Sorry, this post is growing longer than I’d anticipated, but I think it would be worth the effort to review the mechanisms of splitting and projective identification in some detail rather than treating these as black-box, mental phenomena.
It would be a mistake to assume based on Part I of this series that I am most interested in explaining the psychology of the messiahs and scapegoats themselves. Whatever the psychological factors driving Obama, Palin and Beck, and regardless of whether they are actually forces for good or evil (or admixtures, like most human beings), for the purposes of this discussion I am more interested in the psychology of individuals and groups that assign each of these figures the role of messiah or scapegoat. My descriptions of each character in Part 1 could have been true, false or partly true. It wouldn't have changed anything about the patterns I discussed.
As the cases of Obama, Palin and Beck reveal, one group's messiah is another group's scapegoat. You could even say that the messiah and the scapegoat are two sides of the same psychological coin. And if the messiah-scapegoat's background is hazy in our minds, there is more room to superimpose emotionally salient personal fantasies, either good or bad on the messiah-scapegoat. Here is where a brief discussion of Melanie Klein’s work may be helpful to understanding the superimposition of salient personal fantasies on the scapegoat-messiah.
Projection and Splitting: the Paranoid-Schizoid Position
When Melanie Klein began her pioneering work with children, it was believed that children couldn't undergo psychoanalysis because their real psychological ties to parents were too strong to manifest themselves in a transference relationship with a psychotherapist. But Klein noticed that when she "played" with children in therapy, they would often assign her a specific role to play. She would become a character in the child's story. She compared role-assignment with transference in adult analysis.
Klein assumed that these assigned roles represented a part of the child's inner world because the roles corresponded with the child’s general mood and frame of mind. Thus, the assigned role was a window into the child’s inner life. Klein also saw role assignment as a way for the child to reduce anxiety. Troubling aspects of experience, aggression for example, could be put into the therapist, providing a measure of anxiety reduction.
The projection of unwanted parts of the inner world into others is called projective identification. Projective identification isn't simply seeing unwanted parts of one's interior world in others; projective identification entails real pressure on the object of the projection to both experience and act on the projected impulse.
Did you ever have the experience of an angry person doing their utmost to anger you? Have you noticed, as well, that they may feel better after they succeed? They may even derisively ask: what's wrong with you?
The provocateur in this situation denies the provocation and makes it all about the reaction to the provocation. That's projective identification. Klein realized that the recipient of the projection has an experiential window into denied aspects of the internal world of the person relying on projection to alleviate anxiety.
Projective identification is an essential dimension of scapegoating and scapegoaters sometimes go to outrageous lengths to provoke scapegoats into reactions that will confirm the scapegoater’s projection. An intuitive understanding of projective identification is behind a stance of deliberate calm in the face of insult that many African-Americans routinely adopted in the past. And I think most of us are acting on an intuitive understanding of projective identification when we refuse to let someone get our goat.
Projective identification is one of two principle defenses employed in what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position of mental life. The other principle defense in the paranoid-schizoid position is splitting. (Paranoid refers to the projective defense and schizoid refers to the splitting defense.)
In infants, good and bad internal states are very transitory and split between all-bad and all-good. In this position, bad feelings are poorly moderated by good feelings. One little bad thing can immediately ruin everything.
Splitting-off and projecting the bad into an external object (e.g. a person) protects the good that is left behind. Sometimes when a child misbehaves, she will indignantly blame Mommy for her own misbehavior. When this happens, the child is protecting the good in her internal world by splitting-off, projecting and attacking the bad which has now been relocated into Mommy. To the child, Mommy who caught me in my bad behavior is actually the bad one and I am the good one who scolds bad Mommy. If Mommy uncritically accepts the projection and rages back at the child, the projective identification has succeeded in flying colors, because Mommy is now acting like a crazy, bad person.
