How the Dark Side of Human Nature is Fueling the Healthcare Backlash.

arlen specter at a townhall meetingStill rattled after being heckled and booed by enraged voters at a town hall meeting this week, Sen. Arlen Specter pointed out to reporters that such a feverish outpouring of fear and rage must be rooted in something deeper than healthcare policy. “It’s the economy,” said the Pennsylvania Democrat, “the facts that millions of people have lost their jobs and millions of others are afraid of losing theirs.”

Anxiety about the economy might well be part of the reason healthcare opponents have become so unhinged. Another contributing factor surely is the relentless campaign of lies about healthcare reform spewing forth from disingenuous demagogues like Sean Hannity. But the overreaction to healthcare reform might have a deeper wellspring than even Specter realizes—the very dark side of human nature itself, known in psychological terms as “the shadow.”

We all have a shadow, made up of the unconscious, repressed parts of ourselves that we learned from childhood to disown, deny and hide. This rejected material—rage, hatred, lust, jealousy, racism, infantile drives; the list of possibilities is long—finds expression through the phenomenon of projection. “Ask someone to give a description of the personality type which he finds most despicable, most unbearable and hateful, and most impossible to get along with, and he will produce a description of his own repressed characteristics—a self description which is utterly unconscious,” writes John A. Sanford, a psychoanalyst and Episcopal priest.

Of course, the world is full of actual jerks. But what is interesting to observe is the way we become highly irritated by some types of people or behaviors and yet remain unmoved by others. What sets us off has everything to do with our shadow.

And clearly, there is something about the idea of that other known as “the government” intermarrying with the healthcare system that reaches deeply into the dark matter of the American mind.

Many Americans (but Republicans in particular) tend to be highly identified with the notion of themselves as rugged individualists who are utterly responsible for their own successes in life, including their ability to pay for healthcare in perpetuity. Wealthier Americans might downplay the role of structural advantages such as race and class, or unconsciously deny their fundamental vulnerability as humans. A single mother who lacks health insurance, needs kidney dialysis to survive and lives in a neighborhood overrun by gangs, on the other hand, sees such realities as cold fact.

shadowWhether conservative or liberal, many of us don’t want to go anywhere near a hospital because the very idea stirs up issues related to suffering, death and an utter lack of control. For some Americans, the aforementioned single mom might well represent an unconscious shadow figure—someone who reminds them of realities they would rather repress. (An affluent white person might even envision such a person as black or Hispanic in order to create further distance.)

The fact is, though, that no matter how excellent our health might seem today, any one of us could be diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor tomorrow. Financial privilege and access to blue-chip healthcare are equally subject to impermanence. (Among those swindled by Bernie Madoff was Stephen Greenspan, author of Annals of Gullibility: Why We Get Duped and How to Avoid It.)

The shadow side of the healthcare debate has a larger dimension. Unfortunately for humanity, people tend to project their shadows collectively as well as individually (see: the Holocaust). As clinical psychologist Jerome S. Bernstein noted in an essay titled “The U.S.-Soviet Mirror,” the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a veritable tango of projection throughout the Cold War. Their respective political systems and ideologies were so diametrically opposed, he observed, that each country could believe the other was the source of all evil in the world.

The end of the Cold War overturned these symmetrical, though highly dangerous, psychodynamics. Reagan started the crusade against “big government,” but that campaign took on an ever-more-irrational scope and scale in the years that followed. It reached a crescendo of sorts during the George W. Bush era, but the need for an enemy—someone to carry the projections of our collective shadow—is still sorely felt.

Right-wing demagogues seem to have an uncanny knack for tapping into this unconscious need to scapegoat. They sense the efficacy of stoking fears related to two separate shadow elements—the specter (no pun intended) of big government and the vulnerability associated with medical care. Violence has already occurred at some of these town halls. If the bloodshed worsens, blame it on Hannity and his ilk—but also on the shadow that lurks in us all.


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Joel Groover

Joel Groover

Joel Groover is an Atlanta-based freelance writer whose past glories include writing obits at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, enduring a stint as a beat reporter at The Marietta Daily Journal and taking in some culture as a senior editor at Art & Antiques. He earned his journalism degree at The University of Georgia.