Tags: Projection: | Aid | Understanding | Liberalism

Projection: An Aid to Understanding Liberalism

Sunday, 06 January 2002 12:00 AM

Some time ago, I was discussing Bill Clinton's impeachment with colleagues. One person at the lunch table denounced independent counsel Kenneth Starr as an enemy of free speech because Starr had subpoenaed Monica Lewinsky's book-purchase records.

I replied that Starr was trying to verify Monica's claim that she had bought specific gifts for Clinton. I added that, also to verify her testimony, Starr had subpoenaed the infamous blue dress, but this did not mean he was trying to control women's wear.

At this my colleague exploded, calling me a "Nazi" and claiming that people like me had "put Hitler in power." Since my father's eldest brother had been murdered in the Holocaust, this charge seemed odd, to say the least. How, precisely, did not criticizing Starr make me a "Nazi"?

How did that make me a supporter of totalitarianism, mass murder of political opponents, and genocide? Of course, I had never expressed anything remotely resembling these views. So where had my colleague gotten the idea?

On another occasion, I was discussing gun control with friends. One abruptly ended the discussion by declaring, "The reason people own guns is that they really want to kill blacks."

In fact, many African-Americans own guns for protection from criminals. In the past, many used guns to protect their families from Klansmen while racist sheriffs stood by idly. But again, no one present had said anything about killing blacks or anyone else. Where had my friend gotten that notion?

These are not isolated incidents. During the impeachment controversy, Republicans were called "mad dogs" and "night riders" who wanted to drag us "behind a pickup," referring to the horrible murder of a black man.

Republicans are accused of wanting to "starve" children and "take away medicine" from the elderly. Justice Clarence Thomas has been called a "serial murderer," while commentator Bill O'Reilly has been compared to "bin Laden."

Rudy Giuliani has been compared to "Mussolini," an insult both untrue and racist. One may strongly disagree with these persons, but where does one get the idea that they want to kill their political opponents?

Psychology is very useful for relieving emotional pain, but applying it to politics can be dangerous. One must avoid the tendency to attribute mental or emotional disturbances to those with whom we disagree politically. Not everyone who holds differing views is crazy, disturbed, deluded, or even unable to think clearly.

But with that caution, we can try to discover why people believe the things they do.

Projection is a psychological mechanism in which unwanted thoughts or emotions are attributed to others. In this way, people avoid guilt for these undesirable feelings. Instead, they can look down upon – and blame – others for these very feelings.

For example, suppose that I hate my job and look down on my co-workers as stupid and lazy. But I can't admit these feelings, even to myself. It's not "nice" to feel superior to the people you work with. So I project these feelings onto them: They hate their jobs. They look down on me. They're the ones who feel superior. I'm the innocent party, just trying to do my best despite all the hostile people around me.

Many of us use this mechanism to some degree, but it becomes pathologic when it interferes with our ability to function. Similarly, it's hardly uncommon to attribute bad motives to political opponents. If this is merely a tactic to gain an advantage over them, it's useful but dishonest.

But if we come to believe these accusations ourselves, the mechanism can become pathologic. It can silence legitimate debate, just as my friend cut off our discussion of gun control. It can poison the political process on which democracy depends.

After all, we can try to achieve agreement with those who believe differently. But how can we compromise with those we think are truly evil – and who are plotting to install some kind of murderous dictatorship?

I believe a prime example of projection is our attitudes toward race. Before the 1960s, a liberal was one who believed that all people are equal and who advocated a color-blind society. But since the 1960s, it is "liberal" to push for racial quotas in college admissions and employment.

It is one thing to take those who themselves were unfairly held back and push them to the front of the line. It is quite another to favor some at the expense of others, purely on the basis of race, ethnicity or gender, and without regard to all the other factors that can affect applicants.

But attitudes toward race go beyond affirmative action. Black novelist James Baldwin revealed that when he was invited to a dinner party, he would sometimes make a purposely ridiculous statement. If no one contradicted him, he knew he was in the presence of white racists who were patronizing him, and who assumed that a black man must be less intelligent or less educated than themselves.

When white journalists or pundits fail to criticize erroneous or even racist or anti-Semitic remarks by prominent African-Americans, what does their silence reveal? Does it show a respect so deep that whatever is said is accepted at face value? Or does it reveal a hidden contempt: "What can you expect from blacks anyhow?"

I can't prove it, but I believe the evidence suggests the latter interpretation.

Why do white liberals believe that African-Americans and Hispanics need their help to get ahead but Asian-Americans do not? When racial preferences are removed from college admissions, as they have been recently in some colleges, what happens? True, African-American and Hispanic admissions tend to drop, but white admissions rise only slightly. The greatest gain is in Asian admissions.

In short, it is "liberal" for whites to discriminate against Asians to benefit blacks and Hispanics. Why? What does this reveal about the underlying attitudes of those whites toward the other ethnic groups? Isn't it clear that "liberal" whites believe Asians are smarter than blacks or Hispanics? So who really are the racists in today's America?

Of course, no "liberals" would admit, even to themselves, that they harbor such racist feelings. No, these unwanted feelings must be denied and projected onto conservatives: It's the conservatives who are "racists." They are "Nazis." They own guns because they "really want to kill blacks." Not only that, but they also look down on women and gays.

There are other reasons that people may support affirmative action, racial or gender quotas, gun control, or similar policies. Conservatives must avoid the faults they accuse liberals of. They must be careful not to project their own feelings onto liberals.

Still, this condition affects mainly liberals. Have you ever heard a conservative call for the assassination of a liberal member of Congress, the way an actor called for the "stoning to death" of Rep. Henry Hyde? Have you ever heard a conservative call for the murder of the head of a liberal organization, the way a director called for the shooting with a ".44 Magnum" of Charlton Heston, president of the National Rifle Association?

Conservatives tend to see liberals as misinformed, mistaken and naïve, so they want to educate them. But liberals tend to see conservatives as evil, so they want to overpower them, control them and (in the extreme) kill them.

Conservatives are repeatedly called "racist," "uncaring," "homophobic," "sexist," "anti-child," "unconcerned with the elderly," "anti-immigrant," and even "fascist" or "Nazi." They are often compared to Hitler or bin Laden.

Conservatives have a right to ask, "You so-called liberals are very free with these accusations, but are you sure you aren't blaming us for your own hostile feelings? Are you sure you aren't projecting your own racism, sexism and homophobia onto us? Are you sure it isn't you who want to kill those who disagree with you?

If not, why do you frequently bring up killing and killers when a nonviolent subject is discussed?"

The Bible tells us to look for the beam in our own eye before we criticize the speck of dust in our neighbor's eye. This is good advice in all fields, but it is especially important in politics. If we have the insight to confront our own unwanted feelings, we will be less likely to project them onto others, and therefore less likely to shut off legitimate debate or to poison the democratic process.

No, I'm not a "Nazi." Most gun owners don't "really want to kill blacks." Justice Thomas isn't a "serial murderer." Bill O'Reilly doesn't in the least resemble "bin Laden," nor does Rudy Giuliani resemble "Mussolini." And no, most conservatives don't look down on African-Americans, Hispanics, women and gays.

But such accusations give us a window into the mind of the accuser. It isn't a pretty sight.

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Some time ago, I was discussing Bill Clinton's impeachment with colleagues. One person at the lunch table denounced independent counsel Kenneth Starr as an enemy of free speech because Starr had subpoenaed Monica Lewinsky's book-purchase records. I replied that Starr was...
Sunday, 06 January 2002 12:00 AM
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