Protectors of democracy, look deeper into the unconscious mind if you want to eliminate the alternative facts now contaminating public discourse.
We need to uncover and understand the inner conflict that makes our psyche a breeding ground for perversions of truth, as well as for personal discontent and national dissension.
The biggest conflict raging in America and the world might be the one taking place in the human psyche between rationality and irrationality. In our psyche, the irrational side is powerful in its own right, in part because we’re markedly prepared, through inner resistance, to cling to our delusions, defenses, and distortions of reality.
Researchers have been showing for decades that reason and evidence are frequently unable to change the minds of everyday people. As journalist Elizabeth Kolbert writes in a recent issue of The New Yorker, “any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational.”
The pervasiveness of irrationality is consistent with the prevalence of neurotic behaviors in the population. Symptoms of this emotional weakness include poor ability to appreciate and respect oneself, difficulty in changing self-defeating behaviors, a compulsion to recycle painful memories, a recurring sense of victimhood, a need to blame others, and resistance to fulfilling one’s potential.
With neurosis, an individual unconsciously produces rationalizations, defenses, and excuses (all of which are alternative facts) to cover up his or her inner truth, especially the psychological dynamics by which this person is holding on to self-defeating emotional attachments and identifications.
Alternative facts serve an unconscious purpose. Many people will speak and believe any nonsense in the way of misinformation to avoid becoming more conscious. Why is that? As we become more conscious, our egotism begins to abate. We become more worldly and our outlook is more inclusive, less preoccupied with conflict and enemies. The ego is dropped in favor of a connection to one’s authentic self. Yet people have great resistance to this process of inner growth. We are exceedingly identified with our ego. Our ego protects us from underlying shame.
What’s this shame all about? Deep down, many people resonate emotionally with profound self-doubt. Emotionally, we doubt our value and worthiness, even while mentally or intellectually we know we count for something. Emotionally, we can believe the worst about ourselves. Many people feel like sinners in need of redemption. People can have great difficulty feeling their goodness. Instead, they feel an emptiness, a profound and painful loneliness at the heart of their existence. They feel shame because they are, in part, identified with this repressed, impoverished sense of self. When good things happen to them, they often feel guilty, or they feel like undeserving imposters or frauds.
When we identify with our ego, we live on the surface of ourselves. The ego is superficial because it’s mostly an illusion. At best, it’s just a shadow of our authentic self. In most people, the ego serves as the mastermind of their cognitive operating system, which in turn governs the mind, perceptions, and human affairs. Identifying with it feels natural. We can’t imagine life beyond the ego.
With illusions, denial, and defenses, we cover up inner dynamics that protect our ego from awareness of our self-defeating adherence to unresolved negative emotions, including self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-rejection. When rejection of others erupts from us, it serves as a primitive defense to avoid acknowledging our underlying self-rejection.
When people are egotistical to a neurotic extent, their emotional life is unstable. Their egotism can easily collapse, leaving them feeling like worthless nobodies. At this point, they frantically try to reestablish the egotism, sometimes by sacrificing (in sexism, xenophobia, or racism, for instance) the worthiness of others.
Full awareness of our collusion in misery and suffering stuns the sensibilities of everyday people. We blind ourselves to this awareness because it’s processed through our ego as a great humiliation. The feeling is that the ego knows all that’s important to know—and everything else is alternative facts. The irony, of course, is that we’re first in line to use alternative facts to support our own illusions.
The more irrational we are, the more likely we are to be angry, cynical, hateful, blaming, complaining, bitter, stupid, and indifferent to truth. We’ll frequently cast ourselves in a gilded self-image, and then, employing alternative facts in the form of defenses, denials, and rationalizations, use cunning wiles to hide all traces of inner shadiness. Deep in the psyche of all of us are strange goings-on that a great many people are unwilling to bring to the surface.
Alt-Facts Frolic in the Psyche
More shenanigans are at play. Let’s now look more closely at how alternative facts frolic freely in our psyche. We can’t expect to eliminate alternative facts and other forms of irrationality from public discourse until we begin to see and moderate them in our inner life.
We’re all challenged by some degree of inner conflict. Much of this conflict originates from our inner critic or superego. This agency in our psyche, the font of self-aggression and prime instigator of irrationality, operates like the god of alternative facts. The inner critic is an aggressive drive that’s ready and willing, on the flimsiest evidence, to mock, ridicule, berate, and condemn us for allegedly being flawed, passive, and unworthy.
It inundates us with disinformation and lies concerning our goodness and worthiness. It becomes god-like because, on an inner level, it operates like the master of our personality. All the while, we’re too unaware to protect ourselves from its bullying and con-artist conniving.
This primitive aggression has a genius for serving up disinformation. It uses harsh insinuations and false allegations against us. Inwardly, we’re intimidated, even when its shoddy evidence against us consists of outright falsehoods. In other words, our lack of consciousness gives the inner critic the god-like authority to rule our inner life.
