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Theses Toward a Theory of Generative Death Anxiety: Thesis #7

We continue the presentation we began in the last column, here offering:

Thesis #7: Just as there are individual defense mechanisms, likewise, there are collective defense mechanisms, habitual patterns of collective behavior aimed at defending against threats to established social formations. Each of these mechanisms may manifest itself in both creative and destructive forms.
We have already seen that the peculiar make up of the human psyche, which we have labeled the Reflective Symbolic Self, makes it necessary for us, in a very real sense, to keep hidden from ourselves most of the time what we know to be true about reality: specifically, that each and every one of us will someday die, and that furthermore, the potentiality of death threatens us in each and every moment of our existence. If this confrontation with reality were front and center in our consciousness all the time, the heightened state of adrenalin-soaked stress of fight/freeze/flight it creates would be too much for the nervous system to bear. We would be unable to function at all. Therefore, while the Reflective Symbolic Self has been an amazingly affective survival mechanism for our species, freeing us from mere passive adaptation to the environment and making of us a species that (at least within liberal boundaries) actively adapts the to our survival needs, we would have long ago been an evolutionary dead end had we not also developed in conjunction with the Reflective Symbolic Self (in fact, as integral to that peculiar psychic structure) defense mechanisms for keep our death awareness relatively tucked away from our conscious mind.

We commonly think of the so-called psychological defense mechanisms as functioning mainly in the minds of individuals. However, our collective social life also exhibits clear mechanisms of defense against death anxiety as well. One of the fundamental symbolizations of death anxiety is chaos itself, of existential unboundedness, of a world “without form and void.” Our collective cultural existence is itself contoured to assist in the denial that human life is impermanent, here today and gone tomorrow, fleeting, and without meaning. When we look at human existence cross-culturally, we see that in every culture, the overarching cultural stories that undergird and give a sense of values to the people who embody and live out those values in the world quite ubiquitously center on telling us where these people came from, what meaningful life means in the present, and what future people can expect if they adequately continue to embody those values in the world.

Clearly, the defensive function of culture, its ability to sooth our sense of purposelessness, meaninglessness and futility that confrontation with the fact of our mortality can inspire in us, is enhanced greatly when the stories and values of our culture are strong. They are kept strong by the collective will, that is, when we all reinforce their truth for each other. One striking collective mechanism we employ regularly to reaffirm the truths of our culture and thus augment its ability to sooth our death anxiety is to engage in collective rituals. We regularly rise for the National Anthem, and can become quite enraged at and vengeful against those who refuse to do so. We easily interpret as sacrilegiously disruptive even a simple act of taking to a knee instead of the prescribed standing straight with hand on heart. In much of the world today, fanatical fandom in following a favorite sports team almost reaches levels of mythical assertion of values in and of itself. Our religious ceremonies are chalk full of collective ritual practices, aimed at strengthening our faith in God, who in turn (through our myths) legitimizes our collective life together, seeing them as “endowed by The Creator,” we might say.

Social, political, economic and religious rituals are generally positive ways to assert that human life has meaning and value. For the most part, we are content with a large latitude in ritual practices so long as we are sure that the meaning and value of human life is being affirmed in those rituals. However, on the dark side of the cultural assertion of meaning and values we also find routinized and habitual collective behaviors aimed at dealing with dissenters, those who cultural beliefs and practices are simply too distant from our own for us to recognize them as copacetic and compatible with what we know to be truth. Along with ritual, we might call these also our collective defense mechanisms, found in all cultures in one way or another.

One of these is scapegoating. We point toward particular people, classes, races, to “explain” why the promises of our culture are being marred and unfulfilled. In the face of cultural demise and failure, we look for some kind of reason for the shortcomings, and will gladly blame each other (or, as in Stalin’s famed show trials) even ourselves if that is what it takes to keep the cultural ideology whole.

Another very common collective defense mechanism in the face of those who significantly challenge our way of life is simple denigration. We make fun of them, we dismiss them and ludicrous. The look funny, they act funny, they are dirty or stupid. From there, if they don’t go away, we might move into another form of collective defense mechanism, that of segregation. In the case of a majority people, the urge to get away from those people, the segregating confinement of the minority in ghettoes, in “their own” schools, churches and neighborhoods, absolutely minimizes the times in which their “outlandishness” must be confronted and tolerated on a day to day basis. We have come to think of segregation de jure, by law, as evil and an illegitimate use of majority power. Following the dictate of the modern cultural myths of advancing freedom and human rights, we stand ready to strike down such laws wherever they may be found. It comes as somewhat a surprise, therefore, when minority groups may choose self-segregation, moving voluntarily into their own confined communities, in reaction to the values encroachment of a particularly strong majority into the sphere of the minority. In a culture in which such self-segregation is generally supported on the grounds of religious freedom and self-determination, it is worth noting that just as forced segregation is a tool for the majority to minimize confrontation with the strange and rejected behaviors and values of the minority group in day to day life, this is all but exactly mirrored by the minority group choosing self-segregation in relation to the behaviors and values of the majority culture.

Another regularly exhibited collective defense mechanism we employ when faced with people whose cultural life and values are very different from our own is to employ methods of assimilation. We generally think of religious mission work in this regard, and the whole science of missiology studied in the religious seminaries and colleges of our nation are explicitly aimed at figuring out evermore effective means for converting others to our own “good news,” the overarching cultural myth we believe to guarantee the human life has meaning a value, even in the face of nihilism and death. Would it be such a stretch, however, to also recognize the assimilationist undercurrents in consumerist advertising and media? What is this if not an attempt to broadcast on a major scale the superiority of our way of life, of our cultural values, of our sense of meaning and purpose in the world, and to instill in others desires for the same things we desire. Is it too far fetched to recognize how we do feel some sense of cultural pride, achievement, and perhaps superiority when we hear how much iPhones, PC computers and Nike sneakers are coveted the world around?

Finally, we must mention the most dangerous and treacherous collective defense mechanism of all, that of eradication. Perhaps the most effective mechanism of all in terms of asserting the superiority of our culture and our way of life, our sense of meaning and values in the face of those who would challenge and undermine them, is the simple use of brute force to take those people off of the face of earth. Put them in mass graves, in the ovens, poison them with small pox disease, bomb them back into the stone age (as goes the quaint saying I heard countless times growing up through the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War(s), the Afghanistan War, and on and on. The fact is, while there are certainly rational arguments given for each and every war, on both sides and with “God’s blessing” on both sides, the very unlimited extent to which our war propaganda is able consistently to inflate the threat posed by our “enemies,” and the correlative unlimited extent we regularly sanction the use of extreme violence to wipe them out, certainly must reveal to us that there is more going on at the unconscious level than a rational evaluation of costs and benefits in our consistent endorsing of war after war after war.

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