| Home - Human Nature Review | What's new | Search | Feedback |


by Robert M. Young

A sect is one faction in a split. Psychoanalysis is the explanation of human behaviour according to unconscious motivation. The psychoanalysis of sectarianism is, therefore, the analysis of splits in unconscious terms. As it happens, the tendency within psychoanalysis which makes it its special concern to illuminate the deepest levels of the unconscious considers splitting and projection to be quite fundamental aspects of our humanity. Indeed, as I shall say in more technical language anon, this process, termed projective identification, was called by Melanie Klein ‘the prototype of an aggressive object-relation’ (Klein, 1946, p. 8).

This brings me to my first conclusion. Sectarianism is not, by nature, appalling. It is intrinsic to our humanity. Indeed, I shall argue that one becomes a member of a group by means of adopting its projective identifications. Groups define themselves significantly in terms of the Others with respect to whom they are in aggressive relationships. Mary Douglas’ classic, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966), comes to mind, in which she takes an anthropological look at the abominations of Leviticus, the complex and arcane dietary laws of the Old Testament Israelites. They were not designed, as some believe, for the sensible dietary reasons that one could get trichinosis from pork and food poisoning from shellfish or ill from certain mixtures involving dairy products in a hot climate. They are full of intricacies and inconsistencies, with no apparent logic except the kind of complexity which makes it extremely unlikely that the gentiles can figure them out. The point of the dietary laws is to keep goyim out. I can tell you from personal experience that a gentile will always get it wrong sooner or later. As my erstwhile father-in-law once said to me, ‘That’s the point - the object of the exercise. You’ll never be one of us, no matter how hard you try’.

I think sectarianism is part of the wider tendency to gain identity by difference. This process occurs at a very primitive level in the inner world and has benign and virulent forms. I cannot remember when I did not know that Catholics, Jews, and to a lesser extent Baptists and Methodists, were bad news, though one could openly discriminate only against the Catholics. Blacks were inferior and the object of structural discrimination, while Mexicans were not even allowed to live in one’s servant quarters. They lived in a ghetto called ‘Little Mexico’. There was also a black ghetto then called (I apologise for these terms) ‘Niggertown’, but a maid and sometimes her family could live in a one-room space in the back yard, attached to the garage of a white family, usually without hot water or a bathtub. These arrangements were learned and taken in as part of the order of things before one had names for them. Germans and Japanese were worse (I was born in 1935); they were diabolical and could be deprived of their property and civil rights, placed in camps and imprisoned, but this turned out to be temporary. They soon became esteemed customers again, though never ‘good people’ or ‘one of us’. There were other sorts of people who had no real location in what we took in as the natural classification of the social reality. One knew they existed, but their status was never defined. I am thinking of Chinese people, Arabs, (East) Indians. American Indians or Native Americans had no existence outside movies. Latin Americans were chimeras. They were very like Mexicans - spoke like them, for example - but were also esteemed customers. I found this confusing. On a more local scale, all people - especially people of one’s own age who did not live in the same suburb - were inferior, unless they lived in a similar suburb of another city. People whom one met as supporters of the sports teams of other towns, cities or parts of cities were enemies in one sense but probably people of potential dignity in other senses. This is, after all, the point of the sublimation of aggression which we call sport..

The place where I took in these things - was socialised into them as a member of any tribe is socialised into tribal identity and its belief system - was the suburb of Dallas depicted in the television series starring JR, the local prototype for whom was a near-contemporary of mine and whose house I visited on occasion. I am sure that the psychosocial processes were the same as those operating in Belfast and Sarajevo, give or take an occupying army and armed paramilitarys whose use of terror greatly accelerates the learning process to the point that the learning theorist might call ‘one-trial learning’. ‘Learning’ is in some sense a relevant term but only in the most abstract, unemotive and insensitive sense. The process is more tacit, more visceral; introjection, acculturation and indoctrination get nearer to it. And, of course, I did not really hate any of the groups I have mentioned. Although I say I did not hate them, I also say that web of forms of racism I took in as a boy are still deeply embedded in my mind, no matter how much I have overlaid them with different beliefs and decent behaviour. As a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (var. Presbyterian), I certainly had varying degrees of contempt for those peoples and would have killed Japanese, Germans or North Koreans if I had been just a little older, only a few months older in the case of the Koreans. If I have been a few years younger, I would have been very likely to have been sent to kill Vietnamese.

