During the first few years of life an infant develops multiple integrated images of the world around him. For example, to the youngest infant, the Object (mother) who soothes him with the breast or by holding him is not the same Object who denies him succor when he is in distress. When the breast doesn't soothe (because the baby is not hungry or is in distress for some other reason) the breast is not an object of pleasure but of frustration. Eventually the baby learns that the breast and the skin and the arms and the breathing and the heartbeat and the voice that soothe him, and occasionally frustrate him, all belong to the same object, his mother. This ability to fuse the multiple images of mother into a single coherent and consistent object is one of the early developmental milestones of early infancy; it is referred to as Object Constancy.
In situations where the frustrations by the mother are more than the infant can tolerate, the still unstable Constant Object can be shattered into its constituents as the infant's ego regresses. This occurs when there is an abusive caretaker, for example, and is at the core of much of the pathology of the adult survivor of childhood abuse. This Splitting of the Object is used as a primitive defense. Since the infant needs to feel cared for (and needs to be cared for) and its psychological survival depends on its relationship with the caretaker, the splitting allows the negative aspects of the object to be repressed so that the positive aspects can be held onto. It preserves the object even as the infant partially destroys the object. This is a brief introduction to a complicated area. One element of this description that is important to note is that everyone, no matter how healthy, has passed through a time in development in which their Object Constancy was not yet firmly established and splitting was an ever present risk. As adults, under stress, it is well within the range of normal behavior to engage in periodic and limited Splitting. The danger for us arises when such a process is unrecognized and contaminates our relationships. For our society, the danger occurs when splitting takes place on a large group basis.
Consider an example of reasonably normal Splitting:
I know this will come as a surprise to all of you, but I was not born wise or well informed. I blush to think of some of the behaviors in which I indulged, and the ideas that I held, when I was younger.
When I was a very little girl, I picked up from the secular people surrounding me the idea that there is no God. Not only did I refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance, although I was scared enough of the teacher that I still moved my lips, I also thought all believers were fools. I held to this belief for many, many years.
After reading Gone With The Wind for the first time, when I was 11, I came away with the impression that slavery wasn’t really such a bad thing, as long as you treated your slaves nicely. It took me a while to shake this belief too, especially because it seemed to me that the way many American blacks lived, whether in San Francisco’s Bayview/Hunters’ Point, LA’s Watts and South Central, or Michigan’s Detroit, wasn’t a great improvement over the life of a slave. The concept of freedom, versus mere material welfare, eluded me.
At around the same time, as a child who grew up watching the Vietnam War on the news, as well as all the antiwar protests, I thought the American military was evil, and that Communists weren’t so bad.
When I was 17, and California voters pass Prop. 13, I thought it was outrageous that people should want to keep their own money when it could go to the government, which would spend it for the people’s own good, only it would do it better.
When I was 18, I voted for Jimmy Carter and was deeply saddened when he lost.
When I was a 20-year old student attending Berkeley, and I heard that Ronald Reagan had been shot, I agreed with my fellow students that he deserved it, a sentiment that earned me a harsh and well-deserved scolding from my parents.
When I was 21 and living in England, I wore a keffiyeh, because it was a cool fashion statement. That same year, I listened in silence as a British Arab man told a terrible and cruel holocaust joke, because I was too socially intimidated to speak up.
When I returned to America in the early 1980s, I was fascinated by MTV, and watched it obsessively, believing that somehow those videos, with their rocking beats and alternatively meaningless or crude images, could enrich my life.
Throughout my teens and 20s, I hated Christian proselytizers, because I thought they wanted to hurt me, a Jew. It took me decades to understand that they were acting out of great spiritual generosity, and that they would respond immediately and respectfully to a politely given “no.”
Throughout this commentary, Bookworm implicitly describes how those with whom she disagreed were understood by her and perceived by her to be nearly all bad. This, of course, is common in adolescence, when we tend to be highly moralistic, know far more than we will ever know again, and have certainty that transcends even the exalted knowledge that we are sure we contain.
But Bookworm, a mere two paragraphs down, illustrates why I can refer to this as "normal" Splitting:
The good news is that I grew up. During those same years, I managed to learn a lot. At Berkeley, because I could’t understand the Marxist cant that permeated every non-science class, and therefore ignored it, I managed to learn about history and art and literature. At law school (despite a miserable semester with Elizabeth Warren), I learned how to revere the constitution, respect the law and, significantly, analyze data. [Emphasis mine-SW]
There is a great deal more at her site, including some excellent links. She was moved to write her post because of the attacks on Christine O’Donnell, who is being assaulted in the media and by her political opponents for stupid statements and inane comments she has made. I do not know Christine O’Donnell and would probably have voted for Mike Castle if I were in Delaware, as a strategic vote, but the caricatures of her being bandied about in the media and the left blogosphere are noxious and damaging to political discourse. As Bookworm pointed out, all of us have said stupid things and believed stupid things, at various times in our lives. Such limitations do not render us completely evil or even completely wrong. Splitting is easily done in politics and in the media; it lends itself to simplicity and ease of narrative. Unfortunately it also treats its viewers and readers as if they are still stuck in adolescence and unable to master complexity.
It has always struck me as amusing that the liberal side of our political discourse has traditionally insisted they were the fonts of complexity and knowledge and yet they spent so much time on demonizing their opponents, demonization being merely one iteration of Splitting.
It is quite clear that the Democrats do not have any monopoly on regressive tactics but one of the great disasters of our age has been the descent of our media into PC partisanship (perhaps a regressive response to the pressures of their business model failing?); the lack of alternative opinions in mainstream newsrooms is a disaster for them and has been, until the advent of the Internet, a disaster for political discourse.
We are facing very difficult times and need more than ever the ability to have a debate that encompasses nuance and complexity. Were Barack Obama the intellectual and self aware character he was imagined to be during the last election, we might have some hope that he could elevate and deepen our discourse; sadly, he has conspicuously not done so as yet and I doubt he will show the ability to change under the stress of popular repudiation at the polls. Most people tend to regress under pressure, only very rarely do we find great men and women who can lead when under pressure.