Glossing over Otherness – Narcissism, Race and Difference in Politics

Nick Opyrchal

This article has been hard to write, and even harder to publish: I feel a trepidation about going against a ‘Party Line’ in writing critically about narcissism in Left-wing politics. Perhaps this worry is partly an inherited psychological hangover from my Polish ancestry and the history of colonisation that underpins that country: Poles are very aware of the danger of left wing authoritarianism as well as right (e.g. my father used to read me Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ as a bedside story). It is also my experience of connecting to my Polish roots and seeing the difficulty that ‘progressives’ have in relating to the Otherness of this particular culture (and the stereotypes employed to avoid reckoning with this Otherness) that inspires me to write this piece. Still, I get worried that I will be decried as right-wing by friends or acquaintances reading this article, or even worse as ‘racist’ by the fact that I have decided to write about a taboo topic – race, migration, difference – in a way which acknowledges that there is real difficulty inherent to this issue, we don’t have it figured out yet, and we can’t pretend that we do. Pretending we do have it figured out is more destructive than we might imagine, and yet seduces, in that it comforts the narcissistic parts of our personalities.

keeping within a certain narcissistic Image, fostered by a group identity, restricts the ability to engage in discussion and politics around taboo subjects in an honest way

This fear that I feel whilst engaging with this topic is really the target of this piece: How keeping within a certain narcissistic Image, fostered by a group identity, restricts the ability to engage in discussion and politics around Otherness in an honest way. Similar to the descriptions of how Stalinist ideology functioned in intellectuals of the Peoples Republics during the Cold War by Czeslaw Milosc in ‘The Captive Mind’, a narcissistic psychological structure prohibits certain difficult topics from being expressed. It (and those who identify with it) attack those who step beyond it’s confines. I pre-empt that attack in my worry.

Another part of my reluctance in publishing this piece relates to style – is this too academic? Will anyone bother to read it? Again here I am caught between the ‘Echo’ position of performing to the group, and my own narcissistic grandiosity that it will be ‘too much’ for readers. “It has to conform to our style to be allowed to be seen” is nothing but submission to The Party Line again in different clothing. In truth it is important that it is expressed, no matter who reads it and no matter the potential to be misunderstood.

So to continue…

Glossing over Otherness – Narcissism, Race and Difference in Left Wing Politics

Within the mainstream Left-wing discourse on race and culture, an Imaginary and ideological position borne from what I am calling (for want of a better term) a sort of ‘progressive narcissism’ paradoxically glosses over and suppresses anxiety created by the very different psychodynamics between cultures, and how these potentially impact each other when in close proximity. This ideological structure is ‘Imaginary’ in the Lacanian sense – a fantasy of homogeneity, projected onto the Other, that protects us from the trauma of encountering the ‘Real’: of that which is truly outside of our symbolic system, outside of our culture’s ability to comprehend. It acts as a comforting psychological ‘gloss’ or Image which protects those unconsciously employing it from experiencing the anxiety and sense of disturbance evoked from truly coming into contact with, or encountering ‘Difference’: both in the form of different (sometimes clashing) symbolic rules between cultures, and in the experience of the ‘Real’ consisting of alternative cultural experiences and individuals that the West has no ability to conceive of or symbolise yet, outside of similarly Imaginary and Right-wing stereotypes which centre around the abject.

This glosses over the very Real and disturbing difference that often actually occurs in an authentic meeting of different cultures and their subjects

This Imaginary and ideological psychological structure narcissisticly colonises, patronises and silences the cultural difference that it ostensibly claims to support. It does this firstly by ignoring the parts of these cultures that ‘don’t fit’ with its own Western progressive-left worldview (anti-homosexuality, gender roles, religious fundamentalism for example) and essentially performs a narcissistic projection of ‘similarity of values’.  The image projected is of an Other which deep down possesses the desire for perfect conformity (at least eventually) with leftist, progressive values, which will be realised once they have the taste of the good life of modern Western culture, economically secure, and educated enough – ( the refugee or immigrant is “just like us”). This glosses over the very Real and disturbing difference that often actually occurs in an authentic meeting of different cultures and their subjects. Primacy of the West-progressive worldview is taken for granted: the Other will eventually be subsumed into our dialectic. They will conform to how we see them. You say dialectic I say didactic (lets call the whole thing off).

