How is it that we can see other people as objects? That is, we see them only as partial people, alienated from us as human beings. We can somehow believe that others don't have feelings (subhuman), or that others somehow aren't as deserving as we are or should suffer (cosmic destiny), or that they lack abilities(genetic inferiority), knowledge, and traits (stereotypes) that are common to the rest of us. Is seeing others as objects something that we have this natural tendency to do, or is it something that we learn from others? For me these are intriguing questions because I see these attitudes expressed all the time.
Some people see nothing wrong with trapping others into slavery. For example, people are illegally imported into the US from less fortunate countries, their credentials taken from them, and forced to live in captivity and work long hours for no real pay. Some people see nothing wrong with depriving, starving, and killing other races of people, as if their lives had no value. This happens daily in cultural conflicts around the world.
Some people see nothing wrong with branding others as inferior and forcing them to live a demeaning or impoverished existence. For example, pay structures typically restrict wages for "less worthy" tasks to less than the amount necessary for people to support themselves. Working mothers, people who are poorly educated, and those with fewer skills and abilities are given subsistence level incomes that deprive them, often permanently, of improving their living situation or their work situation. And many of these people are treated as pawns by society and employers, viewing their jobs as disposable, and thus viewing their economic well-being as discretionary.
The integrity, quality, value, and dignity of human lives seems reserved for "the more deserving." Or are these things simply wasted on some who haven't the capacity to appreciate them? Which begs the question, who doesn't appreciate a home that isn't deteriorating, ample food on the table, the respect of an employer, opportunity to improve, and some pride in what they do? Well, I am neither liberal nor conservative, and this isn't about the minimum wage, it is about seeing others as objects.
Rather than trudge laboriously through an otherwise heavy commentary on alienation and psychological theory, my whimsical mind thought it would be more fun to explore this as a fantasy story. Fiction is close to what theory is. Neither fiction nor theory can be called reality, but both may be.
“Where,” I thought, “could I find that self-serving construction, the ego?” If I could find an ego, perhaps it would lead me to that other construction, the object.
I know, thought I, I will look in a book. So I opened a book, and there on the first page in the first paragraph, an ego jumped out at me, proud and puffed up as can be. There was no picture of an ego, and the word ego never occurred, nor was there anything psychological in this book. But plain as day an ego stared me in the face – this writer was full of himself, and his knowledge overflowed each page so that anything useful was crowded entirely off the page by his ego. It was something that I had written! Rats! Foiled again. I slammed closed the cover and put it back on the shelf, and my ego shrank to suitable proportions. I would have to look elsewhere to spin a good tale.
Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology, dreamed this ego thing into existence. Before Freud, no one had even heard of an ego, much less had one. So I decided to consult the ghost of Freud. I pushed my encyclopedia disk into the drive. It has never failed to conjure up the past, and the spirits of a lot of dead people lurk within.
Freud was a frightful sight, his spirit congealing from the mists of time, consisting of strange ideas and even stranger words. He glared at me through his situatedness in time and place as one who had defined a world of knowledge in a few hallowed words, and redefined a good many people suffering from their own illusions and delusions.
“Who,” he seemed to say, “do you think you are to disturb the revered and sanctified tomb of psychoanalytic belief?”
“Belief?” I mused. “Belief!” I accused. My words reverberated through time and space, affronting the spirits of Freud's long dead Protégés. They swarmed at me from their contented births near the master, their unease filling the air with bad vibrations. But the master was singularly unruffled. Boldly I pressed forward with my charge. “Belief implies a willingness to act on your convictions. You speak of psychoanalytic theory as if it was a religion, and not a science.”
“I charged my fellow theorists to think for themselves and create their own theories,” Freud responded simply.
I could see that he was not one to be sucked into irrelevant arguments. He waited as if expecting me to continue talking. I came right to the point. “I want to see an ego.”
“When you see elephant footprints in the sand, do you doubt that an elephant passed that way?” Freud replied.
“Eh, no… , but I don’t carry around a mirror checking for vampires either. Just what do elephant footprints have to do with an ego?” I countered.
“When I see the footprints of an ego, neither do I doubt that the ego was there.” He winked at me. People used to do that without offense being taken.
“O’ho,” I laughed, “but what if an oge makes the same footprint as an ego, and it was actually an oge that passed by?”
“O’ho,” retorted Freud, “but you are absolutely correct. I never said that it couldn’t be an oge. But in my theory, the footprints are constructs known as the ego. You are welcome to your theories, and good luck with proving them.”
“I am a writer creating fantasy, not a theorist,” I objected.
“Everyone theorizes, to good or ill,” he replied. “Everyone tries to make sense of the universe around him, and of the things that happen to him. Don’t pretend that you don’t make theories – but neither pretend that your theories are similarly experienced as mine.”