For what? Benedict Anderson shows conclusively in his succinct masterpiece, Imagined Communities (1983), that the groups for whom we kill and are killed have no natural basis. I most cases they did not exist a century and a half ago. In many cases they were truly arbitrarily imposed by colonial powers or by people who draw boundaries for a living, on behalf of resolutions of conflicts which led to bizarre borders. In one sense, the origins of these communities often make no historical or linguistic sense. In another sense, history is all, and this is certainly true of Northern Ireland. Let me say now, even though it will become abundantly clear in any case, that I am in no sense a specialist on sectarianism in Northern Ireland. I suppose I can claim to have read about and followed the troubles more than most interested outsiders - partly for reasons of ancestry, partly for political reasons, partly because my preoccupation is the intersection of ideas about human nature and the historicity of our humanity.

The fact that I am not a close student of this conflict comes up against an important point in my argument. It is this. Psychoanalysis is a universalising theory about human uniqueness. It is not a lot of use when extrapolated to social and cultural levels, and its practitioners, beginning with Freud, have a terrible record of speaking ex cathedra and in reductionist terms about historical events without doing their homework. I am thinking, for example, of Freud’s Totem and Taboo (1912-13) and his Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), which claim to describe the actual historical origin of civilisation when the brothers banded together to kill the polymorphously perverse, rapacious patriarch and erect the incest taboo, the basis for all other taboos, for law and for civilisation. I am also thinking of some of the embarrassing excesses of psychohistory and psychobiography, the former of which treats historical periods like bits of individual development, while psychobiography tends to read off historical movements, such as the Reformation, from the (largely imputed) story of someone’s unconscious, for example, Luther (Erikson, 1958). I am not saying that psychological accounts of historical movements and individuals cannot, in principle, be done well. In fact, I have the greatest admiration for Victor Wolfenstein’s account of the Black Muslims in his biography of Malcolm X (1981). Wolfenstein did his homework but is very unusual in being a professor of history and having a proper training as a psychoanalyst. I know a small number of people similarly qualified, but not many.

And yet, in spite of these caveats, I do believe that some things can be said by a non-specialist about sectarianism which may be of interest with respect to Northern Ireland. Even so - and this is my point for now - it is of the essence of certain psychoanalytically-related explanations that they only make sense when harnessed to the precise historical, cultural and economic contingencies of particular people in particular places at particular times. There are things to be said in general about human nature, things that go beyond asserting that human nature is an ensemble of social relations. But the mechanisms which constitute racism, virulent nationalism and sectarianism have, as part of their definitions, particularising features. These mechanisms are splitting, projective identification, stereotyping and scapegoating. I will speak about each of these, but please note at the outset that stereotyping assumes that there is an identifiable group to scapegoat, and you can only do that inside the particularities of history. Psychoanalysts who universalise from psychoanalysis to historical phenomena - as they have recently done in London with respect to nuclear war and the Gulf War - are being omnipotent and inhabiting the paranoid-schizoid position (of which more anon), even though they are perhaps also trying to break out of the blinkered ahistorical professionalism which has characterised all but a few people writing in the field, e.g., Wilhelm Reich, Otto Fenichel, Herbert Marcuse, Russell Jacoby, Joel Kovel, Victor Wolfenstein, Paul Hoggett, Paul Gordon.

Ask me what comes to mind when I think of Northern Ireland, and two images emerge. The first is the parades of the Orange Orders. They look so odd that they must be about something important, like the anachronistic clothes worn by priests and nuns, by the Amish and Mennonites and by public schoolboys from Eton and Christ’s Hospital. There is something about these attires which I can only call brazen. I don’t think I am alone in finding some of them provacative. I suppose people in the Orange Orders dress up and march in those traditional, garrish uniforms and bang their drums so loudly because the Battle of the Boyne is that important, that memorable, that central to Protestant identity, so they want to proclaim it. Of course, it is so. It commemorates the foundation stone of Protestant hegemony.

As every schoolchild knows, the efforts of James II to re-Catholocise England led the supporters of Anglicanism to invite William and Mary to the throne, and they brought their army with them. This led to the Glorious Revolution, the curbing of royal prerogatives and the regular meeting of Parliament. James, aided by Louis XIV, led a revolt in Ireland but was defeated in 1690 at the Battle of Boyne. (It is ironic that the Pope was so keen to avoid Louis XIV having more power that he opposed the revolt and was very relieved when it failed.) This battle laid the foundations of effective British control of Ireland. In the same century the British quite deliberately indulged in plantation of Scottish and English settlers in the six counties, giving the area a Protestant character in contrast to the rest of the island.

