Let me just cut to the chase and admit that paranoia and delusional thinking are equal-opportunity, multiracial, multicultural and gender-indifferent psychological processes. And, they are so easy and convenient to use, that they are accessible even to the youngest of children or the most physiologically disabled adult mind.
I linked to Bill Whittle's excellent piece about American paranoia and conspiracy at Eject!Eject!Eject! in yesterday's Carnival, but it is far too serious a piece not to discuss at some length.
In it, Whittle shreds the delusions of many Americans into confetti, and he makes some very keen psychological observations about those who willfully cling to the conspiracy theories derived from those delusions. One theory examined under the light of reason is the belief by many that the 1969 Apollo Moon Landing was a government hoax (I have had my share of people ask me about that one); another is the JFK assassination conspiracies; and more recently there is the troubling slippage from the surly bonds of reality into the nether regions of 9/11 "truthiness":
I see. So we have the technical expertise to build a 40-story rocket that can produce millions of pounds of thrust. We can build capsules and lunar landers that function in zero-G. We have the means and the will to put these massive objects into Earth orbit, keep them up there for two weeks, but the additional 3-4% of the total launch energy needed to send this package to the moon is so obviously beyond our technical skill that the whole thing must be a hoax?
I’m sorry, that’s the thinking of someone who is mentally ill. There is something deeper at work there.
That “something” is different than someone who “believes” in UFO’s or the Loch Ness Monster. Such people may be short on critical reasoning, but the emotional force that drives them is a desire for wonder and the magical. Many have remarked that this is, indeed, almost a religious impulse. I’ve wanted to see a real-live flying saucer my entire life. Likewise, if Nessie really existed, what an incredible sight that would be… to look upon the last surviving dinosaur in the flesh! But a videotape of a standing wave shot from five miles away does not outweigh the whole air-breather / no fish evidence. It does not come close to outweighing it. And so I reluctantly throw Nessie back into the superstition bin from whence she came.
But these denialists – the Moon Hoaxers and the 9/11 “Truthers” – these are a different breed. And they are cut from precisely the same cloth. That is to say, they suffer from the same disease: an unwillingness to face reality and its consequences.
And here he has hit on the most prevalent mental illness of our time: The Unwillingness To Face Reality And Its Consequences.
I deal regularly with people who have various levels of physiological abnormality in their brain. Through an unfortunate series of events--their genetics; random biological mutations; or the deliberate use of mind-altering substances that activate the latent psychosis; etc. etc., these unfortunate souls start out with or unknowingly stimulate a defective physiology which causes a dysfunction in their cognitive faculties. Their defective brain works hard to integrate events and make sense of the world, but it is at a serious and overwhelming disadvantage because its neural pathways don't work properly. Hence, auditory or visual hallucination; bizarre delusions; complicated conspiracy theories; disorganized thinking; and an impaired critical thinking capacity in general--all of which lead to pervasive misperceptions of the world and the people around them.
We rightly call such people mentally ill. For the most part (except for the substance-induced psychotics) the only choice they have in the matter (and this, too is often dependent on whether or not the insight they have into their illness has been spared the physiological degneration that effects other parts of their brain) is whether to regularly take the medications that give them some hope of being able to accurately perceive reality.
The people I am concerned about in this post are as close to being mentally ill as it is possible to get. Oh, they have the same catastrophic physiological disruption in their brain that the paranoid schizophrenic has; it's just that they came to it via a different route. They probably weren't born with much of a physiological vulnerability for becoming detached from reality....no, they had to have repeatedly travelled down the psycho path to reach their final delusional destination. It is likely that at first they mentally got lost and accidentally took a wrong turn, leaving the main highway. It was always within their cognitive power to return to the main road (unlike those with mental illness who are biologically trapped on the false path); but at some point they chose to stay on their present course.
The world of politics attracts paranoia, conspiracy theories and paranoids like flypaper attracts flies. And it is deeply disturbing to observe. Whittle notes:
I am more interested in the psychology of someone who believes in these conspiracy theories. I exempt people who have only heard one side of the story, as I did. Sadly, skepticism doesn’t sell as well as hysteria....
Intellectually honest people, people without a deep, vested emotional need to believe the worst, are usually relieved to hear the facts that demolish superstitions like the Bermuda Triangle and the Loch Ness Monster. While there may be disappointment at the loss of an unseen world, people who have chosen to live in reality find comfort in the fact that reality is, in fact, made up of the real and not the wished for.
