How often do we see ourselves in others?

I’ve used this blog in several different ways since it started. Mostly as an outlet for whatever random thing that might have crossed my mind that day or morning or evening or in the depth of night. I find myself more excited to write about things that defend a move by government with which I agree, and less excited about criticising moves that I don’t like, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody who has read anything else I’ve written that I’ve been less excited about writing lately. This shows up in what’s come out of me on this page lately. An article about our priorities, about the flaw in word usage that might have hurt women’s rights, a jobs policy that sounds good to me. All of this while there are a million ways I could express my dissatisfaction with the current government, and complain about the moves they are or aren’t making. But that clearly doesn’t make me want to write as much as other times. In fact, I’ve been uninspired, actively seeking things to write about, and have been mulling this idea for a while. Some of it is obvious, and some might only be a partial explanation, but as a scientist, I’ve learned to live with partial explanations, and fully recognize that the whole explanation is often too complicated, so we make do with parts. So this is the “part” that I’m thinking about this morning, as I’ve thought out for several mornings over the past couple of weeks:

Can we infer somebody’s inner sense of the world by attributes they ascribe to others? In other words, how deep does the psychological construct of projection go?

Projection is a term used by psychologists to describe a defense mechanism by which we mis-attribute our own thoughts, feelings, motives, desires, impulses, etc onto others. We all do it. I’m sure I do it all the time without even noticing that I’m doing it. It’s the boyfriend who is convinced that the truthfully faithful girlfriend wants to cheat on him because he routinely wants to cheat on her (or is cheating on her). This comes up in lots of ways that fit well with the various themes of Hitting Bregma.

Although most examples (certainly most I’ll talk about here) are projection of something bad onto others, there are certainly examples of projection that reveals goodness in us. We see this kind of projection in ways that are endearing. We often call them being naive or too trusting, but this is projection of our own goodness onto others, and assuming that they will be as good also. The politician who mistakenly believes that a solid and logical argument will be persuasive.

The examples that have been floating in my mind lately, unfortunately, haven’t been so endearing. They’ve been troubling me, and this is my outlet for that. I think the one that’s been bothering me for the longest is the ways that some people think about atheists. I watched a video on FaceBook this past weekend that featured two men, both atheists, taking call-in questions from listeners/viewers of whatever show they were on. I tried to find it this morning, but couldn’t. The salient part is this: the caller wanted to know what stops them from doing bad things. Why, if there’s no God, is there any point in being good. The caller asked what the punishment would be for the hosts if they committed a mass shooting ending with their own suicides. One host’s response was clean and clear: “I’d be dead.” The caller wasn’t satisfied and seemed to think that the fear of hell was worse than a clean end. I don’t disagree that hell sounds a lot worse than simply turning off the lights, but the point here is more frightening: the caller seems to need some fear of punishment in order to refrain from shooting up a room full of people. I’ve heard this kind of thing before. I had a friend who I met through my life as a scientist, but came to know better through political arguments (mostly on FaceBook). He would often say the same thing. He made comments and asked questions that rested on the premise that without God there was no reason to be moral. That morality only existed because of God; mostly because of fear of punishment or reward by God. There’s something frightening about that to me. This may be as much of a false premise as his, but it makes it seem like he would do some pretty bad things to people if he thought he could get away with it.

I wonder if the same kind of projection doesn’t account for people who are afraid that whites will lose majority status in America. This is nothing new, and there’s been plenty said about this before, but so much of it is from a “fear of the black man” perspective. The racism that makes people think blacks are inferior to whites, and more animalistic; therefore more prone to be uncivilized and harmful. It’s the sentiment behind calling people “animals” during riots (something that seems to be more prevalent when it’s black folk rioting than when white kids loot and pillage after a sporting event). But is this all racism, or is some of it projection? Is it an implicit recognition of how badly whites have and continue to treat blacks (and other minorities), causing fear that if in power, they would do the same to whites?

What about more subtle aspects of our interactions? I’ve written before about a sense of persecution and how we feel like people hate us these days. How much of this is projection? When somebody tells me that they feel like they can’t, for instance, pray in public without being ridiculed or looked at funny, how much of that sense is because they themselves would look at somebody praying in public (probably not a Christian prayer) with judgement? How much of the feeling that others want to push their religion out of mainstream life is based on their own desire to push other religions out of mainstream life?

There’s a good to all of this. I think the “do unto others” thing is a good framework. I think we should treat others the way we would want to be treated. Of course, the modification is when others don’t want to be treated the same way as we do. We should really treat others the way they want to be treated, even if we can’t imagine that’s what they way, but the general “do unto others” thing is a good place to start. And some of this is a reflection of that. The positive spin to this is that no matter how different we might feel, we at least see others as similar enough that they can have the same feelings as we have (implicit or explicit). When the racist white guy doesn’t want blacks to become a majority because he fears that blacks will treat whites as badly as whites have treated blacks, he’s at least acknowledging that we’re all the same in some way. I guess that’s a good thing. I know this for sure: I’ll be on the lookout for my own projection now.

 

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