Statements such as “ (members of X culture) are exactly like us!” or unifying unthinkably different cultural or ethnic groups into single monolithic ideological constructs such as ‘People of Colour’ (which I have personally seen include Chinese, Polish and African-Americans) ‘united’ in bipolar combat against similar monoliths of ‘White Supremacists’ (which similarly I have seen include Polish, Russians, rural English and American Southerners) are psychological positions which perform a particular role in the psychic economy of those professing them: They allow those on ‘both sides’ to avoid the question of difference for the sake of an Imaginary unity against a similarly Imaginary united enemy. Of course there are ways in which Refugees are like us, but there are also ways in which they are gut-wrenchingly ‘not’ like us. A Palestinian ‘person of colour’ is incredibly different from an Afro American ‘person of colour’ or a White university educated ‘ally’ – they may not be totally compatible, and they may be more similar to some who are placed superficially in the enemy Supremacist camp. It sounds obvious but these discussions are the areas in which Difference is glossed over by Imaginary, narcissistic ideological formations for the sake of maintaining a psychological split. Although this may seem like a political move, my argument is that this split is borne from a psychological position of narcissism which seeks to avoid difference – a difference which might call it’s own ideological superiority into question.

You say dialectic I say didactic (lets call the whole thing off).

The psychological role of establishing these bipolarities of identity is to eliminate difference, nuance and ambiguity in favour of grandiose ingroup and outgroup positions: Instead of open systems acknowledging complexity, we get closed systems; two simple categories making up an ideological, bipolarized Image, the inside (us, the Left) and the outside (them, the Fascists). This grandiose, bipolar split reflects the split psyche of its originators: it is a narcissistic position as it divides us into ‘good vs bad based on ingroup membership and eliminates intragroup difference. The ultimate resulting fear of an ingrouper is making the wrong step, saying the wrong thing, and finding oneself in the outgroup. The outgroup is violently attacked in order to establish that the attacker is not part of it. This effectively polices discourse internally within members and also between members.

This authoritarian narcissistic imago is projected into our politics – and helps to avoid the often gruelling psychodynamic work involved in encountering the alien and disturbing ‘Real’ of the Other, and of our own psyches – we wouldn’t want to talk about the difficulties of encountering differences between people (people might call us a Fascist). This splitting and distinction into Inside versus Outside, Self vs Other, mirrors the work of both Klein (her paranoid schizoid position) and Lacan (the Imaginary register). For those employing this psychological structure, it avoids the heavy psychological lifting involved in actually relating to difference outside of polarised, narcissistic splits of ‘us and them’ – we instead get simple messages of good guys versus bad guys, identifying our own side as good, of course, whilst internally quivering in case someone spots the parts of us that don’t fit with the party line, and we get expunged to the Gulag of the outgroup.

Abjecting Difference

The philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, following both Klein and Lacan, proposes that in forming an identity as an individual we cast out or eliminate psychological material that does not fit our conception of self, and that this material which symbolises the Other (the not-self) causes horror and disgust. This ‘abjected’ material is often projected onto a literal ‘Other’ (culture, person etc) as a means of keeping it externalised and at bay. Safely held away from us by another person or culture, it means that we never have to come into reckoning with ‘it’ (the Real, the ‘not I’) in ourselves or our own culture. This again bares similarity to Klein’s paranoid-schizoid position (in which the infant psyche splits the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, being unable developmentally to tolerate abiguity in a single object). Both splitting and abjection work in this way, acting as a psychodynamic motor or mechanism behind racism and fascism.

Right-wingers generally project their own cultures abjected Self-material onto the ‘Other’; i.e. demonise other racial groups (antisemitism in the Nazis, anti-immigrant hostility in Europe) and then similarly attempt to literally ‘abject’ – cast out – these groups from their living space (holocaust, genocide or a giant border wall
for instance). The political Right therefore deals with ‘Otherness’ and difference in this quite extroverted and persecutory way: by projecting and abjecting – expelling rather than mutually working through or negotiating difficult psychological/cultural differences. Instead there are attempts to eject difficult ‘material’ from cultural space physically, or by preventing it’s approach into close proximity in the first place. Negative stereotypes also perform an Imaginary glossing over of Real difference, as well as holding abjected material at an acceptable psychological distance from the dominant culture (sexuality, violence, criminality, dirt, refuse). These Images are means by which distance is maintained and justified, as well as providing a place in which a cultures own disavowed ‘dirt’ can be deposited. This projection of abject material onto the Other and the attempt to expunge it has of course led to terrible atrocities.

Right wing imaginary constructs attempt to cast out the Other as abject

Within the Left, the anxiety and disturbance around difference is dealt with in a more subtle, and slightly more psychodynamically complex way. The recognition of difference is itself excluded or abjected from (individual) psychological and (group) cultural space. Uncomfortable as it may be for those with Leftist sensibilities, this in essence performs the same psychological function as the Rightist expulsion of immigrants from a living space – however rather than an externalised casting-out of the Other itself (Right wing), there is instead an internal prohibition on really recognising Otherness outside of a pleasant stereotype, discussing difference and an abjecting of those that do (Left wing).

