The Mythology of Politics

I think the act of choosing a representative or President or any political leader is an amazingly interesting and complex psychological act. Think about it. You’re choosing someone “to speak for you” or “represent you” and act in your interest, to be who you can’t be.

 

Back in the birth places of democracy, whether it was native American or Athenian or elsewhere, you represented yourself. Citizens voted directly on policies, although even in the height of Athenian democracy, there were still political leaders and not all residents could vote. Women, for example, had little to no political power. Representative democracy is a compromise between monarchy and direct democracy. A President is partly a King, partly a servant.

 

I am not a scholar of Carl Jung and do not agree with all the elements of his psychological theories, but still find them helpful. He talked about archetypes or psychological predispositions to perceive the world in certain patterns and to represent those patterns in images. These patterns are seen in myths, literature, relationships, even religion. The movie Star Wars, for example, very consciously picks up on archetypal mythical and religious imagery, the “force” as the Tao or spirit, the battle of good against evil.

 

Jung also described how we deal with qualities in ourselves that our culture defines as inappropriate to our gender. These qualities do not just disappear but form a more hidden or unconscious identity or image of ourselves. (Jung called these projections an anima or animus.) When we fall in love, we project onto the loved one this unconscious image fashioned out of all that we have denied in ourselves in relation to gender. This creates a “fascination” or attraction. The person appears to us as our “soul-mate.” But to have a real and lasting relationship, we have to take back the projected qualities and claim them for ourselves. We can’t be who another person expects us to be; we can’t expect our lover to live solely to fulfill our needs.

 

How you perceive any leader is influenced by the light cast by projected archetypal patterns and expectations. The President or Senator you perceive is a projection of you, your yearnings and possibly your denied power and needs, onto the political stage. Because of these projections it is very difficult to understand who any political figure really is.

 

The politician becomes an actor in a play scripted by the unconscious needs of citizens. We talk about political theatre. It really is theatre and, of course, the popular media, other corporate interests and wealthy donors, play this up for their own profit. The mythical or religious dimension just adds to it. Drama itself emerged from religious ritual and maintained a religious meaning for a time even after modern drama began to develop. The early dramas were enacted myths or stories, about death and the afterlife, about gods and goddesses. The Greeks used masks in their early plays, to represent different personalities or genders. Other cultures used masks to represent the power of a god or spirit or to take part in the story of creation. This is not just putting on a costume. It is putting on a different identity, at times an identity of a mythical or spiritual being. This helps explain why followers of a political candidate can be almost as devoted to their candidate as followers of a religious doctrine or leader.

 

Our political leaders put on the mask fashioned out of who they think we citizens want them to be. They get us to act out a drama with them as the star. But this political theatre can be deadly serious. Our environment, our health care, our wages, the possibility of being treated justly, the lives of ourselves and of all living beings on the planet are at stake. It is not just Donald Trump or Ted Cruz who plays a role and seems to think he is the King he portrays. All of the politicians and all of us can get caught up in the drama. We need to own our projections, let go of the “fascination” and not imagine any leader is a savior.  As much as possible, we need to keep for ourselves the power to act, to think critically about any candidate or policy, and we need to remember all humans are our neighbors.

 

*Photo of amphitheater in Ephesus, Turkey.

Embedding Compassion In The Curriculum Part C: The Arts, Drama

Arts education is being cut in school districts throughout the country. This is extremely shortsighted. For many children, the arts provide a doorway into learning itself and the motivation needed to graduate. It makes school something more than mere work, but a place where students can come alive and see their lives reflected in the curriculum.

 

The arts provide a more direct entrance into understanding and caring about the experience of others than any other discipline. The arts provide unique lessons about personal identity and the power to affect others. As such, the arts provide one of the best ways to embed compassion into the curriculum.

 

The arts, whether it be the ancient dramas of the Greeks or our movies today, teach us about facing our world. For the ancient Athenians, the role of the arts, particularly drama, was clearly recognized. They led a life amazingly social and public. Unlike us, who view our emotions as individual, personal and essentially hidden, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly claim that for the Greeks, “moods were public and shared.” Emotions were visitations by the gods of the community. Being so social, they needed a way to purge those emotions (other than going to war). They lived in a violent time. So, at the height of the Athenian democracy, citizens were paid to go to the theatre. ‘Catharsis’ comes from the Greek ‘katharis’ meaning purification or cleansing. In fact, according to Thomas Cahill, in earlier times in Greece, when drama was developing from a choral performance to staged action, there were only two parts in a play: the soloist, often in a costume and sometimes with a mask who stepped onto the stage to tell a story, and the chorus itself, which would comment on the story and play the role of the community. The audience would listen reverently to the soloist but join in the choral responses, which they often memorized. It was a ritual. ‘Leitourgia’ (meaning “work of the public”) was the ancient Greek word for this audience-choral interaction and the origin of our modern word ‘liturgy.’ Through feeling the emotions evoked through the play, the audience was educated about how to live, and stored up collective emotions were purged and social tensions relieved.

 

In an earlier blog I talked about how communication is not just about expressing ourselves but connecting with others. A conversation takes at least two; to speak with another person, I have to imagine or feel who the other person is or I can’t speak to them. When we try to speak and only hear our own voice, we are hearing the voice of disconnection, and the hunger for connection. The Greeks joined with others in liturgy. Today, we have different practices.

 

In my school, in the fall, we always did a series of short or one act plays. The show became a greatly anticipated community event that lasted only one night and was coordinated with a fundraising spaghetti dinner. The theatre would often be full, standing room only. Student MCs would develop their own routines to introduce each play and whip up the enthusiasm of the audience. To the degree that the actors would feel and speak the part, the audience would live the story along with them. The energy was heightened for the audience by the fact that many knew the cast members personally. I remember one night. One actor was an extremely shy student who in ordinary life hardly ever spoke up. During the show he seemed to break free from some inner restraint and fully inhabited his role. He strode boldly across the stage and the audience cheered on each step that he took.  That was connection.

 

Keith Oatley takes this analysis a step further. Art allows us to not only feel what others feel, but feel without a layer of self-interest. When we watch a drama or movie or read a novel, we can identify with the protagonist, feel her feelings, yet also, in a more developed work of art, also feel for the antagonist. We can be interested yet impartial and thus have the opportunity to study the affects and moral dimensions of our emotions. In this way, the arts are a school for citizenship where we refine and enhance our capacity for empathy. Cut the arts and you cut one of our greatest tools for teaching students how to be moral, responsible, hopefully compassionate members of a community.