On Percepticide: Projection & Compartmentalisation

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[Another section from my essay series on the Psychology of Powerlessness. I took the shot of the wall in a restaurant toilet.]

On Percepticide : Projection and Compartmentalisation

Thesis: ‘If I had to name a single quality characteristic of patriarchy, it would be compartmentalization, the capacity for institutionalizing disconnection. Intellect severed from emotion. Thought separated from action. […] The earth itself divided – national borders. […] The personal isolated from the political. […] We have all of us – female and male – been wounded by these dissociations.’

– Robin Morgan, ‘Between the Lines’ (1991), in The Word Of A Woman, p. 238.

Perceptions may be unwelcome because they somehow threaten one’s sense of security or identity. To accept the truth of such perceptions would thus mean having to change aspects of either external or internal reality or of both. To really accept the reality of climate chaos and peak oil, for example, would mean accepting the end of capitalist business-as-usual, suburbia and affluent consumerism and a corresponding deep change in one’s consumption, lifestyle and, possibly, unexamined sense of ‘normality’ or even key values. To really accept the fact that one’s own democratic leaders are in fact climate criminals and war criminals with the blood of thousands of innocents on their hands would have shattering consequences for one’s naïve political identity based on a belief in leaders and the political system of parliamentary democracy.

Or, to take another example, if the causes of global ecocide, hunger and war were to be perceived as being located within the inherent global dynamics of industrial capitalism, middle class over-consumption and empire, then certain collective political and personal actions would ‘logically’ follow. Usually, such ‘logical’ actions are avoided long before they can develop, however, by somehow avoiding the very unwelcome perceptions they could be based on.

Unwelcome perceptions can be defended against, silenced or ‘killed’ in many ways. The basic internal procedure of this ‘percepticide’ (Stephen Juan), common in infants, is to deny, split off and dissociate the perceived unpleasantness or ‘badness’ from consciousness. Two forms of such dissociative percepticide are projection and compartmentalisation. Extreme forms of these psychic manoeuvres in adults are considered psychotic.

Once split off and denied, the ‘bad’ content can be unconsciously projected outwards onto other people or objects (scapegoats), leading to a perceived ‘bad’ world of threats and dangers from ‘bad’, aggressive others or things. The extreme pathological form of this is paranoia or paranoid schizophrenia. Political splitting, deflecting and paranoid projecting are common and widespread historical forms of social domination and voluntary slavery, allowing elites to easily dominate their subjects by fear-mongering and scapegoating. Jews, women (‘witches’), blacks, various other ethnic or religious minorities, homosexuals, anarchists, socialists and communists, terrorists have been common objects of paranoid projection. Incapable of seeing systemic causation, most conspiracy theories indulge in such personalizing, paranoid projections.

A second form of ‘percepticide’ is compartmentalisation. Here the split off (‘bad’) element is not (or not yet) projected externally but kept tightly inside in a separate psychic ‘compartment’. The important thing is that this compartment must be air- and watertight, i.e. closely sealed off so that it need not communicate and interact with the rest of the psyche. The split psyche can then, at least for a while, contain glaring contradictions and cognitive dissonances without having to face and resolve them.

Thus, for example, the knowledge of ill-treatment, massacres or tortures of innocent victims can be kept quite separate from moral conscience and concern. The all-absorbing private sphere of daily life, work, leisure and relationships is split off from the terrors of the public and political sphere. In contrast to the various attempts at a new politics in the 1960s, the personal is then definitely not the political and the political not personal. While humane values, conscience and decency are restricted to the former personal sphere, the latter public sphere is just one of ‘earning a living’, ‘making a career’, ‘following orders’ or ‘doing one’s duty’. People start to lead ‘double lives’. A well-known historical example is the attitude of most German citizens during the Third Reich (and later during the German Democratic Republic).

The Nazi perpetrators themselves of course evinced such split and compartmentalised attitudes in the most extreme forms. Thus, a concentration camp commandant like Rudolf Höss can gas Jews by day and go home to listen to Beethoven and Bach, pat his loyal dog affectionately and stroke his blond child’s hair in the evening without cracking up. SS boss Heinrich Himmler can hold a speech in which he lauds his officers for having witnessed the mass extermination of Jews and still remained ‘decent’, a great psychological achievement that he is sure will unfortunately remain an ‘unrecorded leaf of fame’ in the history book of the German nation. Adolf Eichmann can insist he merely efficiently organised the trains to the concentration camps, not the actual murders that took place there.

Such internal compartmentalisation is of course not just a Nazi phenomenon. It is a key feature of the dispassionate technocrat and can be found across all political systems from totalitarianism to democracies.

Many common Argentines apparently reacted very similarly during the period of the military terror dictatorship in the 1970s, refusing to believe in the atrocities although hundreds of people were disappearing on a daily basis. Believers in ‘nuclear deterrence’ can compartmentalise their knowledge of nuclear holocaust and believe that ongoing military ‘defence’ through potential nuclear genocide and suicide actually increases their security. Proponents of nuclear power can compartmentalise their knowledge of Chernobyl or Fukushima and unsolved safety, contamination, waste and nuclear proliferation issues and still believe it is a ‘clean’ form of energy production.

