Degree of Insanity In Current Political Discourse
John R. Minor PhD
As population pressures, poverty, competition for earth's finite resources, skills needed to function in society, and personal fears increase, the scientific works of Alfred Korzybski and Albert Ellis seem ever more vital for application to current world problems. Korzybski's work discloses that language definitions like right or wrong, good or bad, sane or insane (or unsane) are overly simplistic and based on an old Aristotelian language system. Utilizing this knowledge, we can begin to think in more accurate descriptions of 'reality'. We can adopt terminology which reflects degrees of good or bad, sane or insane, right or wrong, happy or depressed, etc instead of the ancient either/or definitions. Polar opposite terms, reflecting incomplete or inaccurate descriptions of events or processes, may be mainly avoided.
Korzybski's theories seem like common sense but profound. Words are not the 'things' they represent. The word 'water' is not what we drink. Words are simply letter combination, sounds, puffs of air striking our eardrums which we interpret according to learned associations. 'Simple' changes such as defining polar opposite concepts in terms of degrees, or recognizing that “the map is not the territory it describes” affects perception. With awareness and application of this theory, we can begin to understand how we identify ourselves, events, processes, etc. with words. We can begin to understand how these affect our nervous system. The word f--- may greatly excite or anger, depending on how we interpret. We can begin to think in more constructive, less rigid, prejudicial, or extreme ways. I'm not saying that it's simple or easy to change deep seated habits of language use. It isn't. I am saying that the average person could, with commitment, change their characteristic way (i.e., habit) of language use, and alter a natural tendency to prejudice themselves with certain kinds of thinking. It does require an admission that you're not 'perfectly' rational, and that there's room to improve your reasoning. This takes a desire to improve yourself, and a sustained effort to think more sensibly and change disturbed emotional reactions. The ideas of Korzybski and Ellis seem to me best for making sensible changes, in their genius and depth of science. Are they simple and easy to apply? They are not. They do offer some rather quick and clear insights into what you can do to become more rational (i.e., saner) if you choose to work at it.
We can define “mental illness” or “sanity”, and physical health, on a continuum, as having degrees of physical illness or mental illness, not simply sick or healthy. Since the time of the early Egyptians, humans have debated the meaning of aberrant behavior. The famous Greek physician Hippocrates, born in 460 B.C., separated the discipline of medicine from religion and believed that environmental factors, along with diet and living habits were important in understanding behavior. Mental disorders were described in various terms in Chinese and Indian societies, The word 'sanity' comes from middle English or the old French sanite, and the Latin sanitus in 1628. Shakespeare recognized mental aberrations in his plays and 'insanity' has evolved as a legal term used to determine the culpability of a criminal act, or whether an individual is capable of determining the difference between right and wrong. The dictionary defines a sane individual as possessing a rational mind, or having the mental faculties in such condition as to be able to anticipate or judge the effect of one's actions, or being without delusions or prejudice, logical, rational and sensible.
The dictionary definition of delusion is: a false idea or impression that is strongly held despite strong evidence or rational argument to the contrary. Delusional thinking or paranoia seems on the increase in political debate and negatively affects the level of dialogue of society in general. Ignorance feeds this thinking. Incidences are too numerous to treat in depth. Some examples are the 'birther issue', insistence that President Obama is a Muslim, that he is going to take away rights of gun ownership, that Democrats are secretly trying to introduce Sharia law, etc.
Delusional thinking, like other mental illness conditions, can be defined in degrees. We can use a definition of severely delusional or mildly delusional. Some reflection on the non-absoluteness of these terms, in light of the work of Korzybski and Ellis, suggests that delusions can also be understood as a matter of number, consequence, intensity, etc. In the legal sense, a determination is usually made on the condition of sanity or insanity of the individual when a crime is committed. This is based on available evidence, with expert testimony on both sides of the issue. In a non legal sense, we can evaluate anyone in terms of a degree of reasonableness, or “sanity”, based on our interpretation of their expressed beliefs and the likely consequences of their beliefs. I will discuss some criteria for these analyses later. As noted above, words are representations of underlying nervous system processes, at a 'silent' level of activity (as Korzybski elaborated).
The millions of years of evolution it took for humans to develop into extraordinarily complex humans have not prepared us for the rapid changes we're experiencing. Those with the most complex brains, the genius of a relative few, create changes faster than most of us can be aware of, understand, or utilize for good. Some react to change in extremely negative ways, while others may view change as inevitable, with some amusement. Eagles songwriter Joe Walsh creatively calls himself “an analog man in a digital world”.