I wondered if I was projecting my superego on this apparition who was now instructing me. I stood my ground, dumb ox that I am. “I assume that you are not aware of developments in the earthly plane of existence. There are literally hundreds of psychological theories – they are proliferating like schisms dividing religions.”
Freud studied the air between us thoughtfully. “I suppose the philosophers are having a grand time.”
“Not so. The philosophers have debated and thought, and have outwitted themselves into a corner. Philosophers have concluded that no one can know anything... at least not and be philosophically certain of it. Nothing is actually knowable through philosophy, least of all the mind of man.”
He frowned. “Sad state of affairs. But you still dine at the table of philosophy?”
He seemed encouraged. “Philosophy should have been Einstein’s domain! He should have applied himself to this instead of math. Or Jung… But, that’s all history now. Tell me. What of these hundreds of psychologies? Are they any good?”
“Every few years a study says that they are no better than talking to a friend. But people swear by psychology. On the one hand, having a friend to talk about your problems with is very helpful, but on the other hand I know too many friends who have very strange ideas about what makes people tick, and I wouldn’t want any of them trying to sort me out.”
He began to pace, wrestling with this revelation. “The practitioner was always the master of the science, not the other way around,” he expounded. “An experienced practitioner could be therapeutic regardless of how bad the theory. But placed in everyone’s hands, even friends - ”
“There have been problems,” I submitted. “Improper fad diagnoses – lives damaged, families irreparably torn apart.”
He shuddered and stared at me coldly for a moment, as if I represented something not at all understood – perhaps I was even now a threat. “You live in a very modern, very complicated time. You have things that I have never heard of.” He shrugged as if he had nothing to offer, but he continued. “ People in your time are becoming very sophisticated. People’s actions become clichés for behavior that everyone understands. Television and computers disseminate information so that everyone knows everything. Computers help you do work in minutes that would have taken me days or months. What you will know in your lifetime is… immense… unfathomable!” The gentleman was shaking from encountering such a mind boggling situation. He threw his hands in the air. “Why not let everyone have access to all information?”
“Galileo wrote his new sciences for the general public, ‘...Where errors very easily took root,’ and you know what happened to him,” I scoffed. “That earned him a seat before the Inquisition. God forbid that the average Joe should have access to knowledge – he might hurt himself, or corrupt the universe. And now people have the Internet. They can get access to everything. This is Pandora’s Box,” I groaned.
Freud laughed at my discomfort. “How much speculation and lies have been passed by scientists in the name of science – so much so that people laugh regularly at their nonsense, if they are not outright misled and cheated. The Holy Grail of science is pursued by both scientists and crackpots ...” He huffed in contempt. “The public must keep a wary eye on science,” he scolded. “So then, why should people not have the knowledge and tools in their hands to understand and fix their own lives?”
“How Postmodernist of you.” I remarked carelessly.
His stare from the annals of time was cold. Accusing. I remained silent. All of his words were true. But suddenly, with a scowl on his face, he came at me again with his words. “Did you come here to accuse others of impropriety?”
I stepped back. “No. No! Not at all. I am only looking for answers.”
He studied me for a moment. “Perhaps,” he replied. “And perhaps your generation will find many answers. You have all of the advantages - you should be earnestly looking.” With that he turned away and retreated toward his sanctuary.
“But wait,” I protested. He paused and inclined an ear in my direction. “I wanted to ask you about “Self.”
“Do us all a favor and prove that there is one,” he replied and continued walking toward his abode.
“And objects!” I submitted hurriedly. “I want to know about objects.”
“Objects? See a computer programmer,” he replied with mischief in his voice, and disappeared into the mists of history.
I departed my mystical outpost, mystified by these strange words from my Freudian concoction. Freudian psychoanalytic theory believes that the ego is that part of the human personality that is experienced as “self.” The ego is the part of us that responds to the world – it perceives, remembers, evaluates, and plans. Carl Jung, Freud’s colleague, suggested that a “self” emerges around age 30 to hold together the parts of personality that have developed.
People of Freud’s era would have seen the self shrouded by masks? It was an era of puritanical repression – everyone repressed everything, especially if it had anything to do with sex. Sex, that thing that men supposedly think about every few minutes – that’s a lot to repress. And they worked basically in a clinical atmosphere with those who were regarded as aberrant, if not “sick.” That is, the extremes of the population. All that they could see were the results of repression – the “self” repressed, and some ego structure in its place.
