are the heroes, they are the cowards.
are motivated by love, kindness and generosity; they feel nothing but hatred.
are good, they personify evil.
Leaders in other countries no doubt rely on similar language to comfort their people when facing an existential threat. It encourages unity on the home
front and inspires patriotic feeling. It identifies the domestic goodness worth defending and mobilizes aggression against the enemy. While personal or
political squabbling might dominate during times of peace, we put our differences aside when we face an external enemy. Praising the citizenry of Boston
yesterday on MSNBC, Governor Deval Patrick said that "there's something about America that causes us to come together" at times like this. True, but
citizens in many other nations "come together" in the same way when facing a crisis.
During wartime, or in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack, the normally complex world becomes much simpler for most people, wherever they live:
it's good-versus-evil, us against them.
A view of reality that reflects sharp divisions between good and bad, with feelings of love and generosity on one side and hatred on the other, relies upon
the psychological defense mechanism known as splitting. Splitting
normally works to resolve unbearable ambiguity: when we feel unable to tolerate the tension aroused by complexity, we "resolve" that complexity by
splitting it into two simplified and opposing parts, usually aligning ourselves with one of them and rejecting the other. The result is the kind of
black-and-white thinking that underlies the fundamentalist world view or extreme political partisanship.
On the emotional front, splitting comes into play when we feel hostile toward the people we love. Holding onto feelings of love in the presence of anger
and even hatred is a difficult thing for most of us to do. Sometimes hatred proves so powerful that it overwhelms and eclipses love, bringing the
relationship to an end. More often we repress awareness of our hostile feelings; or we might split them off and direct them elsewhere, away from the people
we care about. At one time or another, each of us relies on splitting to some degree. It's built into us, a part of human nature.
Following a traumatic event such as 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombings, splitting can provide emotional comfort. There's something profoundly appealing
about the belief that we're an inherently good people and that evil (hatred, envy, violence) is not an innate part of human nature but resides "out there,"
in other people. Taking refuge in such a belief assuages our fears and inspires confidence about what lies ahead: after all, we are the good guys, and
don't the good guys always vanquish the bad ones?
Interpreting our experience as a conflict between heroes and villains makes life resemble a work of fiction, a sentimental film of the type churned out by
Hollywood studios during World War II. Movies that invite us to boo the villain and applaud the hero rely on splitting. They have enormous emotional
appeal, in large part because they simplify a complex reality, reducing challenging ambiguity to black and white.