Our First Black President
The fact that President Obama is referred to as the first 'black' President, or by many as a Muslim (vs. Christian, etc.) means that skin color is treated as a predominant characteristic, as is religion. When we stop referring to someone as 'black' or 'white', believers or non believers, etc. we will have progressed in a psychological sense. Millions, of course, will dispute this idea, choosing to focus on what is familiar. In a classic book The Nature Of Prejudice, Gordon Allport discusses this problem. We are unlikely to attain those changes in my lifetime but hopefully will in the future.
Having a 'black' President is an example of a change poorly tolerated by some (but not all) older whites, those with limited knowledge, or those most prone to prejudiced thinking. A rapid increase in gun sales and hate groups, individual and group paranoia, overt hostilities, etc. reflect this inability. Those who insist on simple, uncomplicated “reality”, and demand absolute certainty, seem most likely to be affected with anger-based fear. This anger may be 'projected' outward. Projection is a defense recognized by psychologists when a feeling experienced by an individual (e.g., anger) is unrecognized as their own, and may seem unacceptable to them. They project that anger on to another, but are unable to recognize it in themselves.
Mitt Romney recently responded to remarks by Vice President Joe Biden by telling the Obama campaign to take their campaign of “division and anger and hate back to Chicago.” Ironically, this comes after going on four years of a continuous drumbeat of hostile, divisive, derogatory rhetoric toward Obama and Democrats, especially from Fox News. It's not difficult to see where the majority of prejudice and hostility originates, if one studies this with some objectivity.
Individuals may define themselves as moral and view those who aren't with them as against them. They insist they President Obama “is not one of us”, “will take away our guns”, “was not born in the US”, “is a Muslim”, “ a socialist” etc. This non stop denigration takes a clear toll on the level of “sanity” or rational discourse possible to address our problems. It has prejudiced or biased the perception of the President, apart from his actions. Republicans have buttressed this with a group think refusal to cooperate with President Obama on almost every issue, even many prior ones they may have initiated and now refute. Their mantra of “no new taxes” has popular appeal. But their group think mentality doesn't allow for cooperative solution(s) with Democrats. They demand, overtly or covertly, to be in control of all decisions which involve power and money, including power over women's decisions about procreation.
An Antidote For Poisonous Rhetoric
I believe Korzybski and Ellis exhibited genius in each developing a more scientific system to aid resolution of human conflict(s). By this, I don't imply that their systems are absolutely scientific. Nothing is! But one can choose to develop an attitude of science, recognizing an incompleteness of knowledge.
Science utilizes a checking and rechecking of evidence, for whatever it examines (e.g., ancient myths, hypothesized concepts, pure speculations, biblical claims, etc. It gets altered or revised as new information develops. Religious faith or dogma, by definition, is easily susceptible to unproven myths, hypotheses, or pure speculation about the nature of reality. Faith often resists any revision that doesn't fit traditional thinking. Not all churchmen or women, of course, are anti science. Those who I refer to as religionists seem to elevate decisions based on faith in 'God' above all else. The separation of church is increasingly compromised. As I've watched numerous politicians increasingly use these beliefs to manipulate, coerce, deceive and control others, and daily hear or read about all the conflicts that are a consequence of absolutist thinking, I've become increasingly concerned and alarmed about how this affects all of us.
Korzybski and Ellis well understood the limitations and fallibilities of human reasoning. Both considered absolutistic thinking symptomatic of mental illness.They would have agreed that the language we use greatly affects and shapes our perceptions, actions, and emotions. The way we define mental illness plays a major role in treatment, legal decisions, etc. Three examples (among many) profoundly illustrates the sanity/insanity issue:
In Tucson, Arizona, January 8, 2011, 23 year old college dropout Jared Loughner shot and killed 6 people and wounded 13 others, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Giffords sustained severe brain damage and had to leave Congress. She appeared at the Democratic Convention, walking on with great difficulty and help and recited the pledge of allegiance.
On July 22, 2011, 33 year old Anders Breivik killed 77 people in Norway, many of them teenagers he methodically hunted down and shot at close range. A panel of Norwegian judges, ruled that Breivik was sane, and therefore criminally responsible for the killings. The killer identified himself as a Christian who wanted to ignite Christian Europe to prevent a Muslim takeover. Two teams of psychiatrists presented conflicting views, one describing him as delusional, a paranoid schizophrenic with a defective view of reality. The second evaluation ruled him as sane. We can see the working here of social motives, the one to hold him criminally responsible, the other to apparently accurately describe a delusional state and a severely disturbed view of reality. He strongly resisted the insanity verdict, calling it a fate worse than death, as it would reduce his views to the ravings of a madman. His lawyers, at his urging, supported his position that he was sane and would have appealed the verdict had he been ruled otherwise. The maximum prison time under Norwegian law is 21 years, although it can be renewed repeatedly if he is deemed a threat to society.
