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Psychohistory for Paris: we must talk to the Shadow

How should we respond to the ghastly events in Paris? How do we want our leaders to respond?

It is very difficult, but the crucial thing is that we should respond before reacting, which is often very difficult for our Wounded Leaders. Yet even the opinionated ex-boarder journalist Peter Hitchens, who has tried all political styles from far left to far right, suggests grief and reflection:

“Our task is now first to mourn with our French friends and allies. And after that, to think rather than to shout. Rhetoric and militancy have not done very much for us in the past. Why should it be different this time?”

This time our grief and reflection needs to go deeper than before, and not just be a superficial rallying round against a common foe, like it seemed to be with Charlie Hebdo. We need to grieve for the lost and scarificed, but also to grieve and reflect on our failure.

Our failure, you may be thinking, of what?

Our failure to to escape the past, though we tried; our failure to make the world a reasonable democratic place, failure that the benefits of capitalism have not brought peace and well-being to everyone on this planet. But most of all we need to consider our failure in being able to wipe away what we don’t wish to think about.

And for that we need some psychology, for psychology teaches us that the things we banish from our consciousness come back to haunt us. Jung called it The Shadow. Even the great modern philosopher of trancendence, Ken Wilber, has begun to include the Shadow into his system, witness this great talk.

In a phone call this morning with my good friend Hilde Bland (widow of Rob) in Amsterdam, after watching the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, she said “We need Psychohistory.”

She’s right: we need that breadth of history and the depth of psychology to remember and reflect on what we may have collectively forgotten or split off. Then we need to engage. But first, what should we reflect on in the case of Paris?

Over here we’d do well to pledge solidarity, but we could start with considering our own sense of entitlement that, for example, allowed the English to feel OK about dominating their Celtic neighbours before going on to colonise the world, in what in Wounded Leaders I call Rational Man’s ‘War against the Indigenous’. Our divide and rule policies in Ireland came back to haunt us 300 years after importing Scottish Protestants to deliberately undermine Catholic solidarity in Ulster.

And the French? In the Middle Ages, the Crusaders used to be known in the collectively as ‘the Franj’ (Franks), see the important book by Lebanese author Amin Maalouf, Les Croisades vues par les Arabes (translated version: ‘The Crusades Through Arab Eyes’). Apart from the sectarian strife which was even then present in the Middle East, Maalouf claims that one of the ways Crusaders gained the ascendancy was that the locals were undermined by their opponents’ immorality: their refusal to keep any promises, their total absence of jurisprudence and their complete lack of knowledge of any of the healing arts. And now we think them the savages!

Despite her glorious revolution and land reform at the turn of the 19th Century, France’s overseas policy has been scandalously imperialist right into the 1960s – look how they dealt with Algeria, which people in conversation still say was ‘part of France’. Did you know that in Martinique they have the Euro? And today, their race relations fall well short of the inspiration of the revolutionary motto Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité which has become the strap-line for the French state. In Paris, the ghettoisation of the unequal is staggering to behold, if you are used to the relatively good mixture that prevails in London. It is now accepted that each New Year kids from the ‘banlieu’ come into the white centre and burn up cars.

Marr suggested “The world has now changed in the way it did after 9/11.” OK, but how should we respond, comes up again. Of course governments have to protect their people and put down boundaries. But that is not all, suggests, Psychohistory: we must enquire what lessons are to be learned.

“If you don’t take care of the other, then the end in you will have to pay,” said Hil. Remember what happened last time “the world changed”: a gross over-reaction resulting in two invasions – one totally false premises – which some thought we would live to regret. Some of us suggested there were tyrants in the region exactly because of its total insecurity since the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire in 1917, rather than their failure to embrace the attractions of democratic capitalism.

Psychohistory would turn as back towards the Shadow. “How did the British settle their own years of fear from the IRA?,” Hil asked. Of course it was by dialogue, rather than by force, but those talks had to be mainly secret, even if cemented by the big hitters like Clinton and Blair when some of the pathways had been laid. In public the line was: we won’t engage with terrorists.

“When governments refuse to talk to terrorists it is like the personality refusing to talk to the Shadow,” said Hil.

We need to engage with our shadow, and see what we find. It will no doubt include our history of blood-thirsty religion, of traders gathering riches off the backs of slaves, of an American paradise built on the amnesia of genocide of the Redskins, and so on.

We need to own our Shadow, to identify with it, to dialogue with that part of ourselves and then we can prepare ourselves for the next stage.

We then begin talking to the trigger-happy terrorists and see what do they want, what are they afraid of, what is going wrong for them? Do they hate us?

George Bush said they hate freedom, but his lack of curiosity has become a paradigm for bad practice. Every good therapist is rooted in curiosity, like the detective Columbo, I always think. “I’m not interested at all in the content of a couple’s row,” said Hil. “I want to know about what makes them so unsafe that they have to escalate.”

This is exactly what is needed now, I think; but before we do that we need to take a purposeful and long look at our own Shadow. The terrorists are not our Shadow, but they may be standing for it, carrying it.

And, like everyone who takes on this daunting task of engaging with the Shadow, we will need lots of support to be able to look it squarely in the eye.


  1. I fully support this reflective, intelligent and compassionate piece. Also Hilde’s wisdom. I feel immensely sad, very angry and quite afraid about what has happened in France. I also don’t know what to do about it. I imagine I am one among millions. For now I will grieve, offer condolence and look within myself. I will not rattle sabres.

    Comment by Andrew on 15/11/2015 at 6:31 pm
  2. This is a very insightful essay – much needed to counter a lot of the reactive comments.

    Comment by David Rickey on 17/11/2015 at 1:18 pm
  3. Thanks, Andrew, for your emotional depth.

    Comment by Nick Duffell on 17/11/2015 at 5:28 pm
  4. Interestingly, my recent post on the Christ’s Hospital Unofficial website recalled how in 1956 at school we listened to the evening news on the house radio and heard as Britain made a complete Horlicks of invading Egypt to seize the Suez Canal. Michael Gove said that he thought the history of the British Empire should be taught in schools. I agree, but he’s got to be prepared for a lot of skeletons to come rattling out of cupboards. Balfour Declaration, Churchill gassing the Kurds, establishment of the state of Israel at Jewish terrorist gunpoint, Mossadegh, Kassim, Aden…and then of course the Rev Blair getting a message from God on his hotline to invade Afghanistan (sorry, I forgot the three Afghan wars of the 19th century) and Iraq (where we once encouraged Sadaam Hussein to attack Iran in what became the bloodiest war in the middle east in memory). I can’t remember the exact quote but Lawrence of Arabia once said to his Arab allies something along the lines of: “Strangers will come to your country but the tragedy is that they will not leave”.

    Comment by David Redshaw on 18/11/2015 at 8:57 pm

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