Patriotism and Group Identity
by Jack Hoot Stull
I believe that all people have been separated from their most essential self, and that we are all searching, either consciously or unconsciously, for a way back. This “cast out of Eden” and journey back to the self is an ancient story; it is depicted in the myths of cultures all over the world. It is a story that is embedded deeply within us.
From a psychological perspective, the initial separation from the essential self represents the formation of the ego in its most limited form, or the birth of the infant ego. The self must form the ego in order to become conscious of itself. The process of becoming conscious of the self, through formation of the ego, is the process of individuation. Individuation is the progression towards freedom, out of unconsciousness, towards the self in its true unbounded form.
The self goes through many stages that are defined by limitation, and as it progresses, ego expansion pushes out these walls of limitation. What seems to comprise these walls of limitation, at least to a large degree, are false identifications. Since the self in its purest, truest essence is not limited, any identification that a person has is in a sense false, for if a person identifies with one thing, then the person does not identify with what that thing is not, i.e., that person rejects on some level some aspect of reality as being an aspect of the self.
In our culture, and throughout the world, there are all sorts of groups and subgroups that people identify with. A person identifies with a particular group because that person feels that he or she has something in common with that group. These perceived commonalities largely determine the characteristics of the group and the behavior of the individual members. When the perceived commonalities are superficial, then the individual will often act superficially—the language within the group will reflect commonalities that the members embrace together.
High school is a place where groups often form around superficial commonalities. The “wannabe” gangster/rapper group is one example of this out of many. (Keep in mind here that I am referring to this group generically, and that I realize that every gang has its own codes and variances.) What mostly unifies this group, if one could call it unity, is a certain way of dressing, a certain appearance—baggy pants, hanging chains, baseball caps turned backwards, verbal slang, a tough attitude. These are all things that the members wear on the surface—they are the group’s uniform.
For the most part the members of such a “gang” hardly know themselves and operate mostly out of unconsciousness. These individuals are not conscious of the psychological monsters that linger in the shadows behind their awareness. If an individual’s psyche is too disturbed, if too many monsters are raging underneath the surface, fear of these unconscious disturbances will be so great that the person will harden in resistance, and instead of using the group for liberation into the next stage of development, the group is instead used as a defense mechanism against the unconscious. Often the members whose psyches are too disturbed will be the ones who push the shallow group features to an extreme, and more and more as the unconscious forces build up like a spring that is momentarily plugged. The longer the unconscious disturbances are not faced, the harder this surface exterior must be in order to contain them. Eventually this crusty exterior must break, and the repressed unconscious content emerges violently, manifesting outwardly as an act of violence, such as murder, and on the national level in the form of war.
As a gang member gets to know his or her self, if some introspection truly does occur, then that person can move on from identifying with the gang, for it will become obvious that what holds the gang together is not at all representative of what the individual finds to be essential inside. The contrast provided by the differences between the individual members, however limited these differences may be, gives the members the leverage they need to begin to recognize the features of their true individuality.
If a member does become ready to move on from participation with the gang, it is not always easy to leave. Groups that are maintained and propped up by unconsciousness will often meet defectors with hostility, and even violence, because anything that threatens to cast some light into the shadowy foundation of the group threatens the group’s very existence—in order for the group to continue on, it cannot know that it is propped up by shadows and illusion.
Group identification is often responsible for the spread of violence and suffering—such as with gangs, or on a national or international level in the form of patriotism. This is because group identification, especially when it is supported by unconsciousness, naturally involves what I call the mentality of other. A group is defined not only by what it is, but also by what it is not. The idea of “an American” would be nonexistent if there weren’t many other nationalities for contrast. I am of the opinion that violence and war can only happen when there is this mentality of other.
Patriotism, like gang identity, is another example of group identification that is largely organized around unconsciousness. Ask a patriotic American what an American actually is, or what it means to be an American. Some will barely be able to respond to this type of question that directly confronts them, since all of the feelings and ideas that their patriotism is based on are submerged below their awareness. Others will have a few things to say about it, giving off the illusion of being in control of their opinions, the illusion that their opinions represent their own thoughts and feelings. However, they are merely acting as the mouth pieces for an unconscious stew of sentiments that were unwittingly accumulated from their culture. These thoughts and feelings are rarely examined on a deep level.
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