On July 20th, 2012, 24 year old college student, in the process of dropping out of college, James Holmes, killed 12 and wounded 58 at a showing of Dark Night Rises, at a theater in Aurora, Colorado.
While these may be three of the most dramatic killings, many other examples could be cited. What does it indicate?
The Thinking Process of Humans
Korzybski identified an individual as “an organism-as-a-whole-in-an-environment”. Think about that. Ellis agreed, emphasizing that every human being is unique, in his biology, genetic makeup, personality, individual environment, etc. Both emphasized a biological and an environmental basis for human pathological thinking. Both recognized it was much more wide spread than usually realized, affecting practically all of us to some degree or other.
Ellis distinguished two categories or degrees of beliefs which affect us: demandingness vs. preference beliefs. Some demands are based on logical consequences of a belief, determined by the circumstances of our life and existence. For example, I must eat and drink if I want to survive. This is a helpful understanding based on fact but it isn't absolute, as we could choose not to survive.
Ellis also defined three basic kinds of demands, according to what they demand on, or about: 1. Demands on self 2. Demands on others and 3. Demands on the world. These get expressed in some version of must, should, ought, have to, got to, etc. (I must, others must, the world should...etc).
We appear biologically predisposed to make and hold demands. If you think about it, you may recognize that some individuals appear very demanding, while others seem less disposed to emotionality. To the degree we understand our own individual thinking process and how this might apply to us, and work at selective change, we can help ourselves become more sane or rational. Is this a perfect process? No it isn't! The billions of individuals in the world can all be expected to differ in their capability to hold or develop rational thinking or to agree on what that might be. What I'm discussing here is a way to understand your thinking. If you're willing, this is a criteria that has been developed over decades to foster better mental health.
Demands seem most harmful when they're not based on reasonable expectations and trigger unhelpful emotions (e.g., they may trigger unhelpful anxiety such as “I absolutely must do well at whatever I attempt”), “I absolutely have to control others to be happy” (childlike thinking), “I've got to gain the approval of everybody I like”, etc. Demands about how others should think and behave trigger anger or rage, when those demands aren't met, etc. Ellis defines a dozen or so demands that humans commonly hold and cause difficulty to one degree or another. During our evolution, a demand may have served a strong survival function (e.g., I must build barriers against wild animals or other forces of nature, I must not jump off this high cliff to avoid being killed, I must outrun (some danger) to escape, etc. (Add your own).
In our modern day world, some demands (as I noted above) appear helpful and others don't. Inflexible demandingness may negatively influence rational thinking. Hopefully, we often moderate our demands or expectations on some rational basis. But that depends! Delusional thinking seems to currently effect the level of political discourse. Anger stems from the strongly held belief that others must follow our bidding. An increase of these beliefs, in number, intensity, and potential destructiveness affects perception and emotions and colors political thinking. This is due in part to changes I noted above. I will elaborate on how the moderation of anger or rage is missing when insight into one's feelings or motives is poorly understood.
Rage Against The Machine rock guitarist Tom Morello observed how a lack of awareness of one's anger can be problematic. He noted that Paul Ryan has identified their band as his favorite, responding that Ryan is not Rage’s favorite politician. Morello strongly criticizes the conservative Wisconsin congressman in an essay in Rolling Stone, once more showing how tough it is for Republicans to find rockers who agree with them.
Noted Morello: “Paul Ryan’s love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades,”. “Charles Manson loved the Beatles but didn’t understand them. Gov. Chris Christie loves Bruce Springsteen but doesn’t understand him. And Paul Ryan is clueless about his favorite band. Paul Ryan claims he likes Rage’s sound, but not the lyrics. Well, I don’t care for Paul Ryan’s sound or his lyrics”. Morello says that he does sense a “rage” in Ryan, whose proposed budgets have made deep cuts in social programs and environmental spending. It is, Morello points out: “A rage against women. A rage against immigrants. A rage against gays. A rage against the poor. A rage against the environment. Basically, the only thing he’s not raging against is the privileged elite he’s groveling in front of four campaign contributions. He can like whatever bands he wants, but his guiding vision of shifting revenue more radically to the one percent is antithetical to the message of Rage.”
