Projection, Politics, and Polarization, OR: The Ongoing Question of Human Nature

On Election Eve, I watched a live-streamed rally of the Biden/Harris campaign from my couch.  Jill Biden was introducing her husband Joe, telling the crowd about his struggles and triumphs, of his mission and promise to help all Americans.  She radiated kindness, honesty, and warmth, and tears streamed down my cheeks at the sight of such goodness and love, not only for our country, but for everyone watching.  I was overwhelmed with emotion, my heart brimming with hope.  At the same time, the little meta-voice in my brain was chattering away: “How could anyone watch this woman and not see what I see?  How could anyone not want what she and her husband stand for?” 

Then, last Saturday night – the day the election was called for Joe Biden – I watched Kamala and Joe speak (again, from my couch) and, again, I marveled at their openness and their humanity.  Their words were so passionate, so full of conviction and decency.  I cried, once more, though this time in relief – that our country would now be in the hands of trustworthy, caring and compassionate people.

The next day, I spoke with a few family members, individuals who had also watched Biden and Harris’ acceptance speeches.  When the conversation landed on the topic, I gushed at how moved I was, how much their words resonated with me.  One of them scoffed at me, replying, “They just seemed fake to me, I don’t trust them.  I really think they’re all crooked”.  Another one, equally unmoved, simply stated “Harris is a phony.  She used to be a corrupt prosecutor, I don’t believe anything she says.  And Biden just comes across as creepy, and also he can’t remember words.  He’s just senile.  They’re both awful”.  

How could this be?  Were we even watching the same channel, the same people?  My first response was to try to give these people data, to correct their assumptions.  I was about to launch into an informational lecture about Joe Biden’s stuttering problem or question them about where they were getting their “facts” about Kamala, but I realized that it would fall on deaf ears – because the problem wasn’t an informational one, it was a perceptual one.  In a way, we hadn’t been watching the same people at all, and there was nothing I could do to change that.

Sigmund Freud introduced the concept of projection to psychology in the late 1800’s.  While initially it was a term he used to explain a defensive mechanism – where an individual’s own repressed feelings, thoughts, and desires are attributed to someone else – it has been expanded, over time, to explain the filter through which all of us see one another.  Simply put, projection is “seeing the self in other”.  We can’t truly understand what is going on inside the minds and hearts of another person, so our best approximation is to imagine that the other person is us.  If we see someone do a certain action, we extrapolate that they are doing that action for the same reason we are, that their intentions are the same as ours, that their internal worlds operate the same as our own.

Depending on our commitment to our projections, we often feel deeply certain that we are correct – even if we are given copious amounts of data to the contrary.  We might even accuse the person giving us the contrary information of trying to trick us (again, depending on our projections).  And to compound the issue, our projections operate like an echo chamber – we see people’s actions and behaviors through the filters we have already predetermined, and then we use these warped perceptions (“Look how phony they sound!  I knew they couldn’t be trusted!”) to fortify our existing projections.  And so on, and so on.

I’ve been having the same debate with the family member who said “they’re all crooked” for as long as I can remember.  As a child, I was committed to believing in the goodness of others, always viewing people through a lens of hopefulness.  I was constantly butting heads with this person on this issue – as they constantly cautioned me to “trust no one”, always assuming the worst, while I would yell back, full to the brim with the idealistic naivete of a child:  “Not everyone is bad! Why do you think everyone is bad?”  

In their defense, this individual has been the victim of extreme and senseless violence, as well as many painful injustices and deep hurts committed by loved ones.  Perhaps, then, their projections are just based on experience, nothing more. Nonetheless, this is the lens through which they see all people now, and there is nothing I – or anyone – can do to change this.  Not when I was a child, and certainly not now – for even though my arguments might be more eloquent these days, they aren’t any more persuasive.

I, too, have been hurt by others over my lifetime, in ways that seem unbearable to those with whom I dare disclose my story to.  I have been deeply, deeply betrayed by those who I trusted most, and have been shunned and disavowed unfairly by many others.  Yet, my childhood projections of goodness remain intact.  For better or worse, I go into every introduction with the assumption that the other person is good, kind, and fair, until proven otherwise (and even then, it is a very difficult truth to absorb).  When someone speaks of justice, equality, and right action, I am deeply moved; I believe that they are speaking from their heart, and my soul rejoices in the discovery of a kindred spirit.

My mother always told me I was a terrible liar.  As a child, I was completely unable to deceive anyone – my face was like a neon sign for my emotions.  I was transparent to a fault.  As an adult, I have yet to master the art of “white lies”, of feigning happiness or approval of something I do not agree with, of going along with a sentiment that doesn’t resonate with me.  If I am in a bad mood, I can’t fake joy; if someone asks me how I’m doing, I answer honestly instead of the usual “great, thanks for asking”.  (While this has caused some discomfort in my interactions with others at times, I’m not sure I’m upset that I am so inept at this “social skill”).  Conversely, when I say something positive, kind, or loving, I truly mean it – unequivocally.   This must be, then, why I tend to believe people when they speak  I can’t help but be honest, and I can’t help but project that others are like me.  I can’t imagine that these people I watch on my TV screen, with their impassioned statements of wanting to make our country a kinder, more equitable, and just place, could be doing anything other than speaking the truth.  