Let us not forget that under British rule nearly a million (some accounts say more) died of starvation and disease in 1845-49, for what Cecil Woodham Smith rightly calls a principle: ‘the economic doctrine of laissez-faire, no interference by government, no meddling with the operation of natural causes. Adherence to laissez-faire was carried to such a length that in the midst of one of the major famines in history, the government was perpetually nervous of being too good to Ireland and of corrupting the Irish people by kindness, and so stifling the virtues of self reliance and industry’ (Woodham Smith, 1962, p. 408). In those same years grain and other foodstuffs were being exported in quantities which could easily have fed the hungry.

It is important to recall that Adam Smith’s doctrine of laissez-faire was seen as the will of God, as was the necessity to allow the Malthusian Law of Population to operate, lest population growth catastrophically outstrip food supply. What prevented this, as the natural theologians and political economists saw it, was what one quaintly called ‘the thinnings’ of God’s garden, otherwise known as poverty, hunger, starvation, famine, pestilence, war and death - the consequences of God-given natural laws. Charity was a mistake, against the Divine Order, and would yield to worse consequences. There are, of course, other names for this: inhuman tyrannical domination according to quite deliberate political decisions to keep another people under control: colonialism and imperialism. ‘In addition,’ Woodham Smith continues, ‘hearts were hardened by the antagonism then felt by the English towards the Irish, an antagonism rooted far back in religious and political history...’ (p. 408). It was in this context and period that the celebrated writer and wit Sydney Smith wrote, ‘The moment the very name of Ireland is mentioned, the English seem to bid adieu to common feeling, common prudence and common sense, and to act with the barbarity of tyrants and the fatuity of idiots’ (quoted in Woodham Smith, 1962, p. 409).

In addition to those who perished, another 1,600,000 emigrated to the United States between 1847 and 1854. They carried with them the bitterness and tradition of violent protest which led to the creation of the Molly Maguires, an Irish secret society operating in another immiserated and explioted community, the Pennsylvania anthracite coalfields in the 1860s and 1870s. The villain was the Reading Railroad, and the troops were detectives from the Pinkerton Agency, whom the miners experienced as a private army. This conflict led to twenty hangings (Broehl, 1964). Looking at the overall conflict another way and making due allowance for expected population growth in Ireland, there were at least two and a half million less Irish people in 1851 than there would have been if the rate of population growth prevailing in 1841 had continued. I think the term genocide is no less relevant here than it was in the American context as applied to the Native Americans and to blacks.

The overall picture is of Ireland as a client state, with Ulster as its quintessence, before and after Home Rule came in 1920. The establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 included an ongoing constitutional claim to the six counties which is now, of course, on the bargaining table. The continued protest of the Catholic minority in Ulster led, in 1969 to the British sending in troops, ostensibly to protect he minority but arguably to preserve the status quo. This was followed by suspension of the Ulster Parliament in 1972 and direct rule in 1973. There ensued the litany of Bloody Sunday, Enniskillen and the rest.

The second image, therefore, that comes to my mind is the killing and maiming of civilians, non-combatants. I do not know how to characterise them except as (relatively speaking) innocents. I suppose that people whom I will deliberately call innocent are killed because a point has been reached so that hatred goes beyond even the most leganistic doctrine of retribution - the law of talion: ‘An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth’. It is important to note that the law of talion was meant to convey that one should not wreak retribution beyond what was done to the sufferer - no more than an eye for an eye, etc. Even the ethics of the Old Testament - before charity and forgiveness became the essence of Christianity, as expressed in the New Testament to which all believers are supposed to adhere - is not enough to assuage the bitterness of this conflict.

Mentioning Christianity brings me to a point of particular poignancy. One of the roots of this conflict - the unity from which the sects divided - is, of course, the message of Christ. I have been struck by how much death has been dealt in the name of religion, especially a religion based on forgiveness. This is true throughout history but amazingly so in some of its most memorable activities - the Crusades, the Inquisition. But most remarkably of all it was done in the name of Christianising in the New World. With what effect? Twelve million prospective converts died in the first forty years of the Columbian era, followed by an estimated two hundred million in the slave trade, which ended with the American Civil War, which of all wars in history led to the deaths of the largest proportion of the populations on the respective sides, and this in the midst of a period when the native Americans were killed or put in reservations, a forerunner of concentration camps. This brings us to the present when blacks and Native Americans have worse chances of surviving to a ripe old age than Bangladeshis, etc. All this was perpetrated by people who claimed to have a civilising, Christianising mission, to introduce people called ‘savages’ to the ‘Prince of Peace’.

