An acquaintance accused me of stereotyping “gay” people as fastidious. I hadn’t. What I’d actually said was that I thought a man I once knew might have had repressed same-sex attraction. “Why?” she asked. Several reasons: for one, he worshiped from afar (i.e., without physical affection) his unhappy wife, though he had ardently pursued before marriage. For another, he lived in a strict fastidiousness. In my distant memory of Intro Psych, excessive fastidiousness generally signifies anxiety, a need for self-control that becomes focused on one’s person or environment. But before I could make the connection, my acquaintance asserted, “Not all fastidious people are gay,” completing skipping over my association of the characteristic with denial (not with homosexuality). “You are stereotyping.” Well, no, actually I was analyzing. “That,” said my acquaintance, “is what stereotyping people always say.”
Admittedly, this is just an anecdote, an example of a certain kind of humor, the name of which escapes me now, but the projection it exemplifies is seldom funny.
Long, long ago, back when I lived and worked in New Orleans, I dated—very briefly—an African-American poet. We had a mutual acquaintance and colleague, who was, as it happens, a white woman from Atlanta named Carol. She was raped and stabbed by a man who broke into her apartment and attacked her. She barely survived two punctures in her lungs, broken ribs and other serious injuries. Her description of the man, given to the police from her hospital bed, was that he was black, about six feet tall, and heavy. The man I was dating visited her in the hospital and demanded to know how she could call her attacker “black.” He said she was assuming that all rapists of white women are black. My friend Carol was no racist, but my poet friend certainly was.
This would be just an ironic story, as the first story was humorous. But Carol was deeply hurt by his accusation. She called it another assault, as indeed it was. It exposed the poet’s own racism, which, as far as I know, he continued to conceal from himself by seeing it in others.
Projection may be the most common psychological problem of our time—perhaps it’s symptomatic of culture wars and competing ideologies—I don’t know. How is it that people can look at another person and see not who is there, but that part of themselves they deny exists. They don’t see the other person at all. They don’t see events as they actually happen, either; rather, as they “need” to believe the events happen.
It could also be a cause of the scourge of “political correctness” which may destroy us by making us deny reality. It becomes truly dangerous when we take such correctness so seriously that we become unable to think for ourselves, fearing our un-policed thought. Distrusting our own judgment, we rely on those we think are superior to us, creating a peculiarly unearned elitism in secular culture. E.g., there are no radical Islamic terrorists killing innocent people in Europe, the U.S., and the Middle East. But there were awful Christian crusades to re-take the Holy Land many centuries ago (as our president informed us at a prayer breakfast).
The potential is there for serious consequences. The condemnation of an innocent brutalized victim as a racist is an example. Or, on a more historic scale, Hitler justified his attack on England by saying that Churchill was an “insane incendiary” who wanted to set Europe ablaze. He also said that the Jews, who’d been living in Germany quietly and unassumingly for 900 years, were bent on a lust for power over the Aryan race.
In extreme forms, projection is a form of insanity that can have dire consequences for whole nations, cultures, and peoples. On a lesser scale, it destroys our ability to deal fairly, openly, and honestly with each other by providing an excuse for a refusal to listen, erecting barriers to discourse. Then, because we need to excuse our behavior toward each other, we produce these reflexive projections. Thus it’s the intolerant person who sees intolerance in others; the racist who sees racism in others, etc. This may sound like a mere psycho-social dysfunction, but it’s far more important and more dangerous than that—not only in the harm we do to others but in the harm we do to ourselves.
Here’s an exercise. Whatever unkind, or just unflattering, thing you might think about someone, accuse the person in the mirror of exactly that. It’s really true that “it takes one to know one.” Re-cognition has the prerequisite of cognition. How can you recognize what you do not already know? It is self-honesty that protects us from self-deception, just as it is the Truth that protects us from the “father of all lies.” But no sort of truth can save us if we refuse to acknowledge it.
It’s an exercise at least as worthwhile as sit-ups.