Projection: a game of mutual self-enslavement for two or more players

A note: since classes have started, I am planning to aim for one post every three days or so.

1

Anyway, some reflections on psychology and gender. Suppose we define “projection” as “perceiving, and responding to, one’s own feelings by attributing them to someone else”. I think we’re quite used to the idea of projection as a defense mechanism, but it seems to me it could easily be at work much more widely than that.

Consider the standard, intuitive, model we have of a ‘projecting’ person, perhaps exemplified by the image of the outspoken homophobe who is actually a homosexual in denial.

In this model, the reason for projection is that a certain feeling or attitude or action or whatever is too difficult and threatening to attribute to yourself, even when you really are experiencing it. It’s too big a danger to your ‘sense of self’, the set of ideas about yourself and the world that allows you to function in everyday life.

2

But this factor alone can’t be sufficient. At least two other causal factors need to be made explicit. Firstly, attributing the feeling to someone else has to be less threatening and difficult than attributing it to yourself. This need not always be the case, and it will depend on which ‘others’ – sometimes it’s more important to protect your image of an idol than your image of yourself. So what’s really crucial is the difference – that one attribution be much easier to handle than another.

Moreover, there needs to be a lack of insight – if it becomes too easy and too obvious, or if the rationalisations are too weak, the projection breaks down. So there’s an epistemic precondition: the attribution must be sufficiently uncertain, sufficiently open to distortion, sufficiently cloudy. The other side of this is the absence of a strong desire for insight.

And it’s a natural assumption that the greater the lack of concern with accuracy, and the greater the epistemic difficulty, the smaller the difference in psychological acceptability that can generate projection. And the greater any of these features, the greater the degree of projection.

3

Now, the familiar model is one where the difference in acceptabilities is very high, and this generates projection even when the facts are fairly clear – even in the face of strong evidence, such as in the paradigm example of the closeted homophobe, or in people who perceive a declaration of war in the construction of a community centre.

But given the factors discussed, we could easily imagine another model, where the driving force lies in a combination of a difficult epistemic task and a lack of strong desire for accuracy, allowing quite minor differences in psychological acceptability to generate frequent low levels of projection.

For this to occur at all would probably only require these two premises:

1) Attributing emotions to others, and disentangling them from our own emotions, is often difficult;

2) However, we have to perform it so frequently everyday that we can’t devote sufficient time and energy to always doing it accurately that it would require.

Both of these, to me, seem like truisms, and the first in particular has some supporting scientific data. Moreover, for this phenomenon to occur in significant aggregate patterns reflecting major social groupings, rather than in random deviations that cancel each out, we need only add the further premise:

3) People find it psychologically easier to attribute feelings to people when it conforms with a stereotype already believed (even if consciously disavowed) than otherwise.

Which is also, I think, very likely to be true.

4

So far, though, this conclusion is fairly boring. Of course prevalent stereotypes and biases will be reflected in people’s patterns of what they attribute to who. Duh.

But here’s the point that interests me. Even projected onto another person, your feelings are something enormously personal, and in a sense unique (at least from your own perspective). If they can appear to you fully only in the form of someone else, that person might come to appear as likewise enormously unique, as having a deeply personal significance to you.

They might appear as enormously unique and personally important, moreover, even if you hardly know them, and even if you felt the same way about another, different, person just last month. Also, even when projected onto someone else, your feelings still demand that you deal with them – except that now dealing with them seems to be possible only through relating to this particular person.

The particular content can vary, and it’s probably easy to supply your own examples. For instance, it’s a cliche that insofar as women have historically been held back, both externally and internally, from pursuing power, fame and wealth for themselves, they’ve pursued it indirectly by seeking successful male partners.

So a phenomenon – widespread stereotypes – that is on one level very public, impersonal, and boring can, given only a few very plausible premises added to familiar notions, could easily generate very intense, very ‘personal-feeling’ emotions and desires.

But there’s more. What if society was set up in such a way that its stereotypes formed complementary pairs, leading some people to project feelings A-M onto certain other people, who in turn projected back feelings N-Z onto the first group? By such a cunning strategem, those stereotypes could generate intense, tightly-bound pairs of people, each feeling incomplete in the absence of a partner who is simultaneously ‘loved as a unique individual’ but nevertheless must belong to certain groups and not others.

5

A couple of qualifications. Firstly, this is obviously not a complete explanation of anything, and certainly not of any particular relationship between any two (or more) particular people. I’m just arguing that it’s reasonable to think this mechanism is at work to some degree, since it requires only very modest premises to be assumed. This at least puts it on the table as one candidate explanation of various phenomena like the existence of gender or the particular forms it takes in a given human society.

Secondly, I haven’t given any reason so far to think that this is a bad thing. A conservative might, for instance, accept the foregoing analysis but say that this a very wise system, since it inflates in people a certain sort of need for each other, and ensures that people stay together long enough to raise children.

But I think that’s very questionable. For a start, there are other sorts of relationships, and other ways of connecting people. I don’t think love has to be based in personal insecurities or misunderstandings, and it might even be argued that such love is ‘not real love’, whatever that means.

I also think it’s arguable that the sort of dependence produced by projection tends to lead to unhappiness. It’s making your sense of your self and your own mental well-being depend on the details of how another person feels and acts, i.e. on something that, in the last analysis, you simply cannot control, but can’t help trying to.

Moreover, when you do try to control it, and succeed, you do so by imprisoning another person in your own issues – whether done by an individual or by a whole social movement.

For instance, the kind of sexual puritanism that rails against immodest clothing or tries to enforce highly restrictive standards of female attire, is transparently motivated by the personal insecurities of men.

In essence, men are encouraged to project all their feelings of vulnerability, especially in relation to sex, onto women, and to experience sexual vulnerability only indirectly. The result of this social neurosis is that it becomes possible for them to experience the mere visibility of a female body as a threatening and painful form of exposure – especially so, because that exposure is outside their control, and they can only re-assert control by insane projects of legislation or social engineering.

To put it another way: if ‘freedom’ is defined as not having oneself be in the hands of another person, then any social process that encourages and rewards projection is thereby encouraging and rewarding people for a particularly subtle form of mutual self-enslavement.

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