Shelby Steele is a famed author on race relations and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He and his son Eli recently sat for a conversation on Race, Innocence, and Power at the City Journal.
Eli Steele opined that woke ideology “is an almost perverted battle for innocence.” Shelby Steele added, “So much of our politics and culture really come out of this struggle with innocence. Wokeness is nothing more or less than this struggle for innocence — a way to be innocent, and therefore to have power. This leads to dark things.”
Shelby Steele observed the left claims its “politics have more innocence than yours,” and on that basis, they seek power over others. Shelby Steele used affirmative action as an example of how the power they deploy leads to evil:
You’re saying this person gets into school and this person doesn’t because of the color of their skin, and that is diversity, that is inclusiveness?… Evil is everywhere waiting around the corner, advocating for itself as a moral convenience that will make you a better person… So you become a cheerleader for evil, thinking you’re helping.
Shelby Steele believes psychological analysis is necessary to understand the divisiveness he sees in America. Although Carl Jung isn’t referenced in the interview, there is no better lens than Jung’s to understand the phenomenon of evil masquerading as good that both Steeles urgently bring to our awareness.
In The Undiscovered Self, Jung revealed that those cheerleading for evil are often unaware of what they are doing: “Since it is universally believed that man is merely what his consciousness knows of itself, he regards himself as harmless and so adds stupidity to iniquity. He does not deny that terrible things have happened and still go on happening, but it is always ‘the others’ who do them.”
Each of us has character flaws and limitations and a capacity for evil that we may not yet be willing to see in ourselves. General feelings of unease, distress, and angst have their source in these human weaknesses. To rid ourselves of these feelings, we see in others the defects that we are unwilling to see in ourselves. This attempt to dump our psychological trash on others is part of the phenomenon of projection. Jung observed:
[O]nly the fool can permanently disregard the conditions of his own nature. In fact, this negligence is the best means of making him an instrument of evil. Harmlessness and naïveté are as little helpful as it would be for a cholera patient and those in his vicinity to remain unconscious of the contagiousness of the disease.
Closing our eyes to what lies within our nature, Jung explained, “lead[s] to projection of the unrecognized evil into the ‘other.”… What is even worse, our lack of insight deprives us of the capacity to deal with evil.”
In Man and His Symbols, Carl Jung quotes Hitler describing Churchill: “For over five years this man [Churchill] has been chasing around Europe like a madman in search of something he could set on fire. Unfortunately he again and again finds hirelings who open the gates of their country to this international incendiary.” Jung wrote, “Projections change the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face.” Hitler saw in Churchill the evil he had buried deep in himself. Let’s see how we project. Perhaps you have played both parts in the following scenario:
You’re driving down the highway, and another driver has committed, under your rules, an infraction. Perhaps he cut you off or is merely driving too slowly. Notice how you glare at the other driver as you pass.
Why the glare? You want to believe the source of your anger and hatred is outside yourself, and so you will not look within at your own character. You want to pretend you are innocent, a victim of an inconsiderate person. If your emotion is not specifically directed at the other, you might see your anger and hatred come from you.
As long as you try to get rid of something you are unwilling to look at, you will double down ad infinitum. You will keep looking for an opportunity to eliminate the guilt you are building up by falsely attributing your emotions to other people. You will justify your judgment of the other. For the most emotionally immature, road rage could be the outcome.
On a societal level, the emotionally immature join in mass movements that utilize group hatred. Yet, you can’t find your innocence by projecting your guilt onto other people or groups.
Jung writes in The Undiscovered Self, “Nothing has a more divisive and alienating effect upon society than this moral complacency and lack of responsibility, and nothing promotes understanding and rapprochement more than the mutual withdrawal of projections.” He then offers us a way to take back our projections:
This necessary corrective demands self-criticism, for one cannot just tell the other person to withdraw [their projections.] He does not recognize them for what they are any more than one does oneself. We can recognize our prejudices and illusions only when, from a broader psychological knowledge of ourselves and others, we are prepared to doubt the absolute rightness of our assumptions and compare them carefully and conscientiously with the objective facts.
Jung was a fierce critic of communism; he explained the “self-criticism” he advocated has nothing to do with what is encouraged in totalitarian societies:
Funnily enough, “self-criticism” is an idea much in vogue in Marxist countries, but there it is subordinated to ideological considerations and must serve the State, and not truth and justice in men’s dealings with one another. The mass State has no intention of promoting mutual understanding and the relationship of man to man; it strives, rather, for atomization, for the psychic isolation of the individual. The more unrelated individuals are, the more consolidated the State becomes, and vice versa.
Love of humanity, Jung explained, is only possible when we do the inner work of becoming aware of our projections:
It is just this love for one’s fellow man that suffers most of all from the lack of understanding wrought by projection. It would therefore be very much in the interest of the free society to give some thought to the question of human relationship from the psychological point of view, for in this resides its real cohesion and consequently its strength. Where love stops, power begins, and violence, and terror.
The alternative to this inner work, as the Steeles point out, is “doing irrational things” in adherence to a collectivist ideology that followers believe establishes their innocence. From those whose minds are, in Jung’s words, “possessed by irrational prejudices, projections and childish illusions” we can expect more expressions of anger and hatred. Jung cautions those who are driven blindly by their projections are more likely to “submit absolutely to a collective belief and… renounce [their] eternal right to freedom.”
Liberty lovers can promote freedom by working to drop their projections. Innocence is not a zero-sum game. We are free to live in peace as long as we don’t transgress against others. In a free society, we seek to cooperate with others rather than making the lives of others worse.