George Walford: Projection and its Consequences

In the course of his psycho-analytical investigation Freud laid bare many mechanisms, many processes going on in our minds, of which we normally refrain more or less unaware. In some cases the same – or very similar – processes are to be observed at work in the ideological realm, and of these one of the frost important is projection. This may be defined as the process of ascribing in psychology our own feelings and in ideology our own thoughts, to others.

It has frequently been observed that few ideological groups are content to speak only for themselves; the general procedure is to claim that one speaks “for the people,” “for the ordinary man and woman,” or that one’s own group is “the articulate section of the working class.” To some extent, no doubt, this is a conscious manoeuvres calculated to impress the listener, but there is reason to believe that those who make such statements frequently do so in all good faith and sincerity, honestly believing that the people as a whole do accept the same assumptions, subscribe to the same ideology as themselves. This is what we refer to as ideological projection.

The most outstanding example of it, of course, is the mass-rationality assumption. Progressives maintain that the masses are coming to adopt their own critical, analytical attitude; they project their own rationality upon the masses. This, however, is by no means the only example of the mechanism in operation, and it seems likely that unconscious projection of one’s own ideology is responsible for much of the bitterness and recrimination so characteristic of political discussion. When it is assumed that the opponent has the same basic assumptions, the same ‘general outlook’ as oneself, it must necessarily follow that his expression of differing opinions, his support of a different policy, involve a more or less conscious suppression of his real beliefs on the matter at issue. Some explanation has to be found for such suppression, and the most obvious one is that it is done for the sake of personal advantage. Thus the opponent becomes a scoundrel and a traitor, one who supports Capitalism not from an honest belief in its virtues but in the servile hope of collecting crumbs from the plutocrat‘s table – or, alternatively, one who supports Socialism not from honest conviction but in the hope of obtaining a comfortable bureaucratic niche for himself.

from Social Science Bulletin No. 15, September 1946