All Over The Map | March 26, 2015

Unlucky Charms

By Liz Massey, March 26, 2015.

A few weeks ago, when I realized that Echo was going to publish its 666th issue, I was amused at the thought that some regular readers will avoid picking up this issue for the sole reason that an issue number with ominous associations graces its cover.

On the other hand, I definitely can relate to their superstition: When I was in grade school, I zealously avoided the number 13. For at least one year that I remember, I wouldn’t even write it out (I would substitute the letter “M” instead).

Although I am proud of the fact that I eventually overcame my fear of 13, to the point that I chose it as my soccer jersey number in junior high, the memory of my superstition keeps me humble when discussing it. It is a part of human nature to want to control seemingly uncontrollable phenomena.

Studies indicate that the less proactive a person is, the more they tend to believe in superstition. The reason LGBT people and their allies should care about all this is because the dynamics of superstition are a handy demonstration of how the psychological concepts of projection and scapegoating work.

When someone projects their inner ambivalence and fear onto something or someone external, bad things happen. The fear-monger’s inability to own his or her own shortcomings or vulnerabilities means they see them in others. The current crop of anti-trans “bathroom bills,” the infamous “gay panic” criminal defense, even garden variety “sissy” jokes reflect society’s fear of the feminine, which underlies almost all anti-LGBT bias.

If these projections are so obviously false, you might ask, why haven’t they been completely debunked? One of the dynamics that a scapegoater can rely upon when smearing an individual or disfavored group is bystander apathy. The world rewards those who bully, to the point that in many situations, the bully is seen as “strong” and the scapegoat and any would-be defenders are seen as whiny complainers.

177537976As I said a few paragraphs ago, engaging in projection doesn’t make us evil – it makes us human. Our community plays “fill in the blank,” too, projecting on other subgroups we don’t know or understand. Even within the LGBT tribe, I’ve heard assumptions that all gay men are promiscuous, all bisexuals are untrustworthy and all trans people are confused.

While engaging in projection may be a profoundly human activity, it’s also possible to resist the temptation to embrace it. We can reject toxic projections – whether we are the target or the source – when we:

Recognize a projection is occurring. 

If you are being projected upon, you’ll generally sense something is wrong. The projection  – often delivered in strident, judgemental tones – will seem to come out of left field, because it doesn’t actually relate to you or your behavior.

Lovingly disengage from the projection. 

If you care about the person doing the projection, you can say, “Sorry, this isn’t about me,” and leave the door open to talk to them in the future … about something else. If you don’t, and you can disengage in a civil way from the projector, you’re under no obligation to continue a relationship with someone who cannot see you for who you are.

Own our own projections.

Just as you don’t have to accept projections from others, they are under no obligation to accept them from you. I have found that when I’m engaging in a projection, everything is just “too easy” … the explanations I’m crafting are too convenient, and not grounded in observed behavior or a give-and-take dynamic. It’s embarrassing to admit we haven’t seen a person or a situation with clear eyes (and the projection can be of non-existent positive qualities, as well as negative ones), but it’s better to figure it out and change rather persist in one’s delusions.

Stand with those being scapegoated.

It’s very hard to withstand bullying and projection alone. It’s all too easy for the target of a projection to read silence in the face of attacks as complicity.

The British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell said, “Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” Our tribe has three big tools to combat projections: curiosity about the content of the projection; compassion for all parties involved; and community, which we can provide to those who are the targets of projection. All three of them shine the light of wisdom on a phenomenon that too often thrives in darkness.