Projection as a universal phenomenon.

I have previously discussed the phenomenon of projection (arguing against an opponent by attributing them flaws which are actually flaws of your own position). What I did not discuss at much length, however, is why projection is so commonplace. The fact that 90% of collectivist arguments consist of projections is an observation that needs answering. Why do people project and how does it work?

First, I must mention the basics of the manichean worldview again, because they are relevant here. These basics are:

1. There are “good people” and “bad people.” [and we’re on the “good side”]
2. “Good people” are pretty, smart, happy. “Bad people” are ugly, stupid and ill-tempered.
3. Anything a “good person” does is “good,” even if it consists of actions which are universally condemned, like theft, murder or torture. In the manichean worldview, the end completely justifies the means.
4. The world is a struggle, which can only be won by violence. The “evil people” must be subdued by force, because they are on the wrong side by definition.

One problem with collectivist belief systems is that they fall quite short of their ambitions. They claim to be the neat little solution to man’s problems, but they must create neat little problems and stuff everything in them before they offer themselves as the solution. Being based on lies, they require quite a great deal of control and coercion.

But being based on lies also means that the individual will be subject to a great deal of cognitive dissonance, including dissonance with the manichean worldview, which is at the core of collectivism. The dissonance will be of this sort: “we’re supposed to be the moral ones, we’re supposed to be the ones doing good, but in fact we’re doing something wrong. This cannot be, therefore there must be a reason to explain it.”

A good example of this is the story of Noah’s Ark to Christian fundamentalists who believe in it. “Well, it was all right for God to wipe out everyone, because they were all evil, you see. Every single one of them, including the babies and young children.” Well that ties the whole thing nicely doesn’t it? It’s absolute nonsense, but it shuts the door to further doubt. “God can’t be guilty of genocide, because that would make Christianity a genocidal religion, and we’re the good guys, we don’t do things like that” (this reasoning is also behind Holocaust denial: “we nazis are the good ones, therefore we can’t possibly have done it”).

The most obvious thing to do is to project these flaws on your opponents, because they are the bad guys. “No, you see, we Christians are peaceful, it’s the atheists that use genocide, just look at Stalin and Hitler.” Atheism has no moral consequences (apart from rejecting divine command theory) and thus the atheistic position is silent on the issue of genocide, as it is silent about any other moral issue. But because Christianity has moral consequences, the Christians believe that atheism, positioning itself as a competing ideology, must therefore have moral consequences as well or be woefully incomplete competition in the religion game. Atheists have tried to play the game by claiming that Hitler was a Christian, but this is absolutely futile since Christians can merely reply that Hitler was not a Christian because he was evil and Christians are the good guys.

So that’s how projection works. Any flaw in your ideology must be projected on your opponents. This has the added benefit of tarring your opponent with an accusation that he must now defeat, wasting energies that would be spent against your ideology. So this is a very, very efficient way of arguing. Because collectivist belief systems are almost always part of the system (except for most cults), the aberrations will generally be set against the unbelievers, because they refuse to play the game. People will readily believe that atheists are immoral, but not the belief that mainstream Christians are immoral (fundamentalists, on the other hand, are on the margins and so also prejudiced against).

How does it work in the brain? I have a hypothesis. Take an uncontroversial proposition (uncontroversial to the believer, that is):
“The law entails that murder is punished and stopped.”
In the believer’s mind, both sides become interchangeable. The law equals punishing and stopping murder. So we can flip them around and say:
“For murder to be punished and stopped, we need the law.”
And therefore:
“Anyone who is against the law is against murder being punished and stopped.”
And there’s your projection.

The key step here is in the equality, which blinds the believer to alternatives. There are other ways to punish or stop murder than by using “law,” but because that’s all the State uses, it becomes the only way to do so in the believer’s mind. The police stops crimes, therefore anyone who is against the police is against stopping crime.

Here are two examples from Christianity:

“God created and dictated morality.”
So God is now equated with the creation of morality. We flip them around:
“For morality to be created, we need God.”
And therefore:
“Anyone who says God does not exist denies morality.”

“God created the universe.”
“For the universe to be created, we need God.”
But the universe obviously exists, so the proposition has to be slightly amended:
“For the universe to be created by something, we need God.”
Therefore we get:
“Atheists believe the universe came from nothing.”

As I discussed, the manichean worldview is an intrinsic part of this process and often comes into play as well. The interesting thing about the use of the manichean premises is that it varies in accordance with the social climate. In a society where science is privileged, believers try to associate themselves with science and their enemies with irrationality. In a society where faith is privileged, believers try to associate themselves with faith and paint their enemies as being anti-faith.

The role of the manichean worldview, insofar as the flourishing of the belief system is concerned, is to objectify people who live on the outside and thus make it easier to commit immoral acts against them. Projection is merely an extension of this into the area of logical argumentation. It fleshes out the fact that certain people are evil or undesirable by filling it in with the ideology’s own claims.

Projection turns the objectification process into a potentially infinitely expandable horizon. It’s one thing to say someone is “an enemy.” It’s another entirely to be able to fill out a whole image of what this enemy looks like and acts like, that is to say, to establish a stereotype which becomes a solid foundation on which bigotry can build. To take the obvious example, it is one thing for Hitler to say that the Jews are the enemy, but it’s quite another to develop an image of “Jewishness” which associates Jews with greediness, exploitation, immigration (being foreign, being of inferior origin), dirtiness, and so on and so forth. The former can only remain an abstraction; the latter becomes a mental reality.

4 thoughts on “Projection as a universal phenomenon.

  1. Chris Collins June 12, 2009 at 09:37

    Hi, Franc. It was great to chat with you this morning! Thanks for directing me to your blog.

    I think this post hits the nail on the head, in so many ways. I especially like the explanation of projection, such that, “Anyone who is against the law is against murder being punished and stopped”. I can relate to this, for example, when arguing with people about the ‘war on drugs’. From daring to suggest that the illegality of drugs is questionable, it follows ineluctably that I’m in favour of more people taking (hard) drugs – and thereby having their lives ruined as a result. I haven’t found any effective way around this problem because no amount of evidence is ever an antidote.

  2. tism June 12, 2009 at 13:24

    Your hypothesis is likely accurate.

    It would also explain why 90% of my propositional calculus class in college dropped. Which is a shame, since that’s one of the easiest, slam-dunk courses, requiring no memorization of complicated facts like other courses, just a few simple axioms.

  3. […] of the systems I have targeted claim to emphasize responsibility. I have explained the phenomenon of projection before, and this falls squarely within it. It is precisely because these systems are founded on, […]

  4. […] the vast majority of people’s thoughts and reasoning when they argue. I’ve already described what I think might be the components of projection, which are linear in nature. If my hypothesis is correct, projection is firmly planted in state two […]

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