Greg Dennis: Hard questions for liberals
“It is understandable why so few people attempt shadow work. It is much easier to scapegoat others, blame and feel superior to them… But therein is the moral task — to grow up and to lift this burden that we bring to the collective, to free our children, our partners, our tribe.”
— James Hollis, “Why Good People Do Bad Things”
In his powerful book about the shadow — the Jungian concept of the darker, less appealing aspects of ourselves that we don’t want to see — James Hollis writes mostly about the personal shadow. But he also emphasizes that the shadow haunts our civic life.
“Groups always have a fluid, amorphous but highly vulnerable ‘edge,’” Hollis says, noting that we often project our shadowy sides onto others whom “we can blame, denigrate, attack, or accuse of precisely those motives that we have denied.”
This shortcoming occurs across the political spectrum. Whatever our persuasion, we tend to see only the contradictions of those on the other side.
For us liberals, the moral emptiness of our current president makes this even easier. We see that the country we love is led by a dishonest and greedy liar, unfit in so many ways to be president, who has no fixed principles and whose only goals seem to be power and self-aggrandizement.
Even before Trump, those of us on the left have had a lot of practice at feeling better than conservatives.
With our greater education and supposedly better upbringing, we’ve usually been pretty sure we know what’s best for the country. We’re accustomed to claiming the high ground on many issues, from environmental stewardship and tolerance for diversity, to the evils of the NRA and those who would deny women the right to make their own reproductive choices.
But in our self-rectitude there also lies a shadow. Consider environmentalism, for example.
Liberals have been powerful advocates for slow growth in urban and suburban housing, as a way to preserve open space and lower density. But those policies have had the effect of shutting poorer people out of desirable neighborhoods and keeping many from living in beautiful locales such as coastlines and mountain towns.
In our concern for expanding national parks that we can visit via airplanes and rented cars, many liberals don’t see our frequent failure to advocate for in-fill parks and small green spaces where the less fortunate live.
When it comes to guns, we’re so certain of the need to restrict access to some weapons that we ignore the roots of the powerlessness that drive many people to feel they need a gun.
In a threatening world where those with more money and more education make the big decisions and the poorer and less educated are expected to follow someone else’s rules, owning a gun can seem, to the Second Amendment crowd, quite literally a manner of protection.
I’m not advocating here for fewer national parks or more AR-15s. I’m suggesting that we liberals would be more persuasive in our advocacy and yes, better people, if we understood where our politics intersect with our privilege and self-interest.
Take the issue of immigration. It’s easy to criticize the racism that drives much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric on the right. But if you’re low-income and barely made it through high school before you started having kids, the immigrant who takes a job at the local chicken processing plant is understandably a threat to your own well-being.
Liberals in college towns don’t have to worry about that kind of thing. Our jobs aren’t going to be taken by unskilled immigrant labor. We’re quite happy to enjoy a good, inexpensive restaurant meal and not think about the dishes that are going to be washed by a Guatemalan working on a fake green card.
It’s also a common lament of the left that those stupid right-wing voters support politicians who act against their interests. They do that, for example, by opposing Obamacare programs that have brought better healthcare to millions of conservative, blue-collar workers.
But human beings are complex creatures who don’t always act out of simple self-interest. It’s common for liberals to vote for politicians who will raise taxes. But liberals don’t see that as stupidly voting against what’s best for us. We justify it as a noble vote for the greater good.
This shadow blindness is nowhere more apparent than on the question of abortion.
Liberals have long built our support for “choice” (preferring not to even mention the A-word) on the sacred ability of women to make their own decisions about when to bring a child into the world. We’re happy to have the government regulate businesses, healthcare, insurance, and high tech among many other parts of society. But when it comes to abortion, we fervently believe it’s not the government’s business to intrude.
An even greater shortcoming is many liberals’ failure to engage with the moral aspects of abortion.
In our heart of hearts, many of us believe that in some form, a fetus is life. The long, angry public debates about abortion would at the very least be more civil if liberals would acknowledge the sincere belief of the other side that abortion is tantamount to murder.
(To be clear, I don’t agree with that overly simplistic formulation on the right. I believe there are times in this morally complex world, in the circumstances where many women find themselves, when the greater moral choice is not to bring a pregnancy to term.)
Conservatives have plenty of their own contradictions, too. Whatever our political views, it’s hard to see our own shadow.
Carl Jung put it this way:
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.”
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @greengregdennis.
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