No, what fascinates me is the emotional motive of people who, presented with overwhelming evidence that the events that transpired on November 22nd, 1963 or September 11th, 2001 really happened exactly the way it appeared, continue to spin ever more elaborate webs in order to get to a place they need to be emotionally. Who are you going to believe: them or your own lying eyes?
All of this conspiracy nonsense comes after the fact. What we saw on those days was clear and vital and unmistakably obvious. In the case of the Kennedy assassination we are asked to believe – against all physical evidence to the contrary – what a few professional witnesses recall for pay ten or twenty or thirty years after the fact. Some guy who claims to see a puff of smoke on the grassy knoll is now a world-wide celebrity and not just some dude with time on his hands on a November afternoon. (And don't be deterred by the fact that a musket firing black powder was the last firearm that emitted "a puff of smoke;" perhaps Kennedy was murdered by a re-animated Stonewall Jackson. Prove it didn't happen!)
I’ve met a number of these people. I know this is harsh, but I’m sick of watching the damage they are doing to this civilization: these people are, to a man, complete losers. Losers. They are desperate and sad people who need to believe in some dark secret to give meaning to their lives....
Recently, Rosie O’Donnell said on national television that she believes 9/11 was orchestrated by the US government.
Well, that’s why we went through the steps above. If you believe that the government lied about the moon landing, you can believe they lied about killing JFK. If they lied about JFK, then they can lie about chemtrails. And if they are willing to poison the entire population with aerial spraying, what are a few thousand people in four airliners and a couple of buildings?
Rosie O’ Donnell making such a claim on a major network is a national disgrace. The fact that much of the audience cheered and applauded is nothing less than a national catastrophe.
To her, and to her audience, it is taken as granted that the government is capable of such things. As if “the government” was operated by cyborgs grown in Haliburton vats, rather than by well-meaning and patriotic people that love this country.
...what kind of moral universe do you have to inhabit to be able to believe that your own people – airline personnel, demolition experts, police and security forces, faked witnesses and all the rest – are capable of such a thing? How much hate for your own society do you have to carry in order to live in such a desolate and ridiculous mental hell? What psychoses must a mind be riddled with in order to negate what was perfectly obvious and instead believe a theory of such monumental fantasy? How much pure constant hatred does that take?
What, in short, is the miserable black hole of self-loathing that drives a person like Rosie O’Donnell and millions like her?
The examples of paranoia exhibited by the political left and mouthpieces like Rosie in the last six years would be amusing, if they weren't so alarming and so mainstream. People who used to think like that were marginalized out of respect (or perhaps embarassment) over the physiological dysfunction that made them crazy. Nowadays, the theories of Rosie O'Donnells, Michael Moores, Cindy Sheehans and the like are best-selling books, movies and CDs. Their every word is plastered all over the news until the ordinary citizen begins to hear voices in his head, too.
When you consider the absurd complexity; the unparalleled detail and complete bizarreness of the various "Bushitlerhallisharpton" kinds of conspiracy theories that routinely come from the left these days, you've got to wonder why they find it so difficult and impossible to believe in a DOCUMENTED connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda. That there was ABSOLUTELY NO SUCH THING is their strident, urgent response; even as they develop layer upon layer of loose connections and illogical associations to bolster the conspiracy du jour that they are promoting against the Bush Adminsitration.
Ask yourself why the possibility--let alone the reality-- of such a connection is actually so fundamentally threatening to them and their worldview.
You can always find out what the latest delusion making the rounds is by following the deeply disturbed fantasies at the Democratic Underground (I won't link to them) and the Huffington Post--which is only a more upscale DU--the Nieman Marcus of conspiracy department stores.
There is a reason that human beings experience suspicion, distrust and hypervigilance. That reason is because there is REAL danger in the world. Our ancestors in the caves knew this to be true. They lived with continual danger just to survive every minute of every day. Those who did not have the psychological capacity to perceive the danger in the environment surely died out long ago.
But this important psychological trait which senses danger and strives to protect the ego; and which is accentuated in children and early in life, is appropriately balanced out by the development of the rational faculty--the intellect.
The tools of the paranoid are denial, distortion, and projection. These psychological tools are almost always pathological when used to cope with the real world. For the user these three primitive psychological defenses permit a [hopefully temporary] rearrangement of external reality so that an actual, often unpleasant or painful reality may be avoided; for the beholder, the users of these mechanisms frequently appear crazy or insane. These are known as the "psychotic" defenses, common in overt psychosis, in dreams, and throughout childhood.
