Unionist anxiety and neurosis in the ongoing NI flag situation

I’m currently working my way through The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich. His argument so far, and remarks he made In chapter 3, seem to me to help frame the trouble in NI at the moment. First, I will try and outline what Tillich is getting at; I will then go on to think about the unrest in NI in light of Tillich’s thoughts.

In The Courage to Be Tillich is trying to develop and outline an ontology (i.e. map or identity the nature of being). He is developing this ontology by highlighting how being is rooted in courage.

The inverse of this is that being implicitly contains its opposite – non-being; which for Tillich expresses itself in human experience as anxiety. In his definition of anxieties he identifies three types of anxiety,

  1. the anxiety of fate (relatively) and death (absolutely)
  2. the anxiety of emptiness (relatively) and meaninglessness (absolutely)
  3. the anxiety of guilt (relatively) and condemnation (absolutely)

Anxiety manifests itself when we are faced with the negation of being –  or, non-being itself. We feel anxiety when we are faced with the end (the negation) of that which we have come to place value upon (e.g. relationships, established social orders, governments etc.). We can feel anxiety in relative and absolute senses. Relatively we experience anxiety in particular occasions, such as a lack of fulfilment (emptiness), the failure to be able to make sense of situation we find ourselves in (fate), or feeling the weight of responsibility for a certain event (guilt). Yet in these relative and particular circumstances instantiation of anxiety the absolute nature of anxiety manifests itself. In feeling empty and unfulfilled we sense the threat of meaningless. In being aware of fate and the contingency of life we sense death. In a particular moment of guilt we sense the threat of absolute and inescapable condemnation.

For Tillich courage is the ability to affirm oneself over against non-being. Courage is the ability to embrace and/or face anxiety and not be overcome by it. When one is unable to do this one becomes neurotic (“Neurosis is the way of avoiding non-being by avoiding being.”) – creating for oneself a fantasy world that is held fanatically, in favour reality. A neurosis, in this sense – as the avoidance of anxiety – is pathological (rather than existential) as it is treatable medically. (The existential awareness of anxiety, that does not manifest itself in neurosis, is a spiritual matter, for Tillich. It is one for the ministers – though of course a neurotic may eventually be referred to the ministers.) A further (brief) point is that anxiety often makes a person seek out objects to be feared so one does not have to experience the anxiety directly. This gives the illusion that the anxiety can be controlled and defeated.

To quote Tillich, in a way that will hopefully be seen to apply to the ongoing situation in NI,

When changes of the reality to which [a person] is adjusted threaten the fragmentary courage with which he has mastered the accustomed objects of fear… [their] self-affirmation becomes pathological. The dangers connected with the change, the unknown character of the things to come, the darkness of the future, make the average [person] a fanatical defender of the established order. [They] defend the castle of [their] imaginary world. [They] lose [their] comparative openness to reality, [they] experience an unknown depth of anxiety. But if [they are] not able to take this anxiety into [their] self-affirmation [their] anxiety turns into neurosis.

How does all of this relate to NI? Well I suggest that in NI, the decision to take down the flag from City Hall has exposed a latent anxiety within the Loyalist and Unionist communities. In externalising onto the flag a certain degree of their identity the removal of the flag has catalysed a crisis of self (to some degree). This externalisation of identity is common of objects that come to act symbolically. The flag points and participates in the perceived “Britishness” or “residents of the UK-ness” that the people of the Loyalist and Unionist communities identify themselves with. More than this, the flag reinforces the truth of this for these people.

Its removal evokes anxiety (manifestations 1 and 2) because a projection has taken place, I suggest, in which the members of the Unionist and Loyalist communities sense the emptiness and meaninglessness of their struggle, history and distinct identity, on the one hand. While on the other, they sense the contingency of life in NI in an as yet unknown future (dubbed ‘fate’ by Tillich) and the absolute end that threatens all that we know and invest with value and importance (in this case, one’s personal and social status as “British” and those who primarily dictate the political direction of the country).

The removal of the Union flag from City Hall has provoked an anxiety within these communities. They have in some sense been faced with the relative (and, eventually, absolute) contingency and emptiness of a political and social structure and the identities they confer, which they have for so long been confident will favour, champion and reinforce their cause successfully. They have now experienced “the other” to be one who has a radically different voice that is able to assert itself (in the taking down of a flag) – this threatens change, which in turns threatens a known arrangement with meaninglessness (and, more absolutely, death). Additionally, this anxiety is felt internally because this political structure is participated in by an individual. This anxiety isn’t just for the social order but makes us aware of our own individual anxiety in emptiness and meaningless, in fate and death (of course, this cannot be detached from the social aspect; the two are intrinsically linked).

As such, we might say many Loyalists and Unionists are behaving neurotically. Anxiety (the awareness of non-being) has defeated any discernable courage (the ability to affirm being) they might have. They have created a fantasy world, where anxiety is held at bay through fanatical faithfulness to an illusion of control and stability (e.g. “This is our land! The flag says as much, and there is nothing you can do about it!”) – the flag acting as the externalisation of Britishness reinforces this. They have fled from non-being as well as being itself. In turn objects of fear have been created out of the Alliance party, the Nationalist community and the City Hall councillors who, it might be believed, if threatened (with death or violence) or pestered (i.e. through appeals for stasis – e.g. “Look at this violence! Think of the shop owners! There were no vocal complaints about the flag before. It’s now caused a lot of trouble. Why don’t you just put it back?”) enough might reestablish the former, and now threatened, order.

In summation, the Protestant communities lack courage. That is to say: they, over the past week, have demonstrated an inability to face contingency and the anxiety it elicits. They have been made aware of “the other” and the change which the solicit. The anxieties of emptiness and fate (as well as, ultimately, meaninglessness and death) evoked by “the other” have thrown into question previously held values and means of formulating identity. The challenge of “the other” will require different ways of thinking about the past, present and the future, because it includes them. Courage as such will be needed because a change in how the past is held and understood is implicit (it may have to be let it go of or deviated from). A move forward into an unknown future is also signalled (this by nature is entirely uncertain).

The pressing question is: will Unionists and Loyalists alike allow both to be open to and changed by others who are radically different? An inability to deal with the anxiety this situation occasions is exactly what we have seen in both the violent, as well as peaceful, protests, as well as in the continued inability of Unionist politicians to speak in a clear, courageous and productive manner on the issue.

Anxiety will continue to threaten but pathological neuroses have, so far, been unhelpful; perhaps courage held in common with others, who undoubtedly experience life just as we all do, is worth a try?