Persons, People, and Public Policy

10/20/2013 05:53 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Contemplating the confusion of contemporary events happening on both national and international stages, it is easy to pass judgment on whatever actor is portraying the role opposite of our own preference. The truth is that we are all responsible for the confusion and dysfunction. The breakdown of government is not due to the failure of public policy or the conflicting policies of partisan factions in the body politic. It is due, to a great extent, to factors under the radar of both popular media and sophisticated or academic thinking.

Statements by politicians and pundits about the president during the recent series of events involving the use of poison gas in the Syrian conflict point to an overlooked factor in the shaping of opinions and conflicting attitudes. When the president stated there was a line which if crossed there would be military action, the Syrians crossed the line. The decision about military action was handed off to Congress. Then through some diplomatic maneuvering, the situation was resolved without military intervention. The result was a spate of accusations calling the president weak and that he had damaged the reputation of the United States before the world. Others applauded the president's diplomatic prowess at averting military involvement in a complex war. "Who was right?" is a misleading question in determining the dynamics of the current political climate.

What I am about to suggest is not often discussed in political discourse in this country. It might be heard on right-wing talk radio or Fox News when reference is made to latte drinking, electric car-driving left-wing elitists. Interestingly enough, this points to what is really happening. There is a flaring up of what has always lain below the consciousness of the American body politic; the presence of a hierarchical psycho-social structure which is denied and suppressed by the myth of the inherent equality of all citizens. This structure is about the development of an individual's capacity to deal with the self in relation to the culture. The capacity to see beyond black and white responses to threats to one's personal or group frames of reference requires the addition of internal abilities to tolerate ambivalence and toleration of differences in viewing the world. Too much developmental difference between people interferes in their ability to understand each other's world views. This is not about intelligence. It is about the ability to manage culturally induced anxiety, the mechanism by which culture balances the need for societal control of the person and the need for personal freedom. The constituents of culture, i.e., economics, religion, technical complexity, etc. determine the level that the average member attains. Regression in psycho-social development occurs when the anxiety within the culture increases. Less tolerance for difference, the organization of self against threat without recourse to contemplation and evaluation, and rigidity of rules lead to conflict with dissent.

The United States is made up of differing cultures and has always been so. There is no common culture and there has never been. Public policy has always been worked out between conflicting cultures. When established cultural patterns are too threatened, anxiety increases, average levels of psycho-social development regress, and more rigidity is introduced into the inter-personal processes of deciding public policies. If our present governmental dysfunction is a product of anxiety diffused through the body politic, what is the antidote?

First, we have to define anxiety. Anxiety is actually preconscious memory of trauma caused by exceeding the boundaries that ensure the safety of the organism. In the beginning this involves dissolving the symbiosis of infant and "mother." As self and self reliance emerge the boundaries of safety expand as culture teaches the limits beyond which the singular self is at risk. Remaining memories located in the amygdala (that part of the brain where trauma is stored and which triggers quick response to danger, real or imagined) are constantly sending signals to the organism to be vigilant to danger. When danger is attached to an object the body and mind go into the fight/flight mode. Later development opens the availability of options for responding to threats to well being. Acts of compassion and self sacrifice may emerge as the self incorporates increasing complexity in morality and interpersonal concerns. However, culture can also restrict and arrest development at a level that serves the needs of the culture. When this occurs, the discomfort resulting from anxiety can be brought into conscious control by attaching it to an object that can be feared thus giving a semblance of control over the object. I believe this is what is happening to many in our present national culture as they objectify their discomfort at changes taking place as a result of economic and technological changes, the threat of dilution of Caucasian domination of the culture, and seeming loss of control over their future. This arrested development and often regression lead to public policy that speaks to the limitation and restriction of boundaries aimed at self-security over compassion and cultural hegemony over a human community.

Anxiety below consciousness is the emotion that is transmitted through human systems to alert the system to a common danger. It is infectious. Alcoholism is often symptomatic of family dysfunction due to anxiety in the system. The alcohol becomes the objectified focus for this underlying incapacity to deal with the boundaries affecting growth and the ensuing risks that transcending boundaries engenders. The same is true for differing cultures within our nation. The objectification of communal angst onto people who are different, be they of color, sexual orientation, religion, values, or willingness to challenge cultural boundaries for their own growth, results in public policy directed at diminishing the effect such people have.

In family therapy as in other system approaches to increasing the functioning of human organizations, the object is to increase a non-anxious presence in the system. This is done by identifying persons capable of dealing with their own anxiety and who show a capacity to grow beyond the restrictive rules governing relationships in the group. This suggests the importance of putting the focus on the development of leadership based on the ability to transcend norms and boundaries that preserve the safety of sameness and venture into the space that encompasses the richness of diversity. This may mean making a place for education for personal development amidst an academia more attuned to skill training as an economic tool.

Today, the trend in education is to equip students to compete for fewer and fewer jobs requiring greater and greater specialized skills. Economic fears, meanwhile, diminish the values of an education leading to a broader concern for the welfare of the greatest numbers. Meanwhile, politicians through threats to their incumbency or for a desire for greater influence, inflame the forces of regression to levels of primitive rage and fear of anyone or any idea that threatens pre-conceived notions of cultural superiority.

The tragic truth is that an angst-driven minority can dominate a well-meaning progressive majority through threats of disrupting the structures designed to maintain a stable social system. The answer to this threat is enough people to maintain a posture of non-anxious reaction to the chaos engendered by the frightened angry minority. The future of American and global well-being is dependent on raising the level of self-aware conscientious independent citizenry who ultimately consider their highest allegiance to be humanity itself.