Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? (Psalms, chapter 2, verse 1)
The tabernacles of robbers prosper, and they that provoke God are secure; into whose hand God bringeth abundantly. But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee: Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee……He discovereth deep things out of darkness, and bringeth out to light the shadow of death.
(Job, chapter12, verse 1)
As I drive through the high desert plains of western Nebraska and Wyoming, I listen to radio newscasts about dire happenings in our government and governments around the world. Bible-reading radio shows frame announcements of worldly events with moral encouragement. Listeners call in with simple, direct questions about the meaning of passages that speak to their fear there is a crack in the world that seems to spew forth demons. As one station after another faded out of reach of my antennae, I would search for another. What was I hoping to hear, I wondered.
The cracked, worn voices of old pastors, mixed with the earnest smooth voices of their younger co-hosts. I listened to something else in their voices. The elders were patient, thoughtful, fully disclosing their understanding of Bible verses. They stopped to question the younger men who were not always so sure as they flipped through scripture on their iPads. In some respects, their discussions with listeners sounded like the educational side of psychotherapy. Listeners asked about racism, evil, adultery, lying, and confusing aspects of sermons they heard in their community churches.
We are all so alone in this vast world. Nature is what it is. Brutal. Unforgiving. Yet glorious. And it nourishes us. But out here, in the relentless wind, alone, as small and insignificant as a grain of sand…What guides me, protects me? I don’t feel this vulnerability so much in a big city or in Europe. Or India.
“Be careful– what you see in others is often what is dark and most hidden in yourself,” one radio pastor warned a young man who thought a Bible verse was instructing him to pursue and threaten harm to those who were of darker color. In psychotherapy, the projection of one’s shadow side, the hidden side of oneself, onto another is the first in a series of defensive acts.
The pastor continued to talk about projection without calling it that. There is a temptation to turn others into “devils”, he said. People who look, talk and dress different from us, who have different faiths can be seem like enemies, people unworthy of our life-world.
Projection can manipulate others’ perception of truth, or accuse others. Similarly, projecting virtue onto oneself results in whatever is decreed is, by definition, right and proper.
Gently and respectfully, the pastor quoted from Romans 2-1 You therefore have no excuse, you who pass judgment on another. For on whatever grounds you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. And with that simple statement the pastor summed up so much of secular psychology.
He spoke for a long time. His eloquently worn-out voice was filled with wisdom and melancholy over all the pain he had witnessed.
In previous eras, many pastors and missionaries attempted to seize power by installing fear and unworthiness in the believer and an extreme version of patriarchy in family life. Most Christian religions are now turning from repression and subjugation to a more empathic acceptance that a person’s soul is free and naturally loving, though temptation to follow an opposite path is ever-present. I have noticed that Christian pastors are weaving positive psychology into their sermons to provide people with mindful guidance. This pastor and others I listened to were indeed mindful and instructive. We need, more than ever, empathic spiritual education combined with instruction in basic psychology to offset the fears and anxieties that are proliferating in the wake of the last American election.
The theft of basic civil liberties is not done by chicanery alone. Tyrants cannot subdue and control whole societies unless they desacralize people’s spirits. Illegal possession of civil rights and valuables is not sustainable in the long term unless the minds and hearts of those who are exploited are put in chains as well. This is a widespread, age-old motif. The exploitation of people must have a two-pronged approach. Physical and psychological subjugation. To remain oppressed, people must believe they are an afterthought of nature, secondary players in the course of life’s events.
The defense of projection is the first in a set of five psychological defenses. They are applied for self-protection against fear and, as a weapon, the aggressive desire to win at all costs.
When following a politician in the news or observing the behavior of someone close who intends to seize control, it is relatively easy to identify each consciously rigged tactic. Projection is the first defense in a series that will soon reveal a strategy.
Projection identifies a person or certain strangers as threatening, unworthy, or evil. Marginalized, they become the Other. Destroying them in image or in life is a felt imperative. However, it takes a continuous reservoir of psychic energy to maintain this negative and negating projection. Tyrants who use projection as a tool assume to themselves the virtuousness of a theocratic dictatorship. Why theocratic? The center of a reactionary movement cannot hold unless it is god-centered. God may only be an opportunistic projection of a state led by a charismatic leader, or that state may use an authentic religion as a front to justify cruelty. Human nature cannot sustain the energy to maintain a social movement over time unless that effort upholds an aim to something better, higher, greater. One answer is God. Under this banner, the ruling class lays claim to valuable things. To strengthen, this defense needs to root itself in deeper psychological soil. Thus, the next line of defense is built.
Rationalization is inventing bad reasons to justify what we say or do. Intellectualization defuses emotionally explosive issues by using abstract, inauthentic, lifeless words. For example, a politician who is not gaining enough attention in the press might express a plausible concern about government funding of women’s birth control and abortion. Rallying like-minded legislators, religious groups, and women sympathizers can launch a movement that pretends to do women a big favor. However, the reality of the proposal forces women into a position of no privacy in their medical relationships, having babies they can’t afford to raise, and using religious doctrine as a front for political gain.
Usually, the politicians who use rationalization and intellectualization as tools to coerce others are dominating and inflexible. Their outspoken interpersonal styles promote conflict. These personality traits point to pathology. A lesser known role of rationalization and intellectualization is protecting their users from fully realizing how their manipulative hostility harms others. Hence the roots must now reach deeper into psychological soil because it takes a lot of psychic energy to keep this system of logic running. The next defense in line is Reaction Formation and it does the trick.
