Avner Falk
Clinical and political psychologist and psychohistorian

Why humankind is not united against the plague

Source: Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

In a recent article in Haaretz, the Israel historian Yuval Noah Harari (born 1976) bemoaned the fact that the nations of our world, and their “bad” leaders, were not uniting against the Coronavirus pandemic. With a universal plague like that of the Covid-19 virus threatening all of humankind and constituting a common enemy, you would have expected all the nations of the world to unite against the virus, to share all information, strategies, medical equipment, quarantine measures, testing people for infection by the virus, anything that could save all of them together. Yet, despite the existence of the United Nations and its World Health Organization, and despite some cooperation between governments, what we are mostly witnessing is each country closing its borders, each taking its own measures to protect its own citizens, bringing them home, putting them in quarantine, and enforcing social distancing. Each nation seems to be taking care of itself, rather than all nations uniting in an international effort to defeat the plague. Why is that?

The Danish-German-American psychoanalyst Erik Homburger Erikson (1902-1994), who never knew his biological father, whose mother was a Danish Jewess, whose adoptive stepfather was a German Jew, and who converted to Christianity and changed his last name when he became an American citizen, is best known for having coined the term “identity crisis.” No wonder. Erikson had had to resolve his own identity crisis.

Erikson also developed a psychoanalytic theory of the collective psychology of nations. In 1966 he coined the term “pseudo-speciation” to describe how nations develop and view themselves. Erikson claimed that linguistic and cultural differences caused human beings to divide themselves into different ethnic groups, or nations, with different languages, dress, customs, and histories (whether real or imagined) for each such group. Erikson thought that the formation of nations resembled the evolution of biological species (speciation), but that nations were not really different species, only “pseudo-species.” Extreme “pseudo-speciation” led to the dehumanization of other human groups, to “ethnic cleansing” and to genocide, as the Germans’ imaginary “Aryan race” did to the equally imaginary “Jewish race” in the Shoah (Holocaust).

“Pseudo-speciation” was also the tendency of the members of an ethnic “in-group” to view the members of another ethnic “out-group” as a different, separate, and inferior species to their own. Each nation considered itself God’s chosen people. Each had laudatory names for itself and derogatory names for other nations. For instance,the ancient Greeks called all people who could not speak their language barbaroi (Barbarians), and the ancient Romans called all the “savage” people on the eastern borders of their empire saraceni. The Russians and other Slavic peoples still call the Germans niemtsy (mute or dumb), and the Jews call all non-Jews goyim, a Biblical word that originally meant “nations” but later became derogatory in Yiddish and Hebrew.

The Chinese-born Irish political scientist Benedict Anderson (1936-2015) viewed nations as “imagined communities,” arguing that nations were abstract psychological realities rather than physical entities. After all, you cannot touch a nation with your hands. The Turkish-Cypriot-American psychoanalyst Vamık Djemal Volkan (born 1932) developed Erikson’s theory of “pseudo-speciation” into a much wider theory of “large-group psychology,” in which the large group is a nation, a religion, or another large grouping of human beings. Each large group has its “chosen glory,” the most important time in its history when it was great and glorious, whether in reality or in fantasy, and its “chosen trauma,” its most prominent historical catastrophe. Each large group has a psychological “ethnic tent ” under which its members reside, and it jealously guards its boundaries.

In times of collective anxiety and psychic regression, such as that of the Black Death or Bubonic plague of the mid-fourteenth century, that of the seventeenth-century witch hunts in Europe and America, that of the “Spanish flu” of 1918-1920, which killed tens of millions of people, or that of the Coronavirus pandemic in which we now live, the boundaries of the large group become much more rigid. When threatened by an invisible enemy, each “pseudo-species” withdraws into itself and shuts itself off from the others. This is how the large group defends itself against its collective anxiety and the dissolution of its boundaries. Geographical borders have their parallels in our unconscious mind.

The theories of Erikson, Anderson and Volkan help us understand why we are not witnessing a humanity united against the virus, but rather each nation for itself. This is tragic, but so is the history of organized human warfare during the past fifteen or twenty thousand years. If Prof. Harari is seeking the answer to his question, he may find it here.

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