The Shadow #2

25th August 2011

I previously wrote about the concept of our shadow. What I want to explore now is the concept of the shadow as an aspect of human consciousness not at the individual level but at the collective level. This is easiest to grasp at the national level when we look at the behaviour and history of a country, but is most significant in my view at the collective, global level.

Let us look at the UK for example. On the one hand, a country with a great many achievements and positive attributes to its credit. On the other hand, it was for several hundred years a colonial power that built up the biggest Empire the world has ever seen and with this came the oppression, exploitation and killing of many people. It is over 65 years since the end of the Second World War and the collapse of the Empire that followed. The UK is – in my view – still in the process of redefining itself and is stuck between the forward looking internationalism of London and the parochialism of many parts of the rest of the country. Setting aside these historical and factual questions, what then are the “shadow” aspects of the country that are still being worked through and understood? It is in the UK’s international relations and development that I see the biggest clues – the country still has strong economic, diplomatic and psychological ties to its former colonies. I sense that at one level, there is also guilt and contrition about the impact of Empire on other countries. The very active role of the UK in international development, international aid (both Live Aid and Live8 originated in the UK), and very high immigration (relative to the size of the country) are all aspects of a colonial hangover being worked out and through. I am not arguing that all is well in terms of the post-Empire balance sheet, rather that the country has a complex psychological relationship with the rest of the world, or at least the bits it used to rule (well, that’s most of it!).

Looking at a grander scale, what then of the continuous and ever more efficient wars that human beings wage on one another?  At one level, this is perhaps no more than fear, greed and anger being played out on an epic scale. Witness the tit for tat attacks and killing by Israelis and Palestinians, and the reaction of the USA to the events of 9/11. Tonight I caught a glimpse of a documentary on the anniversary of those events and was struck by a moment of dialogue recollected by a survivor: as he made his way out of the building he asked a firefighter what was happening. He was told that the Pentagon had been hit as well, and that it was not an accident: “we have been attacked; we are at war” (I paraphrase). The anger and fear created by these events fuelled the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere: the USA is now active in North Africa too.

What has this got to do with the “shadow”? Well, one important issue to consider is that the emotions which fuel these wars are all aspects of our own personal psychology: fear, anger, greed, and the violent impulses that they create. Furthermore, these wars and the manner in which they are being fought have not made the world safer – they have increased its instability and unpredictability. It is a little perverse that the world lived with the very real threat of nuclear annihilation for nearly 40 years, and yet we now live in a much more frightened and controlled environment than in the past. A more pressing issue in my view though is the impact of the fear and anger of war on the capacity of human beings to see and feel the suffering of other people.

In the Summer of 2010, Pakistan experienced the greatest environmental disaster of modern history: some 15-17M people were affected. Pakistan is – unfortunately – a country that is politically, militarily and to a (much) lesser extent socially sometimes on the wrong side of the “war on terror” in Afghanistan. As a result, I sense that the general public find it hard to engage with the story and to comprehend the enormity of what is happening in that country. Indeed, when the story first broke the UK media had been captivated by the “furore” over match fixing and betting scams involving the Pakistan cricket team. I understand that it is easier to work with this sporting story (the narrative is so much easier to grasp: catch someone red handed; denial; suspension; investigation; fine and/or ban for life….), however I can also see that the events in Pakistan are terrifying because we do not want them to happen to us.

Natural (and man-made) disasters usually evoke a strong out-pouring of compassion and charitable giving because the palpable suffering of other human beings temporarily bridges the chasm that exists between most groups of people (whether at a local, national or international level). In the day to day experience of our lives, we do not feel what other people feel – human beings are not wired that way (apart from a very small number of individuals). If human beings could feel what others felt, at that moment the suffering and loss of another would be your own – imagine what sort of step-changes that could induce in the world and the way we live.

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