Goodies and Baddies: Why We See the World in Black and White

Splitting as an ego defence.

Posted Feb 28, 2018

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

Splitting is the division and polarization of beliefs, actions, objects, or persons into good and bad by focusing selectively on their positive or negative attributes.

This is often seen in politics, for example, when Democrats portray Republicans as selfish and narrow-minded, while Republicans portray Democrats as self-righteous snowflakes. Or in the UK, when Remainers think of Brexiters as stupid or deluded, while Brexiters think of Remainers as liberal elites or traitors.

Other examples of splitting include the deeply religious person who thinks of others as being either blessed or damned, the child of divorced parents who idolizes one parent while shunning the other, and the hospital patient who sees the physicians as helpful and hardworking but the nurses as lazy and incompetent.

In JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield is mystified by adulthood. To cope with the fear of one day becoming an adult, he thinks of adulthood as a world of entirely bad things such as superficiality and hypocrisy ('phoniness') and of childhood as a world of entirely good things such as innocence, curiosity, and honesty. He tells his younger sister Phoebe that he imagines childhood as an idyllic field of rye in which children romp and play, and himself as the 'catcher in the rye' who stands on the edge of a cliff, catching the children as they threaten to fall over (and presumably die/become adults).

Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be.

Miguel de Cervantes uses splitting to great comical effect as his protagonist, the self-styled Don Quixote de la Mancha, guides us through a world that he has repopulated with heroes and villains, princesses and harlots, giants and dwarves—with the heroes being the greatest, the villains the most cruel, the ladies the fairest and most virtuous, and so on. ‘"Take care, your worship," cries Sancho Panza, Don Quixote's peasant-turned-squire, "those things over there are not giants but windmills."

Splitting diffuses the anxiety that arises from our inability to grasp the nuances and complexities of a given situation or state of affairs by simplifying and schematizing it, and so making it easier to think about. At the same time, it reinforces our sense of self as good and virtuous by demonizing and scapegoating all those who do not share our identity or outlook.

Such a compartmentalization of opposites leaves us with a distinctly distorted picture of reality and a restricted range of thoughts and emotions. It affects our ability to attract and maintain relationships, not only because it is tedious and unbecoming, but also because it can easily flip, with friends and lovers being thought of as personified virtue at one time and then personified vice at another (and back and forth, depending on the need of the moment).

Splitting also arises in groups, when members of the in-group are seen to have mostly positive attributes, while members of out-groups are seen to have mostly negative attributes—a phenomenon that contributes to groupthink and easily slips into xenophobia.

Fairy tales, children's cartoons, and even quite a bit of adult entertainment feature a number of sharp splits, for example, good and evil, heroes and villains, fairies and monsters. But the greatest characters in literature, such as the Achilles or the Odysseus of Homer, the Anthony or the Cleopatra of Shakespeare, and perhaps Tyrion or Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones, contain large measures of both good and bad, with the one being intimately related to the other.