My suspicion is that the ego is not the self at all, but simply a construct of self that changes like a chameleon for differing circumstances - a mechanism for responding to the world. I turned to my Constructivist leanings. Constructivists view the self as an evolving self that consolidates the meaning of experience. You are what you do. Or you gain nourishment from what you eat – in the sense of experience. And Constructivists in general (in fact most psychological theories) don’t recognize the ego. I do. Where there is smoke, there may be fire.
I wanted to get to the bottom of my concocted Freud’s directive to see a computer programmer. I remembered the mischievous sound of his voice. What in the world could computer programming have to do with egos and objects? So I visited my favorite local computer programmer. He was leaning back in a comfort chair, a mouse and keyboard in his lap, three days growth on his face, in front of six computers running NT, Linux, UNIX, and MVS.
“I want to see an object,” I demanded. Some programmers have time for chitchat, for some it’s best to get right to the point.
He didn’t look away from the monitor that displayed the lines of computer code that he was writing. “You can’t really see objects – they only exist as code in an object oriented environment.”
I got the feeling that I was talking to Freud again. “But I want to know what is an object? How does it work? What does it do?”
“Think OOP.” His answers were purposely designed to infuriate me – that’s the only way that some computer programmers relate to other people.
“Object Oriented People?” I asked.
“Object Oriented Programming – learn C++,” he retorted impatiently.
“High level overview!” I shouted.
“Oh.” He finally looked away from his monitor. “I’ll give you an example. See this.” He pointed to a program displayed on a monitor. “This word processor program displays an interface on the monitor. Get it? Face? In the object oriented world, the code that produces this interface is called an object.”
“You mean, this interface that looks very physical, that I could touch or click with a mouse, or type words into – it is not an object. The code behind it, which you can’t touch, is the object?”
He looked at me as if I were crazy. “Isn’t that what I just said? Why do you repeat things to me?”
He turned back to his monitor. “Now look at this. For this word processor interface -” he looked at me questioningly, knowing I didn’t understand. “This interface – that is, all this stuff that you see on the screen where you type and click - the object is called a “parent” and it has a lot of characteristics – that is, things that it can do, like editing and displaying words. Now here is the unique thing.” He clicked on a menu and a dialog box opened. “You see this box? Its object is called a child of the parent. It inherits some of the parent’s characteristics, but not all of them. For example, this child inherits the parent’s edit characteristic. You can edit text in the box. But the box has no need for a ‘spell check’ characteristic, so it doesn’t inherit that ability. It only inherits the abilities that it needs. Understand? And please don’t repeat it to me.”
I nodded affirmative, afraid that any words would offend. “So the object is the mechanism that allows the program to respond to the world. Conceivably it can create many similar interfaces for specialized tasks. And objects can have different characteristics that are a set of the parent object’s characteristics.”
“You got it, Ace. Now get out’a here and let me finish creating this object so I won’t be here all night.”
I knew he would be there all night anyway. He loves this stuff. So, that was what my imaginary Freud was getting at – a metaphor for the ego. Ego, object. Object, ego. Very similar terms.
I wondered if the metaphor fit. What if, like a computer program, the self forms a variety of interfaces for responding to the world. Through these interfaces the world can be explored, explained, fulfillment of needs can be arranged, and the ego can be used as a mechanism for psychological defense. What if the ego is a child of the self which has whatever characteristics of the parent self that it needs for the circumstances for which it was created? The ego is a barrier between the world and the naked, vulnerable, unprotected self.
This doesn't exactly fit with Freud's theory. Or does it? For Freud, the ego (Latin: "I") is the self. Freud further split the ego concept into the "id," which is the base drives like biological functions, and the "superego," which is like a conscience. All of these ego constructs form the self, the I. Is all of this largely semantics?
Freudian analysts theorized that the ego contains the person’s perception of the world – beginning with a limited perception. An infant perceived his mother’s breast, but was unable to differentiate between the breast and his entire mother. Thus, an object was born in the child’s perception: the breast.
Frued only spoke of the object as external. He didn't (as far as I know) speak of object as the reflection of the external object that is within the child. This seems like it might make sense - it is an easy extrapolation.
Certain characteristics are known by the infant about the breast, primarily that it is a source of food. The ego interface knows how to perceive and respond to the breast. Perhaps as time goes on, the ego learns how to deal with other objects in its environment. Perhaps various ego interfaces are created for different kinds of situations. Multiple egos? Perhaps not less realistic than id, ego, superego, and multiple personalities. Multiple personalities are the extreme of alienation. I'll come back to "multiple ego" with possible examples.
The Freudian theory of Object relations is used to explain unusual sexual attachments (people as sex objects, fetishes, etc.). In general personality theory, object only refers to seeing people as objects. So, is the ego an object, as the programmer suggests? Or are things in the world objects? Or are both crazy ideas correct?