I want to bring my two images together and say that the history I sketched and the quaint clothes and violent drumbeats of the bands of the Orange Orders mean that it is a travesty to say that sectarianism in Northern Ireland is one of ‘on the one hand and on the other’. I hate the killing. I think that the IRA are now so weak and desperate that what they are now doing is following a hopeless strategy, designed to make us so weary that we take the occupying army away and leave them to it. (I should acknowledge that I have been told I am mistaken about their putative weakness.) But that does not lead me to say that one side is as bad as the other. I don’t think the IRA hate ‘the Prots’ as a tribe in the way the Protestants hate the Catholics. I also do not think the minority population unite around Catholicism the way the majority do around their religion. So the situation is, in my opinion, only superficially symmetrical. Please do not hear this as claiming that the killing one group does is less morally reprehensible than what the other does. I only want to stress that the history and larger structure make the indigenous Irish the long-term victims of oppression. The two sides in the conflict didn’t start out on equal terms and are not fighting each other with mirror image conceptions of one another. One group was and is historically aggrieved and remains so, while the other is heir to an occupying force, protected by another one and struts its stuff in those parades. I say again that this perspective is not designed to condone any killings - only to say that when innocents get killed by the crude and sometimes inept bombers of the IRA, the framework is not the same as when Catholics are killed merely because they are Catholics.

I said some time ago that historical contingency is important. That’s why I have gone into these facts. I now want to revert to psychoanalysis and talk about human nature and the psychodynamics of sectarianism. First, I want to get very technical, indeed, and describe the primitive origins of projective identification. In her classical paper, ‘Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms’ (1946), Klein concludes seven pages on the fine texture of early paranoid and schizoid mechanisms as follows: 'So far, in dealing with persecutory fear, I have singled out the oral element. However, while the oral libido still has the lead, libidinal and aggressive impulses and phantasies from other sources come to the fore and lead to a confluence or oral, urethral and anal desires, both libidinal and aggressive. Also the attacks on the mother's breast develop into attacks of a similar nature on her body, which comes to be felt as it were as an extension of the breast, even before the mother is conceived of as a complete person. The phantasied onslaughts on the mother follow two main lines: one is the predominantly oral impulse to suck dry, bite up, scoop out and rob the mother's body of its good contents... The other line of attack derives from the anal and urethral impulses and implies expelling dangerous substances (excrements) out of the self and into the mother. Together with these harmful excrements, expelled in hatred, split-off parts of the ego are also projected onto the mother or, as I would rather call it, into the mother. [Klein adds a footnote at this crucial point, to the effect that she is describing primitive, pre-verbal processes and that projecting 'into another person' seems to her 'the only way of conveying the unconscious process I am trying to describe'. Much misunderstanding and lampooning of Kleinianism could have been avoided if this point was more widely understood.] These excrements and bad parts of the self are meant not only to injure but also to control and to take possession of the object. In so far as the mother comes to contain the bad parts of the self, she is not felt to be a separate individual but is felt to be the bad self.

'Much of the hatred against parts of the self is now directed towards the mother. This leads to a particular form of identification which establishes the prototype of an aggressive object-relation' (Klein, 1946, pp. 7-8). Note carefully that we have here the model - the template, the fundamental experience - of all of the aggressive features of human relations. Six years later Klein adds the following sentence: 'I suggest for these processes the term "projective identification"' (ibid.).

She goes on to say that if the infant's impulse is to harm, the mother is experienced as persecuting, that in psychotic disorders the identification of the object with hated parts of the self 'contributes to the intensity of the hatred directed against other people', that this process weakens the ego, that good parts are also projected and that 'The processes of splitting off parts of the self and projecting them into objects are thus of vital importance for normal development as well as for normal object-relations' (pp. 8-9). In the course of all this, Klein makes it quite clear that the very same processes involve 'anxieties characteristic of psychosis' (p. 2). I am relating these matters in the way that I am in order to make it apparent that the very same mechanisms are at work in a wide range of internal processes, some benign, some virulent.

Projective identification involves splitting off a part of the self and putting it into another. The moment of identification occurs when the unconscious communication evokes in the other the projected response. That response is in one sense put into the other; in another sense it has to be in the repetoire of possible unconscious feelings for it to be evoked. In the psychotherapist this is experienced is countertransference and is the basis of interpretation. In sectarianism, racism and virulent nationalism, what is evoked in a reprojection, so that the Other to some extent lives up or down to the imputed level and retaliates. The mechanism of projective identification impoverishes the projector, controls the Object to some extent and in the sorts of exchanges being considered here, creates a macabre symbiosis from which it is very difficult to disengage. In others - between mother and baby, pop star and fan, or between lovers - it can have more charming and admirable effects.

