NOTE: This piece was originally published during the Summer 2021 Olympics, when Simone Biles withdrew after getting the “twisties.” Its principles continue to apply, but it might be helpful to look back at her statements then here. At the time, she received all sorts of abuse from the GOP, which, as noted below, were just starting the January 6 hearings.
This past week Simone Biles withdrew from competition for the all-around gymnastics finals after faltering in the preliminary rounds of the Olympics, citing an enormous amount of pressure on her as the prominent champion. Right-wing pundits, likely looking for a diversion from the unflattering-to-their-“side” January 6 hearings, have been hammering on her this week for her decision to pull back. In this piece, I will be talking about what these moves show us about unhealthy positive projection when it comes to toxic masculinity. And if you hang in there with me, I will get to how and why Simone Biles’ reaction functions as a form of assertive resistance to gaslighting that we can learn from.
Thanks for giving me some time to unwrap all the nuances.
My Background and Perspective
Okay, so as always, I’ll be coming at this from my vantage point as a pastor’s kid who became a communication scholar studying stress, trauma, and conflict communication.
And both of these things are relevant and tie together with the way the right wing has targeted Simone Biles this week. Stay tuned for how that works.
See, I teach communication classes on a university level. And every time I teach the concept of positive and negative projections in my classes (and note that I’ve previously talked about this concept here), I explain that I very much understand these concepts simply because I grew up as a pastor’s kid.
Defining Positive and Negative Projection
If you’ve been seeing these terms floating around but haven’t had them defined, well, these concepts come from psychologist Carl Jung, and they boil down to the following:
Often, we don’t deal with our emotions well, either individually or collectively or both.
So when that happens, especially when we avoid or suppress our feels, we expect other people or groups to be either mostly bad or mostly good.
When we expect others to be mostly good, that’s positive projection.
And when we expect others to be mostly bad, that’s negative projection.
Positive and Negative Projection Can Be Either Healthy or Unhealthy
Today I’m going to talk mostly about the unhealthy forms of positive projection. But as you’ll see, it’s helpful to remember that both can be easily combined in all sorts of healthy and unhealthy ways. (It’s not like positive projection is all good and negative projection is all bad—that’s a common confusion.)
Healthy and Unhealthy Positive Projection
This practice of projecting one’s shadow (in other words, the part of your self or emotions you’re uncomfortable with) happens all the time. And sometimes either positive or negative projection, as defined above, can be healthy. For instance, sometimes if you hand off leadership responsibilities to a new coworker because you expect them to do well, they feel that trust and may respond well to that. Good, right?
Well, that’s true in many instances. But what if a particular person or group internalizes not just an expectation that they do well, but that they be perfect, all the time, to the point where you’re not allowed to be human and people pick on you if you do anything wrong?
Well, regardless of what we think of when we see the name positive, that latter version is an unhealthy kind of positive projection.
Healthy and Unhealthy Negative Projection
And what if you’re a person or group who is expected they can never do anything right? Well, that’s a kind of negative projection that’s often super unhealthy. And if you internalize this concept, it can lead to beliefs that you are unable to actually do well. (This is why it’s so unhealthy and counterproductive to marginalized populations, for instance.)
Except, well, what if you’re a person or a member of a group that actually does wander around exploiting or abusing people, and someone who’s had bad experiences picks up on that because of their bad experiences in the past? Well, in that situation, negative projections can be actually healthy.
Indeed, if you’re feeling imperfect yourself, applying a positive projection to a person like that with unhealthy behaviors—say, because they are part of a group we claim loyalty to—would be profoundly unhealthy, possibly to a large number of people.
Back to Positive Projection
Overall, though, I’d like to talk about Simone Biles in light of unhealthy positive projection—a topic I have particular experience with because of my upbringing as a pastor’s kid. See, as a pastor’s kid I was either expected to play some role of teenage rebel (see the movie Footloose) or I was expected to be the perfect model of churchy participation, as I discussed the last two weeks (here and here).
