The Myth of Blood Libel (“The Adequate Persona”)

Following the shootings in Tucson there has been a call for less vitriol in political discourse, a toning down of verbal attacks on ideas and on one’s political opponents.  Civility toward one another is the operative word of the hour – as it should always be. The previous post suggested that reflection characterized by a slowing down, a thinking through, and certainly also a “feeling through” via empathy, “moral imagination,” and consciousness of our failure(s) is also called for.[1]

Ideally, one of the results of such reflection is a deepening of psychological clarity regarding the dynamics behind human behavior. Why do we do what we do? Anytime there is an outburst of some kind, whether it is the shooting in Tucson or the backlash against Sarah Palin’s use of the term “blood libel,” there is an opportunity to learn something about human nature. This post looks at the latter “outburst.” How and to what degree the observations made here might apply to Tucson or, just as importantly, to the rest of us as we go about our lives will be suggested as the blog series continues.

For the sake of clarity, “blood libel” has a very bloody history indeed.  When Mythfire uses the words “myth” and “blood libel” in the same context it is doing so because “myth” and “mythic” were used by commentators when responding to Palin’s video. In no way is Mythfire implying that “blood libel,” i.e. falsely accusing a person of being an accessory to murder, is something that never occurred, something that is just a figment of our imagination. (All too often the word “myth” is used in this last meaning of falsehood or something made up.)[2] Blood libel has occurred throughout the ages and individuals as well as groups have undeniably endured much pain and suffering as a result of these false accusations.

Certainly and for centuries the malicious charge of “blood libel” has done the most harm to Jews, culminating in last century’s Holocaust. As stated by Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post, blood libel in this context is “the scurrilous accusation that Jews kidnapped and murdered Christian children to use their blood to prepare Passover matzoh,” which is the unleavened bread eaten on that occasion.[3] (Marcus’s quote will reappear in a future Mythfire post which takes a closer look at this libelous “myth.”)

However, as we turn to the use of the phrase “blood libel” following the shootings in Tucson, Mythfire feels it is important to cut the media commentators, Palin included, some slack. Theirs was an emotional rather than measured rational response to the shooting’s horrific and violent toll. That is, in no small way these individuals gave public voice to the moral outrage felt by all of us. Nevertheless, the activity which the previous post in this series called hysterical “guilt-making” – where each person points the finger at the other – might really teach us something about human psychology. This means, of course, that if we approach this incident with an attitude of curiosity and humility, then perhaps it will teach us something about ourselves.

Mythfire would like to use the Sarah Palin “blood libel” video as a teaching point. This is not to knock Sarah Palin, to attack or besmirch her character. As we continue with the below, we must put ourselves in her shoes. As members of the human race, we have all exhibited the psychological principles about to be described. What makes it even more complicated – and human psychology is complex – is that these psychological qualities or principles are neither exclusively positive or negative. If you haven’t seen it, take a moment now to watch her roughly eight minute video response to the shootings in Tucson. It will figure into this and the next posts on “the myth of blood libel.” (If the video does not presently show on your screen, please try reloading the page. If it does show, it make take a moment for it to start once you’ve clicked “play”).

As we watch the video, our eyes cannot help but note several details including the hearth behind Palin and to its left, the U.S. flag. Palin, of course, wears a flag pin on her lapel, and, thanks to her impeccable appearance and delivery style, as well as her carefully prepared remarks, Palin had some commentators wondering if this video is her most presidential “appearance” yet. She certainly is attempting to convey via image the ideas of (American) home and country.

This image of ourselves which we present to the world and which to a certain extent the world expects from us is what is referred to in analytical psychology as the persona. Coming from the Latin word of the same spelling and in keeping with its ancient theatrical meaning, the persona is “the mask” that we put on especially when interacting with the outer world. Different contexts call for different personae. As numerous commentators have noted, while giving his speech in Tucson President Obama was “the consoler-in-chief”. When he replaces his dress suit for one more befitting the basketball court he becomes someone else, perhaps the “trashtalker-in-chief.”

