‘GOTCHA!’ screamed the headline in the London Sun the morning after a British submarine sank the Argentinian warship General Beigrono in the South Atlantic last year. The 360 sailors who went down with their ship were only Argies— the enemy— and cheers resounded in pubs up and down the country.
Many were shocked to hear British people chant ‘nuke the Argies’ and to see how the Ministry of Defense and the media portrayed Argentina as a nation of international gangsters. It was a shock, but it should not have been. After all, governments and media throughout the world have perfected a psychological war machine which is highly efficient in fostering fear and hatred of ‘the enemy’. True, for us in the West the enemy these days is usually portrayed as toting a red flag and a fistful of nuclear missiles, but the fear and hatred are free-floating and can be attached, by skilful manoeuvering, to any object.
Softened by centuries of insecurity, our minds are malleable clay for the psychological war machine. There have often been good grounds in the past for fearing the enemy, and the distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’ was once necessary for survival. But nuclear weapons have changed everything.
Today that ancient them us distinction threatens the survival of them and us. As Einstein once said: ‘The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything except our way of thinking. . . we need an essentially new way of thinking if mankind is to survive.’
The old them-us thinking is dangerous because it leads us to accept the unacceptable. And the reasoning goes something like this:
‘The Russians are basically different from us. They are wicked bullies who intend to take over the world. We can stop them only by threatening them because bullies only respond to threats. And because they are basically different from us it is alright to destroy them if necessary. Nuclear weapons are terrible but it may be that the Russians cannot be stopped by any other means. Although nuclear war would be horrible, we have a reasonable chance of surviving. And anyway life under Russian rule would be far worse than death.’
If any individual spoke about another using logic like this they would be diagnosed as paranoid. And, indeed, them-us thinking is a time-honoured symptom of psychosis (a psychotic being someone who can no longer distinguish between events in the world and events taking place in their imagination), characterised by what psychologists call ‘denial’ and ‘projection’.
‘Denial’ is refusing to acknowledge one’s own unpleasant motives. ‘Projection’ is attaching these unacknowledged motives onto someone else and then rejecting them. It is the perfect way of having your cake and eating it too: of indulging your own bad motives and criticising them at the same time.
Our media and governments depict the Russians as aggressive expansionists bent on our destruction. A powerful perception of threat is created to soften up the public for yet more ‘defence’ spending, And in the Soviet Union precisely the same tricks are used to persuade Soviet citizens to make the necessary ‘sacrifices’ for protection against us.
Most of us have never met a Russian. Yet there are few of us without opinions about how dangerous they are. We tend to see our own country as conciliatory, just, trustworthy, rational, legitimate. Theirs is aggressive, unjust, untrustworthy, irrational and illegitimate. Yet anyone travelling in the Soviet Union is soon struck not only by the Soviets’ strong belief in their own peacefulness, but also by their surprise and puzzlement at the fact that foreigners do not view them in the same light. They fear us — for precisely the same reasons that we fear them.
The noted sociologist and psychologist Gregory Bateson drew an analogy between nuclear deterrence and drug addiction: the ‘fix’ (new weapon) gives a sense of wellbeing that gradually fades only to require a bigger fix. What the two also have in common is a powerful dose of denial. Denial of the danger of nuclear war underlies government thinking on defense. The public’s denial may be less strong, but they are hampered in their understanding by a pervading sense of powerlessness, which in turn leads to more denial: nuclear war may well happen. But not to me.
Our thinking cannot change without combatting denial and projection — the mechanisms of the psychological war machine. Logical argument in the face of paranoia is as ineffective as with a person in the grips of a psychotic episode. Emotion is what’s needed — emotion directed appropriately. Fear of nuclear war and its effects are legitimate and appropriate and can lead to reappraisal of the old fear — the Russian threat. Another method of penetrating denial is to look for the absurdity in the whole upside-down logic of the old them-us thought structure.
Confronting denial and projection can be painful, disorienting and can leave one feeling powerless. But another new belief network is gaining ground. The peace movement is at last building another way of thinking that can sway governments as countless people are daring to reject the old them-us psychology. But the question is: can we develop this new way of thinking in time to avert catastrophe?