One consequence of the importance of the concept of projective identification in the deepest recesses of human nature, in my opinion, is that it begs all the important questions to say that the bombers and killers are psychopaths - a disorder in which the individual has no - or an infantile and brittle - conscience (Cleckley, 1941; Lindner, 1944; Meloy, 1988). As I’ll say more elaborately below, I don’t think there are that many psychopaths around in Northern Ireland, any more than there are enough in England or elsewhere to account for the number of people in the prisons who are labelled with this term. The killers are criminals and are certainly behaving psychopathically, but these alleged psychopaths are made by history just as surely as most of the recidivists in prison are made by class.

The other two mechanisms involved in sectarianism are not so esoteric or even particularly psychoanalytic. Stereotyping is lumping people together in ways which deny their individuality and usually their worth as subjects, not objects. There is often a feature or set of recognisable features, but this is not always so. There is a group of Japanese leather workers who are stereotyped and considered beneath contempt yet are indistinguishable from the rest of the population. The Indian caste system includes some designations of this kind, thought most - as in most of the world - involve shades of differentiation. Treating all Jews or Irish or Ulster or Welsh or Scots or Australians as the same as Fagin, Mary O’Hara, Dr Paisley, Dylan Thomas, Billy Connelly or Crocodile Dundee is easy and sometimes funny but finally denigrating, which is obvious when the context is the Holocaust in Hitler Germany or ethnic cleansing in former Jugoslavia or Apartheid in South Africa.

Scapegoating is really not a separate mechanism. It is just a way of emphasising that in sectarianism, racism and virulent nationalism the form the projective identification takes is to denigrate the Other and use him or her as a toilet for getting rid of unwanted aspects of the self. Indians are savages, so we can slaughter them. IRA bombers are no better than animals, so let’s have a shoot to kill policy. Black women are sex-obsessed so we can rape them. Black men have larger penises, so they are a threat to our fair white women, so we had better lynch one of them from time to time to keep them in their place. (There were over five thousand incidents of lynching in the post-Civil War period in America, and this practice continued until well into the present century.) Vietnamese are little devils, so we can ‘bomb them back into the Stone Age’ and poison their gene pool, perhaps for all time.

Put these four together - splitting, projective identification, stereotyping and scapegoating, and you get sectarianism and the other virulent phenomena I have mentioned.

But that is not all we have to explain. The most serious question is why these things get acted out. What happens to the veneer of civilisation? Before attempting to answer this, I want to go back to Klein, because I want to make it even clearer that sectarians are not monsters. They are ordinary people decivilised by historical contingencies. In this, the best psychoanalytic and the best historical writers agree. Klein makes it abundantly clear that we all harbour murderous impulses from our earliest relationship with our mothers. We continue to have an unconscious phantasy life which is filled with monstrous and otherwise outrageous thoughts, which we glimpse in our dreams and occasionally in our impulses. As child psychotherapists have shown in the technique of play therapy, children have greater direct access to these impulses. Klein and her co-workers have helped us to see that the contents of unconscious phantasies are truly horrid at least as much as they are idyllic.

In my opinion, Hannah Arendt (1965) has been the most eloquent of those who have shown that people perceived as truly evil by those who have suffered under their actions, are not in themselves monsters but people from whom historical and group processes have stripped away the inhibitions from acing out ubiquitous primitive impulses on which civility depends. This is the sobering outcome of her profound study into the character and circumstances of Adolf Eichmann, but the same conclusions can be found in many perceptive biographies, for example, those of Franco, Charles Manson, the Rev. Jones, Hitler, Stalin.

Recalling what I said about the incest taboo, people who have so much power that no one can gainsay their wishes and who are above the law, often revert to the rapacious polymorphous perversity which characterised Freud’s original patriarch. It has recently become clear that Brezhnev began the day with a bevy of young girls, one of whom had the job of giving him a blow job, while Mao liked to have four in bed with him and Ceausescu grabbed any young woman he wanted, and the heir apparent to the headship of state in North Korea is utterly preoccupied with pornography. A gargantual sexual appetite was a feature of the Bhagwan, while David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians in Waco, had a harem and was the only person in the compound who was allowed to sire a child. Similar stories have been fictionalised in films like ‘Prime Cut’, where orphans were hand-reared to be sex slaves, and ‘Chinatown’, where the patriarch could sire a child by his daughter and have her for himself in spite of all Jack Nicholson could do.

