Something weird seems to be happening to us. I’m not sure if “us” means just the United States, or if other parts of the world are in on it too. But definitely the U.S. at least.
I would say it’s just the Trump-Clinton election campaign that has people acting like they want civil war. But I don’t honestly know which is the cause and which is the effect. Did we all turn into idiots because we were so agitated about our political beliefs? Or is it just the opposite — did we become so agitated about our political beliefs because we have all turned into idiots?
When I refer to idiots, I mean the kind of person who can see so clearly what is horribly wrong with the other side, and yet somehow cannot see anything wrong with his/her own side. But perhaps my phrasing is in error. My wording may be unfair to idiots. Possibly the better characterization is that we seem to be experiencing a form of mental disorder, something in the nature of anosognosia. The National Alliance on Mental Illness describes anosognosia as a lack of awareness of one’s own condition, or an inability to perceive that condition accurately.
I realize that, in the present circumstances, this post will probably be either loved or hated: loved, if it seems to explain what is wrong with the other side, or hated, if it seems to imply that there is something wrong with one’s own side. Just in case there are at least a half-dozen Americans who can break through the fog and entertain the thoughts actually being expressed here, however, I would like to consider what has eroded our psychological immune systems. What could have made us act like this?
As a complement to my post on why I don’t belong in this America, a number of possible explanations come to mind:
- Toxoplasmosis. This is the mind-altering parasite that we get from having cats. The concept here is that some kind of actual microorganism may be driving us to madness, possibly in ways that will help the parasite to complete its own life cycle, like the Dicrocoelium dendriticum fluke that causes an ant to climb a blade of grass so that it will be eaten by a cow, so that it can get into the cow’s gut, where it will mate and lay eggs. Maybe, by killing each other, we will enable some sinister infestation to return to the soil, where it can await uptake by some comparably clueless cohort of the future.
- Lawyers. Perhaps the problem is that America has finally become fully schooled in legal thinking: maybe the vast majority of us have finally learned that fairness doesn’t matter, that it’s all about victory and power and success, that you dare never admit error, because that might somehow let the other side gain an advantage, significant or otherwise, in the never-ending contest to appear superior to everyone else.
- Media. Maybe the people responsible for the distorted newspaper and TV coverage of political debate have finally gotten so good at what they do as to manipulate us in ways we can barely imagine. Surely they have enjoyed great profit from our eager and ongoing attention to their liberal or conservative fulminations.
- The Passing of the Greatest Generation. Maybe this was, somehow, the first truly significant election from which the World War II generation was almost completely absent. Maybe that generation — despite profound errors like Vietnam — did tend to provide a degree of beneficial moral influence over political expression and media reporting, in previous elections where there seemed to be a lot at stake. Maybe their fading from the scene has left too much power in the hands of my own consummately spoiled Baby Boom generation, for which principle and civic duty have never been strong points. Or maybe the old folks just had a better sense of humor, having lived through a real war and the Great Depression and thus having some perspective on the consequences to the fate of humanity if Junior spends the rest of the game on the bench.
- Something in the Water. Maybe it’s the Russians, or at least Monsanto. There is evidence that long-term exposure to pollution can impair brain functioning and can stimulate poor behavior at all ages, with cumulative effects as adults age. In which case maybe the fault is not due to the Boomers after all, but rather to their parents, who were responsible for giving us plastics. Or, as a more insidious threat from the water supply, it could just be caffeine-induced psychosis.
- Global Warming. Maybe our brains are cooking. Or maybe it’s sunspots, or excessive gamma rays due to the collapse of a galaxy a million light years away. Maybe we won’t even discover this in time to prevent some maniac from pressing The Button and blasting us all to oblivion, thereby winning the argument once and for all.
- Wealth and Privilege. Maybe it’s not the generations or the pollutants. Maybe we’re spoiled because, in the words of the Boomers’ poet laureate (or at least his understudy), “We’ve lived so well so long.” Maybe liberals have come to share the fear normally more typical of the conservative mind, due perhaps to a realization that Trump’s election could yield a diminution of their status or advantages; maybe conservatives simultaneously became even more fearful at the prospect that Clinton’s election could mean further enrichment of the wealthiest 1% of Americans at their expense.
- Electromagnetic Interference. This would arguably be included in the discussion of forms of pollution (above), except that it is no longer the old debate about whether electrical power plants cause harm to people. Now there’s a whole new vector, involving the ways in which your smartphone can damage your brain. Which may explain why I’m writing this article, because I don’t have one. A smartphone, I mean.
- Computers. Our computers may have been isolating us for enough years, by now, that we have started to lose it. Or perhaps our minds are being twisted by the light from our screens, shining into our faces, night after night, when eons of human evolution tell us that it’s supposed to be dark and we should be sleeping — which, by the way, we’re not doing enough of, and that in itself could explain a lot.
- Loneliness. The anger we see and feel may be a consequence of a deeply dysfunctional society, in which Americans of voting age have been reporting increasing levels of social isolation for many years, to such an extent that Time (Worland, 2015) has viewed loneliness as a public health issue on a par with obesity and substance abuse. Psychology Today (Henig, 2014) reports on research linking loneliness to multiple mental health problems, including “heightened sensitivity to social threats” that might not even exist. Other psychosocial phenomena could also play a role (e.g., not enough love, too much unrelenting stress or fear for one’s survival).
- Supernatural Interference. We may need Jesus, or the Devil may have possessed us. The gods may be angry. Aliens may have zapped us, or the body snatchers may have taken over. You get the idea. I assume the media will tell us if someone sacrifices a virgin in expiation, though perhaps we will already know: perhaps we will experience a sudden sensation of peace, love, and understanding; perhaps people will suddenly start wearing Nehru jackets and tie-dyed T-shirts en masse.
- A Bug in the Program. Beyond the sublime, we have the prosaic. It always comes back to the prosaic. In this case, there is the possibility that we live in a computer simulation — perhaps one of many such simulations, perhaps explaining the concept of parallel universes. If that is the nature of our reality, then maybe our behavior is due to a simple bug in the program. In theory, the problem could be corrected and would simply go away, and we might not even pay much attention.
- Solipsism. This theory says that I am the only thing that I know for sure does exist. I see it as a variation on the computer simulation hypothesis. Basically, this is my universe program. You are here as decoration. If something goes wrong in my universe, especially something on the psychosocial level, it is probably due to an error in my own thinking and/or behavior. Like, the reason everybody’s nose is buried in a computer or smartphone is that I, as director of this universe, set the tone years ago, when I became such a computer geek, to the exclusion of social opportunities. I shouldn’t have done that. This world is what I make of it. So now, Gandhi advises, if I want it to change, I may have to become the change that I wish to see in it.