All across the United States, social justice protests in recent weeks have erupted into violent attacks on symbols of private property, authority, and power. Outrage at obvious racism embedded in police culture and government policies flashed through poor neighborhoods unwilling to tolerate another example of systematic contemptuous treatment of minorities by predominantly white police departments. Like a match set to gasoline, long suppressed pain and helplessness unleashed violent, out of control hatred.
Across the country, Americans of every color and social class have been shocked by double traumas in each of these disturbing incidents of misconduct under cover of authority and subsequent rioting. First came the shock of communal shame from the undeniable and egregiously delayed recognition of how terribly wrong things have gone in the American criminal justice system. How could so many exalted first responders turn out to be such insidiously bad apples, systematically exploiting, injuring, and even killing the people they are charged to protect? How could it be that minority police officers sometimes become co-opted into misconduct themselves?
Then came the shock of witnessing the explosions of rage in the form of attacks on innocent small businesses, on private and police vehicles, and on law enforcement officers brought in to stop the carnage and establish civil order. How is destroying property supposed to exact revenge for the humiliation of overt and institutional racism? How can one empathize with the outrage and protests, and yet not condemn the violence that followed?
The year 2015 may well go down in American history as an unprecedented time of soul searching about the gaps between our ideals and our reality. All sorts of theories will be offered to explain the causes and possible solutions for mistreatment of minorities, and the lingering resentments from the Civil War of the nineteenth century. The United States may be founded on principles of equality under the law, but human beings struggle with fear of whoever is different, and we all have aggressive impulses, as Freud showed us long ago (Gay, P. 1987, pp. 543-553).
While politics, economics, history, law, sociology, technology, and other schools of thought will all have important contributions to these discussions, a great starting place for making sense of these seemingly intractable conflicts is the field of psychology. Understanding the concept of “projection” can help clarify the magnitude and direction of the effort required to seriously address and repair America’s problems with racism and difficulty accepting diversity.
Human beings in the natural course of development learn to protect themselves from feelings and thoughts that seem dangerous or overwhelming. These strategies for self-protection are called defenses, or defense mechanisms. (Freud, A.,1937). Defenses operate outside our conscious awareness for the most part. Projection is one of the most basic defenses.
Projection allows a person to remove an unwanted characteristic from himself, and conveniently locate it in someone else, where it can be safely attacked with no harm to the one doing the projecting. For example, a child who has misbehaved might feel extremely uncomfortable thinking about being a naughty child. Instead she tells herself that Mommy is the misbehaving person when she scolds. In this way, the little girl can spare herself the anxiety of feeling guilty, and focus instead on complaining about her mother.
However, a essential goal of childhood is to learn to tolerate difficult feelings, and not to project them onto others. Good enough parents will facilitate that emotional growth by gently confronting their children when they are having a hard time dealing with the truth about themselves. Good enough parents will model how to accept their own shortcomings as something to be recognized and addressed. Otherwise, what gets modeled is denial.
A common example of adults projecting might be when a person complains that someone else is not pulling her weight on a work assignment, when in fact he himself doesn’t want to think about how little he has contributed. People like to project their own greed, laziness, unattractiveness, insecurity, anger, rudeness, lack of respect, incompetence, etc. (It is also possible for people to project their positive qualities when owning their own strengths causes anxiety for some reason.)
Another important aspect of projection is that we tend to project bad feelings about our parents onto people in our lives as adults. Marriage counselors spend a lot of time helping troubled couples see how they each experience the other as unconsciously reminding them of a parent who caused them grief.
In families where the parents are abusive or the child feels bereft of emotional care, seeds get planted for difficulties down the road. Children store up resentments, hurt feelings, and anger when they have not been appropriately cared for. Not having been guided to develop the capacity to face these feelings without tremendous anxiety, these kids will resort to the defense of projection as adults. They will unconsciously seek out other people in their lives upon whom to project the latent rage and contempt they felt toward their parents.
The social unrest across the United States involving mistreatment of citizens by law enforcement, and mistreatment of law enforcement by enraged citizens, screams of projection. Police officers who take pleasure in bouncing a cuffed and shackled prisoner around the floor of a paddy wagon can fairly be imagined to be projecting anger that should have been directed at someone else from the past, most often an abusive parent. Protesters (or anarchists slipping into the crowd) who lose control and start smashing windows similarly can be fairly suspected of projecting rage that belongs to an abusive past. These emotionally unhealthy people, incapable of tolerating their difficult repressed feelings, cause a huge mess for the larger society.
America’s struggles with race relations and police misconduct are not just about factors on a societal level; they are also about the result of inadequate parenting, which sends countless kids into neurotic or even psychotic lives, making us all vulnerable to their outbursts of projection that stain and tear our social fabric.
Projections on a societal level are the big picture issue in these recent news stories. That is to say, too often we unconsciously locate our own problems in another race, ethnic background, class, geographic area, gender, educational background, etc. To counter that, we develop civil society. Aggressive urges to damage “The Other” must be contained by laws and rules and cooperative efforts.
But projections on an individual level are also involved. If we ever hope to prevent the sorts of damage we have seen in relationships between law enforcement and minority communities, we must work to prevent unhealthy projecting on an individual level. We need improved parenting skills, so that fewer children become neurotic adults. We need schools that promote sensitivity to helping children develop alternatives to projecting. We need opportunities for people of all ages to have psychotherapy to deal with their repressed rage and hurt.
Investing in good mental health is a key to a more peaceful society. People will always need to come to grips with their own urges for aggression. Paradoxically the laws and rules of civilization that exist to tame these aggressive tendencies will also become the source of irritation to some, thus leading to more aggression. But how much better off we could be if individuals could confront these challenges with emotional maturity to minimize unhealthy projections.
Cramer, P. (1991). The Development of Defense Mechanisms: Theory, Research, and Assessment. NY: Springer-Verlag.
Freud, A. (1937) The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence, London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psychoanalysis.
Gay, P. (1987) Freud: A Life for Our Time. NY: W.W. Norton & Company.