By Charles Eisenstein
It is getting harder to keep a secret these days. The collective shadow of our society, once safely relegated to the dark basement of the unmentionable, is now exposed to daylight, forcing us to face our contradictions. I’ll offer three examples: Donald Trump’s leaked recordings, Hillary Clinton’s emails and Wall Street speeches, and the endless procession of videos of police brutality.
Once upon a time, “locker room talk” like Donald Trump’s lewd and degrading remarks leaked to the media would have stayed safely sequestered from public view. Misogynistic locker room banter existed, as it were, in an alternate universe. What was said on the golf course or the barroom didn’t register as part of a man’s public reputation; in those places, men were free to say things that would be unforgivable in public. The coexistence of these two realms was seldom questioned. As a high school and college athlete, I remember hearing the kinds of things Trump has said, and they were quite unremarkable in that context. A boy could say the most brutish, repellent things in the locker room without damage to his reputation outside it. Respectable society would never find out. Likewise, when reporters and politicians mingled outside the public performances of their roles, an unwritten understanding kept their conversations safely off the record. I imagine Donald Trump feeling a sense of betrayal at the revelation of his remarks, as if a boy reported to another boy’s girlfriend what he said about her in the locker room.
I think this division into two realms extended to internal, psychological divisions in the individuals making the degrading boasts and comments about women. In polite company, they became people who did not harbor such thoughts. The locker room alter-ego was safely contained in a different psychic compartment. I can imagine a Donald Trump being sincerely – sincerely! – scandalized to hear in polite company the very things he himself said in the safety of the mens’-only field of misogyny. I can imagine him condemning what was said in all earnestness, with zero awareness of hypocrisy.
So it is that rape culture is allowed to persist. It needs a shadow zone. The locker room conversations that objectify and degrade women and contribute to rape culture need a “locker room” in which to happen, a wall of separation between it and the larger realm of general social acceptability.
This wall of separation is breaking down, thanks in large part to the ubiquity of recording technology and the impossibility of stopping the distribution of the recordings on the Internet. Contradictions, whether personal or social, that could once remain hidden are coming unstoppably to light. It is getting harder to uphold a divided self.
As with sex, so with money. Hillary Clinton is having a hard time maintaining a wall of separation between her public posture of economic populism and her decades-long ministration to the needs of Wall Street. In former times a politician’s speeches to elite insiders would exist in an inviolably separate realm from his or her public image. In inside circles of power, the politician would be free to express himself directly. No concealment of his allegiances was necessary, because no one outside the political and corporate elite was listening. So of course, Hillary Clinton was loathe to release the transcripts of her speeches to Wall Street banks. Those speeches were the equivalent of locker room talk, which is supposed to stay in the locker room. Here, though, the context is financial domination rather than sexual domination.
Something similar applies to Clinton’s infamous deleted emails. There is nothing new about the contrast between the public presentation of governance and its ugly inner workings. The exercise of political power has never been pretty. The backroom deals, the threats and coercion, the buying of favors… all the nastiness that the email scandal hints at is characteristic of politics as we know it. The difference today is that it can no longer be confined to the back room. In other words, it is getting harder to maintain the appearance of democracy in a reality of oligopoly.
It is perhaps necessary that Clinton and Trump are both such extreme expressions of the suppressed shadow of our culture, presenting itself in unambiguous form for clearing. Liberal pundits have repeatedly observed that the bigoted sentiments Donald Trump expresses are merely the undisguised version of what Republicans have been saying in code for a long time. The hidden erupts into view. Clinton, meanwhile, is no ordinary establishment politician; she is the very epitome of the establishment, embodying its insincerity, lack of imagination, normalized corruption, and narrow technocratic commitment to preserving the status quo.
This is not meant as a personal criticism. My purpose here is not to condemn Hillary or the Donald; it is to illuminate the dissolving of the insulating compartments that allow contradictions and hypocrisy to exist. Probably in person, each of them is a complex individual like you and me, a mixture of beauty and pain, playing the roles laid out for them. I imagine that in their most private moments neither fully identifies with those roles nor believes in the game into which they have been thrust, any more than you or I believe in it. The elites usually precede the people into cynicism. In any event, our current moment of social evolution is calling each of them, in their public roles, to be an avatar of a cultural shadow archetype, presented to us in extreme form so that it cannot be ignored.
Clinton and Trump are a product of their conditions, playing the “game of thrones” according to the secret rules of the insiders, in a system that has long allowed, encouraged, and in some ways nearly required hypocrisy. That system is coming to an end. We are entering by fits and starts an era of transparency in which, we may someday hope, secret rules and hypocrisy will have no purchase.
Another arena with a longstanding division between sanitized public presentation and gritty reality is law enforcement. As with misogyny and political corruption, there is nothing new about police brutality and nothing new about its disproportionate application to brown-skinned people. For a long time though, it was sequestered in the realm of the unmentionable, relegated to the left-wing margins of political discourse or the statistics of academic papers. No longer. The advent of ubiquitous cell phone video cameras and other video surveillance has lifted the lid off the dark political unconscious and exposed its contents to light.
Here again, this exposure is making the two contradictory functions of the police – serving and protecting, and bullying and abusing – impossible to maintain simultaneously. It is only possible if the latter function is well hidden in the shadows.
I could go on to make similar points about drone strikes, refugee camps, clearcuts, and all the other injury and injustice that technology and social media are bringing into view. For a long time, propriety and ideology have buffered normalcy from the ugly inner workings of its maintenance. For example, the ideology of development has buffered us from the horrors of Third World sweatshops, strip mines, dispossession of land, and so forth. Lurid caricatures of violent criminals hides the grinding injustice of the legal system. The triumphal narrative of exploration and progress obscures the genocide of indigenous cultures. These various buffers, which allow contradictions to stand, have been necessary to operate a civilization built on exploitation and ecocide. Open up any social institution – politics, finance, business, education, medicine, academia, and even philanthropy – and you will find within it the same ugly machinations of power.
Today these buffers are disintegrating, despite the best efforts of established power to maintain secrecy, prosecute whistle-blowers, and control information. We might thank technology for bringing the dark underbelly of our system to light, but I think something larger is afoot. The trend toward transparency that is happening on the systems level is also happening in our personal relationships and within ourselves. Invisible inconsistencies, hiding, pretense, and self-deception show themselves as the light of attention turns inward. The tools of self-examination are proliferating on every level, from the personal to the collective. Herein is a link between the political developments I’ve described and the world of self-help, spirituality, or consciousness. At its best, these comprise ways of shedding light onto our internal contradictions and blockages in order to create a kind of inner transparency. On the interpersonal level too, a lot of work around partnership and community also aims for transparency, for example to expose hidden resentments, repressed desires, and unconscious conflicts. Illuminating the contradictions between the story and the actuality of a relationship brings the possibility of healing.
When previously hidden contradictions rise to consciousness and collide, the result is first denial and rage, followed by cognitive dissonance and the breakdown of normalcy. We see that happening today in the public sphere. That process can be disorienting, even paralyzing, as familiar orienting certitudes turn false. Who are we as a people? What is reliable? What is possible? What is real? We aren’t what we thought we were, and it isn’t what we thought it was. This confusion is a good thing. It is a sign of liberation from the old story that confined us. The exposure and clearing of hidden contradictions brings us to a higher degree of integrity, and frees up prodigious amounts of energy that had been consumed in the maintenance of illusions. What will our society be capable of, when we are no longer wallowing in pretense?