While those things can be said of the fragility of the incest taboo, something equally distressing is true of conquering and occupying armies. I am sorry to say that there is an embarrassment of examples of this from which to choose. In the new biography of General Franco we are told that when he visited an outpost in North Africa, the way his soldiers showed that things were under control was to mount the head of a native tribesman on the bayonet of every soldier waiting to be inspected by the General. The example of this kind of barbarity which I have found most striking and affecting is an account of the behaviour of the Conquistadors in the New World in the period after 1492. The carnage which ensued in the Columbian era was chronicled by a contemporary observer, Bartolomé de Las Casas (1552), who observed that the Indians 'had a greater disposition towards civility than the European people', yet it was 'upon such people that the Spaniards fell as tigers, wolves and lions fall upon lambs and kids. Forty years they ranged those lands, massacring the wretched Indians until in the land of Espanola, which in 1492 had a population estimated at three millions of people, scarcely three hundred Indians remained to be counted. The history of Espanola is the history of Cuba, San Juan [Puerto Rico], and Jamaica. Thirty islands in the neighbourhood of San Juan were entirely depopulated. On the side of the continent, kingdom after kingdom was desolated, tribe after tribe exterminated. Twelve millions of Indians in those continental lands perished under the barbarous handling of the Spaniards. Their property was no more secure than their lives. For greed of gold, ornaments were torn from neck and ear, and as the masked burglar threatens his victim until he reveals the hiding-place of this store, the Indians were subjected to the most cruel tortures to compel the disclosure of mines which never existed and the location of gold in streams and fields in which the Almighty has never planted it. Obedience secured no better treatment than sullenness, faithful service no better reward than that which followed treachery. The meanest Spaniard might violate the family of the most exalted chief, and home had no sanctity in the bestial eyes of the soldier. The courtiers rode proudly through the streets of the New Isabella, their horses terrifying the poor Indians while their riders shook their plumed heads and waved their glistening swords. As they rode along, their lances were passed into women and children, and no greater pastime was practised by them then wagering as to a cavalier's ability to completely cleave a man with one dextrous blow of his sword. A score would fall before one would drop in the divided parts essential to winning the wager. No card or dice afforded equal sport. Another knight from Spain must sever his victim's head from the shoulder at the first sweep of his sword. Fortunes were lost on the ability of a swordsman to run an Indian through the body at a designated spot. Children were snatched from their mother's arms and dashed against the rocks as they passed. Other children they threw into the water that the mothers might witness their drowning struggles. Babes were snatched from their mothers' breasts, and a brave Spaniard's strength was tested by his ability to tear an infant into two pieces by pulling apart its tiny legs. And the pieces of the babe were then given to the hounds that in their hunting they might be the more eager to catch their prey. The pedigree of a Spanish bloodhound had nothing prouder in its record than the credit of half a thousand dead or mangled Indians. Some natives they hung on gibbets, and it was their reverential custom to gather at a time sufficient victims to hang thirteen in a row, and thus piously to commemorate Christ and the Twelve Apostles. Moloch must have been in the skies... I have been an eye-witness of all these cruelties, and an infinite number of others which I pass over in silence' (quoted in Carew, 1988a, pp. 48-9).

The point I am illustrating with these distressing historical examples and anecdotes is that aggressive and destructive impulses are ubiquitous. They form an integral part of human nature, just as surely as generous, creative and loving impulses do. The question is what lets people act on the negative side of human nature. Freud’s answer lay in group psychology (1921) - the process whereby one surrenders one’s conscience to a leader or a cause, is relieved of individual responsibility and is then available - in a sense free - to torture, maim and kill for an ideal. In these circumstances, people become brutalised and act out horrid impulses which would be there but not acted upon in other circumstances. Otherwise, how can we explain all those German concentration camp and Japanese prison camp guards, all those conquistadors, all those Indian fighters, soldiers, Turks, Mongols, Muslims, torturers for the Spanish Inquisition, General Pinochet and the Argentinian generals, Serbs, Croats, American soldiers at Me Lai, Columbian drug barons, drug dealers in America, gang members in Los Angeles and New York, murderers of children in Brazil, murderers of Marsh Arabs, members of the UDA, UVF, and IRA? There are just not that many monsters in the world.

I am having to go on about this, once again, because it is so tempting to diabolise or diagnose as psychopaths all those sectarian murderers in Northern Ireland. My friend Arthur Hyatt Williams has devoted his life to studying the inner worlds of murderers and serial killers, and he has concluded that they are often, even usually, ‘nice chaps’ who have had experiences and been placed in circumstances which elicited and/or released murderous impulses. The problem is not the impulse. We have to face the fact that this is ubiquitous. The problem is the disinhibition. Group psychology takes the conscience away, while projective inhibition evokes the destructive behaviour.