Is the ego real? If it exists at all, it is a construct (something constructed) of the self. Is any construct real? In the world of the mind, perception is reality, and Freud‘s theory is that we perceive through the ego. Possibly the ego is initially used as protection. At first, new things in the environment are explored and defined by the ego. When the new thing is fully explored and known, then it is integrated by the self. As the person matures - that is, has integrated a comprehensive group of things and has a strong basis from which to evaluate, the need for ego lessens.
Do people behave very differently in different circumstances, as if they really do have different interfaces for different situations? When people encounter a police officer, they often adopt a behavior that is the opposite of a troublemaker. They become compliant, respectful, and law abiding. These are characteristics within the self, but they come to the fore when around a police officer. Other behaviors and attitudes, such as stealing things at work, or damaging cars, which may also be part of the self, disappear in the presence of the officer. There is a temporary interface there especially for dealing with police officers. When people that we know react in this way, we often say that the person is two-faced.
The person at work with a brusque attitude, who typically shuns all work shoved her way by coworkers, adopts a very different manner when the boss is around. Suddenly she is all smiles, has all the time in the world, and can only say “Yes” to any task requested of her. She has very different interfaces for dealing with different people, and all the characteristics of each are part of her. To protect herself from too much work and being taken advantage of, she has one interface for dealing with the world. To make sure that she continues to get a paycheck, she has a very different interface for dealing with her boss. Two-faced.
What happens if the person gets stuck in a particular type of ego type interface? The protective attitude becomes so dominant that the person only has that one way of dealing with the world. The protective element interprets everything as a potential threat. This becomes a way of life (possibly a syndrome).
The ego, which could just as easily be called an attitude, can occur at any time, particularly when a threat is perceived. We get defensive when we feel criticized, we become proud and overrate ourselves when we feel inadequate, we get touchy and offensive when we feel insecure, we hold things at a distance until we understand them. These are ego responses, or attitudes, that are temporary interfaces that give us a reliable way of dealing with the situation. I think that the ego is a very necessary thing in our approach to experience. (It is the inflated or impoverished ego, and its continued unnecessary presence that I think is unhealthy.)
What are some examples? The person with an “inflated ego” who always acts as if he is better than everyone is probably basically insecure and this is an attitude, or defense mechanism that helps him encounter others without fear. He can’t allow himself to be the person that he really is – he has to deal with the world as if he is superior to it. But left unchecked, the “better than others” attitude becomes self-sustaining and prevents him from having normal relations with other people.
The person who gets defensive when critiqued probably has lived in an environment where criticism was not used constructively, but criticism was synonymous with judgment and potential rejection. So he developed defensiveness as a way of countering the criticism. It is an attitude, or ego interface, that gets the person through the situation. But when the person gets to the point that he can only react defensively to everyone, the defensive ego or attitude has developed a self sustaining life of its own. When it becomes destructive and the person has no control over it, it becomes a neurosis.
Could there be other kinds of interfaces, such as attitudes? How about roles? Roles must be structures similar to egos that are adopted through watching and imitation: parent, child, teacher, student, ruffian, gentleman, professional, wife, policeman, delinquent, judge, arbiter, and counselor. All of these roles are interfaces that we use with selected parts of the world. All of these are ways of relating to the world that aren’t really the total self, but a subset, a construct.
One moment I am a parent, watching over others and giving instruction. The next I am a child, receiving instruction. The next I am an employee, accepting responsibility delegated to me, and the next I am a supervisor delegating to others. And then I am a judge, determining what is best for others. And then the next moment I am a counselor, listening and suggesting… the persona changes for each one - I act differently. But to say that any of these things are me – self – not so quick. They are a face, part of self, that the self can show for the situation at hand. They are learned ways that are effective at dealing with situations.
As an interesting exercise, think of how many different ways you have reacted to others just today. How many potential interfaces do you have? Is it possible for people to act only as a total self?
As an interesting exercise, think of how many different ways you have reacted to others just today. How many potential interfaces do you have? Is it possible for people to act only as a total self? For example, the person who prides himself at never being "two-faced?"
No one has ever seen an ego. But then, no one has ever seen an atom. Scientists infer the existence of both the atom and the ego from measurable behaviors and repeatable observations that support theories - empirical science. "Elephant footprints." I think I see that the peculiar behaviors associated with "ego" disappear as the person matures - those protections are no longer needed - but the behaviors can recur as a response when needed. One seems to have the ability to create this interface whenever needed - a way of dealing with a particular type of situation when one needs it - but I'm an observer and writer with some background in the field, not a social scientist doing experiments to prove or disprove anything. I have possibly used controversy enough to acquaint us sufficiently with the idea of ego and symbols so that understanding how someone can be an object will be much easier.
