back then. Gradually I was executing “California stops” (My work then took me to California several weeks a month) that degenerated into a slow-rolling turn. Never even looking to the right, just to the left; following the map in my mind that said there was never traffic that time of morning. Until the day I popped onto the highway face to face with a car passing a slow moving farm truck at a high rate of speed–“out of nowhere.” I managed to yank my truck into the borrow ditch and missed by a paint job. The ditch was dry and I drove out and proceeded with my day–adrenalin and self-castigation pumping.
So those engrams by which we navigate our days and perceive the world are pernicious and resilient. It is hard work to even become aware of them and deal with them consciously. Especially in issues more complicated that driving survival, such as our reactions to news of the world around us. You call doing this civilized; the dense writings of Count K. (won’t attempt to spell his name) called it sanity. Maybe one day general education will include instruction in becoming conscious of these things and sorting them out, toward a saner and more civilized world. Isn’t it pretty to think so.
Thanks for your response, Bill. In high school I pulled out in front of a car and totaled my folks’ Volkswagen Rabbit after a full day of driving a van for the Oregon State Highway Department. The car that hit me did seem to come out of nowhere. I must have been looking straight at it but couldn’t see it, and I had driven out of that lot dozens of times.