As a perfectionist, I internalized the latter much more, but I really hated all the unhealthy positive projections. I just wanted to be a normal kid, and the expectations that my family would be some sort of perfect model of spirituality made my perfectionism worse.
A Quick Note about Projection of Mediocrity
While Jung didn’t define it specifically, a friend recently reminded me that expectations for the average, or mediocrity, is also a projection that happens and gets internalized in our society. I don’t have time to get into this too much today, but I wanted to mention that.
This latter point is especially important to the present discussion because the problems of unhealthy positive projection aren’t really about calling people to excel, or to have grit, but about requiring someone to be perfect at all costs. Especially when they require someone to do so as a kind of (in)human sacrifice to cover up for a multitude of other people’s sins–especially the kind of sins that exploit and abuse other people as well as the “chosen sacrifice.”
And this distinction is something pretty much all of the critiques smashing Biles seem, at best, deeply confused about.
Back to Positive Projections on Simone Biles
But yeah, even though I’ve been incredibly far from being described as the Greatest Athlete of All Time, as a pastor’s kid I can relate to a tiny bit of the unhealthy positive projection pressures Simone Biles has described.
Contrasting My Case with Biles’
But my case is also pretty different from hers. In my case, most of the church people tossing these expectations my way weren’t actively trying to bully me with them. And let’s be clear—not everyone is that way with Simone Biles either. (The positive projections coming at her from supportive groups may be causing her rightful concern too, but that’s a different branch of the topic than I’m dealing with today.)
And yeah, Simone Biles isn’t dealing with positive projections as being engaged with spirituality so much as she is involved with them as an athlete literally expected to represent American nationalism.
Representing American Nationalism Right Now? Ouch!
Sooooo yeah, let’s talk about American nationalism since the last Olympics in 2016. That last Olympics happened before the presidential election happened that year, bringing ascendency to a particularly ugly strain of nationalism.
I mean, not everyone liked America before that, but our most consciously nationalistic right-wing religio-political elements have become increasingly ugly while trying to suppress even talk about the ugliness. In short, they’re not okay with any kind of nationalism except their poisonous, white supremacist, militantly masculinist form.
And as I’ll explain, their critique of Biles shows that desire to control the form of nationalism we all see right now, as well as ironically illuminating the issues they’re trying to hide, for those who have the eyes to see.
Unhealthy American Nationalism and January 6
The very fact that many of our right-wing elected officials have been trying to suppress talk of a terroristic attack on the Capitol building during the same Olympics where they’ve been flinging insults at Simone Biles is an excellent case in point of how deeply unhealthy this kind of nationalism is.
Fascism Is Historically and Presently Defined by Unhealthy Projections
I mean, as I’ve noted before, this is the only side that has self-described Nazis on it. And unfortunately, the last few years the right wing has worked hard to re-mainstream white supremacy and Nazism. And this is the truth—if you look into the very characteristics of fascistic rhetoric (you might want to try Jason Stanley’s book How Fascism Works), you might as well look up the definitions of unhealthy projections.
See, fascists aren’t exactly known for their working through their collective feelings. Take, for example, the historical Nazis in the Third Reich, which I’ve discussed before here. Nazis were literally called to be perfect specimens of humanity. At the same time, anyone who didn’t measure up—or who the regime wished to project negatively on as a representative of impurity through difference from the ideal—was called out for being impure and literally treated as disposable.
Not that the “model citizens” were treated all that much better–the non-fiction book Blitzed does a great job of documenting the fact that the country’s workers were literally being fed meth in order to keep them performing above how humans could–and can–reasonably perform. This, to offer an enormous understatement, was not exactly a healthy practice for anyone.
Striving toward that white person ideal of the being perfect—and “perfectly white” and “pure”—people ought to remind you of a deeply unhealthy positive projection as much as their negative projections on anyone who disagreed with them.
Many White Evangelicals Have Joined In, If You’ll Remember
So yeah, thinking about that, it should give anyone pause to think about the fact that only the political right in the US literally has self-described Nazis on it. While thankfully this group hasn’t (yet) caused the damage the Nazis in the Third Reich have caused, we absolutely need to keep it from going further down that road, as many experts have cautioned. I’ll get to how I see Simone Biles as leading the way in that in a minute.
