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Psychic wounds: a hurdle to rational political debate

By Keith Suter - posted Monday, 14 March 2016


Why do Australians panic over a handful of asylum seekers arriving by sea (when larger numbers arrive by air)? Why do we focus on that issue rather than some of the bigger long-term issues (such as the loss of jobs through information technology)? Why do calls for "political leadership" fail?

I suggest that the answer comes from the notion of "psychic wounds".

A "psychic wound" is a wound to the soul which cannot be healed through rational discussion. It is private, deep-lasting and may be difficult to explain in rational terms.

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For example, a child going through school may feel overwhelmed by being forever compared with their brilliant or athletic older sibling. The owner of a family business fears that they will not live up to standards set by the talented founder of the family firm.

Countries have their own psychic wounds. The English can remember a time when they ruled a third of the world; now they organize royal weddings and museums: all pomp and no circumstance. Germans still live with the memory of Hitler. New Zealanders feels overshadowed by Australians. Canadians feel overshadowed by Americans.

An emerging American psychic wound is the fear of national decline. Americans do not want to hear the facts about the US's limitations. They want politicians who will claim that it is "Morning again in America".

An Australian psychic wound is the fear of invasion. White Australians for two centuries have been haunted by the fear that they are a long way from their great and powerful protector (originally the UK and now the US) – and that, anyway, the ally may not actually protect Australia in its hour of need. White Australians see their land as large and vulnerable, surrounded by hordes of greedy Asians.

Additionally the "white Australia policy" was designed partly to keep out cheap foreign labour from Asia. The shortage of European labour in the 19th century kept wages high and working conditions favourable (the "eight hour day" was invented in Melbourne).

Three depressing conclusions flow from this explanation. First, political discussion is not a "rational" discussion. It is not an objective exchange of facts. Instead, it taps into emotions, some of which the listener may only be barely aware.

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Second, there is a limit to the effectiveness of education. For example, there are expensive government campaigns to discourage smoking and drinking – and yet people still do so (including members of the medical profession who ought to know more about the dangers than most people).

Third, it is pointless calling for more "political leadership" on issues that run contrary to Australia's psychic wounds. Mainstream politicians feel intuitively that they cannot use rational dialogue to change the minds of people on, say, asylum seekers. Rational discussion and "facts" only confirm the bias within the minds of audiences.

The politicians therefore figure that it is better to exploit the prevailing national psychic wounds rather than correct them. Thus, for example, mainstream political parties in elections promise a tougher line on asylum seekers. They do so because it works. It may not be moral but it is effective.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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