I considered dredging up more spirits, but for a sufficiently diverse range of opinion I probably would have had to terminate some postmodernists to do so. Even if I adopted a radical relativist point of view, this hardly seemed acceptable. So I settled for concocting a “psychologist object.” I could project whatever attributes I wanted onto it… eh… him. Call the object Cy, short for psychologist.
I arranged to meet Cy on a local farm. Back to the earth, that sort of notion. He is a handsome man, looks… much like myself. Somehow I see him sitting behind a desk, saying “Oh? Explain that,” while he is walking around the barnyard with me.
“Set your desk down over there and come look at this animal.” I ordered.
“Why would you want me to do that?” he asked.
I could see I was going to have trouble with this concoction already. “Stop the incessant interrogation and just do it,” I requested. He put down his desk, rose from his chair, and joined me beside a white painted wooden fence. “Look at that animal over there.”
I could still feel his gaze. “You are staring at me in that incessantly inquiring way.” I accused impatiently. “I am here to inquire of you. Now, stop it.” I snapped off my words abruptly.
He knew I meant business. Begrudgingly he turned his eyes from me and looked at the animal.
“What do you see,” I asked.
“Nothing I have ever seen before.”
“What is your mind doing with this information?” I asked.
“Taking in what I see?” he replied.
“Are you categorizing it?”
Well, no, I suppose it is in the animal category, but it is unlike any animal that I have ever seen. So I’m… creating a space for it.”
“A space?” I asked incredulously. “You have to create a space for it?”
“Why do you repeat what I say?” he asked. “It drives me nuts.”
“I learned it from psychologists. I just encourages you to continue on the subject. So what about this space?”
“Well, it’s a place-holder for something that is undefined. I’m creating a description of its attributes that will help make it known to me. This animal is large, round, solid, has sharp, pointed front teeth in a big mouth.”
“So you are creating an object in your mind. And it is filled with a description of this new animal.”
“Yes. It’s fear inspiring, actually.”
“So you have an emotion attached to this object.”
“Wouldn’t you?” he asked.
“No. I already know the object. So that is another point: once we know all of the attributes of an object, the fear may no longer be connected with it, and we can safely integrate that into ourselves.”
“Yes, go on,” he droned in his wearisome way.
I gave him yet another agitated warning glance. “You can be deleted, you know.”
Just then the animal said, “Oink,” saving Cy from further abuse.
“Now I will assign a language symbol to the animal,” Cy said. ‘Pig.’ And I will continue to react to Pig with fear every time I see him until I know how to act toward it.”
I pointed to another animal. “Pig is an object that is indistinguishable from cow until you get to know him better,” I concluded.
“Yes, except that I am afraid of the pig.”
“But that is ridiculous to be afraid of this pig.” I said scornfully. “Connecting fear with this pig is only a projection of your feelings.”
“Until I get to know pig better, when I see a pig, or see a picture of a pig, or hear the word pig, I’m going to think of a gargantuan mouth full of teeth and unpredictable behavior, and I’m going to be afraid.”
I reached over the fence and scratched the pet pot-bellied pig behind the ear. I was one up on Cy. My ego was correspondingly inflated.
When we finally get to know a lot about pigs, we integrate that knowledge with other knowledge that we have, and then when we encounter another pig we know how to test to see if it is friendly and what measure of being on guard to use with any particular pig. Understanding of pig becomes part of self. Until that time, pig is an object which brings the reaction, fear.
I needed to let Cy feel good about himself again – after all, I had bashed his psychologist demeanor and shamed him about the pig. “How is a person an object? It is obvious to you and I that people are... well... people. People have certain characteristics that define them as people - living, breathing, animated entities and not a vegetable or a block of wood. But in how much depth do we really see people?”
“OK,” he said, “that’s an insightful question. Let’s take a look at archetypes as an example. Archetypes represent a very strict classification of objects that have some human characteristics. Mothers, policemen, gods, devils, angels, Dracula… we ascribe selected characteristics to them, but we don’t see the entire persona. We come up with expressions such as, ‘A child that only a mother could love,’ implying that all mothers have an unfathomable and inexhaustible amount of love for a child, a heart larger than the universe. ‘Policemen are always honest and always your friend.’ ‘A man of God will always do what is best for you.’ ‘A dog is a man’s best friend...’ …until he bites you. These are stereotypes that don’t see beyond the assigned persona to the real creature within. We see archetypes as objects with selected characteristics, not as total human beings with many characteristics.”
I leaned back against a fence and mulled over Count Dracula for a moment. “How do archetypes get to be archetypes? Could you be one?”