This attempt at humor is in no way meant to suggest that Obama’s sentiments in Tucson were anything but genuine. It was not an act. Many commentators in fact said it was Obama’s most personal speech yet. In addition to this, however, it also was the appropriate expression of grief, suffering, and promise that the public needed at that moment.  If we stayed with the theater analogy a moment longer, you might say the president consciously employed the persona needed for a catharsis, i.e. emotional healing, to begin.

Whether lived consciously or unconsciously, the persona does bring with it potential dangers. One danger is that an individual can become overly identified with a single persona.  In Digesting Jung: Food for the Journey, Jungian analyst Daryl Sharp writes:

“However, we must be able to drop our persona in situations where it is not appropriate. This is especially true in intimate relationships. There is a difference between myself as an analyst and who I am when I’m not practicing. The doctor’s professional bedside manner is little comfort to a neglected mate. The teacher’s credentials do not impress her teenage son who wants to borrow the car. The wise preacher leaves his collar and his rhetoric at home when he goes courting.”[4]

Not having followed Sarah Palin that closely or consistently, and not being her confidante or family member, Mythfire is not in a position to argue that she is overly and unhealthily identified with one or another persona. Nevertheless, her sometimes brusque and defensive demeanor in the video and again in a more recent statement – meant to address criticisms of her video – is suggestive. (In the more recent statement she said, “I am not ready to make an announcement about what my political future is going to be. But I will tell you … I am not going to sit down. I am not going to shut up.”[5]) Time and again Palin comes across as one who willingly embraces the persona of a maverick. Even her invocation last year of herself and other women like her as “mama grizzlies,” i.e. women who protect their young no matter what, is little more than a female variation of the maverick persona. [6] Finally, both maverick and mama grizzly are woven of the same cloth as that other classic Western persona: the rugged individualist, or cowboy.

To repeat, the cowboy (or maverick, or “mama grizzly”) persona  is not all “bad.”[7] As analytical psychologist Murray Stein points out, what we should strive for is neither a “good” nor a “bad” persona but an “adequate” one: “The persona, when used creatively within the context of a strong psychological development, functions to express as well as to hide aspects of the personality. An adequate persona is broad enough not only to express the socially appropriate aspects of the personality but also to be genuine and plausible.”[8]

Additionally, look for an adequate persona and you’ll probably find an individual who is able to evolve when times and life circumstances demand it. Such a person has what Stein calls a “competent ego”:  “The competent ego meets each of these adaptational challenges with appropriate alterations in self-concept and persona self-presentation.” [9] In this spirit, then, Mythfire encourages readers to reflect on the following persona-related questions:

  • To what extent am I (sometimes) living a persona more suitable for a different stage of life, for example living the adolescent single male/female persona instead of the responsible, adult, married, etc. man or woman more befitting my age and status?
  • Or the reverse: to what degree am I living the persona of “the serious responsible adult man/woman” at the expense of any experiences/expressions of creativity, play, openness, and flexibility?[10]
  • How have social aims and aspirations determined my persona? How about my upbringing? And adherence to religious beliefs?
  • What personae do I demonstrate in different collective/societal settings such as work, school, and home? How about when with relatives? And with complete strangers? How might a more conscious employment of an adequate persona, i.e. one appropriate to the moment, help us relate to others in a more positive and satisfying way in these settings?
  • If any of these personae feel forced or inauthentic, what external expectations might be leading me to react in an unconscious and inadequate way? Why do these expectations make me uncomfortable and unable to respond in an adequate manner? Again, how might I adjust my persona in order to achieve a better and more satisfying interaction with others? (Recognizing the expectations made on one is half the battle of consciously adapting and relating to these same expectations.)
  • To what extent do we depend upon a persona for our sense of identity, our sense of reality, not to mention our sense of self worth and belonging? (Mythfire recently saw a book written by a mother having to deal with “empty nest” syndrome. Once the children had flown the coop, she had to adjust her persona to something other than “mom.” Not an easy task.)[11]
  • How has birth order affected my persona? How has birth order influenced the personae of my siblings? This may be most evident when the family is together as we easily fall back into usual patterns of interacting with loved ones.
  • What persona or personae do I see and even identify with in my political leaders? What does that reveal about me? What does it reveal about them?  When looked at more closely, do my leaders exhibit what Stein calls an “adequate” persona” and/or a “competent ego”?
  • Who am I when I’m not wearing a persona?  In what ways am I in these moments connected with existential experiences of Being, wonder and awe, fear, gratitude, curiosity, etc.?  How have I sacrificed my portion of simply “being a human being” by overidentifying with one or more personae?
  • Just as importantly: what calling separates me from other members of the human race and gives me a sense of uniqueness, a desire to contribute something special and unique to humankind whether on a small or large scale? How might I employ my persona(e) so that this calling is more effectively realized in the world?

