All was not well in the Kingdom.
Times were hard. People were angry, a lot of them with good reason. After the global financial crisis and six years of government spending cuts, the age of austerity had sent a chill wind through the hills, valleys and high streets up and down the land. It was bleak, especially in the poorest, most neglected rural areas and forgotten, boarded-up English towns, far from Westminster. Unemployment was low, but zero-hour contract arrangements were increasing, and this green and pleasant land now had 1,000 food banks where previously they were rare. Depending on which study you believe, roughly a sixth, a quarter or a third of Britons were living in poverty. Meanwhile, in an already increasingly unequal nation, the richest 1% were getting ever-richer, ever-faster.
Whose fault was it? It must be someone’s fault?
The blame game
Human interaction can be a complicated dance around a “Drama Triangle”—the three points of the triangle are labelled persecutor, victim and rescuer. Where are you on the triangle today? And why? Are you a rescuer? Do you ever become so strident in your complaints on behalf of the victims that you become persecutory? Or do you need to be needed, so you do all that you can for the victim, who is as a result disempowered—a classic codependent relationship? Or are you a victim? Do your demands for help become so unreasonable that you become the persecutor and turn the rescuer into a victim? The roles can change in a second.
Whether within families, between work groups, cultural groups or even between countries, these roles are remarkably fluid and heavily dependent on the eye of the beholder. This was the case in the run-up to the Brexit referendum a week ago as the actors took up their positions on the stage:
• Are the eurocrats a sinister cabal of power-hungry persecutors hellbent on annexing the UK, or—for all the EU’s many faults—rescuers who dilligently try to collaborate with their neighbours for the common good?
• What about big business—corporations, the banks, the entrepreneurs? Are they part of the problem, dodging taxes, exploiting workers, buying off politicians, rigging the system in their favour? Or are they rescuers, people who invest, create jobs, generate tax revenue?
• Are the victims Britain’s poor, the disenfranchised, struggling to get by in neglected parts of the country where budget cuts go deepest? Or do some see even them instead as persecutors, a kind of dysfunctional underclass of criminals, perhaps, “benefit scroungers,” or racist thugs?
• And what of migrants? Are they also the downtrodden victims, fleeing economic hardship or violence in their homelands, risking it all to come to the UK to search for a better life for their families? Or are they persecutors—“coming over here, claiming benefits"—and jumping the queue—“stealing our jobs, housing and women," “stealing generally," all while imposing their alien ways on “British culture"?
Something is rotten in the state of old Britannia. Whose fault is it? No one puts their hand up. Instead we point: left, right, up and down. It's obviously those people. No not them, they're good. Yes, those ones—they're really bad. It's all their fault!
How can we all have such differing opinions?
Me and my shadow
We like to think we’re fine upstanding citizens, we know how the world works and above all, we are right! There is no uncertainty, and we just don't understand other points of view—those people must be hopelessly naive, or ill-informed, or stupid, or spineless, or selfish. We find evidence that supports our view, listening only to the obviously common sense voices in politics, the media and among friends. Any evidence to the contrary is demonized, derided, ridiculed, ignored or denied. It's easier to see life in black and white.
But is there a voice of doubt? It might be a tiny voice. You can't bear to hear it.
The voice says, no, you're deluding yourself. It's not that simple. There are shades of grey. The voice says: maybe you are wrong. Maybe you are the bad guy.
The stance of your fiercest opponent, your most hated foe, lies within you. Why? Because you are a complete human being. Lurking in what Jung called our shadow are all the unpleasant or unwanted parts of ourselves. We might deny them, repress them, avoid them (or, in therapy, get to know them). But often it’s easier simply to disown them: to package them up and hand them over to someone else saying, “here, this isn’t mine, it must be yours.”
This is the Freudian defence mechanism of projection.
The virulent homophobe for instance might fear his own gay desires. The shaven-headed youth hurling racist abuse at a man on a tram might feel afraid and vulnerable. The man who flirts with a female friend accuses his wife of having an affair.
The city banker with the clever accountant pays little tax; her bugbear is “benefit cheats."
The public school-educated chauffeur-driven politician berates “the establishment.”
The racist newspaper proclaims without irony that eastern Europeans are “deeply racist.”
Bridge of hope—or wall of fear?
What we project onto who determines how we vote. If you fear the worst and ascribe bad intentions to others—immigrants and eurocrats, for instance—you might be tempted to vote Leave; if you hope for the best and ascribe them with good intentions, maybe you go for Remain. Of course it is much more complicated than that. But our projections have been fueled by this black and white, yes-no, in-out referendum, and all the associated marketing, campaigning and propaganda on both sides.
The choice has split my country in two. It feels at odds with itself. Since the referendum, old friends and family members have been falling out, hate crime and racial abuse are skyrocketing, and there is a slight air of menace on the streets of London. In therapy, clients talk of their existential anxieties. It feels like the end of the world as we know it.
No one is in charge. There is no plan. Everyone wants to know what will happen next.
There are wildly exaggerated fears of a dystopian future, of our land degenerating into the isolated pariah state of Anglia as portrayed in Julian Barnes' satirical 1998 novel England, England—a country that had “cut its own throat and was lying in the gutter”; where free movement to Europe gets withdrawn, and gunships patrol the Channel intercepting English boat people attempting to flee to France.
There is faith in humanity, though.
At our best, the Drama Triangle gets replaced by a healthier version. Instead of persecuting others you find your true power and use it wisely, for good. Instead of avoiding your troubles by co-opting those of others, you accept responsibility for your life and rescue yourself. Instead of feeling like a victim, you own and express your vulnerability.
In Greek mythology, when Pandora’s Box is opened, all the evil spirits are released. One thing is left behind: Hope.
NEXT TIME: No. 2. Discrimination