Psycholgie Dnes | Conspiracy Theories and Unconscious Suffering: An interview with Jungian Analyst Vladislav Šolc
Interview by Dominik Čejka, translated from Czech.
“I try to approach them the Jungian way – with understanding and love. I try to involve them in a dialogue but also to listen. Attempting to convince someone about the opposite only increases mutual resistance.”
Bizarre conspiracy theories, but also fundamentalist religions are found in history of humanity from times immemorial. Many different fields strive to understand those phenomena better. One of them is psychology. Jungian analyst VLADO ŠOLC examines them from the perspective of depth psychology.
How did you become interested in conspiracy theories?
Basically, through Jung. When I studied at the Jungian Institute in Chicago with George Didier, a colleague of mine, we researched fundamentalist forms of religion. Then we discovered various interesting parallels between those aspects of religiosity and conspiracy theories.
What are those similarities?
They manifest through archetypal patterns. These are for example demonization of natural events, the fight between good and evil, solutions to big cosmological questions, grandiose heroic fantasies, promise of salvation or redemption. Or a belief that a politician is a chosen saviour. Take for example QAnon’s conspiracy theory that claims that a powerful pedophile [democrats] satanists bleed children and extract from them adrenochrome, a substance that assures immortality. It is an ancient idea of the elixir of life. You see they perhaps envy that democrats have access to this divine privilege while they suffer and have so much anger. Conspiratorialists believe that Hollywood celebrities, influential philanthropists or billionaires are part of this cult. Well, a person who is going to bring an end to this is Donald Trump. During the final judgment day that Q called a storm all of them will be brought to justice and America restored to its lost greatness. Note the parallel with the apocalypse (Biblical revelation). The QAnon movement compounds too many parallels with the cult.
What role does the Dark Religion play here?
We can see it in the mode of how people approach such “theories”. We speak of archetypal fantasies. The main attributes are rigidity, literal and concrete thinking – remarkable lack of symbolic comprehension. Ego thus adheres to those contents through fascination and almost unshakable “faith.” Authorities and teachings are idolized and deified. They are elevated to the realm of gods. Then there is no questioning them as they hold the “truth.” Take for example the Flat Earth theory; its followers close their minds to any evidence or critical reasoning. They do not want to have their beliefs questioned. The truth is not as important to them as the benefits they receive from their theory. It’s a matter of immediate gratification. All investments would have to be replaced by higher value to be abandoned. They do not see it at the moment. All criticism is thus rendered as scam and manipulation. Here’s a strong similarity with fundamentalist creed that we termed Dark Religion, or theocalypsis.
What was your way of understanding those phenomena?
Our approach was a priori Jungian. We recognize and study the role the unconscious plays when it comes to human behavior, including feelings and cognition. We were concerned especially with unprocessed emotional contents that are consequently projected onto the outside world where they are perceived as images and form mythical stories. Such images often find archetypal expressions precisely in what we call conspiracy theories. To their followers they serve as containers for holding disturbing, unprocessed negative emotions; those can be now under certain control in the mind of a conspiratorialist. Conspiracy theories allow for the creation of superiority feelings and help relieve anxiety and the like. Conspiratorialists consider themselves a special, strong persons capable of accepting the “dark truth” of a given conspiracy. In their own eyes of course, they stand on the side of good; they are heroes of their own myth.
How can contents of personal unconscious lead to adherence to conspiracy theories?
Often there is trauma behind creations of those ideas. Generally speaking, there are painful emotions that are split off by the defense system of the psyche. Conspiracy theories serve as rational-emotive constructs that fend off pain on one hand and provide soothing fantasy on the other. Unconscious, or dark aspects of those are then naturally projected onto the other, the villain of the conspiracy. The Self is by this maneuver split off into two parts, the shadow is cast outside, and the light of grandiosity blinds the conspiratorialist. As long as we are unconscious of our shadows, our reality will remain distorted accordingly.
Can you think of any example that would illustrate that?
Yes. Recently I had a discussion with the conspiracy theorist who admires Putin and sees him as a great leader who is on the quest of saving Europe and Christian values from the onslaught of “imperialist” NATO’ aggression. I know for the fact that this man has had a negative experience with his father who was critical, authoritarian and punitive. This man developed a critical unconscious image that allowed him to feel better about himself. His inferiority feelings and shame are now covered up by the heroic fantasy of Salvator Mundi. It is possible that this way he gains relative power: ” You all see, you thought Putin was a weak man, but now he is going to show you his power!”
Would you say that the more such emotions remain unconscious, or raw, the more susceptible one is towards the phenomenon you are describing?
Precisely, Jung calls it an axiom of psychology. It’s like a situation in connected vessels. The more emotions are rejected, the more unconscious they become, the more forcefully they arose as compensations via one’s philosophy and way of life.
When we move deeper into the psyche to the lower imaginary level – to the collective unconscious what parallels shall we find there?
In the collective unconscious there “dwell” different archetypes, or energy sources that have various functions. Through patterns and images, they offer solutions to certain, typical problems. They are manifested as dichotomous symbols: as fascinating and terrifying at the same time. We consider our tribe as evil and the other one as enemy, or even evil. Consciousness relativizes and gives form to those archetypes. For example, when shaman healed the sick, he induced the change of his consciousness via ritual or psychedelic herbs. He helped him to “open” his consciousness so the images of the collective unconscious could enter and cause a change of attitude. Through their culturally conditioned effect the shaman enabled the patient to grasp a traditional meaning and became initiated to tribal knowledge.
