The term “projection” has been bandied about quite frequently on the internet in recent years. It appears often in political discussions. People tend to use the concept freely in their arguments. But what does “projection” mean and is it being used correctly?
Projection is a concept that Sigmund Freud created and Karl Jung and others developed. The idea basically is that a person takes the parts of himself that he doesn't like and can’t accept and deals with it by applying or projecting it to someone else. For example, an excessively opinionated person may consistently label others as “know-it-alls”. The awareness of the flaw is usually all in the subconscious. A person acts it out by projecting as a way of protecting his ego from the painful truth about his own flaws. He puts the focus elsewhere. He generally isn't aware that he's doing it.
Somebody, probably at some seminar somewhere, let this idea loose into the political arena. Here’s the way it often goes:
Blue Debater: “Your guy is corrupt.”
Red Debater: “No. You’re just projecting. Your guy is the corrupt one, not mine.”
It becomes the equivalent of the child’s rant, “I’m rubber; you’re glue; whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” The rant is pretty silly when children use it, and it’s sillier when adults use in a political discourse. They should know better.
Here are couple problems with using projection in this superficial way:
First off, sometimes a criticism is just a criticism like a cigar is just a cigar. Unless you know what is going on in the mind of the criticizer very intimately, you have no idea whether they’re projecting or not. How could you? The Blue Debater’s guy might even possibly be corrupt, but if Blue doesn't own that idea, either consciously or subconsciously, then it’s not projection. It might be ignorance. But it’s not projection. Who are you to say what’s going on in his mind?
Second, labeling someone as projecting can itself be a form of projecting. Could the Red Debater be claiming that the Blue Debater is projecting because the Red Debater doesn't want face that his own guy is actually corrupt? Declaring that someone else is projecting may, in and of itself, be a projection. See how weird it starts to get. It could, hypothetically, begin an endless spiral.
Third, it adds nothing to a conversation. It’s a “nyah nyah” move. And because it is, it’s kind of low-brow. A worthy debater will forego the childish tactic.
So the concept of projection used in an attempt to trounce a political opponent is one of those cases when pop-psych gets loose into the wild and is applied to anything that moves. If you want to explore the idea of projection, look inside yourself or have a qualified therapist help you. But it generally does a disservice to truth if you start putting the label on someone else’s behavior or beliefs especially if it’s only to gain points in an argument.