The complement must have appealed to his ego. His face took on a scholarly, encyclopedic quality. “Jung thought that there were universal primordial concepts or situations that perhaps came from a universal unconscious. Perhaps these are common things in our environment that we learn to expect certain things from, and have certain characteristics ascribed to them by society at large – a universal conscience in a way. Anyway, literary critics took the idea and ran with it. The way in which archetypes come to symbolize things for us is not entirely clear.”
“Not entirely clear! Then why are you using archetypes as an example?” I picked up some horse feathers and threw them at him. “Tell me something that is clear,” I demanded.
He watched the feathers rain down around him. “Do you like puppets?” he asked.
“You know I do.”
“Puppets are better examples of objects acquiring characteristics. A puppet truly is an inanimate object. But put a puppet in a story and suddenly the puppet has feelings, a history, and many other human attributes (anthropomorphism). But the puppet couldn’t really have any of these things.
“What we see in the puppet is only our own responses to the story. We empathize with the character’s plight. We react to the character’s pleasure or pain. We understand what the character wants. We want the character to overcome obstacles that stand in the way of what it wants.”
I interrupted. “Are you saying that we simply attribute human characteristics to this inanimate object?”
“We project our own feelings. We project – we even allow ourselves to believe for the moment - that the puppet (or the character) feels what we are feeling.”
I kicked him in the shins. “Why is that I don’t feel your pain?”
“Because, you oaf, I’m something that you concocted and you didn’t attribute any feelings to me, and you don’t project any feelings for me. I’m unloved… a big nobody!”
I felt badly for him. “All right, you’re… OK. Now tell me more.”
Small victory, but he continued happily. “Similarly in a movie, a character is portrayed by an actor. The actor may or may not ever have any of the feelings that we see portrayed. In fact, the character may not even have the feelings that we project onto him. For example, the character may feel no remorse about injuring an animal, and may do the right thing for the animal just because that is the thing to do.
“We on the other hand may be all torn up at the sight of the injured animal because we relate it to an incident with one of our beloved pets. We may project those feelings onto the character and believe that he acts out of those feelings. Characters are objects in the sense that their backgrounds and range of feelings are minimal, and we project our feelings onto them.” He smiled iridescently.
“OK, now for the real stuff. What do we see in real people?” I asked.
“People have abilities, behaviors, and needs that help define them to others. But like an archetype, puppet, or character, I may not look deeply enough into the person to see him. I may not have a complete picture of a person in my ego. It could be that I have a very incomplete picture and that I project my feelings and my needs onto that person, just as a pig can elicit fear whether it is unfriendly or not.”
“Pretend that I don’t understand. Give me an example.”
“For example,” he asserted. “If the person is a woman, she may elicit a motherly, loving, or a sexual response from me. She may be incapable of delivering any of them, but to me all women may be the same - objects that are capable of meeting a particular need that I have. If I have very little experience with women, they may be incomprehensible to me.”
“That’s a fact.”
“In fact, intellectually I may know that women are capable of having all kinds of needs and abilities, but my emotions may overshadow that knowledge to the point that I can only relate to women in certain ways. My needs may fill my ego with certain kinds of behaviors. It may be that I am incapable of seeing a woman as a human being with any other needs or abilities than the ones that match my needs.”
“So she’s a horse of a different color.”
“Yeah, just a ride on a merry-go-round.”
I thought I was getting it. “Let me put this another way, the woman is real and has a range of attributes. But to me she isn’t real - this “woman object” is only in my mind. The list of attributes that compose the object (ego) in my mind might be constructed of attitude. Attitude is full of emotion. Emotions overrule intellect and dominate my response to the lady.”
“Yes, exactly. Just as you now see a zebra and a giraffe standing over there next to the fence, you see what you “want” to see. You perceive this woman as what you want to perceive, shaped by your attitude, and limited by your emotions.”
“Aha, no wonder my wife thinks I need glasses.”
“We can treat all people this way. A parent may see his child as an object - something that he owns, “flesh and blood that implies certain rights,” or an object that will take over the company business, or keep him in his old age, or make him proud in college or career. The child may have neither the capacity nor the desire to do any of these things. But the adult who is viewing the adult child projects his needs onto the child/object/adult. Perhaps the parent doesn't have an understanding of other people, or perhaps he has accumulated a definition of family that responds to his needs, or perhaps he is just not willing to see anything but what he wants to see because of self defense - fear, loneliness, pride - protective functions of the ego.”
“Aargh, I may be a chauvinist and a selfish lout,” I whined.
He smiled, he gloated. “Nice to see you humbled,” he bleated, and cherished the moment like a sip of fine wine.
“Get over it! It won’t last!”