Mythfire is aware that most people will not take the time to reflect upon these or other questions like them. There is no denying that it is a tall order.However, for most of us it is also the only way to adequately go about consciously, creatively, and humanely relating to others or ourselves.

——

Next Wednesday: The Myth of Libel II (“Owning Your Shadow”)


[1]Newt Gingrich made much the same point this past week regarding Sarah Palin’s “blood libel” video saying she needs to “slow down” and “be more careful and think through what she’s saying and how she’s saying it.” http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2011/01/18/palin-needs-to-be-more-careful-gingrich-says/

[2] Mythfire takes this up further in a future “The Myth of Blood Libel” post.

[3] http://voices.washingtonpost.com/postpartisan/2011/01/why_sarah_palins_blood_libel_w.html

[4] Sharp, Daryl. Digesting Jung: Food for the Journey. Toronto: Inner City Books, 2001: 22.

[5] http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2011/01/17/palin-i-am-not-going-to-shut-up/

[6]The idea that Palin’s carefully constructed persona might have been too overtly on display in the video and/or inappropriate for the moment is arguably at the root of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s post-video suggestion that Palin appear in more town hall meetings: “I think people need to be judged by the way they conduct themselves in the public arena, in a way that is as minimally staged as possible.” See: http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/12/christie-says-palin-needs-to-go-unscripted-to-contend-for-2012/. Also, for Palin’s “Mama Grizzly” video: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/video/2010/07/08/VI2010070802519.html.

[7] Nor is the persona known as “Sarah Palin” or that known as “Mythfire” or “Chris Miller” all bad. Analytical psychologist Murray Stein shows that one’s own name is also something of a persona, as in “I am Chris Miller, youngest child/son of so-and-so, born on such-and-such a date, resident of such-and-so state” et cetera.  To the degree that I identify the sense of who I am with these concrete historical data rather than, say, with being a living being / member of the human race, I am also embracing a persona. This persona of “myself as Chris Miller” is on display in certain situations more so than others. See Stein’s Jung’s Map of the Soul: An Introduction, page. 114. Incidentally, people new to analytical psychology might benefit from reading  Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Sharp’s Digesting Jung, and Stein’s Jung’s Map of the Soul, perhaps in that order for reasons of accessibility or difficulty.

[8] Stein, Murray. Jung’s Map of the Soul: An Introduction. Chicago: Open Court, 1998: 119. Again, most commentators suggested via their comments that President Obama’s persona during the Tucson speech was “adequate” in this sense of appropriate, genuine, and plausible. “Plausible” perhaps can be taken to mean”believable” because it was genuine and appropriate.

[9] Ibid., 121.

[10] In his audio lectures mythologist Joseph Campbell called just such a person who upon returning home cannot take off his or her work persona “a stuffed shirt.”

[11] See Stein, page 114. Almost all of these concluding questions were generated after reading Stein’s chapter “The Revealed and the Concealed in Relations with Others (Persona and Shadow).”

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