But I want to be clear on this point:  My Pollyanna projections don’t extend to everyone.  For example: I find Lindsey Graham, with his bold-faced duplicity over the nomination of a new Supreme Court justice in an election year, to be an dangerously unethical liar.  I am quite clear-eyed about the fact that he is unencumbered by any sense of morality, that he only acts in a way that serves his own self-interest, and that he cannot be trusted as far as he could be thrown (by me, anyway).  I do not assume goodness in him; in fact, I assume quite the opposite.  His lack of apparent conscience, along with many other individuals in the Republican party who have fallen in line with Donald Trump, is frankly frightening.  

Yet Graham just won re-election for his Senate seat handily last week  – which means there are a whole lot of people in South Carolina who apparently don’t care about his lack of honorability (even though in 2016 he literally proclaimed “use my words against me” if he changed his mind – which he did, but again, no one cared).  1.3 million people, in fact.  How can this be?  Is this because of their projections?  Do they, like my family members, view all of humanity through a cynical lens, and therefore don’t find Graham’s behavior to be problematic enough to address?  Do they also believe that “every politician is corrupt”, so it’s not a big deal to them?  Do they assume this is how everyone behaves anyway, but he’s just “honest enough” to be so open about it (as many have also expressed about Donald Trump)?  Indeed, I find myself bewildered.  I’m desperately trying to understand what projections these people must have about humanity that allow them to see this man in a positive enough light to back him, while I recoil in horror at his unabashed bad intentions (don’t even get me started about his recent statements that only “conservative” blacks are welcome to move freely in South Carolina)?  Again, am I living in an alternate universe from the 1.3 million people who voted for him?  (That said – because of my pathologically positive projections, I do – inexplicably – hold out hope that someday Mr. Graham might come around and do the right thing – or that, at the very least, the people of South Carolina will finally come to their senses about his egregious lack of conscience.  I know it’s highly unlikely, but I can’t seem to close the door on this possibility.)

To this end, I’m wondering if this division that we are seeing in this country right now isn’t so much about Democrats and Republicans in the traditional sense.  I’m not sure that the two parties are split by policy anymore – about fiscal responsibilities, big vs. small government, how many taxes we pay and who pays the most.  That’s more of a pragmatic divide, after all, not a verdict on the very souls of our fellow Americans.  I’m certainly overgeneralizing here (perhaps to make my point, which I will admit), but it seems like the split between the two parties has come down to projection.  

Overwhelmingly, those who label themselves as Democrats seem to project hope and general goodness – like me, they yearn for a world of equal, fair, just, and compassionate people, and believe to some extent that this type of world can exist.  They are “progressives” for a reason – they believe in progress, in hope, and are unafraid of inclusion and change.  Republicans, on the other hand, hold fast to the “conservative” label – they argue for keeping things as they always have been, fearing change, fearing those that are not like them.  More recently (and especially those who have continued to march under the Trumpian flag of divisive, fear-mongering, us-vs-them rhetoric), Republicans also seem to project bad intent- they embrace conspiracy theories, believing that everyone else is trying to lie to them, deceive them, and overpower them (especially marginalized minority groups; if I wanted to be Captain Obvious, I could point out that these are exactly the same things that they have done to others for many years, and continue to do).  The Republican party, or at least the Trumpian version of it, seems to be targeting those who already believe that other people cannot be trusted, those with the kind of projections that cause them to assume the worst in humanity.

All of this makes me wonder if there is any way to heal this divide.  If there is a whole group of people in this country (or, more globally, the world) who see everyone else through a lens of mistrust – and an overall disbelief that pure goodness and honesty might, in fact, be real – how can those of us with a more positive world view, those of us who believe in fundamental human goodness co-exist with them?  Is this fundamental difference in our perception of humanity why we are seeing the phenomenon of “alternate facts”, media outlets that report wildly different outcomes from the same set of events, and the overall stubborn doubling down from both sides when more information comes to light? 

I understand, at least on an intellectual level, that those who see humanity through this more fearful and negative lens can’t help themselves.  Whether it be their inherent nature, or a perspective created from personal experience, their projections – to them, anyway – represent reality.  Perhaps they feel safer with this world view, less likely to be hurt; maybe they even view themselves as smarter, more savvy, more rational than those of us with a more idealistic bent.  Because of this, I suppose I also understand why they wouldn’t want to change their world view.  Who wouldn’t want to feel safe, invincible, even superior?  Even if the cost means that you live in a world full of people you can’t trust?

And to be fair: Just as I could never convince my family member to try to see the best in people, it’s as impossible for them to convince me to see the worst.  I’m also fairly certain that neither extreme is an optimal way to navigate reality.   But while my positive projections have set me up for a lot of pain – I’ve fallen prey to a number of people that have fooled me into believing that they had good intent, believing they wanted what was best for me and for others, believing that they shared my earnest ideals and desires to make the world a better place, only to be blindsided by actions and words that I never could have predicted, actions and words that were borne from a different intention altogether (And on top of that, I’ve been called a fool, a sucker, an idiot – some have even suggested that I must be as bad as those who misled me, because how could I not know what they were up to?) – I wouldn’t change them for anything. 

I’d rather live in a world where everyone is good until proven otherwise, as opposed to one where everyone is bad (until proven otherwise).  I don’t want to live in a world where I’m suspicious of everyone around me, where people have to prove themselves as being worthy of my trust and humanity (or worse yet, where they can never really ever prove themselves, and will always be regarded with a wary eye).  Maybe this makes me less safe, more prone to harm (emotional and physical, perhaps), more likely to be deceived.  But the trade-off is that I live in a world of hope, a world full of possibility, a world full of good things that are just beyond the horizon.  I want to believe that we can make the world a better place.  And I need to, for my own spiritual survival, believe that there are others out there that are like me.  

I only hope I’m not just projecting.