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Lobsang Rapgay Ph.D.

Black and White Thinking in Hate

How psychoanalysis provides insight into underlying unconscious forces

One of the ways in which people think about the people, races, and groups they despise is in black-and-white terms. "Black-and-white thinking" is a cognitive-behavioral psychological term for one of the many distorted ways of thinking we exhibit under extreme stress or when suffering from a major psychiatric disorder. It is the inability to hold two opposing thoughts about a person at any one time, such as the thought that the person you love also lets you down sometimes. Rather than recognize that all people are complex and are basically made up of both good and bad qualities, people who hate split others in terms of us versus them, good versus bad, friend versus foe, and love versus hate. Such prejudiced thinking facilitates stereotyping, scapegoating, ostracizing the other, and even committing violence against them in extreme cases.

Psychoanalysis provides insight into the underlying unconscious forces that trigger black-and-white thinking. In psychoanalysis, black-and-white thinking is referred to as splitting, and its origin is traced to our primal instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain. All pleasurable stimuli are experienced as satiating and good and painful ones as aversive and bad. Splitting is the psychological expression of this biological instinct that governs all life. It is maintained by projecting the unwanted, bad parts of ourselves as well as our bad experiences to the other—the out-group. The out-group now owns the projected bad qualities and is experienced as threatening and bad and therefore often attacked by the in-group.

Splitting occurs at various levels of hate. At the deeper level, the in-group feel endangered by the out-group depriving them of what they believe is their entitled rights to race, religion, values, ideology, and country. This feeling of deprivation in its extreme form can trigger fears of annihilation within the in-group that may incite intense violence against the out-group—as in the murder of six million Jews during the Second World War.

The feeling of deprivation also evokes narcissistic and envious rage triggered by the perception that the members of the out-group are parasitically taking full advantage of the benefits offered by society. The helplessness felt at the inability to change the situation causes intense psychic pain and frustration among the members of the in-group. To deflect these feelings, contempt and disdain are directed at the out-group by degrading and diminishing their value as individuals. If the other is less of a person than you are, what is there to be envious about?

However, these feelings of deprivation attributed to the out-group are split off by the in-group from their own attempt to deprive the other of their legitimate rights – liberals who accuse the conservatives of restricting their freedom to live their lives the way they want but actively prevent conservatives from speaking at university campuses. The lack of awareness of these opposing split-off parts of themselves numb their capacity to feel guilt for the prejudicial behavior towards the out-group. The in-group feels no compunction in generating us versus them attitude towards the out-group, scapegoating them for all the problems of society, and feeling justified and even righteous in ostracizing them from the community.

Today, we are witnessing extreme splitting occurring at every level of our social, political, and cultural life. We see it in our leaders, members of Congress, state and local bodies, and the public at large, with the splitting often reaching pathological levels. We also see it in large parts of our media, where the underlying goal appears to be taking sides with one or the other political party while vehemently claiming adherence to the highest order of journalism. When challenged for their bias thinking, they split and accuse and attack the other side. Often both our political leaders and media think and behave in irrational and biased ways—without checking the facts and details, conclusions are formed with absolute certainty only to be proven untrue. It does not take long to sometimes behave in infantile ways, as we have recently seen play out during the shutdown of part of the federal government.

Hate is an insidious, destructive emotion and is best managed by working at the individual level step by step. The first step is to increase awareness of one's observable hate-based behavior of us versus them thinking, scapegoating, and ostracizing the out-group. Recognize and acknowledge opposing thoughts such as conservatives and are the enemy and liberals are just. Then challenge the veracity of the opposing thoughts by conducting evidence for and against for each opposing thought. You can find suggestions on how to conduct evidence for and against inquiry on the internet. A serious analysis can help you to conclude that there are conservatives who are just and liberals who are divisive.

Now build upon the realization about your biased black-and-white thinking to motivate you to reduce scapegoating and the ostracizing behavior of the out-group. Scapegoating involves projecting unwanted experiences that you want to avoid to the out-group. Begin by acknowledging the real reason for scapegoating the out-group. Challenge the two opposing processes by conducting evidence for and against each of the methods. The process will make you own these two opposing parts, and carry out internal processing to integrate and find a more healthy balance between the two. Each time you find yourself scapegoating the other, reframe your biased statement with a more realistic one, based on your integration of the two processes. When you regulate your us, versus them thoughts, and the tendency to scapegoat others, you will be in a better position to challenge and manage your behavior of ostracizing the out-group by ignoring and excluding them from the community.

You are now ready to engage in the central part of the process of working with the underlying splitting—beginning with exploring the origins of us versus them black-and-white thinking. You will find its roots in your extreme fear that the out-group is endangering your, and the nation's wellbeing, by depriving you of your entitled rights. However, over time, you will discover that the feeling of deprivation by the out-group originates from your attempts to deny the out-group of their legitimate rights because of your rigid need to preserve the familiar world of the in-group from the perceived fears of the out-group who are different racially, culturally, and ideologically. By projecting your desire to deprive the out-group, you split off and disown your prejudice and impose them on the members of the out-group.

As you become increasingly aware that your fears of deprivation originate within you, you will notice that the awareness will trigger an internal conflict between the two parts. Evidence for analysis will allow you to take back your projections and reduce your envious attacks on the out-group. Doing so will make you more conscious of your prejudice, contempt, and disdain, as well as how demeaning and devaluing the out-group allows you to feel no guilt for your behavior towards them. The awareness will make you question yourself and will evoke feelings of guilt for your behavior. Guilt can motivate you to eventually be open to and engage with the members of the out-group. Doing so will help you to be empathic to their plight and point of view, and unlike before, you will now be able to put yourself in their shoes. This critical capacity lays the foundation to learn to listen to and respect the out-group as people with rights and dignity. You will realize that, for a diverse society to survive meaningfully, no matter how frustrating the process, differences are best settled as the founders of the constitution envisioned: through the law and the ballot box. You also realize that sometimes, you will win, but sometimes, the other side will. The ability to accept this reality lay the grounds for a functioning and stable society.

History demonstrates that hate eventually destroys individuals, communities, and nations. Although we have made tremendous scientific and technological advancements over the decades and do not take to the sword or gun to resolve our disputes, our primal, instinctual world of hate and aggression continues to dominate us as a people. It should be clear to all of us that no matter how many scientific and material gains we have made and as much as they have enriched our world enormously, without managing our primal instincts and impulses better, we will continue to be a divisive nation at war with itself. Moreover, if good people are complacent and do nothing about it, these forces will eventually destroy us, as history has proven.

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About the Author

Lobsang Rapgay, Ph.D., is an assistant adjunct professor and researcher in the Department of Psychiatry at UCLA and studies the behavioral and neural correlates of anxiety.