Projective identification is characteristic of the thinking Klein describes as one of the two emotional positions which is basic to human nature: the paranoid-schizoid position. It involves splitting, experiencing others not as whole human beings but as alien, hostile, part-objects. ‘As a brief summary: in the paranoid-schizoid position anxieties of a primitive nature threaten the immature ego and lead to a mobilisation of primitive defences. Splitting, idealisation and projective identification operate to create rudimentary structures made up of idealised good objects kept far apart from persecuting bad ones. The individual’s own impulses are similarly split and he directs all his love towards the good object and all his hatred against the bad one. As a consequence of the projection, the leading anxiety is paranoid, and the preoccupation is with survival of the self. Thinking is concrete because of the confusion between self and object which is one of the consequences of projective identification (Segal, 1957)’ (Steiner, 1988, p. 325).

Klein’s other basic emotional position is called rather infelicitously, since it represents the best we get, the depressive position. ‘The depressive position represents an important developmental advance in which whole objects begin to be recognised and ambivalent impulses become directed towards the primary object. These changes result from an increased capacity to integrate experiences and lead to a shift in primary concern from the survival of the self to a concern for the object upon which the individual depends. Destructive impulses lead to feelings of loss and guilt which can be more fully experienced and which consequently enable mourning to take place. The consequences include a development of symbolic function and the emergence of reparative capacities which become possible when thinking no longer has to remain concrete’ (ibid.). I believe that it is difficult to function as a sectarian or a racist or virulent nationalist in the depressive position, because one can experience the Other as a subject, not an object or devil or subhuman or life-threatening.

One gets from the paranoid-schizoid to the depressive position by wholesome development, by psychoanalysis or by alteration of group, social, cultural and historical forces so that one has the mental space to think in ways which are other than replete with splits and persecution and part-objects. We are always moving back and forth between these two emotional postures, but sectarians spend least time in the depressive position, while decent folks who are not living in a deprived, attacked and attacking environment spend much more. The conclusion I draw about sectarianism is that all people everywhere become members of groups by being socialised into their projective identifications. They are deeply held, deeply sedimented, stubbornly adhered to - attached, as it were, by superglue. In a peaceful world this can be the basis for jolly loyalties and relatively harmless competition. In the world we live in, the chance of being a killer or a victim is not great in many places, but in others it is, and that is not going to change unless the political and economic contexts change. As things begin to shift, peace marches emerge and attract ever more people. We can illuminate the psychological, group and institutional mechanisms involved in these settings, but we do history and decency no favour by failing to integrate our notions of individual psychopathology with the historical contingencies which lead them to take the forms they do. Sectarians are made, not found. They are not a natural kind.; that’s fairly obvious. The extreme, virulent version of projective identification which evokes terrorism is also historically contingent, and this means that the terrorist is also made, not found. This is not so obvious, but psychoanalysis and the study of group relations can make it more so.

I suppose you may be feeling that this essay is a damp squib. I have told you that sectarians are sectarian, that they are driven by unconscious forces, that people often behave badly in groups and that this is part of human nature, requiring a more benign context and the sanctions of conscience and law to keep in check. Hunger and exploitation and being shot at make people nasty. But that’s the point about truisms, isn’t it? They tell you things you already knew but may have temporarily forgotten. I will add one point. The bases of morality are not to be found in interpretation, even the most powerful interpretive instrument I know - psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis does not generate morality; it helps us to get into a frame of mind in which we may have a better chance to be moral. As Bion put it - to think under fire is very hard, indeed. Similarly, psychoanalytic renderings of public phenomena like sectarianism do not tell the whole story, only a part. The rest, I say again, is history, morality and the vicissitudes of civilisation. Freud taught us that the veneer of civilisation is thin and under constant threat. Klein taught us that psychotic anxieties are normal, as are splitting and projective identification. Bion (1961), Jaques (1955) and Menzies Lyth (1959) taught us that groups will inevitably evoke psychotic anxieties and behave in mad and bad ways in a desperate attempt to make life bearable.

I want to add something from my clinical practice. For reasons of discretion I shall have to be rather abstract. I have seen at the closest quarters what sectarianism and vigilantism do to the human spirit - to self-esteem, to the ability to form and sustain relationships, to the ability to function sexually, to the ability to take satisfaction from work and leisure, to the ability to trust and believe that the future can sustain hope. To be on either end of virulent projective identification impoverishes the human spirit to a degree that makes life hardly worth living. History creates the constraints, but the most vulnerable parts of our infantile, dependent, creative and loving selves bear the scars.