Most scapegoats, including politicians confronted with ridiculous accusations, face a dilemma. If they react too strongly, they risk affirming the scapegoater’s projection; if they fail to react strongly enough, they may be assumed to be guilty simply because they haven’t defended themselves vigorously enough. Unlike Mommy and Daddy, politicians can’t send raging scapegoaters to time-out until they get a grip, but I wonder if this is why a subset of American conspiracy mongers believes the government has secret internment camps waiting for them. Perhaps they’re anticipating retaliation or, at least, a time-out reaction for all their paranoid attacks. I’d go even further and hazard the interpretation that the internment camp fantasy could be a therapeutic fantasy. The camp will put a stop to escalating paranoid fantasies.
And therein lies the very serious downside of the paranoid-schizoid position. The position is, essentially, psychotic because the psychological boundary between internal and external is deeply compromised by the need to split-off and project the bad. While it can be said that splitting and projective identification alleviate anxiety, relief is achieved at serious cost to realism.
The Depressive Position
In addition to the paranoid-schizoid position, Klein proposed a second position of mental life, the depressive position. In the depressive position, splitting and projection are diminished while good and bad are mutually modulating. In the depressive position, attacks on the target of projection provoke anxiety about harming the target because the target is seen more realistically, as a mixture of bad and good.
For an illustration of the change that occurs in the move from the P-S to the D position, let’s return to a therapeutic play scenario. Imagine the child and the therapist playing with dolls. The child assigns his own doll the role of mother and he assigns the role of naughty child to the therapist’s doll. The mother doll scolds the therapist's doll for being naughty. What the child has done is split-off and projected his own naughtiness and attacked it in the therapist’s doll. Paranoid-schizoid defenses, so far.
Now imagine that, after the mother doll scolds the therapist's doll, the mother doll proceeds to comfort the scolded doll. This consoling, reparative behavior reflects the ability to see the world more realistically, in shades of good and bad, rather than dividing the world into all good and all bad parts. Anxiety over the destruction of the good is the primary anxiety in this position. In the depressive position, reactions become more realistically-based, less volatile, less extreme, and, eventually, more empathic as good and bad mix. The position is called the depressive position because feelings of guilt, grief and desire for reparation replace splitting and projective identification.
Throughout our lifetimes, both positions, the paranoid-schizoid and the depressive, can be activated by changing circumstances, but the paranoid-schizoid position is more active and chronic in more severely disturbed persons. It is essentially, a psychotic position, so the process of scapegoating is essentially a psychotic process.
A distinction that may be difficult to appreciate is that a particular scapegoat may be guilty or partly guilty of an accusation, but if that scapegoat is conveniently used to defensively split and project one’s own denied impulses, then the process, from a psychological point of view, is still a scapegoating process. This might explain why many people obsess over an ongoing saga of evil such as the Scott (Laci) Petersen case and the Drew (Stacy) Peterson case. As worthy as these men may be of our collective contempt, there is also, for some, a relief to be found in hating these men and spinning fantasies about what really happened.
Scapegoating Occurs in Every Domain of Life
The paranoid-schizoid formulation of scapegoating is consistent with religious scapegoating rituals. The sacrificial animal contains the projection of sins that are destroyed when the animal is destroyed.
In families, scapegoating of one family member can alleviate pressure in the family system. The "bad" child (black sheep or identified patient) may shift the focus of attention away from other family difficulties that threaten the cohesion of the family. Here is a startling example from my personal life.
We also see heroes in families. When bad is split-away, good is left behind. Within families, the hero and scapegoat constellation is a recognizable archetype—one brother is a mobster, the other is a priest. And then there's Cain and Abel. Did Adam or God deal with the distress of sin through splitting and projective identification, provoking Cain to murder?
What I would like to explore in Part 3 of this series is the recent, startling intensification of scapegoating and messiah-making in American political life. We see this in the rise of unmodulated, political hatreds and idealizations (splitting) and in an increase in reality-bending, paranoid conspiracy mongering (projection).