First, as I’ve discussed here, I’d like to remind you that a large number of white Evangelicals have completely jumped on board of this style of nationalism, to the point where the terrorists that stormed the Capitol building on January 6 carried both a cross and the Confederate flag into the grounds, and prayed about the righteousness of their mission between clubbing police officers.
And as I’ve discussed before, this ought be no surprise to anyone who’s read Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s book Jesus and John Wayne, which maps really well onto how this shoot of Christianity let their religious identity be taken over by white supremacy and militant masculinity, and to see others within their own country as people to be picked on.
Soooo Much Discomfort with the American Image Right Now—For Good Reason!
So yeah, the thing is that the Olympics are often one of the biggest opportunities for nationalism in the US. It’s where even the least nationalist of us sometimes find ourselves shouting USA! USA!
And right now, we’re still holding these games in the midst of an ongoing poorly managed global pandemic, during a wave of the Delta variant that’s so bad among unvaccinated folks that even Republican lawmakers are starting to change their tunes. It’s also DURING the beginning of the January 6 hearings in Congress–hearings the GOP has fought tooth and claw to suppress and mess with.
The GOP Has a Particularly Large Amount to Suppress—Of Course They’re Projecting!
That’s not even mentioning all the other damage Republicans have caused in their particularly fascistic few years in recent time. Take, for example, the ways they’re trying to keep kids about learning real American history, especially the not-pretty parts regarding racism and white supremacy (I talked about this here and here). (Note that picking on a Black female athlete is sort of telling on themselves…)
Or the ways they’re working to cheat to maintain and win back power through partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression.
Where the Expectations for Her Perfection Come From
So, yeah, in light of the fact that the GOP is really bad at dealing with their own emotions and intensely dark side, ought it to be surprising that they’re positively projecting on Simone Biles so strongly that they’re haranguing her for wisely stepping back to care for her health?
I mean, how dare she not be perfect (insert eye a whole host of eye roll emojis here).
Here’s the thing: It’s certainly not Simone Biles’ fault that the nationalism of the right has taken a dark twist, and can’t deal with their own baggage around racism and the rest of it, any more than it’s the fault of any of the other targets of their unhealthy projections.
An Particularly Ugly Kind of American Exceptionalism
Because, let’s be clear: that example I listed above, where there’s a healthy way to negatively view someone?
Well, the GOP thoroughly deserves that kind of negative projection in light of their own actions. And clearly they can’t handle that fact.
They have so deeply inculcated themselves with the unhealthy doctrine of fascistic American exceptionalism—in which America first really only means white male Republicans and whoever else follows along with them first—that they are unwilling to own the fact that they are not just human but pretty terrible humans who are causing a ton of damage to other people.
And so, ironically further proving that they are ugly people, they pick at a person who genuinely has achieved so much excellence that the Olympic judges are being harder on her than other athletes to be “fair to the others.”
As with Many Projections, This Says Wayyyy More About Them Than About Her
So yeah, it’s most definitely not Simone Biles’ responsibility to be some sort of superhero on the GOP’s behalf, carrying the weight of their weirdly twisted nationalistic ideals when they’re off trying to cover their own butts for super dark things they need to come to terms with.
The attacks on her for making the wise choice from stepping back before the team final coming from the right are simply not at all shocking when you think about the multiplicity of things the right has to genuinely feel guilty about. And to wish to distract the public’s attention from.
Beyond Positive Projection
I mean, thinking of the kind of healthy civic engagement a healthy nationalism requires, the GOP lately has gone WAYYYYY beyond being those who simply don’t participate toward getting things done well. Nope, as I’ve already alluded to, they’ve gone so far to actively sabotage things going well for everyone. And are continuing to.
So of course they’re rhetorically picking at her as though she needed to be perfect, to hold the weight of all their own failures and corruption and abuse.
Yup, They’re Clearly Scared of Her Strong Humanity
So yeah, let me be clear: Simon Biles also exemplifies everything the right fears and wishes to suppress.
