Anyone who’s been following the Roy Moore scandal in the American state of Alabama knows the story: a senatorial candidate known for the vehemence of his strict moral vision has been accused of having made sexual advances toward a number of underage girls when he was himself in his 30’s.
What makes this so striking is the contrast between Judge Moore’s rhetoric and what appears to be his behavior. For some, this is a case of a good but flawed man, fallen from grace, while for others, it is the worst kind of hypocrisy: ranting against immoral behavior while behaving immorally. It’s hardly the first time that a prominent individual has been found doing the very thing they’ve strongly condemned: In 2006 Pastor Ted Haggard, an evangelical leader in the USA was accused of having paid a male prostitute for sex and drugs over a period of three years, despite having preached against homosexuality. He resigned and later admitted that given a different set of circumstances he might have identified himself as bisexual.
In the 1980’s, Reverend Jimmy Swaggart condemned a fellow TV evangelist as a ‘cancer on the body of Christ’ for having had an affair, and exposed and ruined another evangelist for the same behavior. Then in 1988 he himself was found to have consorted with prostitutes himself.
Hypocrisy is one explanation for this behavior, and it’s certainly a satisfying one, since hypocrites are clearly Bad People. But there’s a more subtle explanation that psychology provides.
Let’s do a thought experiment: Imagine yourself as one of the people above, raised in a society where homosexuality, extra-marital affairs, frequenting prostitutes and attraction to underage girls are considered mortal sins. (I’m not equating these — just describing the environment Moore, Haggard and Swaggart probably grew up in.) You believe yourself to be a good person, moral and upstanding. A pillar of the community.
Until suddenly you find yourself with impulses to do one or more of these very things. The terror this brings on is so intense, so destructive to everything you believe about yourself, that your mind protects you by not letting yourself become conscious of those impulses at all. And since fear often generates anger (a neat trick taught to us by evolution to help us fight off those trying to hurt us), your fear of these impulses becomes translated into anger. Of course, your anger isn’t at yourself, since you aren’t even conscious of the impulses. Instead, you look outward, angrily condemning people who are homosexual, cheat on their wives, visit prostitutes or engage in pedophilia.
This is what happens to some people who find themselves with unacceptable feelings. Unable to acknowledge their distasteful emotions, they instead become angry campaigners against others. For some such people, they manage to control those impulses for the rest of their lives, while for some — Moore, Haggard and Swaggart among them — they may eventually succumb.
Psychology calls this “Reaction Formation” and it’s a defense mechanism, a way of pushing away unpleasant feelings. In a nutshell, unacceptable feelings are conquered by exaggeration of the opposite feeling. And while these public figures demonstrate it in spades, most of us have some degree of reaction formation.
For example, my grandparents never fought, never bickered and only expressed love for each other. One day my 80 year old grandfather, still recovering from a recent stroke, suddenly got up and began to walk out of the room. My anxiety-ridden grandmother asked him where he was going. He evaded the question which made her questioning more insistent until finally he burst out “Can’t a man go to the bathroom without having to explain!” Frightened of the anger he was beginning to feel he turned to me and said “If you marry a woman half as wonderful as your grandmother you’ll be doing great.” In this case anger was an unacceptable emotion and reaction formation changed it into its opposite, love.
This can happen on a minor scale in our daily lives. Often, the characteristics of other people that most grate on us are the very things we dislike in ourselves. We may detest the person who dominates conversations because unconsciously we would like to be the center of attention. Or be very critical of an obese relative because of our own desire to gorge ourselves. Perhaps we hate that very political colleague at work because we don’t like the part of ourselves that curries favor with the boss.
So perhaps we should be cautious when our emotions seem a little over the top, a little too black and white. We tend to have mixed emotions about most people and groups — we love or like some parts and hate or dislike others. When all we feel towards the other party is love or hate, liking or disliking, then maybe — just maybe — we’re unable to acknowledge the opposite feeling that’s inside us.