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Democracy always fights a dual battle.

2016/02/12

The Democratizing Action of Psychology —

 The deepest conviction of the power of psychological understanding comes to us in our protracted mental struggles with persons who hold membership in totalitarian organizations. We must be careful to avoid discussing politics with them; because today, free expression of opinion is being severely punished, and if we were to say anything “politically incorrect,” we will likely suffer the consequences of some misperceived injustice.

However, passive listening may liberate them from their personal tensions, there is even a chance, they may become more humane. Even developing an increasing respect for the individual personality as such and sometimes grow very critical of the movements callous treatment of human life and human dignity. As time pass, and maturity sets in, they may dissociate themselves increasingly from their totalitarian political friends. This is indeed courageous, for, especially at this time, the turn from collaboration toward non-conformism is usually interpreted as high treason within their group. Still, there is hope in recognizing our mutual faith in the dignity of the individual and our confidence in the decisions of the mature adult as to the path of their own interests.

Does psychology really exert a democratizing influence on the authoritarian and totalitarian spirit? The aforementioned example would seem to indicate that it does. On the other hand, we know that the propaganda machine applies its own psychological principles to hypnotize the people into submission. Tyrants, too, lay down their psychological munitions to spread panic across the globe.

Not too long ago, it was in Nazi Germany, where psychoanalytic treatment was controlled by psychology’s own Fuhrer, Goering’s brother. Certainly, the science of suggestion, hypnosis, and Pavlovian training can now be used to enlist cowardly, submissive followers for a program of despotism. These uses of psychological knowledge are perversions of both the principles and the purposes of psychology. Intrinsic in the psychological approach, and above all in psychoanalytic treatment, is an important element that fosters an attitude diametrically opposite to the totalitarian one.

The true purpose of psychology, and especially of its mental health branch, is to free the individual from their internal tension by helping them to understand the causes of it. Psychology seeks to liberate the human spirit from its dependency on immature thinking so that each person can realize his or her own potentialities. It seeks to help them to face reality with its many problems, and to recognize their own limitations as well as their possibilities for growth. It is dedicated to the development of mature individuals who are capable of living in freedom and of voluntarily restricting their freedom, when it is indicated, for the greater good. It is based on the premise that when a person understands themselves, they can begin to be the master of their own life, rather than merely the puppet either of their own unconscious drives or of a tyrant with a perverted lust for power.

As previously mentioned, every person passes through a stage in his or her own development of greater susceptibility to totalitarianism. This usually occurs during adolescence when the pubescent becomes aware of its own personality, the authority within itself. In not accepting this responsibility, it may look for a strong leader outside the home. At an earlier age, in infancy, the unconscious patterns of compulsion and automatic obedience are laid. With the advent of its new sense of selfhood, the youth begins to oppose the adult authorities that previously directed its life.

Becoming conscious of the ego or self or I is a painful mental process. It is not a matter of chance that the feeling of endless longing, of Weltschmerz, is traditionally connected with adolescence. The process of becoming an autonomous and self-growing individual involves separation from the security of the family. To achieve internal democracy, the adolescent must separate themselves from their protective environment. In so doing they are not merely intoxicated with their sense of growth and emancipation, they are also filled with a sense of fear and loneliness. They are entering a new world in which they must henceforth assume mature responsibility for their actions. At that time, they may become an easy prey for totalitarian propaganda. A personal grudge against growing up may lead them to forsake the struggle for personal maturity.

This problem is particularly acute in Western society not only because of the real ideological-political battle we have to face, but also because our ways of raising children may emphasize this problem. Whereas primitive groups impose some measure of social responsibility upon the child early in life and increase it gradually, our modern culture segregates it completely in the world of childhood, nursery, and schoolroom, and then plunges it precipitously into adulthood to sink or swim. At this turning point, many young people shrink from such a test. Many do not want a freedom that carries with it so many burdens, so much loneliness, and responsibility. They are willing to hand back their freedom in return for continued parental protection, or to surrender it to political or economic ideologies, which are in fact, displaced parental images.

Unfortunately, the youth’s surrender of individuality is no guarantee against fear and loneliness. The real outside world is in no way altered by their inner choice. Therefore, the youth who relinquishes their freedom to new parent figures develops a curious, dual feeling of love and hate toward all authority. Docility and rebellion, submission and hate live side by side within them. Sometimes they bow completely to authority or tyranny; at other times, often unpredictably, everything in them revolts against their chosen leader. This duality is an endless one, for one side of their nature continually seeks to overstep the limits, which their other, submissive side has imposed. The individual who fails to achieve freedom knows only two extremes: unquestioning submission and impulsive rebellion.

Conversely, the individual who is strong enough to embrace mature adulthood enters into a new kind of freedom. True, this freedom is an ambiguous concept since it involves the responsibility of making new decisions and confronting new uncertainties. The frontiers of freedom are anarchy and caprice on the one side and regimentation and suffocation by rules on the other.

If only we could find an easy formula for the mature attitude toward life. Even if we call it the democratic spirit, we can still explain more easily, what democracy is not, than what it is. We can say that our individualizing democracy is the enemy of blind authority. If we wish a more detailed, psychological explanation, we must contrast it with totalitarianism.

Our democracy is against the total regimentation and equalization of its individuals. It does not ask for homogeneous integration and smooth social adjustment. Democracy, in comparison with these aims, implies a confidence in spontaneity and individual growth. It is able to postulate progress and the correction of evil. It guards the community against human error without resorting to intimidation. Democracy provides redress for its own errors; totalitarianism considers itself infallible. Whereas totalitarianism controls by whim and manipulated public opinion, democracy undertakes to regulate society by law, to respect human nature, and to guard its citizens against the tyranny of a single individual on the one hand and a power-crazy majority on the other. Democracy always fights a dual battle. On the one hand, it must limit the resurgence of asocial inner impulses in the individual; on the other, it must guard the individual against external forces and ideologies hostile to the democratic way of life.

Freedom – Our Mental Backbone

The totalitarian state is continually driving out man’s private opinions and convictions. For the police state, thinking is already acting. The inner preparation for action as expressed in trial action, thought, is not accepted. Innate doubt and the trials and tribulations of thought adaptation are denied. Inbreeding destructive thought is one way to undermine the community. Not trusting the liberty of thought and free expression of opinion is even more dangerous; the natural destructive desires are repressed to that uncontrollable realm of the mind that may explode more easily into action. The verbal expression of a destructive thought however often partly conquers that thought, and renders it less potent. Here lies the actual paradox! Condemning antisocial thought, thought not yet put into action, provokes a short circuit of explosive action.

Every piece of logic may have its dangerous implications: inquisitional murder took place in the service of high ideals. If we cannot gamble with the innate good sense of man, a free and peaceful society are impossible, a democracy is impossible. Moral culture begins and ends with the individual. Only the cult of individual freedom, individual possession, and individual creativity makes man willing to curb instinctual desires and to repress destructivity. Man is not only a social being. Somewhere away from the crowd and the noise, he has to come to grips with himself, God, and nature. In order to grow, he needs reserve, isolation, and silence. In addition to his mechanical devices and machines, he needs to get back to nature, to camp out-of-doors by himself. Somewhere along the line, he has to be the maker of some of his own tools, as a shoemaker or a healer or a teacher. Without being thrown on his own and knowing loneliness, man is dwarfed; he is lost among the waves of overpowering human influence and a sea of coercive probabilities.

Edited excerpts from “The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing” (1956). Joost A. M. Meerloo, M.D. (Pp.231- 234).

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