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Splitting: The Psychology of the Political Climate

Are other people all-good or all-bad?

Key points

  • To treat a person we know well as all good or all bad usually signals some deeper need for simplification.
  • One political strategy has always entailed reinforcing that there is nothing positive about the targeted and hated group.
  • If political leaders spoke well of the other side, splitting (in one's thinking about the out-group) might be more difficult.

Splitting is a way of managing unwanted ambivalence, in which all of the negative or disappointing aspects of a person or image are split off, so as to maintain a purely positive image. It’s commonly seen in hero-worship and in many children’s attitudes toward their parents, whose virtues are exaggerated because all their foibles are ascribed to other sources.

Splitting also works the other way, where all the positive aspects of an image are split off to maintain a purely negative impression. People generally don’t want to hear about their idols’ bad qualities or about Hitler’s love of dogs.

Like all “defense mechanisms” and all personality patterns, splitting comes in various levels of overall psychological health. Many healthy people forget or ignore stigmatizing events in the history of their country, their family, a new love interest, or their favorite sports franchise. To treat a colleague or former friend, though, as all good or all bad usually signals some deeper need for simplification.

It’s sometimes thought that splitting derives from a difficulty with ambivalence. Once the person or image is identified as all good or all bad, strong feelings are evoked, since we don’t merely like what is all good—we love and adore what is all good. And we don’t merely dislike what is all bad—we hate and despise it.

But it’s also reasonable (and, I think, accurate) to punctuate the dynamic by putting the strong affect first. Intense feelings of love and hate lead to splitting, because adoration and hatred cannot be sustained in light of mixed imagery. This would explain why people with borderline personalities split so extensively—as I explained here, intense feelings of rage may be the key component of borderline personalities.

Indeed, we constantly create narratives to support our emotions, and the more intense the emotions, the less subtle, textured, and literary the narrative will be. Stark emotions in primary colors produce comic-book narratives about what is going on.

Splitting operates on oneself, too, although it’s usually called narcissism or depression. The narcissist (or, all of us, when we are being narcissistic) splits off from the self-image all that is contrary to feeling special and finds some lesser receptacle to attribute those aspects of the self-image to.

This can be explanatory (and usually called rationalization, as in “that intersection is poorly designed” rather than “I drove badly”) or more fundamental (the world is at fault and I am extraordinary). Some depressives cannot acknowledge anything good about themselves, so voracious is their self-contempt. Cognitive treatments try to complexify the self-image, but it would also do to work on not taking oneself so seriously, so as to mute the intensity of one’s feelings about oneself.

Splitting is rampant in contemporary politics and may underlie the divisiveness in our country. While there are deep policy divisions between major political groups, rousing people to hatred makes it hard to see anything positive about the hated. This has always been a political strategy, but I think social media add to the problem because one becomes immersed in one’s viewpoint. And then, once people have hated, they want to justify it with a narrative about one side being all good and the other deserving the hatred. This also happens in every war.

Countries or tribes at war often never find a common ground, and they persist until one side or both die out. When they do find a common ground, it is usually by blaming the leaders of the side that lost the war, and reconciliation involves distinctions between the evil leaders and the everyday folk of the defeated country.

This then spurs the defeated to reconsider the evilness of the victors. We might be able to avoid all-out war if leaders spoke well of the other side. Such acts make splitting difficult, although there are certainly those who conclude, when conservatives and liberals speak well of each other, that both sides are evil (because they are not zealous enough).

The term splitting is often weaponized, especially in residential treatment facilities and psychology schools. If a kid gets along well with some staff and poorly with others, you’ll often hear that the kid is splitting, when to an outside observer, it looks as if the staff just don’t get along. The solution is for the staff to revisit their core values and realign with them, so the kids don’t feel like there are two different staffs. In politics, this would suggest reaffirming some core American values. To that end, I keep calling for the reinstitution of civics classes in high schools and colleges, but I am pessimistic. Even if we all agree on free speech and freedom of religion, for example, the values would hold no weight if those with authority didn’t have the backbone to protect them.

Freedom of religion is a partner of free speech. This is especially true if you consider a pragmatic definition of religion as a set of assertions that do not tolerate critical thinking about their validity. In this sense, far left and far right thinking may qualify as religions. The First Amendment permits you to belief all sorts of nonsense, but you can’t invoke its protections without labelling your belief system as a religion.

Perhaps the most invidious political splitting occurs when one stops questioning one’s beliefs, when one converts them from propositions and heuristics into religious tenets while still claiming they are evidence-based. Not questioning leads to certainty, certainty to righteousness, and righteousness to tyranny—not questioning leads to tyrannizing those who disagree.