Two terms from pop psychology provide a great deal of insight into the current state of discourse in our society. These terms are "labeling" and "projection." I include both terms on the same "theme" page because projection is often involves labeling.
I find the modern preoccupation with labeling and projection to be a net negative, so before talking about the terms, I would like to give my view of the world.
My View of The World
In my view, our minds work by attaching words and phrases to the things around us. We have words for important things like people, places, and events. We form ideas about these different things, and then spend much of our lives making judgments based on this mental model of the world.
I do not view the process of forming ideas and making judgments as bad. It is necessary for survival. For example, people have learned to associate maggots with bad meat. They label it as "rotten" and don't eat it. Avoiding eating bad meat avoids sickness.
People who learn to make good judgments thrive. Those that make bad decisions often flounder. The process of giving things names and engaging in reasoning about those names is a good thing.
Problems arise when our mental model is off kilter. So, it is good to scrutinize the models we make.
Good and Bad Models
The traditional view is that, to the extent which our mental models represent truth, they serve us well. When our models are distorted, they undermine our efforts.
The model we have in our mind is not truth. We must should be wary of the distortions that result from our mental models and we should constantly seek to improve them.
The Modern World's view is a bit bizarre. Many thinkers of the modern world felt that there needed to be a revolution from the core of logic outward that would transform society.
Examination of the foundations of reason is generally a good thing. Unfortunately, this re-examination had a political objective. The feeling was that the old world order used language and logic to enforce an oppressive hegemony on the world; so they needed a new language and logic to create a new hegemony.
This process of creating a new foundation for society by injecting conflicts in the foundations of society (Foundational Dialectics) ends up radicalizing.
Both the terms "projection" and "labeling" start with valuable observations yet, when pushed too far they become negatives.
Wikipedia and other articles attribute a thing called psychological projection (May 2008) to Sigmund Freud. Freudian Projection asserts that people have an internal defense mechanism that causes them to project their unwanted thoughts on to the people around them. A person thinking of having an affair will project infidelity onto their spouse. It is natural to accuse others of our dark thoughts.
I contend that there is also a possitive projection. Where we project on people our best thoughts. I've often made the mistake of assuming shysters were honest.
Before going any further I should point out that we cannot see into other people's minds. We never know for certain if a person is projecting onto others. However, it is important to know that projection exists.
Lets say you see a place where party A is accusing party B of a transgression. There is a chance that the transgression exists in the mind of party A. Criminals might accuse others of their crime to divert attention from their acts.
This type of stuff was known before Freud, however, it is good to have a term that describes the process.
Projection in Political Discourse
It is common for people to take ideas from popular psychology and apply them to our collective psyche.
Projection has become a common practice in political discourse or outright propaganda efforts.
It is common for a politician to project all of their negative attributes onto his enemies. In the case of political parties, they will project undesirable labels onto their opponents.
Projection is a surprisingly effective political strategy and is easy to do. There is a large number of people in this world willing to play to labels. A political party can often put a label on their opponent simply by finding a person willing to play to the label. Steven Colbert on Comedy Central has made millions by playing to the labels that Democratics wish to put on conservatives.
You don't even need to look to an actor. You can put a label on a group simply by promoting any blowhards in that group as representative of the group.
I contend that projection is a studied form of propaganda in our society. People like Colbert are intentionally engaged in this process.
People trying to engage in authentic political discourse need to watch for intentional and unintentional efforts to divert debate through projection.
As mentioned above, in order to talk, humans give words to ideas.
Discussions about Labeling often begin with the observation that the labels we give to people can affect their behavior. People play to their labels. If you arbitrarily labeled the people in group A as industrious and the people in group B as slothful, you are apt to find the people in group A behaving industriously, and group B behaving slothfully.
The analysis of the way our words affect people is important. From my observation, classical thinkers welcomed the studying of labeling to the extent that it removes artificial stigmas from our vocabulary and improve our ability to communicate.
Understanding how the stigmas given to words affect behavior can improve our ability to communicate. However, as one studies the affects of labeling, it is possible to take the opposite view that controlling people through labels is legitimate.
Unfortunately, the primary goal of the political class is to gain power. Marxists were seeking a total transformation of society. Labeling theory led to a negative situation with the intellectual class is engaged in battles to control labels in absurd little culture wars.
Labeling in Politics
Polls show that people respond to labels. Propagandists today spend much of their time trying to project the labels that poll poorly onto their opponents, and the labels that poll well onto themselves.
The self-fulfilling prophecy in politics works a bit different than in psychology. People don't want to be associated with all of the negative labels projected onto to a party, so they join the opposition party despite the fact that the opposition is the one engaged in the projection.
Wikipedia (May 2008) has articles on two interesting things called Deviant Behavior Theory and Labeling Theory. Deviant Behavior Theory starts by noting that deviance is defined in relation to a norm. This flows from the definition.
Deviant Behavior Theory then goes onto conclude that deviant behavior is not caused by the choices of the individual but by the existence of norms. So, the way to stop deviant behavior is to eliminate norms.
This theory gives "scientific credence" to the culture wars where the left attacks every norm held by western society.
The theory fails to note that one never really destroys social norms, they just shift. My direct experience with progressives is that they are every bit as judgmental as the conservatives they despise. One need only look at the Stasi of East Germany and the oppressive climate that infects left leaning campuses to see examples that people are still judged and persecuted from deviated from the social norms of the new world order.
It is worthwhile to know about labeling theory and projection. When you hear a person tossing a label onto their opponent, you should ask if the label fits of if the accuser is simply projecting a label onto a person they don't like.
Understanding the biases that exist in our language is good. However, when people fall too deep into the theory, they run the risk of losing track of what is real and their discourse simply degenerates into mindless propaganda campaigns that detract from the issues.
Because labeling has been a preoccupation of the intellectual class in the modern era, we are in a situation where all of the terms used to describe our thoughts have become battlegrounds. The way for people to overcome the ill effects of attempts to control people with language is to double one's effort to understand what people mean when they speak, and to avoid the temptation to position their arguments.
What Links Here
The following list shows "internal" pages that link to this page.
The following lists shows links to external articles that link to this page.
- Battles Over Labels (added 2008-05-25 by kd) I talk about my view of labels, then give a silly story of deviant behavior theory pushed to the absurd.
- Partisan Example (added 2008-08-28 by kd) In an extremely partisan speech at the 2008 Bill Clinton accused George Bush of partisanship. It was a great example of projection.
- Empathy as an Organizing Principle (added 2009-05-30 by KD) I note that claims of empathy is closely related to projection in a article on the debate about empathetic judges.
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