While this musical group acknowledges their own anger, they understand that others who may identify with the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, or Rage, have limited insight into their feelings. As I suggest above, when individuals don't understand how their thoughts affect their emotions, they are more likely to project those feelings. When they are anti science, insisting they have absolute truth on their side, they seem more likely to make decisions which adversely affect society. Absolute notions of moral superiority, or inferiority, without a willingness to question or examine the effects of such thinking, threaten our general well being.
In contrast, we wouldn't seem likely to survive without holding preferences. These motivate us to pursue certain values which maintain us. Ellis noted that preferential thinking (e.g., I want to be as healthy as possible, I want to do well at what I attempt, I like approval from those I want to impress but I don't have to have it, I like it when people think like I do but I realize that it's silly or unrealistic or unhelpful to insist on that, etc.) often helps us to sensibly pursue particular goals, to foster approval from others (without needing it), to tolerate differences in thinking which are non destructive, etc
Rules For Non Absolute, Rational Thinking
Some rules about sane or reasonable behavior follows from this theory: 1. 'Rational' or 'sane' thinking is often based on fact or evidence, or proof of some kind 2. 'Rational' or 'sane' thinking is thinking that helps us avoid conflict with others that we want to avoid 3. 'Rational' or 'sane' thinking helps us set and achieve reasonable goals most effectively. 4. 'Rational' or 'sane' thinking or behavior does not needlessly or intentionally harm others.
These rules are not absolute and you may not agree with one or any of them. They are based on ones that some Rational Emotive Behavioral Psychologists have distilled from logical ideas that seem important and helpful to 'sane' and healthy behavior. They appear useful, based on over half a century of clinical research and psychological practice, in treating mental illness.
I will use these formulations to somewhat analyze the thinking and behavior of current politicians, and make a determination about their degree of 'sanity' or 'insanity' or, if you prefer less loaded terms, the degree of 'sanity' or 'unsanity' of current beliefs, policies, or actions.
Demands For Simplicity Or Absolute Reality
One of the demands we humans may have is that 'reality' be simple, or easy, the way we'd like it. When it isn't simple or easy as we believe it must be, we become tense and often seek instant gratification and ways to relax. Self created and self imposed demands to relax may create further tension within us. Name calling of those with whom we disagree provides an immediate “satisfaction” for aggression, particularly when we forget to reason and moderate our emotions accordingly.
Many politicians seem especially unable to understand their own or others' motivations or behavior. Milt Romney has stated, quite wrongly, that if you're poor it's your fault, that you're 'lazy', stupid, etc. Religionists in general seem to believe that a God favors them personally, listens and answers their prayers (out of the billions on earth and who knows what life exists in the vastness of innumerable galaxies?). More importantly, they believe they're right and, when you don't agree, you're wrong. Since Obama's election, many of them have focused on efforts to force their beliefs on others, to insist that women not be allowed to have abortions or even use birth control. While not true of all Republicans, many seem predisposed to a kind of group think process or following the herd.
Republicans are presently engaged in country-wide actions, to prevent large numbers of poor and minority from voting in numerous states. This seems to follow from beliefs of the superiority of their (i.e., individual Republicans) moral and intellectual 'worth' and a “win at any cost” mentality.. They believe that poor or minority individuals, who they rationalize as less intelligent or 'worthy', are likely to vote Democratic. Many seem heavily invested in effecting a form of Jim Crow laws, to prevent minorities and the poor from voting at all costs. Their main priority, as Mitch McConnell openly stated, is to see that President Obama isn't elected to a second term. This has blocked cooperative steps between the political parties to seek solutions to societal problems.
Eric Alterman addresses right wing prejudice in The Nation Magazine (March 19, 2012, p.10). He quotes Media Research Center president Brent Bozell and Fox News host Eric Bolling, respectively who asked: Does Barack Obama look like a “skinny ghetto crackhead” to you? Did Whitney Houston's death inspire the thought that Representative Waters needs to “step away from the crack pipe?”
Alterman quips that “if you prefer your news by radio...you'd best stick with Rush Limbaugh who has claimed that President Obama “talks honky” around white folk, while his wife feels entitled to abuse public funds for centuries of white oppression of black people.
Alterman also criticizes Ann Coulter's comments at a recent CPAC convention that “Voters with forty years of politically correct education are ecstatic to have the first black president. They just love the idea of it, even if we did get Flavor Flav instead of Thomas Sowell.” Coulter is expressing anger towards Obama as president, name calling him, and seeming to suggest that, if we have to have a black president, he should at least be right wing conservative (like Sowell). As a psychologist, I believe that the individuals Alterman is quoting don't comprehend their prejudice and would deny it.