When tyrannical politicians– and some parents– use the defense of Reaction Formation they outwardly display the opposite of what they inwardly repress and deny. For example, who would readily admit to admiring cruelty or evil? Yet, they trust in cruelty for achieving their goals.
- First, they project heroism (or an attribute such as power, cleverness, effectiveness, moral necessity, and so on) onto the object of their attention or an agenda they wish to advance.
- Sometimes their behavior might be hyper, unreasonable, or almost manic. Or they may manifest a seemingly incompatible demeanor– appearing withdrawn and submissive in public. When two politicians form a team, one choosing to be showy and the other submissive, the power to force a discourse is formidable.
- Afraid their secret liking of cruelty will be discovered, they accuse others, especially opponents, of having the same or a similar interest. This tactic is supposed to demonstrate they are the normal ones.
- People who rely on this technique do not see a spectrum of good <—> bad, but simply as two opposites; black and white with nothing in between.
- This perspective makes the individual (or team) very inflexible, which is why their behavior often seems to be cartoonish or disingenuous to the populace who distrusts them. Others, of course, find these simplisms and dualisms as revelatory.
- Thus, the defense reveals itself. It is called Reaction Formation. I will consciously or unconsciously form a reaction to disguise who I really am. It’s not me. It’s you. I am a good person. I like people– if they are loyal to me. If they are not loyal to me I get to punish them. I’ll hunt them down. That’s only fair, right? Only human. You’d do the same thing. Right? If not, you’re stupid.
Now comes the part where the logic gets labyrinthine, even perverse.
Repression and Denial are the defenses that blur a tyrant’s insight. Old Scrooge needed the Ghost of Christmas’ Past to trot him back through his life before he could see the hurt he caused and why he caused it. He, and aggressors like him, repress or “push down” into their unconscious any mental content that disturbs their conscious mind. Moreover, memory of that very act of repression is itself repressed. As a result, the whole incident is more or less forgotten. Good luck with that, one part of our mind might be telling another part. Whatever is repressed is unwilling to stay in solitary, in the dark. As if radioactive, it leaks back up into consciousness. Thus, Denial is the jailer that takes missteps of conscience and other mind content to a deeper, darker place and throws away the key. Unmindfulness, though, takes work and exacts costs.
Tyrants who deploy these defenses have learned and self-installed these techniques as personality disorders. They strike us as histrionic, dependent, avoidant, narcissistic psychopaths. This is not an opinion. It is a psychological fact. As even their supporters will see at some point, the next and last defense before the inevitable downfall of these leaders is the tactic of scapegoating.
Scapegoating has the most sinister social implications. The tyranny that politicians dare not direct at someone stronger than themselves is turned against someone weak and helpless. These politicians are like zoo animals that cannot get at the target of their fury so they take it out on weaker occupants of their cage. In the wild, an animal attacked by one of higher rank will not fight back but will retaliate by displacing aggression on an animal of lower rank. And so it is with people in the political sphere. In the absence of an enemy at the gate, aggression intended for the ‘foreigner’ is redirected at the ‘enemy within.’ When scapegoating aligns with projection, repression, and denial the result is obscene.
To summarize, the defense of projection begins a nasty cycle. Its negative vision must grow into rationalized and intellectualized philosophy with God (or a sacralized tyrant state) at its center to keep it going. Then the cycle has to anchor itself in reaction formation that says, I’m right, right? And repression and denial that lets tyrants justify their paranoia before they zero in on their symbolic secondary target– the scapegoat. Anxiety is released. It’s a big spasm of rage. And yet there is someone, certain interests, that benefit in the end. For the short term, we can pray.
This is just a small offering to help us understand the psychology that underlies the politics of today.
The pattern of paranoiac projection superimposes an illusory surface identity onto the Other by shouting about their outrageousness, and then by denigrating, and shaming them. Projected vitriol is then justified through rationalized and intellectualized arguments which deepen political resolve. The technique of reaction formation internalizes repression and denial, first on the part of the politicians and second, forcibly imposed on the people, as well as democratic institutions such as the Department of Justice in order to compromise the courts, and other government sectors designed to ensure medical care and social care. Immigration authorities are tasked to create a closed state. Education is hijacked to push fundamentalist anti-science. Environment to thwart progressive protections and unfetter profiteers. This is not kneejerk liberalism. The president’s handpicked advisers have long advocated the systematic dismantling our democratic state.
At the beginning of tyrannical control, people get confused by the tumult and cannot really take in what is happening. They pause. But if you have ever grown up in a family where a tyrant ruled, you know what is happening, how it feels, and you know what’s likely to come. The ambition of a tyrant, a terrorist, a psychopathic sadist, is to dominate. To sane minds, the artificially constructed philosophies that rationalize and intellectualize dominance are laughable. Deplorably absurd. But to the tyrant these philosophies and policies are no joke. They are emotionally meaningful to their followers. And that brings us to the core of all this potential destruction.They are angry, spiteful, raving, and craven. Why is anybody’s guess. But this is not the time to wonder why the house is burning.
Days before Barack and Michelle Obama left the White House they appeared at numerous gatherings and their messages were the same: Be resilient, have hope. When you are knocked down, get up. Brush yourself off and get back to work. Love this country deeply, see its flaws and your responsibility to fix them. Talk to teachers, friends, and co-workers to generate action. Don’t mope. Don’t feel the country has rejected you. This is a big complicated country. Democracy is messy. Sometimes the outcomes of democratic action are questionable but never give up on the core decency that is this country.
Believe in this country. Its people are more good than bad. Tragic things happen and yes, there is evil in the world but we try and with trying the world gets a little bit better each day. It’s gonna be OK – pray for it, work for it.
Your loving friend, Peggy