I am not saying that evil is unimportant, only that it is ordinary, or as Arendt describes it, ‘the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil’’ (Arendt, 1965, p. 252).

This is the text of a talk given to The British Psychological Society, Psychotherapy Section, Scientific Meeting on ‘Impasse in Political Conflict’ London, 20 November 1993. It has been published in The British Psychological Society, Psychotherapy Section Newsletter no. 15, 1994, pp. 2-15.



(Place of Publication is London unless otherwise specified.)


Anderson, Benedict (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso.

Arendt, Hannah (1965) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, (1963) revised and enlarged ed. N.Y.: Viking Penguin; reprinted Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.

Bion, Wilfred R (1961) Experiences in Groups and Other Essays. Tavistock.

Broehl, Wayne G., Jr. (1964) The Molly Maguires. Harvard; reprinted Vintage/Chelsea House, 1968.

Carew, J. (1988) 'Columbus and the origins of racism in the Americas: part one', Race & Class 29(4): 1-20.

______ (1988a) 'Columbus and the origins of racism in the Americas: part two' Ibid. 30(1): 33-59.

Cleckley, Hervey (1941) The Mask of Sanity, 4th edition. St. Louis: Mosby, 1964.

Douglas, Mary (1966) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo ; reprinted Penguin, 1970.

Eriksoin, Eric (1958) Young Man Luther. Faber & Faber.

Freud, Sigmund (1953-73) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 24 vols. Hogarth (S. E.).

______ (1912-13) Totem and Taboo. S. E. 13, pp. 1-161..

______ (1921) Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. S. E. 18, pp. 67-143.

______ (1930) Civilization and Its Discontents. S. E. 21, pp. 59-145.

Jaques, E. (1955) 'Social Systems as a Defence against Persecutory and Depressive Anxiety', in Klein et al., eds., New Directions in Psycho-Analysis: The Significance of InfAnt Conflict in the Pattern of Adult Behaviour. Tavistock; reprinted Maresfield, pp. 478-98.

Klein, Melanie (1946) ‘Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms’, in Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 1946-1963. Hogarth; reprinted Virago, 1988, pp. 1-24.

Las Casas B. de (1552) The Devastation of the Indes: A Brief Account. Johns Hopkins, 1992.

Lindner, Robert (1944) Rebel without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath. N. Y.: Grune and Stratton.

Lyth, Isabel Menzies (1959) 'The Functions of Social Systems as a Defence Against Anxiety: A Report on a Study of the Nursing Service of a General Hospital', Human Relations 13:95-121; reprinted in Containing Anxiety in Institutions: Selected Essays, vol. 1. Free Association Books, pp. 43-88.

Meloy, J. Reid (1988) The Psychopathic Mind: Origins, Dynamics, and Treatment. Aronson.

Segal, Hanna (1957) ‘Notes on Symbol Formation’, Int. J. Psycho-Anal. 38:391-7; reprinted in The Work of Hanna Segal: A Kleinian Approach to Clinical Practice. Aronson, 1981; reprinted Free Association Books/ Maresfield Library, 1986, pp. 49-65.

Steiner, J. (1988) ‘The Interplay between Pathological Organizations and the Paranoid-Schizoid and `Depressive Positions’, in E. B. Spillius, ed., Melanie Klein Today. Routledge, vol. 1, pp. 324-42.

Woodham Smith, Cecil (1962) The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-9. Hamish Hamilton; reprinted New English Library, 1970.

Wolfenstein, E. V. (1977) 'Race, Racism and Racial Liberation', Western Pol. Quart. 30: 163-82.

______(1981) The Victims of Democracy: Malcolm X and the Black Revolution. California; reprinted Free Association Books, 1989.

Young, Robert M. (1987) 'Racist Society, Racist Science', in D. Gill and L. Levidow, eds., Anti-Racist Science Teaching. Free Association Books, pp. 16-42; reprinted in D. Gill et al., eds., Racism and Education: Structures and Strategies . Sage, 1992, pp. 303-19.

______ (1993) ‘Racism: Projective Identification and Cultural Processes’, paper presented to Sixth Annual Conference on Psychoanalysis and the Public Sphere, University of East London, and to Birkbeck College, London, Course on Racism.

______ (1994) Mental Space. Process Press, esp chs 5 and 9.

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N79RQ

email: robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk

© The Author

The Human Nature Review
© Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

US -

Amazon.com logo

UK -

Amazon.co.uk logo

 | Human Nature | Books and Reviews | The Human Nature Daily Review | Search |