Compounding the problem is the psyche’s inner passivity, another source of alternative facts. This inner weakness, our unconscious ego, makes us unsteady protectors of our integrity and even enablers of the inner critic. Through inner passivity (metaphorically, a sinkhole of self-doubt and self-alienation), we resonate with the irrational accusations put forward by our inner critic. This means we take its accusations seriously, become inwardly defensive, and rationalize our passivity, all the while absorbing the negativity it spews our way.
People absorb vile accusations from their inner critic, and then they turn around and become a personification of their inner critic, spewing negativity left and right across the social and political landscape in the form of blame, condemnation, dissension, and lies. Truth no longer matters. All such people care about is relieving themselves of the negativity (the accumulation of the inner critic’s toxicity) building inside them. Inwardly, they’ve been absorbing falsehoods about themselves, and now they spew out falsehoods about the world around them. Speaking falsehoods and believing what’s false are their remedies for suppressing inner contradictions.
The inner critic is especially vicious in accusing its host of being a loser, a failure, a worthless nobody. One refrain goes like this: “See, you fool, you can’t get anything right! You can’t stay with anything, you never have!” People who are poorly educated and who are struggling to maintain their dignity in a rough-and-tumble economic landscape can be particularly susceptible to this inner accusation. As they see many others succeeding in life, they often feel an acute sense of failure. Here the inner critic is piling on with words to this effect: “You too would have been successful if you weren’t such a fool!” The individual’s shame is inflamed when he or she “buys into” this accusation.
Our inner critic is eager to fabricate its own reality. It condemns its host simply because that’s its primitive nature, to be condemning and authoritative. It uses alternative facts as fodder to “rationalize” its irrationality.
Adopting an egotistical persona offers a defense against the inner critic. “I’m not a fool or a nobody, as my inner critic claims,” goes this defense, “look at how my ego says otherwise.” Alternative facts, as concocted by one’s inner defenses, now shield the ego from inner truth and protect the individual from the old shame of feeling unworthy.
The stubborn refusal to be open-minded feels like an expression of power, while the unwillingness to see oneself objectively is the last line of defense.
Because of their toils and troubles, people struggling economically are highly susceptible to the inner critic’s accusations, even though the accusations are misleading and highly disrespectful of their essential goodness and worthiness. Not recognizing their inner passivity, these individuals allow the inner critic to get away with this abuse. The accusations seem truthful, as if the individual is an incorrigible loser or sinner. Escaping this misery feels hopeless, especially because inner passivity creates a blind spot in their intelligence.
Much to their shame, academic psychologists and many psychoanalysts have refused to recognize the tyranny of the inner critic and its role as a source of inner conflict, misery, and irrationality. Hence, people are not learning about the inner critic and how to step out from under its influence. This failure of modern psychology to serve the people is a long, sad story. I’ve written about it here, here, and here. An earlier post describes how widespread neurosis has been exacerbated in recent decades by profit-motivated media outlets peddling harsh, incriminating disinformation.
The problem is that people aren’t skilled enough at recognizing the inner mechanisms or dynamics by which they create and maintain their negativity and neurosis. They believe their negative feelings and perceptions concerning others are justified by the stupidity and malice of others. (Again, this misperception has been reinforced by commercial interests.) They’re oblivious to their inner conflict, which prevents them from tracing their suffering and self-defeat back to its source in their psyche. They project their bitterness and other forms of negativity onto others, and then hate others for the perceived defects and alleged unworthiness that they (those doing the projecting) are themselves entangled in.
In absorbing accusations from the inner critic, the individual comes increasingly to feel that the accusations are essentially true. Now, in desperation for relief from the inner onslaught, he or she resorts to addictive behaviors, psychiatric medications, negative outbursts, and the compulsion to blame and vilify others.
When we’re blind to our inner conflict and its resulting self-alienation, we perceive our society in terms of conflict, and we deepen our sense of alienation from the world. In our repression of the turmoil within our psyche, we project turmoil upon the world, seeing conflict, malice, and carnage everywhere.
Condemnation is the currency of our inner critic, whether buying or selling. Not only do we find it easy to condemn others when we’re inwardly conflicted, we’re just as quick to feel ourselves on the receiving end of condemnation. When some people represent their political and social points of view, they’re often quick to feel criticized or condemned for doing so. This means they interpret opposition to their viewpoints as personal disapproval. We have this negative reaction only when the condemning part of ourselves, the inner critic, is a constant misery.
Unconsciously, we deny that we’re emotionally attached, through inner passivity, to feeling criticized (whether from our inner critic or from others). This denial takes the form of a defense which goes like this: “I’m not looking for the feeling of being criticized. I hate it. Look at how upset I get at those people who are implying or suggesting that my beliefs are foolish or invalid.”
The inner critic has not a shred of compassion for its host. It lives only for its own survival and aggressive righteousness. Only growing consciousness can dislodge it. Like a tyrant or dictator, it seems to have, as one purpose, to assert its own preeminence. Its only function is to dispense and maintain centralized power, though it only succeeds through our ignorance, fear, and passivity.
What can we do? If we want to help ourselves and humanity, we have to pay more attention than ever to facts, reality, and truth—and to our own inner truth. Democracy and freedom require citizens who, in their inner world and in their assessment of the world around them, are doing their best to be objective and truthful and to tame the chaos of their psyche.