This abjection manifests itself in terms of group interpsychic behaviour which performs the task of removing those who are not fully captured by the Imaginary ideology and make the fatal mistake of bringing difference into question – such as silencing speakers with ‘no platform’ actions, instigating protests against speakers who highlight the difficulties of difference (Slavoj Zizek is a fascist, Germaine Greer is a fascist, Noam Chomsky is “more Right wing than Romney”) and misapplying terms such as fascist, alt-right and Nazi against groups or people who do not even nearly fit this label in order to leverage psychological and social shame (e.g. although I find him intolerably right wing, Jordan Peterson is not a ‘Fascist’).

This misapplication of labels and expunging of difficult characters also psychodynamically maintains the Kleinian split position and the Lacanian Imaginary division between self and Other by keeping Difference at a distance (if you talk about it, you are ‘out’). In terms of corresponding intrapsychic effects within the psyche of individuals who identify with ‘the Left’, these include a fear of discussing the problems and challenges of difference openly, and a fear of being shamed, abjected or exposed for holding views which are seen as politically incorrect, as well as an unfortunate linking of the recognition of difference with right wing views. The main ideological/imaginary function of this, overall, is that there is a silencing of the recognition of difference on the Left and a driving of expunged members towards the Right wing. The psychological difficulty of an authentic encounter with the Real of difference – the Other, warts and all, is avoided.

leaflets attempting to shut down leftist philosopher Slavoj Zizek at left forum

To summarise – rather than recognizing the ethno/cultural Other as possessing ‘difference’ in ways which are sometimes immensely challenging, even repulsive or threatening to the Self and that need to be worked through (and may not be able to be, in some cases), the narcissistic projection onto the Other is instead of undeniable, romanticised compatibility with one’s own already-held progressive values. In essence a form of psychological colonialism takes place: the Other has no agency or values of it’s own recognised as powerful enough to act as a challenge or even threat to the dominant culture – no genuine meeting or discussion as equals ever really need take place. Instead the migrant Other is seen as a ‘perfect fit’ for a set of progressive values which are already predetermined to be supreme, and raised to the level of a universal. Anything of the Others culture which is outside of this ‘perfect fit’ cannot be mentioned for fear of exposing the Real of difference underneath the imaginary ‘gloss’ and shattering the narcissistic reflection of the progressive, causing unfathomable anxiety. When differences are mentioned they are done in the manner of a parent – the assumption is that the Other will eventually develop or assimilate to a level of cultural sophistication leading to them inevitably accepting progressive values on (for instance) gender roles.

the narcissistic projection onto the Other is instead of undeniable, romanticised compatibility with one’s own already-held progressive values

In a somewhat ironic twist, those who threaten this colonial-narcissistic image by pointing out the difference between groups contradictory to these Imaginary projections (for instance, how cultures might be incompatible in different attitudes towards sexuality), become themselves representatives for the narcissistic Left of the disturbing ‘Real’ of difference and otherness. Those who evoke this material are often similarly abjected: Ejected from the space via an Imaginary stereotype as ‘fascists’ or ‘Nazis’ which is often as divorced from reality as the anti immigrant stereotypes of the Right. This performs a similar role to ejecting undesired races for Right-wingers: It allows an acceptable psychic distance from disturbing difference or Otherness from which a comfortable narcissism of similarity can be indulged in.

Keeping the Other’s power contained within a ‘safe’ Left-wing stereotype of inoffensive childlike compatibility, so that the paranoid-schizoid or Imaginary positions can be maintained means that the narcissistic character structure can be saved. Instead of recognising how our cultures are different and sometimes clash, we instead eject the ‘Nazis’ who do, and can go back to a pacified image of harmony. The horrible result of this is that those who are faced with the challenge of difference in their day-to-day lives no longer find a voice or a place on the Left, which seems out of touch, elite and authoritarian. They are either deny their own experience in line with a narcissistic Image, are pushed out, or they jump.

To be able to cope with the difference we encounter as migration around the world increases and national identities become more permeable, we need to be able to move beyond simplistic binaries and deal honestly with the difficulties that this situation brings. Beyond simple psychological models of right-wing total rejection of difference, or alternatively a left-wing denial of difference, there needs to be a movement beyond the intersection of ideology and narcissistic fantasy which starts dealing with the complex, beautiful and often disturbing reality of the Other.

2 responses to “Glossing over Otherness – Narcissism, Race and Difference in Politics

  1. Feel like your article sheds helpful light on a novel I’ve just read, ‘Such a Fun Age’ by Kiley Reid – and I think, amongst other things, and if I’m correctly understanding your piece, you are both arguing for the need for discourse with the Other, having acknowledged the Other as such.


    • Thanks for your comment – I will have a look at that book. I wrote this quite early on my work approaching the question of difference and the Other, and was finding my voice in the process – connecting to my own Otherness. and yes you are right – I am very much arguing for discourse and the acknowledgement that this is not always a mushy love-in but throws up some intense and difficult feelings.


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