Denial is a refusal to accept external reality because it is too threatening. There are examples of denial being adaptive (for example, it might be adaptive for a person who has a terminal illness to use some degree of denial). But for the most part, denial is only useful as a short-term strategy, to permit a person to come to terms with reality. As a long-term strategy to protect self-identity, it is potentially lethal--since the person or group that uses it extensively is blinded to the real danger that might be out there.
Distortion is a gross reshaping of external reality to meet internal needs. Hinchey's bizarre accusations against the evil genius Rove are a perfect example. It is more acceptable to believe that some evil person has tricked you, than it is to believe that you behaved stupidly.
Delusional Projection occurs when an individual or group have delusions about external reality, usually of a persecutory nature.
It is easy to see how all these psychological manipulations work together to keep a person or a group insulated from reality. In truth, we witness such behavior all around us (and it is certainly not exclusive to one side of the political spectrum--though the political left has almost exclusive rights to it at this point in history).
Physiologically, anyone using these psychological strategies have some of short-circuit in their brain. That includes both those who are truly mentally ill with major psychiatric disorders; as well as those who, for psychological and psychosocial reasons, desire their brains to simulate mental illness in order to avoid reality. The only difference between the two is that the latter group have a potential to rediscover reality without any particular medication or treatment. A rediscovery may be painful; it may require a lot of soul-searching and an ability to face the unpleasant truth about themselves or their belief system, but insight and growth often are difficult processes.
How does reason balance suspicion? You say to yourself: is this feeling paranoid? Do I have facts to back up my suspicions, or do I only feel that it is so? Are these facts? Or, are they distortions, because I really really want to believe this is true?
How do you tell a fact from a distortion? 9/11 was a FACT. Millions of people experienced it directly; millions more watched it unravel indirectly. There are mounds of evidence and data that it was planned and funded by Al-Qaeda and carried out by Islamic terrorists. These are FACTS. The widespread belief among Muslims that the Jews are behind 9/11 and that they did it so that the blame would fall on Muslims is a DISTORTION, which comes from DENIAL of the facts; and represents a PSYCHOLOGICAL PROJECTION. It is a PSYCHOLOGICAL PROJECTION because many Muslims want desperately to believe that Islam is a peaceful religion and prohibits such acts, despite what is said in the Qu'ran, and what is practiced in the real world.
Likewise, the widespread belief on the political left that the Bush Administration and the US government is behind 9/11 and that they did it so that they did it because--- oh who the hell can possibly understand all the frivolous reasons they cite-- is also a DISTORTION, which comes from DENIAL of the facts; and represents a PSYCHOLOGICAL PROJECTION. It is a PSYCHOLOGICAL PROJECTION because many on the left want desperately to believe that their socialist ideology/religion stands for peace and that Republicans/Conservatives/Neocons are behind all the evil in the world, instead of their utopian fantasies, despite all the horrors their fantasies have produced in the real world.
Many people desperately need to cling to something--anthing, no matter how bizarre or psychotic-- that proves (at least in their own dysfunctional minds) that their beliefs about President Bush being a fascist dictator, another Hitler; about to implement a Christian theocracy are true. They believe this so deeply that it is impossible for facts to debunk such a religious fantasy. In their minds, if it is true, then they are not such losers for believing in an ideology that is responsible for the deaths and misery of millions around the world.
These people are so far gone, they have willingly abandoned the classical liberal values that once were part of the Democratic Party, and instead embraced a nihilistic culture of victimhood. In doing so, they now support all the losers, thugs and murderers of the world.
It is only a very short step from marching to support and cleverly rationalizing the homicidal and violent terrorist groups that make up the Palestinian cause to then swallowing whole the vile antisemitism that motivates the delusions they need to maintain their victimhood status.
As long as the Palestinians are the left's preferred and idealized victim group, neither have to face their own pathological inadequacies as people. As SC&A observe in a post on Arab conspiracies:
Israel and the success and contributions of Jews to western civilization as opposed to their own failures are in the mirror the Arab world has to look at daily. Those truths are almost intolerable to most Arabs. To be sure there are many progressive, intellectual Arabs that understand that Israel is a reality and that the successes of Jews in the west are a model that should be emulated, but for most, Israel and the success of the Jewish community integration into the American and western mosaic, remains a cruel violation of Allah's promise to them. The fact that Allah seems to have abandoned them to live in such squalor and hopelessness is of no concern- it is the non Muslims that remain the obsession. It is the non-Muslims that have upset the 'natural' Islamic order.
