Projecting Ourselves Onto Others

Miller-McCune’s story about conspiracy theorists got me thinking about projection. That’s the psychological mechanism wherein we each think the other guy is us. We believe that he/she has the same motives, same ideas, same approaches that we do. In other words, we project ourselves onto other people.

As a human being, I engage in projection just like we all do. It’s something I try to guard against because it doesn’t provide me with an accurate view of reality, and I believe that being in touch with the real world is necessary for me to practice goodness.

As a lesbian, I’m also the subject of tons of projection, specifically projection involving the fear that I’m part of a vast conspiracy to destroy other people, which brings me back to the magazine story. The Miller-McCune story cites studies hinting that conspiracy theorists may believe that everyone is out to get them because they themselves are out to get others, or more accurately: They believe in conspiracies because they’d be perfectly happy to engage in a conspiracy themselves. This has frightening implications for LGBT people and for the practice of goodness.

Like all LGBT folks, I’m forever being accused of being out to get other people. Opponents of equal rights declare over and over again that I want to recruit their children, destroy their churches and crush their way of life. Which is pretty funny in a tragic, we’re-all-doomed kinda way because I never have, never will, don’t have an iota of interest in doing any of those things.

If the studies Miller-McCune cites are correct, however, then the fears of the anti-gay right come, at least in part, from their projection of their motives onto me. Isn’t that a delightful thought. They think I want to crush them because they want to crush me? (Excuse me while I unclench myself from the fetal position.)

Beside from worries about my personal future, this idea leads me to wonder about the future of goodness. I believe in the Golden Rule. I believe in compassion for others. It’s hard enough for me to bring myself to do unto others as I would have them do unto me when I know that the they oppose my legal rights, but what about their capacity for doing right? What kind of goodness can these anti-gay folks put into the world?

Time to stop now. I’m giving myself a headache.

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14 Responses to Projecting Ourselves Onto Others

  1. I just read a fascinating book by Rebecca Solnit called A Paradise Built in Hell, which discusses the positive and constructive things most people do in times of disaster — saving each other, setting up communal kitchens, building community. But at the same time, there are those, usually in positions of authority, who are terrified that there might be looting and disorder. These are the people who call in the National Guard and make arbitrary decisions that get in the way of those who are actually taking care of things. Solnit calls this “elite panic” and suggests at least once that these people react this way because they fear that in the breakdown of society, they would react by looting and violence. Apparently, though, most of us really don’t think that way. However, those of us who aren’t in the disaster zone often buy into reports of great disorder and violence, which are usually inaccurate.

    Solnit uses such disasters as the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Hurricane Katrina. She suggests that much of the disaster in San Francisco was caused by the fires, and that if the military officials hadn’t blocked volunteer firefighting, more of the city might have been changed. With Katrina, she shows how the elite panic spread lies about terrible crimes and looting that just weren’t happening (though certainly people broke into stores and homes for necessities). The elite panic — the fear by those who figured civilization would fall apart — did the harm; ordinary people just tried to help themselves and each other.

    I take this to mean that human beings are actually better than we give them credit for, and that the fear of some of those in authority that people are bad by nature is a bigger threat than anything else.

    Which maybe ties into the difference between those who believe in conspiracy theories and those who don’t.

    • Linda Herzberg says:

      If you read today’s news about the tornadoes in the south, you might run across an article about how college kids helped a store owner carry out items he was trying to salvage from the destruction. I thought of your mention of the book when I read the article.

      • You know, I thought about the book when I was lying in bed this morning listening to the news and the mayor of Tuscaloosa was saying “stay out of the damage zone.” But I didn’t hear that story — thanks for sharing it.

  2. dianesilver says:

    Fascinating stuff, Nancy. I’ll have to look up the book. Meanwhile, this also raises another question: What changes would we see in society if we assume that human beings are actually better than we think?

  3. Yes, that’s the question that came to my mind reading Solnit’s book. I’ve been trying to think about it. I suspect it’s true, and that it might be even truer if we act as if it’s true.

  4. Rob Ramcharan says:

    So, a breakdown of civil authority and a reversion to anarchy in the face of natural disasters is actually a Good Thing? Our public library’s copy is checked out, so I’ll have to wait to read it myself, but the thesis sounds oddly libertarian, particularly when you get to the question of whether the state should reassert some level of control over the affected areas and why. Specifically, if anarchy is better than government efforts at restoring order, doesn’t it follow that the regulatory state is a Bad Thing?

    • dianesilver says:

      With all due respect, Rob, you’ve completely misread Nancy’s comment. She did not say that a breakdown of authority or anarchy was a good thing. Instead, she wrote the the author she cited had argued that “The elite panic — the fear by those who figured civilization would fall apart — did the harm.” I can’t judge the book because I haven’t read it, but Nancy’s comment is clear. She’s not arguing for anarchy. She’s saying that this particular author says that problems have been caused by elites who were expecting anarchy, even when it didn’t appear.

  5. Rob Ramcharan says:

    While we’re on the subject, is it possible that this projection thing might apply just as easily to the progressive/left’s view of the Tea Party or conservatives in general?
    Just askin’…

  6. dianesilver says:

    I project, you project, all God’s children project. It’s part of being human, which means that all reactions by all people, including those of lefty political leanings, can include the psychological mechanism of projection. The trick for us reality-based human beings who are attempting to walk a goodness path is to be aware that we’re doing it, and to seek to know the truth about others. And if you’ve paid attention to what I’ve written on this blog, you would know that I do attempt to do that.

