A follow-up to my previous post about the relationship between politics and insanity: I recently came across this fascinating interview with Manfred Schneider, professor of aesthetics and literary media who has recently written on the subject of assassins and paranoiacs, exploring their stories throughout history and the role they play in present-day politics. In the interview, Schneider places the shooting in Arizona earlier this month into an historical context, describing the shooter, Jared Loughner, not as crazy or irrational, but as “hyper-rational”:
Every assassin is a perceptive observer and interpreter of signs and events. For him, nothing happens by accident. He scrutinizes the world in search of hostile intentions, and he imagines conspiracies everywhere. To us, the outcome seems insane. Yet logic and rationality are key components in the paranoid suppositions arrived at by the assassin. Paranoia is not irrationality but hyper-rationality. Loughner is a very typical example.
Yet this type of hyper-rationality can also characterize the minds of great thinkers and geniuses (such as the fictional character, Sherlock Holmes), who may also be skilled at discovering patterns of meaning in apparently random details or coincidental events. What makes the difference between a perceptive genius of analysis, and the hyper-rational delusions of the paranoiac and would-be assassin? In part, of course, it depends on how accurate or true to reality one’s conclusions are. Yet as Schneider points out, this may be particularly difficult to determine for oneself (Loughner certainly thought his conclusions were accurate), and so another check against paranoid hyper-rationality is the self-reflection and perspective to be gained from engagement with a broader community, which provides a means of examination and communication. Schneider explains, “Without a communicative means of reconciliation with the world around him, he [the paranoiac] begins to create his own system to explain the things that concern and oppress him.”
Once again, we see that the “insanity” of hyper-rationality has social and political undercurrents. Disconnection from a community capable of providing a sounding board for our individual psychological need to seek out meaningful patterns can result in paranoia and delusion. However, as I mentioned in my post last week, there are times when a community or society may itself be neurotic or psychologically unhealthy. The example that Schneider uses to illustrate the difference between delusional and insightful hyper-rationality is itself very telling:
[T]he analysis that then US Secretary of State Colin Powell presented to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003, which concluded that there were mobile biological weapons laboratories in Iraq, was based on the same structure as the lunacy of Adelheid Streidel, who critically injured (German politician) Oskar Lafontaine with a knife in 1990. She believed that there were underground factories in (the Bavarian town of) Wackersdorf, where people were being killed.
Here, the difference is that Powell was speaking for a nation, a community which confirmed and supported the suspicions of WMDs in Iraq, while Streidel acted alone, based solely on her own delusions. Yet we have since learned that there were no such weapons in Iraq, and that the reasons provided for the Iraq War were largely disingenuous, when they weren’t downright fabrications. What does this say about our ability to rely on community to provide us with a trustworthy check on personal paranoia? (And what of the role of dissenters, such as myself and millions all over the world, who were shouted down as traitors and cowards for opposing the war and calling its justifications into question?) Schenider himself cites the societies of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia as examples of communities in which the majority had succumbed to paranoid delusions. We find ourselves faced with the same troubling question that haunted Freud in his later years: what do we do when the society we live in might just be “crazy”?
Especially interesting, to me, is that statistical studies have found a correlation between an increase in paranoia and suspicion within the very societies that tend to be more secular, open and transparent. As Schneider theorizes, it’s as though the more information freely available and accessible to people, the more they tend to doubt its veracity and suspect “something else” is going on behind the scenes. Though Schneider doesn’t offer an explanation for why this might be, it may have something to do with our need to seek out meaning even when confronted with overwhelming amounts of information, or patterns of cause and effect so large or so detailed that they appear to the casual observer to be merely random. Paranoia rears its ugly head in the face of uncertainty and confusion, when we are ill-equipped by our community and by our own mental capacity to integrate and make sense of the world around us in any meaningful way. One of the primary signs of delusion, Schneider points out, is a total lack of uncertainty:
When all of the non-rational moments that are part of reason disappear. That’s when it turns pathological. When there are no longer any doubts in a person’s thoughts, and there is no hesitation in his actions. When empathy is no longer possible and the person becomes consumed by the feeling that it is absolutely necessary that certain things be done to prevent the worst from happening.
How does this relate to Paganism, and to pacifism?
For the latter, I take my cue again from Schneider, in discussing the events of 9/11 — he describes the tragedy as “a lesson in uncertainty,” in which the U.S. faced extreme pressure to step into the paranoid perspective of the terrorists, who imagined the stage of global politics as an epic battle between the West and the Muslim world. In many ways, socially and culturally, this is precisely what happened in this country, and we are still seeing the ramifications of this increase in paranoia in the rhetoric of many politicians on the Right. Yet Schneider also notes a much healthier way of responding: accepting such “black angels of chance” for what they are, unpredictable and often meaningless moments of grief and loss, moments that we may never be able to fully explain or predict. Yet, by acknowledging that it is not mere madness that drives such individuals and leads to such events, we can learn to understand the way that hyper-rationality functions both in individuals and in societies. Such understanding gives us precisely the insight and perspective necessary for the kind of self-reflection that can help us check our own tendencies towards paranoia.
Pacifism, ultimately, is an exercise in confronting uncertainty in just this way — learning to cope with the potential for violence (in both ourselves and in others) without resorting to violence in retaliation or defense, without stepping into the delusions of our attackers who might claim with paranoid certainty that no alternatives exist. Instead, the philosophy of pacifism encourages us to see in the actions of others reflections of our own potentials, so that we might learn from them with empathy and insight while also acting with intention to create alternatives to violence even in the face of doubt or uncertainty.
Paganism, too, can provide a check against the paranoia and delusions of unhealthy hyper-rationality, in two important ways. First, as I discussed in my previous post, it can provide us with a more-than-human community to which we can turn for a “communicative means of reconciliation” with the larger world, even when our human communities seem mired in neuroses. I think it is no coincidence that the societies in which paranoia seems to increase also tend to be societies that encourage a disconnection and isolation from the natural world.
The scientific comprehension and appreciation of ecology provides part of this engagement with the more-than-human natural world, yet Paganism and nature-centered spiritualities more generally also supplement and extend this engagement further through religious activities like prayer, meditation and ritual directed towards the natural world and its many beings and inhabitants, rather than towards a transcendent, supernatural deity. The modern Pagan movement also embraces certain aspects of postmodern philosophy, such as deep play and the celebration of meta-narratives and self- and group-identity creation, which can help to remind us of the “non-rational moments that are part of reason.” Grounded in healthy community, an engagement with the non-rational can provide the perspective, and the wilderness, in which uncertainty and doubt can find a proper home, without giving way to either hyper-rationality or the pure lunacy of irrationality.