Cultural Shadow: Standing on the Precipice of Self Destruction
“Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness...” That’s what our Declaration of Independence promises for its followers. And in reality all the things that the Declaration of Independence promised are slowly being taken from us and most people are not even aware. Although being born here does not mean that we automatically gain benefit from this, we must strive daily to make our culture work for us. But we must be careful to keep our culture balanced, Yin and Yang so to speak, because it could potentially become unbalanced. If we look around the world right now, we can see evidence that shows we are not holding to our values all too well, and that our culture is standing on a precipice, on the verge of tumbling. Using the written works of a psychologist, a historian, and a novelist we can see what lies ahead for us, but is it too late?
The Jungian psychologist Robert A. Johnson writes in his book Owning Your Own Shadow, “Culture can only function if we live out the unwanted elements symbolically. All healthy societies have a rich ceremonial life. Less healthy ones rely on unconscious expressions: war, violence, psychosomatic illness …” (52-53). If we look at projections from modern history we can see such things as the Columbine high school shootings, the incident at Ruby Ridge, or people like Charles Manson erupting from our own culture do to a lack of healthy shadow projection. A good example of a culture with unhealthy shadow projection comes from famed author Ayn Rands’ novel, Anthem, in which she creates a culture where its members have been forced to no longer have memory of the past. The citizens of this culture simply refer to the past before “the Great Rebirth” as “the Unmentionable Times”. The citizens do not even dwell on things that happened in the recent past, and do to this no one in their culture probably even knows what really happened in the past. History should be remembered, whether good or bad, because failure to understand past mistakes and successes can be harmful to the citizens of a culture. If a culture is forced to ignore or even forget events from the past then it is inevitably doomed to repeat these mistakes or to at least produce the seeds of malcontent. The main character in Anthem, Equality's existence then was inevitable, and even repeated as stated by Rand, “It is whispered that once or twice in a hundred year, one among the men of the City escape alone and run to the Uncharted Forest, without call or reason” (48). Histories abuse is an example, by the historian Howard Zinn, of how cultures become unbalanced. In his book Passionate Decelerations, he writes that history is told subjectively (that is always told from a certain perspective) and that doing so is dangerous. The danger here, Zinn warns, is that the truth may be lost in translation, and this can lead a culture to be more prone to repeating the same mistakes. Some current examples of our inability to learn from our past are the Vietnam War and more recently the Iraq War; these should serve as a good warning of what we are capable of doing when we project our shadows in a negative way.
The culture we live in has something to play in the way we learn to create our shadow, as psychologist Robert Johnson writes, “The civilizing process, which is the brightest achievement of humankind, consists of culling out those characteristics that are dangerous to the smooth functioning of our ideals. Anyone who does not go through this process remains a ‘primitive’ and can have no place in a cultivated society. We all are born whole but somehow the culture demands that we live out only parts of our nature and refuse other parts of our inheritance. We divide the self into an ego and a shadow because our culture insists that we behave in a particular manner” (5). This in itself is a very profound statement, suggesting that we are products of a culture that wants us to weed out the “primitive” side. In Rands’ novel however, a person’s whole life was laid out for them, from conception to death a person has a schedule. The people of her fictional world must also separate their lives, but they have no choice in it. Even here in America we can see evidence of the constraints of class and/or station by looking at the Occupy Wall Street movement. Howard Zinn confirms this when he writes, “Madison urged ratification on the grounds that the new government would be able to control class conflict, which came from ‘the various and unequal distribution of property’… What kind of trouble was Madison worried about? He was blunt. ‘A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal distribution of property, or for any other improper or wicked project’“(152). The evidence here is astounding, that the founders of our great nation were so worried about a lower class rising up; they wanted laws to protect their rights, not those of the citizens. Today we can still feel the projection of our fore fathers' shadow.
Another way that an individual such as Equality might have been affected by cultural projection is by the legal system. At one point he was taken into custody and beaten for not being in the right place at the right time and then not telling the “judges” where he had been. To our legal system this is harsh treatment, but in a culture such as the one created by Rand, it is acceptable. Although not so strict or harshly enforced, our legal system in America is still not the fairest, giving those of higher station more lenient punishments as Zinn states, “There is a mountain of evidence on this: a CIA official (Richard Helms) commits perjury and gets off with a fine (Alger Hiss spent four years in jail for perjury), a president (Nixon) is pardoned in advance prosecution for acts against the law, and Oliver North and other Reagan administration officials are found guilty of violating the law in the Iran-Contra affair, but none go to prison”(113). Robert Johnson would say that cultures, Rands' fictional one and our own, are unbalanced and that each ones shadow is waiting to erupt in a geyser of destructive activities.
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Does this make sense?
The fictional culture that Ayn Rand creates in Anthem, is full of blindly obedient citizens as can be seen in the passage, “Before we removed our garments, we stood in the great sleeping hall, and we raised our right arms, and we said all together with the three Teacher at the head: ‘We are nothing, Mankind is all. By the grace of our brothers are we allowed our lives. We exist through, by and for our brother who are the State. Amen.’ Then we slept” (21). In our own culture we might have a hard time with this idea of ultimate conformity. In our culture we are given the capability to speak out against our leadership, and to even have full scale protests. Howard Zinn writes in Passionate Declarations, “One must have complicated feelings about the obligation to obey the law. Obeying the law seems absolutely right. To really obey the law, you should refuse to obey the law that sends you to war” (108). However, there needs to be a balance between obeying the laws and the laws needing to be obeyed, or as Robert Johnson warns, “A whole generation can live a modern, civilized life without ever touching much of its shadow nature. Then predictably—twenty years is the allotted time—that unlived shadow will erupt and a war will burst forth that no one wanted but to which everyone—both men and women—has contributed”(29-30). These comparisons show that we need to be able to balance our laws, with morality and common sense.
In the culture that Rands’ fictional character, Equality, lives one must live as directed. To disobey was to be punished severely and unjustly. To question authority brings even greater punishment and the only escape is either death or solitude. Albeit small, Zinn would agree that there are similarities between our culture and Rand’s fictional world, the main things being the abuse of history and the citizens’ blind obedience. And with all of these repressed characteristics it is obvious that according to Robert Johnson, Equality was little more than a cultures projected shadow. And if we use history as an example, as Zinn says, eventually that culture will not last long do to an unhealthy shadow. We can see that failure to do anything will eventually bring an end to the values and standard of living that all Americans share. Its up to the people to make a difference, don’t let the noise of the “machine” drown out our voice!
Johnson, Robert A. Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993. Print.
Rand, Ayn. Anthem. New York: Plume, 2005. Print.
Zinn, Howard. Passionate Declarations: Essays on War and Justice. New York: Perennial, 2003. Print.
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© 2013 Jeremy Floyd