The Pathology of Partisanship


“Partisanship,” writes Aldous Huxley, “is a complex passion which permits those who indulge in it to make the best of both worlds. Because they do these things for the sake of a group which is, by definition, good and even sacred, they can admire themselves and loathe their neighbors, they can seek power and money, can enjoy the pleasures of aggression and cruelty, not merely without feeling guilty, but with a positive glow of conscious virtue.”

Now, before images of Antifa go rushing through your head, though they are for me the quintessential incarnation of what Huxley describes, it should not be terribly difficult to relate yourself to this personally. Perhaps you are a bastion of political or religious zealotry with innumerable victims in your wake, but more likely your passion of partisanship is enacted on a small and mostly intellectual level. Maybe the worst of it is an occasional snarky political post on social media. Regardless, partisanship hits us all on some front.

When first reading this passage from Huxley’s brilliant book “The Devils of Loudun” last week on vacation I was struck by its psychological acuity. And its not from studying the passion in a text or from merely observing it in others, I relate because it is exactly how I feel whenever I become involved in partisanship. I’ve asked myself in the past and still ask: what is this need to have an enemy? What undercurrent of soul requires me to have an enemy to loathe and condemn. Even when enemies are not forthcoming I will simply invent them just to have someone or something to fight.

It doesn’t take a Jungian psychoanalyst to figure out that the enemy I loath and condemn lives within my own being. But because it lives within it is much too far away to fight head on; it must be projected onto others. Fighting the enemy out there is always easier than fighting the enemy in here. In here lives the real dragons, the stuff of nightmares, and it’s never convenient to take them on. Better to fight those dirty Democrats, those deplorable Republicans, those baby killers, those women’s rights haters, those kneeling football players, those racist cops, the White House Tweeter, those liberal haters in the media, those socialists, those capitalists, those flyover hicks, those coastal loons, on and on and on and on.

Every last one of them are easy targets, and fighting them makes me a hero in someone’s eyes. Fighting my own shadow? Nobody cares. It’s lonely.

“Loyalty to their group,” Huxley continues, “transforms these pleasant vices into acts of heroism. Partisans are aware of themselves, not as sinners or criminals, but as altruists and idealists. And with certain qualifications, this is in fact what they are. The only trouble is that their altruism is merely egotism at one removed, and that the ideal, for which they are ready in many cases to lay down their lives, is nothing but the rationalization of corporate interests and party passions.”

Partisanship not only gets one off the hook of dealing with one’s own mess, but it rewards with the honor of altruism, glorious defender of an ideal!

Partisanship is indeed a passion. A passion in the classic sense, not in the sense in which it is commonly used today. In the classic sense “passion,” from the Greek word pathos (the same word modern psychology uses to denote pathology or mental illness) is, “An appetite or impulse such as anger, desire or jealousy, that violently dominates the soul” (quoted from the Greek Philokalia). It is in this sense that partisanship is passion.

Partisanship is a psychological defense mechanism, and our culture is up to its neck in it – violently dominating its soul; myself its loyal subject.

Why do I need someone to hate? Because I can’t bear to hate myself.

Or could it be just the reverse?

Is it that I can’t bear to love myself?



6 thoughts on “The Pathology of Partisanship

  1. I feel a similar kind of – well, almost disgust reaction – at my own inclinations towards polarizing emotions. Enough of that reaction keeps me from at the very least participating in the constant hyper-state of simplifying people, events, history, etc. and lets me sit back at my computer feeling particularly alone (in a community sense). It seems that people really struggle with complexity. In my experience, that struggle isn’t linked to intellectual ability but is very much emotional. It is anxiety producing not to understand something yet still somehow be accountable. I find that the majority of people I meet seem to crave to be coerced a bit to embrace the complexity of things, to attempt honest self assessment, but our culture doesn’t have ‘jigs’ for this. Everyone is swimming in their own little pond and forgets they are surrounded by little ponds and would love to live in a bigger pond with someone, so rather than removing all of the barriers they chose to identify a ‘group’ that they can chose to fit in with that, perhaps, they can convince themselves they completely agree with. I take comfort reading people like Huxley and other thinkers. It’s good to be aware of our inner struggle and not allow ourselves to be swept up in collaborative anger, hate, mistrust, judgement, etc. Thanks Eric!

  2. I do not suggest you settle on that thought, but soon move through it. I would not want you to start beating yourself up about nothing. Partisanship is a natural phenomenon, ancient and particularly western. It manifests out of the left-right dimension of our souls, just as our souls have high-low and forward-backward dimensions too. It is natural that we sense left and right, just as we sense up and down, and forward and backward. If we do not sense left and right, then we are lacking something.

  3. Partisanship also tends to attribute causes of problems to single sources which is almost never reality but the fiction that keeps our hero project running smoothly and saves us from thinking too deeply, particularly about our own contribution to the problems. In this sense the right-left dichotomy is very often misleading. Polarity of thought is generally misleading.

  4. hmm… I see two things at play here. There is reality, and there is emotional reaction to reality. We each need to decide with which we stand. With reality or with emotional reactions to it.

    We may stand with reality, that is, with how things are. Or we may go with our emotional reactions to reality. That is to the left. Leftism is largely emotionalism. And there is rightism, which is an emotional reaction against the emotionalism and illogicality of the left. Each are left and right of each other, but both are to the left of reality.

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