Republicans appear hell-bent on defeating the Democrats at any cost. It's difficult to be well informed about complex issues and Americans often seem poorly informed or misinformed about these.
To someone unable or unwilling and/or unable to invest a good deal of time to educate themselves, and sort out facts from fictions, delusions become more common. This is, in fact, what I think has been occurring, as life becomes more complicated and there is less time to devote to what appears to be increasingly complex problems that confront us. While extremist groups have always existed, they increase in times of greater fear of loss of control.
The dictionary defines a delusion as a false belief or impression. All of us have likely had, to one degree or another, false beliefs or impressions. They become problematic to the degree they threaten the welfare of an individual or society. They seem to be clearly on the increase, with greater potential for harm.
The circumstances I have discussed, and many more, have prompted me to try to gain a thoughtful voice in all the cacophony of voices and opinions that exist. It may seem like, you know, p........ in the wind. But it's worth the effort, and at least I won't have to think I made no effort to thwart the ignorance and insanity all too prevalent in our political leaders. Since Republicans, in particular, seem to have adopted some or many of the extremist and narrow ideas of Ayn Rand, I recommended that anyone interested get a copy of Albert Ellis' book “Is Objectivitism A Religion?” and consider how illogical her ideas are and how they've been adopted by present day Republican leaders. Ellis dissects Rand's thinking in much depth, and contrasts this with the theory of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.
I have included a few questions to stimulate a thinking dialogue with anyone interested. Many Republicans who are leading the party do seem to, as Bill Clinton noted at the Democratic Convention, operate in a parallel universe. Sadly, many citizens in our society seem poorly informed. I believe this contributes to the degree of delusional thinking that presently exists. In the October 1st issue of The Nation Magazine, author and political analyst Rick Perlstein, comments on the decades long war within the Republican Party, noting that, shorn of all moderating influence, it “...has finally, unalterably, gone insane.” This article is an attempt to look at that process.
I have not attempted to present “both sides of the issue”. Issues are quite complex and “many sided”. I recognize my clear bias for rational efforts for compromise. I do not perceive that Republicans as a group consider facts that important or use reason and evidence as their guide. There are exceptions, of course, but I believe that a generalization about their actions since President Obama took office is warranted.
Considering The 'Sanity' Or 'Insanity' of Current Political Thinking
With the above as backdrop, the questions below may get you thinking about the degree of 'sanity' or 'insanity' in the current actions, beliefs, and intentions of current politicians. My focus is particularly on those who seem clearly irrational and subject to delusional thinking. These are based on some rules for 'rational' thinking as I noted above. It seems useful to use questions in this regard, to encourage thinking about some primary issues affecting the current political debates. You might consider them on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 quite sane and 10 quite insane.
- Women number slightly more than half our population. How sane is it for men to insist on controlling the conditions of reproduction of women, voting against equal pay for equal work, etc.?
- How sane is it to insist that, you must control the behavior of other citizens, without taking into the consideration the effect on society in general?
- How sane is it to insist that others share your religious faith, and that only those who do can be saved?
- How sane is it to demand that individuals without a belief in a 'God' of your choice, or any 'God', cannot serve in a political office?
- How sane is it to insist that your morals are, ipso facto, superior and truer than others with different beliefs, since you believe in a Christian 'God' or another 'God' in which you mutually believe with other groups?
- How sane is it to insist that if you're poor it's your fault, or that you're lazy and just not trying?
- How sane is it to denigrate another individual because he is of a different race?
- How sane is it to expect that society can operate without some regulation from a centralized government?
- How sane is it to insist that you should have unlimited wealth, regardless of what effect that may have on society in general?
- How sane is it to talk at length about the abstract concept of “freedom” without ever questioning whether you are personally free from whatever particular dogma you may have been raised?
- How sane is it to insist that you have a complete right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, without any concern for other's welfare?
- How sane is it to refuse to cooperate with the other political party, in order to regain control, regardless of consequences to the general welfare of society?
- How sane is it to blatantly lie about the motives of others, in order to gain an advantage over them?
- How sane is it, in a country that professes democracy, to attempt in various ways to block African Americans and other minorities, as well as the poor, handicapped, etc. from being able to vote?
- Etc. Make up your own questions.
About the author
John Minor, Ph.D., Associate fellow and training faculty, REBT; Adjunct professor, University of California.
Wednesday, October 3rd , 2012