    In fact, my conversion to the truth that conservatives are not Evil Beings started years ago when I moved to Kansas and met many Republicans who I learned were good folk. We might disagree on political issues, or we might not, but we all wanted what we thought was best for the country. In 2005 when I worked to stop a ban on same-sex marriage in Kansas, I worked with many fiscal conservatives who were social liberals. They were and are appalled by the entire anti-gay thing.

    I’m not hear to score points, Rob. I’m hear to understand. Take care.

  7. dianesilver says:

    Ugh. Copy editing correction: I meant to write that I’m not HERE to score points.

    Hate it when I make those kinds of typos.

  8. Linda Herzberg says:

    Projection is an interesting activity and as you said Diane, the key is to know when you are doing it. Anytime we are more aware of what we are doing is a good thing.

    I would also like to read A Hell Built in Paradise. I would tend to think that her premise is correct. Most people are just trying to survive, not “get rich” by looting and government often makes things harder by trying to protect us.

  9. Thanks for your added explanation, Diane. Solnit is in no way a libertarian. She is writing about people of very disparate backgrounds who come together in a crisis and help each other without reservation. She is also criticizing the government response and suggesting ways that government can and should do things better.
    Here are a couple more ideas I got from the book.
    1. Most people are better than we give them (or ourselves) credit for being. In a crisis, they will pull together and help each other. People respond well to doing things for themselves and others.
    2. We certainly need government resources to respond to crisis, but those resources will work better if they take into account that people can help themselves and will help their neighbors and build their programs accordingly.

  10. Rob Ramcharan says:

    Okay, I’ll admit to having missed the point. Here’s the part of our friend’s comment that jumped out at me: “But at the same time, there are those, usually in positions of authority, who are terrified that there might be looting and disorder. These are the people who call in the National Guard and make arbitrary decisions that get in the way of those who are actually taking care of things. Solnit calls this “elite panic” and suggests at least once that these people react this way because they fear that in the breakdown of society, they would react by looting and violence. ”
    Just a few days ago, I happened to read a book called “Freakonomics:a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything” By Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner, which describes how criminologists a few years ago argued that the best way to reduce crime was to release criminals from prison. The authors’ observation lives here: http://books.google.com/books?id=LkQPOSXMUscC&lpg=PA4&ots=4pLiE7rmIW&dq=criminologist%20fox%20freakonomics&pg=PA123#v=onepage&q=%20prisons&f=false
    Obviously, Ms. Solnit is making a highly nuanced and complex argument that goes beyond the notion that people are basically good and will do the right thing if left alone to do it. In fact, some people will respond to a breakdown of civil authority with looting and violence. The elites’ response (and I think it’s important to distinguish between the “elite” and the legally constituted power of the state as applied by the elite) is not only to oppress the hoi polloi. It is also to protect the hoi polloi from the depredations of the criminal element. It’s sometimes difficult for me to see the distinction between an argument that a principle might be good (in this case, the preservation of some kind of civil authority) and an argument that the application of a generally good principle had unintended, adverse consequences in a particular case.
    Superimpose the absence of police, disruptions to basic services and uncertainty over what will happen next on the everyday level of criminal activity, and, yes, lives and property will be at risk. I don’t watch much news but my defining memory of Hurricane Katrina was the photo of the school buses (posted here http://www.snopes.com/katrina/photos/buses.asp with an explanation of sorts from Snopes.com)
    Are people basically good or basically evil? Authorities differ, but many people think that human nature does not change. Read what Thucidydes had to say about a similar situation during the Pelponnesian War:
    “Thus did the pestilence give their first rise to those iniquitous acts which prevailed more and more in Athens For every one was now more easily induced openly to do what for decency they did only covertly before They saw the strange mutability of outward condi tion the rich untimely cut off and their wealth pouring suddenly on the indigent and necessitous so that they thought it prudent to catch hold of speedy enjoyments and quick gusts of pleasure persuaded that their bodies and their wealth might be their own merely for for the day Not any one continued resolute enough to form any honest or generous design when so uncertain whether he should live to effect it Whatever he knew could improve the pleasure or satisfaction of the present moment that he determined to be honour and interest Reverence of the Gods or the laws of society laid no restraints upon them either judging that piety and impiety were things quite indifferent since they saw that all men perished alike or throwing away every apprehension of being called to account for their enormities since justice might be prevented by death or rather as the heaviest of judgments to which man could be doomed was already hanging over their heads snatching this interval of life for pleasure before it fell.” http://books.google.com/books?id=WvULAAAAYAAJ&dq=thucydides&pg=PA166#v=onepage&q=plague&f=false
    Put another way, when things fall apart, do we use the tools we have to protect people and their property, even if the response may be imperfect, or do we not intervene and hope everybody demonstrates their basic goodness and that everything will work out?

  11. dianesilver says:

    Interesting comment, Rob, and you raise an intriguing question. I like your question, but I conceive of it a little differently. I think it’s more helpful to ask: When things fall apart, what is the best way to use the tools we have to protect people and their property, and what mistakes must we be careful to avoid? From what Nancy’s saying, it sounds like Solnit is saying that mistakes were made in the past, and that we need to avoid making those mistakes again. The further questions that appear to be raised by this line of reasoning are: How do our mental blinders make it difficult to see the solutions to those problems? How do we work around our own psychological failings?

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