See, Simone Biles exemplifies genuine, human strength that is willing to courageously acknowledge where she’s been hurt. And as a result she’s willing to assertively speak truth to power about abuse and damage caused by unhealthy people and systems.
Having one of our best athletes assertively stand up and call out the unhealthy positive projections and their effects on her very real and human body doesn’t fit with their narrative, you see.
Asserting Humanity and Speaking of Wounds as Resistance
See, in the GOP’s world of the ubermensch, it’s not supposed to happen. Simone Biles’ body isn’t meant to keep the score of her sexual assault any more than Christine Blasey Ford’s was.
Her body and the brain it holds as part of it isn’t meant to hold the scars from the intergenerational trauma of racism.
And the fact that it does, and that she’s unrelenting in quietly speaking and acting up about it, makes her a threat to their gaslighting practices.
Assertiveness as Threat
I’ve talked about it before here—militant masculinity sees assertiveness as a threat.
I mean, it’s one thing to feel wounded, to be human. But if a person—especially a young Black female who is literally powerful and has a huge platform—does feel any of the stress, and strain and wounds, she’s certainly not supposed to speak up about it.
Setting Boundaries Around Participation as Threat
And she’s not definitely not supposed to set boundaries around her participation.
I mean, the rules of positive projection means that she has to make up, all on her own, for the poor perception of America caused and enabled by the abuse and corruption her GOP detractors has caused. (RIGHT????)
How is she supposed to do that if she steps back from competition, d*mmit?
But Wait….What If Others Opt Out of Their Gaslighting Narrative?
After all, they know, this means that others who have been overachieving to make up for the GOP’s shitty behavior may do the same.
(I mean, d*mmit, from the GOP’s perspective, there are already these #metoo folks, and these Women’s March folks, and these Pride Month folks, and all of the others that simply DO NOT PLAY ALONG with the narrative–if they all recognize they can stand up, how in f*ck is the GOP meant to keep their power, avoid accountability for their past issues, and gain more power and control?)
And they’re terrified of that. Because, you see, they’re working soooo hard to maintain this fiction that there’s no racism, no sexism, pandemic, no aggressive militant masculinity, no violence on January 6—and her coming out with her powerful platform as the Greatest Athlete of All Time and telling people that she is human and refuses to sacrifice her body for America First messes with all of that.
And they can only maintain power if we don’t do that. If we don’t stand up and use our platforms to do what we can, whether through opting in or out of various narratives, to poke at the gaslighting.
I mean, it sucks that it takes courage and vulnerability to resist. But the more we refuse to play the roles projection offers us—the more point people to the human effects of the crap that goes on—the more holes there are in the gaslighting narrative.
We Too Can Resist like Simone Biles
Here’s the thing: we, all of us, have power and voice that can be used to poke holes in the lies. We may not be Simone Biles—and we don’t have to be—to be a threat to toxic systems like toxic masculinity and white supremacy.
The truth is that she refused to sacrifice herself to the script. She honored her right to her own body and to keep it from major injury.
None of Us, Including Her, Can Resist Alone
Could she—and can any of the rest of us—single-handedly take down the unhealthy systems? Most definitely not.
But if all of us do what we can, we can each use our own spheres of influence to keep speaking up toward healthier systems. And we can keep pointing out the poison and ill health in our unhealthy positive and negative projections.
And we can keep working to heal from the ways these things have hurt us, and insist on the time and energy it takes to get there.
Reaching Toward a Genuine Collectivity
I mean, let’s be honest, as has been pointed out so adroitly by many, the same people who are critiquing Simone Biles for a “lack of team orientation” are themselves completely unwilling to reach toward any sort of collective action nationally (in fact, they’re super busy demonizing such collective actions). They won’t even encourage
masking or vaccinations for the pandemic.
Like Simone Biles, if we need to rest from team action, we can still do what we can cheer like crazy from the sidelines for our fellow teammates toward healthier systems to do well in the race. And then we can jump back in when we’re able. Because yeah, there is much work to be done, and it’s very much worth doing what each of us can in the journey.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
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