Observing my unrepentant attitude, he continued, hoping to sway me with more reasoning. “There are many ways in which people can see others as objects and project their definition of a person, or project their needs or fears onto that person. Let's look more deeply at the implications of the "Mom" object.”
“You can’t do it,” I objected. “No one can see “mother” as an object, and everyone has a mother.”
He continued, unabated, smiling self confidently. “The word Mom symbolizes a lot of things to a lot of people, and the definition keeps changing as people mature. Let's think of Mom as a block of wood for a moment, and then attach to her all of the attributes or responses that we see.”
I reluctantly nodded consent, wondering if we were going to forever fowl the image of mom-hood for all mothers.
“The wooden block is at first a source of food for the infant. "The block" is a source of warmth, and protection from the boogey man. The block is a source of prepared meals, a source of travel to and from school, a source of clothing and associated pride, of housing and shelter, of encouragement, of snacks and acceptance, and of nurturing behaviors."
You're off on a tangent," I charged. "A young child is not expected to have insight into others - children have not learned to put themselves in another's place."
"Eh... don't get carried away. They understand a lot more than you think. To continue, To the other blocks in the neighborhood, the mom block is the ready babysitter for all the neighborhood kids, a supporter of all of the school, church, civic functions and leadership needs, and a taxi. To the husband, the block is a source of sex, sometimes nurturing, sometimes companionship, sometimes an ear to complain to. To the Mom herself, she is all of these things - she accepts this definition of what a Mom is. She views her own mother, and all other mothers, the same way. They are blocks that carry a definition of what they are expected to be. They are not allowed to be real people. This can happen.”
A cow meandered between us, momentarily interrupting my friend, chewing her cud, wondering how there could be anything else in the world for a mother to do.
When old bossy had sauntered past, I questioned my friend’s scenario. “Now wait a minute, I notice that you defined "Mom" without ever asking if the person Mom has the abilities or desires to do any of these things, and if the person has any needs or desires of her own. You simply defined that she would do all of these things as if she were a block of wood... and not a real person. How is it…what makes you think… “ I stammered. “Mom’s are not robots who can be programmed to do all of these things!”
A mother goose and several goslings waddled around us and stopped to peck the ground, looking for fish. Mother goose wondered why anyone would ever want to do anything besides attend goslings and swim for fish.
“You catch on quickly,” he replied to my objection. “Hopefully we don't relate to other people in life as if they were robots, or mother goose - we relate to others as full human beings with wants and needs of their own. Our role(s) interacts with their role(s) on one level - it is more or less a set of expectations that may or may not be stereotypical. But as people we try to relate to others as people with opinions, attitudes, wants, needs, and behaviors - not objects. Ideally Mom performs her functions because she wants to, not just because she is conforming to a role or others expectations. But it is entirely possible that the Mom object is simply a projection of our feelings and needs.”
“I’m dead,” I reckoned. “My wife, my kids, my mother – I’ve mistreated and ostracized them all. If I’m not dead, then my wife will extract guilt offerings from me every day for a million years. How could you ruin my life?!”
Unruffled, unfeeling, uncaring, Cy continued. “The Mom (Wooden block, role, robot) is one example, but he could also be an employee of a company, a person of a different color, race, or religion, a classmate at school, a parent, a child, a teacher, an elderly person, a disabled person, a worker (lawyer, politician, physician) in a group with a stereotypical image, a minister or other leader - any person can be alienated by being seen as an object.” My friend had become a veritable catalog of injustice.
Despondent at the thought of never having a good relationship, I asked to know the worst. “What happens when Mom, or any of these others, is only seen by others as an object?”
Like a stallion on a quest for revenge, he reared above me, dominating the sky. “First she is denied her own wants and needs as a person. Whatever she may want, it becomes subservient to other's needs - taking care of other's needs always comes first. Other's needs never quit, so she never gets to be or do what she wants. This is frustrating. At some level there is always a state of frustration and unresolved energy. Sometimes it is sexual energy as she forever denies herself satisfying the need and having the pleasure of sexual intimacy - by definition she must react to other's needs first. Sometimes it is creative energy - she can't undertake a personal project because she must react to other's needs. Sometimes it is spiritual energy - spiritual growth is on hold - she must react to other's needs.”
“But reality,” I interjected weakly as a boxer trying to rise from the count at 9. “Do you deny the reality of the situation? Mother's work is never done. Sexual, spiritual, and personal things often do have to be shoved aside for children's needs. And of course there is satisfaction in being a mother, and we often have to stretch our capacity to respond to life's challenges.”
Relentlessly he galloped on, bit in his teeth, out of control. “But the definition of "The Mom: the object" is that there are no other needs and if there were, there is no time to respond because all time is spoken for by the endless needs. This happens in companies. It happens in schools for both students and teachers. It even happens to religious leaders.” He glared down at me from a lofty moral position, his eyes wild with excitement and a bolt of purifying fire streaming from them.
