Democracy dies in the shadows

Resisting denial and nihilism to scavenge our blindspots


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On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I read this article in Foreign Affairs about how the global war on terror supercharged the far right terrorist movement here at home.

The article posits that the global response to 9/11 was so overblown that it blinded U.S. policymakers, security officials, and the broader public to the much larger threat from far-right white supremacist extremism. It offers grim statistics illustrating this metastasization.

This struck me as yet another example of how our unexamined blind spots become massive shadows; ones that can ultimately lead to our undoing.

According to author Martha Beck, probing one’s blind spots is often the toughest mission one can undertake. It’s “a direct seek-and-destroy attack on your own pockets of denial. Denial is far trickier than simple ignorance. It isn’t the inability to perceive information but the astonishing ability to perceive information while automatically refusing to allow it into consciousness.” 

Denial as ego-preservation, nihilism as despair

Denial is a thoroughly American tradition.

In recent years, chants of “this is not who we are” have become commonplace from lawmakers. But 1/6 was not our first attempted insurrection and white terror has remained alive and well since the civil war.

Our minds aren’t playing this denial magic trick just for fun, though.

Denial can be an unhealthy form of self-preservation. Martha Beck claims, “We only go blind to information that is so troubling, so frightening, or so opposed to what we believe that to absorb it would shatter our view of ourselves and the world.”

In his book The Road to Unfreedom, historian Timothy Snyder describes our uniquely American form of denial:

“For many Europeans and Americans, events in the 2010s — the rise of antidemocratic politics, the Russian turn against Europe and invasion of Ukraine, the Brexit referendum, and the Trump election — came as a surprise.

Americans tend to react to surprise in two ways — either by imagining that the unexpected event is not really happening, or by claiming that it is totally new and hence not amenable to historical understanding. Either all will somehow be well, or all is so ill that nothing can be done.”

I read the first reaction as denial and the second as nihilism.

Dostoevsky’s 1872 novel Demons is an allegory for how the unrestrained thirst for power by some people, combined with the indifference and disavowal of responsibility by others, creates an insidious nihilism that pervades society, fostering chaos and death. It seems like a foreshadowing of our current brand of American nihilism.

American trust continues to decline, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. 66 percent of Americans say they do not have confidence that our current leaders will be able to successfully address our country’s challenges.

Anecdotally, I’ve spoken to hundreds to apolitical people who can’t be bothered to pay attention or vote because they’re convinced it doesn’t matter anyway. It’s easier to dissociate in front of our screens than to confront the existential reality of what is. And the blood-sucking vampires in our society are more than happy to take advantage of our numbness.

As COVID-19 and climate change illustrate, denial is no savior. And clearly, nihilism foreshadows defeat.

“Liberation ultimately depends on the people's ability to liberate themselves.”

— Gene Sharp

So we must hunt down our blindspots.

In our exceptionalistic society, perhaps one of our biggest collective blindspots is the lack of awareness of our interdependence. The misconception of separation leads to self-sabotage, individually and collectively. We’re all invisibly a part of one another. If we are to liberate ourselves, we can’t do it alone.

Self-care is community care is self-care

“Communities sustain life — not nuclear families, or the ‘couple,’ and certainly not the rugged individualist.”

— bell hooks

We operate in a politics of greed with a deraged devotion to the individual at the expense of the collective. Our lawmakers fuel popular mistrust by serving the interests of the few at the expense of the many, then gaslight us about it. Greedy actors distort the economy and rob the public treasury while average Americans foot the bill.

This fostered the perfect environment for political extremism, using minorities and immigrants as scapegoats. Elites have stoked fear to emotionally manipulate us for decades but social media/big data turbocharged the misinformation.

This misuse of power broke the social contract and is causing us to cannibalize ourselves.

Because we’re all connected, we must return to a focus on community and the health/wellbeing of our neighbors.

The I Ching teaches that our power as individuals is multiplied when we gather together as families, groups, and communities with common goals.

The progress of the world depends upon your progress as an individual and vice versa.

As Charles Stewart Parnell called out during the Irish rent strike campaign in 1879-80:

“Help yourselves by standing together...strengthen those amongst yourselves who are yourselves together, organize yourselves...and you must win."

We need community. The old cliché “United we stand, divided we fall” is true. Unity is success. There can be no democracy without it.

And unity doesn’t mean that we must live in a homogenous society, or even agree with our neighbors. But it does require a basic level of empathy and a willingness to coexist.

To be successful, freedom requires cooperation.

“The willingness to sacrifice is a necessary dimension of loving practice and living in community. None of us can have things our way all the time. Giving up something is one way we sustain a commitment to the collective well-being.”

— bell hooks

Mind as mosaic

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

— Audre Lorde

To keep our sanity and prevent ourselves from slipping back into denial or nihilism in this era, we must keep it together and practice self-care.

Examining our blind spots is perhaps the most effective form of self-care we can implement. I’ve found this process easier when I think of my inner-state as a sort of community, too.

Modern neuroscience confirms the notion of the mind as a mini-society. There are dozens of “sides” or consciousnesses within the human brain. We must unite them or they fight each other, just like a society.

Michael Gazzaniga, who conducted pioneering split-brain research, concluded that the mind is composed of semiautonomous functioning modules, each of which has a special role. In his book The Social Brain, he writes, “but what of the idea that the self is not a unified being, and there may exist within us several realms of consciousness? ...From our [split brain] studies the new idea emerges that there are literally several selves, and they do not necessarily 'converse' with each other internally."

MIT scientist Marvin Minsky declared:

“It can make sense to think there exists, inside your brain, a society of different minds. Like members of a family, the different minds can work together to help each other, each other still having its own mental experiences that the others never know about.”

We can all relate to this. There is a part of me right now that is hangry and another part that is inspired. There’s yet another who wants to close my laptop and take a nap.

How well we get along with ourselves depends largely on our internal leadership skills: how well we listen to our different parts, make sure they feel taken care of, and keep them from sabotaging one another. Maybe I’ll eat a snack to keep my hangry part from sabotaging my writing process.

That’s why I periodically ask myself, “are there neglected parts of me crying out for attention?”

Communities need clearly defined and competent leadership. The internal family is no different: All facets of our selves need to be attended to. The internal leader must wisely distribute the available resources and supply a vision for the whole that takes all the parts into account.

Carl Jung wrote, “The natural state of the human psyche consists in a jostling together of its components and in their contradictory behavior. […] The reconciliation of these opposites is a major problem. Thus, the adversary is none other than the ‘other in me.’

We must resist the denial and nihilism that threatens to consume us before it’s too late. Blind-spot scavenger hunts can be gnarly. But the truth that lives on the other side of denial is redemptive. When we reconcile all our inner selves, we can reconcile with the outer ones, too. That’s why truth creates a solid foundation for lasting relationships, fulfillment, success, and inner peace.

Our children do not deserve to be burdened by the delay tactic of passing on to them the work that is ours to do. Time is running out for humanity to address its blind spots. The mess is ours to deal with, the challenge is ours to meet, and this is our time. 🪞💡👀