Progressive liberals and social democrats can attack conservative politicians when they commit human rights abuses or war crimes but neatly compartmentalise their knowledge of their ‘progressive’ leaders doing exactly the same or worse and continue to vote for them. In December 2005, a violent mob of Anglo-Australians at Cronulla could beat up several Lebanese-Australian men and women beach-goers while simultaneously (and non-ironically) singing the anthem of inclusion ‘I Am, You Are, We Are Australian.’

Around the same time, 2004-06, large majorities of polled Australians could agree that their Prime Minister Howard repeatedly and publicly lied to them on several important occasions: on not introducing a Goods and Services Tax, Iraqi boat refugees throwing their children overboard, helping invade Iraq because of weapons of mass destruction, on not knowing about Australian Wheat Board’s paying of $300 million in bribes to Saddam Hussein, on making a prime ministerial succession deal with his deputy. They could regard with complete indifference Howard’s Machiavellian invention of the so-called ‘non-core promise’, i.e. one that need not be kept.

At the very same time, they could continue to consider him eminently ‘trustworthy’ and make him electorally popular. Thus In an awe-inspiring, and completely unchallenged, display of cynicism, Howard actually ran his 2004 election campaign on the theme of ‘trust’ and gained unprecedented and overwhelming majorities. Thus hygienically compartmentalised, ‘lying’ and ‘trust’ need no longer stand in dissonant contradiction, and we can now actually trust a liar. We are apparently well on the way to the outright social psychosis of Orwell’s famous slogans from 1984 where ‘war is peace, love is hate’ and open lying builds trust.

One psychological hypothesis for such a self-immunising mechanism may lie in an internal split between an ‘adult’ and an ‘infantile’ self: the rational ‘adult self’ sees the lying but the emotionally stuck ‘infantile self’ wants the blind trust in the ‘good’ father figure who will remains strong and ‘take care of us’ by keeping down the interest rates on our mortgages. Most people in authority, especially the more right-wing ones, of course encourage the infantile states and perceptions in order to further the psychological (narcissistic) need for their own authoritarian positions of power. (Cf. my essay On Infantilisation).

A similar adult/infant split would seem to pertain in the Iraq/terrorism issue. Polled majorities of Australians could also agree that the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq caused thousands of innocent deaths and greatly increased terrorist threats to themselves (rational adult insight) and simultaneously they actually supported either continuing or even more Australian military involvement in Iraq and thus more innocent deaths and terrorist threats (emotional infantile need for strong paternal response and paternally ‘protective’ US alliance).

Compartmentalisation thus helps temporarily minimise the otherwise unpleasant sensation of cognitive dissonance by keeping the contradictory elements strictly separate from each other. The logical endpoint of this manoeuvre for an individual, of course, would be a totally fragmented and schizoid non-identity of non-communicating dissociated selves floating around inside a bag of skin, in other words a full-blown psychosis.

However, if everyone else in one’s social environment, the media commentators and political leaders also seem to be engaged in the same cognitive dissonances and dissociative manoeuvres (as in Nazi Germany, Videla’s Argentina, Bush’s and Obama’s America or Australia under John Howard), one can avoid an explicit personal psychosis because one has merely blended in with what is, essentially, a psychotic social environment. One page of the newspaper sports deep concern about climate chaos, the next an ad for luxury cars or cheap flights to Bali; this constant cognitive dissonace, this objective madness, is considered ‘normal’.

(In such psychotic social environments, political elites may of course also thus avoid facing their own neuroses. Their power can allow them to ‘normalise’ them by elevating their conditions into social norms and structures for their equally neurotic followers to ape or resonate to.)

Dissociative compartmentalisation and projection thus reduce the psychic stress (or potentially productive ‘neurosis’) that would actually be called for and in fact become ‘a form of adaptation, by means of which people remain sane in the service of social madness.’ The cold, hard ‘pragmatism’ or ‘realism’ and inability to entertain new experiences that such socially ‘well-adapted’ and ‘successful’ people often display is the cold, hard realism and learning inability of the insane system itself.

In the mid- to long term, however, such a collectively delusional system can be nothing but deeply maladaptive, i.e. atrophy and/or collapse into some form of social chaos. One wonders if this process is already at quite an advanced stage, or whether enough people can rid themselves of it in time to save civilisation and the planet.

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~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on January 6, 2013.

2 Responses to “On Percepticide: Projection & Compartmentalisation”

  1. I guess this is where the impenetrability really lies. The psyche. All to true Peter:” The cold, hard ‘pragmatism’ or ‘realism’ and inability to entertain new experiences that such socially ‘well-adapted’ and ‘successful’ people often display is the cold, hard realism and learning inability of the insane system itself.”

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