The Arab world is not humiliated by the lack of decent schools. The Arab world is not humiliated by their scientific backwardness and book burnings. In a smaller, interconnected world, they cannot be unaware of their own medievalism. The Arab world is not humiliated by collapsed economies. There are car manufacturers in China and Africa, yet there are only 'plans' for an auto industry in the Arab world.
To put it all in context- how is it possible that the humiliations of centuries of Arab failures are trumped by the political 'humiliations of today? What powerful agenda can pull a whole society away from reality?
This is the same powerful agenda that has pulled the left away from reason, truth and reality. Bill Whittle made a profound observation about those people who prefer to ignore Lee Harvey Oswald and subscribe to more complicated JFK assassination conspiracy theories: They are Oswald.
Likewise the left has become the Palestinians. They identify with the Arabs. That is the psychological basis of their unholy alliance with the Islamists and jihadists.
The paranoia, projection and denial all serve to make them feel better about themselves; make them feel less like the losers they are. By inventing themselves as the victims of the BushHitler--or the Jews, or the neocons or whatever-- they can, like a typical, arrogant paranoid psychotic, pat themselves on the back at their heroic, courageous, and "principled" stand against the forces of oppression. Their failures are NOT THEIR FAULT. Everything in their life would be better if THE EVIL OPPRESSORS would go away. Their need to externalize blame for their own failure will trump any facts and obscure any contradicting reality. Without the paranoia, they are nothing.
Emotions are an important part of life, but if you base all your behavior on what you FEEL, then you are vulnerable to all sorts of psychopathology. Paranoia is an extreme of what otherwise would be helpful and normal reactions to the perception of danger. Paranoia distorts reality in the service of protecting the self from having to deal with unacceptable thoughts or feelings. It is useful to protect the integrity of the sense of self--sometimes even at the expense of one's life.
Paranoia helps individuals and groups defend against their own hostility and their perceived insignificance. Often the emotions displayed by the paranoid are covering up the exact opposite emotion within. Paranoia is reason in the service of the irrational. The paranoid cannot afford to examine his or her premises and face reality because to do so would do two things:
(1) it would display to the world the deep, irrational hatred which he is defending himself against by making himself the "victim" of someone else's deep, irrational hatred; and
(2) it would cause him to admit his own insignificance, because if he is NOT the center of a plot and the focus of his "enemies" then he must be shamefully unimportant - a nobody.
You would think that a paranoid person would be reassured to discover that people or groups are NOT out to get him. That there is no conspiracy against the group. You would be wrong. This is the last thing that the Paranoid individual or group really want, because--if they are not being persecuted, or betrayed, or lied to, or oppressed--then the Paranoid must face the devastating reality of his own insignificance. This he cannot do and it is why the alternate reality was constructed in the first place.
The paranoid solution to unacceptable thoughts or feelings is to say, "If I am having these bad thoughts or feeling or behaviors, then someone else must be to blame and is making me do it." The Paranoid person does not take responsibility for his own thoughts or feelings or behaviors.
Conspiracy theories serve one of two purposes. They either serve as a rationale for the unacceptable successes of others; or as reasons for the failures of a particular group or individual. The Arab world fixation with Jews and the reasons for Jewish successes serve as the classic fodder for conspiracy theorists in the Middle East. In the US, the Rosie O'Donnell's and Michael Moore's are still trying desperately to account for the success of the Republicans in being elected to the White House and their own failure. Reality itself had to be distorted in order to protect them from feeling low self-esteem or shame. Bush Derangement and the various derivatives of the underlying hatred that infuses it has become second nature, and this transfer of blame to someone else is an indicator to the observer that such individuals are experiencing internal shame. It is but a short walk up that psycho path to paranoia and delusion.
A healthy individual's solution is to take responsibility for his or her thoughts, feelings, behaviors, successes and failures. Even if it is sometimes painful to acknowledge. But by owning his or her feelings, the healthy individual is able to exert control over inappropriate behavior that might spring from those feelings.
Another way of saying this is that you cannot choose the feelings that you experience- emotions are not generally under conscious control; but you can choose how to act on those feelings, because behavior is under conscious control.
Paranoia strikes deep. It will creep into your heart when you are afraid of your own feelings and try to disown them by blaming the "Jews", the "Blacks", or "Gays" or even President Bush. History has been littered with millions of dead bodies resulting from the denial, distortion and projection of paranoid leaders like Hitler, Stalin, Hussein, and Bin Laden. But those people had followers who believed just as they did, and did most of their dirty work.
You have to stop, look and see what's going down in your own heart and face some unpleasant and devastating facts about yourself--if you want to understand how such evil can exist.
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