How does this, what you just described relates to formation of conspiracy theories?
We can say, with the grain of salt, that there is an analogy where the role of shaman’s initiation is replaced by the Internet. Trauma makes the psyche more susceptible to penetration by the archetypal energies. People who suffer from loneliness, depression, anger; carry around a big “hole,” losses, fear of death and the like. They seek quasi -religious ideas that would temporarily give them meaning and the sense of belonging. Religious instinct compels us to seek, understand and transcend. It lies at the core of our endeavor even though it takes various forms in the labyrinth of individuation. Conspiracy theories provide meaning, they are like constructs that protect ego from legitimate suffering. Conspiracy theories can provide limited theodicy and offer quisi-salvation.
And what about the Self, the central concept of Jung’s teaching? What role does it play in the formation of conspiracy theories?
There are many ways to understand the concept of the Self. We can say that the Self is the totality of what we know about ourselves but also of all of that we are unconscious of. It is all we are in reality, conscious and unconscious. The Self is the totality of the being and thus encompassing all opposites. Existence, experienced by humans is essentially paradoxical. The Self strives to unite the opposites and offers the resolution to this paradox of life. The more we integrate the Self the more we are in peace with life. Our task is to live somewhere in the midst of the opposites where we can work on their reconciliation. But when the opposites of the Self are split, and traumatic contents cannot be reconciled in the consciousness they then operate as “dark” and attract all sources of archetypal fantasies. As long as they are unconscious, they generate an alternative reality, that is reality that is partially contaminated by the mythical fantasies designed for the ego to tolerate the darkness to certain extent. The self-possesses, in the hierarchy of the archetypes, so to speak, the highest amount of energy and that’s why when a fanatic like Osama Bin Laden is identified with it he believes he is acting in the name of God. Instead of acknowledging that he is an ordinary human being like every one of us, he falls into the trap of absolute grandiosity. He is not aware that he is possessed by the dark energies of the Self; he serves the God he unwittingly created.
Do you have any recommendations as to how to communicate with people whose thinking became excessively conspiratorial?
I try to approach them the Jungian way – with understanding and love. I try to involve them in a dialogue but also to listen. Attempting to convince someone about the opposite only increases mutual resistance. I keep in mind there is an unconscious, feeling-toned content behind the belief and that is the reason why the person is so strongly attached to it, not the idea itself. I try to listen for the motivations one’s not aware of. For example: what is missing in this discussion, the broader life? What are they striving for; acceptance, understanding, belonging? Do they want to be special or unique? Or maybe there is some great pain that is feeding the “theory.” What is the full symbol behind this? These are the things to keep in mind, not to patronize a partner in discussion. I must ask myself what prevents me from accepting the opposite stance, what role does my own attitude play in this dialogue?
You currently live in the US but you grew up in Slovakia, so you can compare. To your opinion, do conspiracy theories manifest themselves the same way everywhere around the world or their language quite differs depending on the origin?
Basically, you answered your question. We can find the same patterns that I mentioned before everywhere. Conspiracy theories, just like patterns of mythical stories, have a common archetypal form, but the content may vary. The USA appears to be the cradle of many bizarre conspiracy theories. Roughly fifty percent of Americans follow some type of conspiracy theory. Some conspiracy theories are specifically tailored for the environment. Take for example a question of the right to bear arms. It is backed by a strong paranoid fantasy of the government that goes tyrannical and enslaves people. It is elevated by the archetypal idea of freedom. This symbol is rooted in the history of the United States when the first pilgrims staked out their own territory and defended it with a gun in their hands. In Slovakia, for instance, we see recently growing conspiratorial narratives related to the Russia and Ukraine war. Some of the conspiracy theories find their futile ground in many countries. Take the anti-vaccination craze or the Covid-19 related falsities. It is a fact that conspiratoriality, but also fundamentalist religions often rise and grow during the times of social instability and the economic crisis. A lot of people, naturally, fall into depression and anxiety seeks ways of soothing and containing difficult emotions.
Critical thinking is generally regarded as an antidote against the spread of conspiracy theories. Based on your experience, what would you suggest?
I recommend looking for a symbolic dimension of given persuasion. Look for where the weight lies and not where our primary emotional reactivity leads us. For example, what does the symbol of the vaccine mean for me or what does the mask represent for me? Or more recently – what does the war between Russia and Ukraine symbolize for me and my nation? This way we can examine the source of our own attitudes, hidden emotions and even ways to cope with them. I can ponder on how is my relationship with my partner or children related to the “theory” I worship. If I recognize the projective nature of my own anger, I can start to do something about it. The change depends on how one is able to relate to his or her own pain. How can one deal with it, accept, and integrate it?
Vladislav (Vlado) Šolc (pronounced “Schultz”) is a professional psychotherapist and Jungian analyst practicing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Vlado received training from the C. G. Jung Institute of Chicago and Charles University in Prague. He is the author of five depth-psychology-oriented books: Psyche, Matrix, Reality; The Father Archetype; In the Name of God—Fanaticism from the Perspective of Depth Psychology; Dark Religion: Fundamentalism from the Perspective of Jungian Psychology and most recently Democracy and Individuation in the Times of Conspiracy Theories.