In a recent speech, Donald Trump suggested obliquely that it might be appropriate for gun rights activists to take matters into their own hands if Clinton gets elected and is thereby empowered to appoint the tie breaking Supreme Court Justice. Such calls for violence can only occur in the context of dehumanizing those against whom we wish to perpetrate such violence. In Jung’s language, we call this projection – the psychic process whereby we attribute our rejected traits onto someone or something else. At a recent rally, Trump called Clinton unstable, unbalanced, and unhinged. The process of projection is clearly illustrated in these statements. Whatever one’s political leanings, regardless of any evident short-comings on the part of Clinton, “unstable, unbalanced, and unhinged” apply more to Trump than to Clinton.
Projection allows us to externalize those aspects of ourselves that we find unacceptable. In this way, it allows us to maintain a steady positive self-concept. We do not have to face our greatest deficits, but can rail against those on whom we have projected these qualities. In everyday life, we can spot projection by taking note of those who irritate the most. Is there someone who really gets under your skin? What is the most annoying thing about that person? Once you have answered that questions, ask yourself this next one: how is that most annoying quality an aspect of yourself that you have disallowed?
We are most likely to project those aspects of ourselves that are in the shadow. Jung came up with this concept to refer to that which we would rather not know about ourselves. These are the parts of ourselves that we don’t consciously want to be. Perhaps our parents, teachers, or other adults told us that these attitudes, emotions, and proclivities were not acceptable. Often, that which has been relegated to the shadow is immensely valuable, containing energy for life, and rich possibilities for new growth.
Projection is a normal, universal psychological process, and isn’t necessarily bad or unhealthy. It can be an important way in which we encounter split off parts of ourselves, and a first step toward integrating these aspects into consciousness. When we are relentless in our projection and rigidly refuse to acknowledge that what we most despise in others is really a part of ourselves, projection can become dangerous.
Culturally, projection of shadow material happens on a collective level, where it can operate in a way that is particularly pernicious. It can give rise to expulsion, xenophobia, exclusion, denigration, and even violence. The shortcomings of the dominant class are projected onto minorities – it is they who are lazy, greedy, violent, etc. – not we!
There are many, many examples of cultural projection and scapegoating. Sadly, one doesn’t have to look hard to find them. Two of my favorite explorations of this phenomenon treat apartheid and are in the form of a popular song, and a film.
The song “Weeping” by Dan Heymann is an allegory of apartheid under P. W. Botha that left me gobsmacked the first time I heard it. It is perfect description of the mechanism of projection of the shadow. It is also a beautiful and moving song.
Here are the full lyrics.
I knew a man who lived in fear
It was huge, it was angry, it was drawing near
Behind his house, a secret place
Was the shadow of the demon he could never face
He built a wall of steel and flame
And men with guns, to keep it tame
Then standing back, he made it plain
That the nightmare would never ever rise again
But the fear and the fire and the guns remain
It doesn’t matter now
It’s over anyhow
He tells the world that it’s sleeping
But as the night came round
I heard its lonely sound
It wasn’t roaring, it was weeping
And then one day the neighbors came
They were curious to know about the smoke and flame
They stood around outside the wall
But of course there was nothing to be heard at all
“My friends,” he said, “We’ve reached our goal
The threat is under firm control
As long as peace and order reign
I’ll be damned if I can see a reason to explain
Why the fear and the fire and the guns remain”
The whites in South Africa projected anger and fearful destructiveness onto the oppressed majority. This in turn seemingly justified efforts to control and contain that majority by brutal force. When we project our own darkness onto others, we see them as dangerous and feel that they must be repressed and controlled. In fact, it is usually the case in psychic as well as political life that that which is decried as evil and dangerous is itself in fact suffering greatly, and desires to be known and redeemed by us. The demon that is huge and angry isn’t roaring. It is weeping.
This is a common theme in fairy tales as well. For example, in “Prince Lindworm,” the disgusting snake-like prince is the carrier of the family shadow. He is a huge, slimy, scaly worm that has been exiled from his family, but presents himself when his younger brother seeks to take a wife. Prince Lindworm demands to be reckoned with. He wants to be known by us. He wants to be transformed. Since he is the elder brother, he must be married first, so his royal parents set about finding him a bride, but he eats a new bride each night, and therefore keeps life stalled in the kingdom. Finally, he is redeemed when the shepherd’s daughter is able to relate to him in a way that allows him to shed his loathsome exterior, and be transformed into a human form.
The 2009 film District 9 uses a futuristic premise to explore psyche and society in the tradition of the other great science fiction stories. Inspired by real events in Cape Town during apartheid, the film is set in Johannesburg where a huge space ship has mysteriously come to rest over the city. When teams entered the ship, they discovered ill and malnourished aliens, who come to be referred to derogatorily as prawns due to their insect-like appearance.
The aliens need to be cared for, but they are viewed both with derision and with fear. The government has confined them to District 9, a squalid camp outside of Johannesburg. After 28 years of periodic conflict between the residents of the camp of the nearby locals, the government hires a private military company to forcibly relocate the aliens. The film follows Wikus van der Merwe, who has been tasked with heading the relocation operation. Over the course of the film, we see the callous cruelty with which the aliens are treated. They are demeaned and dehumanized, reduced to scavenging like animals among the trash in the filthy camp for food in spite of the fact that they are representatives of an advanced civilization. Eventually, Wikus comes to learn that the aliens are not as “other” as he might have thought.
The aliens in the film are portrayed as stupid, primitive, and dangerous, when in fact the government agencies, mercenaries and others who are seeking to exploit the aliens and their technology actually embody these projected qualities. Wikus’s physical and psychological transformation come about when he is forced to acknowledge that which is alien in himself.
The film does not paint an optimistic picture of the fate of he who attempts to claim and integrate his group’s shadow rather than projecting it. There is great comfort in externalizing our most hated qualities. When this tendency operates on a collective level, it can be a powerful force than binds the ruling minority together. Questioning the narratives that accompany this collective projection threatens the dominant group. Wikus ends the film as an outcast, alone.
In 1942, Sophie Scholl learned of Nazi war crimes on the Eastern Front and the mass killing of Jews. Whereas the German people collectively were engaged in one of the most striking examples of othering, dehumanization and projection in history, Sophie chose consciousness at her great peril. She and a group of friends printed and distributed anti-Nazi political leaflets. In 1943, Sophie and two others were executed for treason. She was 21.