“What happens?!” He screamed, his voice incredulous that I didn’t know. The object becomes more and more frustrated, dissatisfied, demoralized, depressed, and unable to respond in a positive human way to others and the incessant demands. Cut off. Alienated from others and even from herself. Relationships begin to suffer. The object takes care of the children, the job responsibilities, the religious congregation, the students, doing all that the object must, but the object is increasingly emotionally distant and unavailable. The object is no longer constructive. The object just exists as a robot doing tasks (and maybe even doing them well).
“Relationships begin to disintegrate, job performance falls, and responsibilities are sometimes done in an uncaring and irresponsible way. Soon, those that represent a demand for service from the object, may be pushed away or even retaliated against. The situation can’t be fixed and things can only stay miserable and get worse, the object receiving no joy from any activity or relationship, until the person accepts that he is a human being with legitimate wants and needs, and others accept that, too!”
I wondered if I had created a monster. Frankenstein came to mind. I considered running for cover.
But he had raised important questions. How can we expect to discover the richness within ourselves if we close our eyes to the richness in others? None of us can afford to treat ourselves and others in this way, or allow others to treat others as inhuman objects. There is an important question to ask when others are treated as objects. "What is it that is preventing us from seeing this person as a whole person?" It is in our ego somewhere, and we are projecting something unreal onto that person. Is it fear? Are we satisfying some need by repressing him? Is this necessary to our explanation of the world - it makes sense this way? Whatever that obstacle is, it prevents us from understanding a human being and integrating that understanding into ourselves.
I looked over a small flock of sheep to my friend who was perched self righteously on his fence post pedestal, looking disdainfully at his ignominious company. I had had enough of this multifaceted critical object. Complex though he was, he was still nothing more than an object. So I dragged him through the dust, took him behind the woodshed, made him bite the dirt, disassembled him, and was about to terminate him, when he said, “Wait… wait! If you terminate me, my father will be hurt.”
“Your father?” I screamed incredulously. “You’re just an object.”
“But you gave birth to me!” He shouted. “You gave me human characteristics.”
I supposed he was right. I put him up on a dusty shelf. He was more a moral imperative than a psychologist – I would have to overhaul him.
I thought that to continue to develop this series about alienation that I would go for a whimsical search for both an ego and an object. It seemed like a fun way to explore this topic – it is a safe concept to play around with. No one has seen an ego or even knows if it exists. And objects? Do people really think of other people as objects?
The ideas in this article about personality may very well be wrong - even the experts find this area difficult to pin down. We can all argue endlessly about personality theories and never make any progress. The way that I see personality isn't especially important - I tried to use this exploration as a vehicle for explaining something that is very important, that is, not alienating people by treating them as objects. Regardless of the theory, no one is a stick of wood.
Disagree? I hope so. Write a better one. Comments are welcome and won't be published. Contact Primary Contact.
References and Resources:
*1 Janis, Irving L., and Mann, Leon. Decision Making. A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice, and Commitment.1977, 10, Coercive Demands during the Watergate Coverup.
Petty, Richard E., and Cacioppo, John T. Attitudes and Persuasion: Classic and Contemporary Approaches. 1981.
Schmitt, Richard, and Moody, Thomas (Editors). Alienation and Social Criticism. Key Concepts in Critical Theory. 1994.
A related creative writing story synopsis, Enemies, can be used for writing a story on alienation. The story is designed to be written by opposing individuals or groups.
A note about this series
For a reference text, I tried to choose a book as likeminded in approach as myself. That is, a book that takes a very wide view of the subject, that is not reactive or driven by a separate agenda, and not mired in past research yet cognizant of the value of past research. I chose Alienation and Social Criticsim: Key Concepts in Critical Theory, 1994, Edited by Richard Schmitt and Thomas Moody. But this series isn't a book report. I chose the book as an authorative reference that would not only guide me with a reasonably extensive framework, but would mostly stimulate my thinking by my reacting to it.* The subjects that I am writing about are intentionally beyond the scope of the reference book.
As usual, the intent of this series is not to teach anyone anything or to assert my opinion, but to stimulate creative thought and interest through a thorough exploration of a timely subject about the human condition. The hope is to encourage stories (creative, nonfiction, journalism) that are better informed. My own bias is simply to ask, "What kind of world are we creating for ourselves?"
* In the previous series, Finding Meaning in Life and Characterization, I found myself studying three to five reference books for each article even though I had outlined the entire series in advance. While worthwhile, and maybe necessary for that series, that was a tremendous drain on my time. I hope to keep this series to only a few references.
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