Our Auto-Immune Disease

Pick a place, pick an issue, on any given day- the budget deficit battle, the massacre in Norway, our own massacre in Arizona, immigration, race, religion- it seems like these days, wherever we look, it looks like someone is making an enemy out of someone else and supplying them with hostile motives that justify a vicious attack-in self defense. We've got an epidemic on our hands.

Many of the physical illnesses that afflict us these days are what we call "auto-immune" diseases. They are the consequence of the body's failure to recognize it's own cells as part of itself, with the consequence that we marshall our defenses and wage war against the invader-who happens to be us.  It now appears that this phenomenon has spread to the social-psychological field, and mankind is in real trouble if we don't come up with a cure. We are destroying ourselves with two of our own psychological defense  mechanisms that have gone rogue-  namely projection and splitting.

Projection is the mental trick we do that attributes to others the thoughts and feeling we don't like to acknowledge in ourselves. Splitting refers to our capacity to see things in terms of good and bad, with no in between. Now it seems reasonable to assume that these venerable  psychological defenses had some adaptive value in the history of our psychic evolution.  For one thing, they preserve our own sense of self esteem and goodness, and they permit us to think good thoughts about those in our inner circle- because the bad guys are all outside the circle, where we put them (them= blacks, jews, muslims, republicans, democrats, communists, tea partiers, etc.)

The problem is, we have been smart enough to create  technology that has shrunk the world  to the point where we are all in the same circle and there is nowhere else to go.  "Globalization" has brought with it an uprecedented degree of human interdependence, so that, more than ever,  them=us. Which means that  social psychological defenses based on projection and splitting are doomed to fail, by keeping us trapped in a cycle of dysfunctional polarization that seems to be where we spend most of our time these days.

So maybe it's time for us to stop pretending and take a look at what  it really means to be a human animal. This means looking inward,  instead of distracting ourselves with the next reality show or smartphone app.  There is an urgent need for us to develop better ways of contending with our less attractive traits than by trying to convince ourselves they don't exist. Otherwise, the epidemic of Social Psychological Auto-Immune Disorder may turn out to be .....well let's just say there's no drug in the pipeline for this one.




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