Tuesday, January 10, 2006

How Liberals Got Crazy -- Ghost Dance Plus Saturation

I am taking two posts over at One Cosmos as my jumping-off point. First, because I’ve been thinking about both concepts and want to show what a clever guy I am. But more important, I think GB’s thoughts about crisis cults are very interesting, and have the potential to lead us to a fuller understanding of knowledge, interpretation, and belief. The topic deserves both discussion and elaboration by a dozen different thinkers and researchers, until one giant rises among us to unify the ideas and push human understanding a bit further.

Quick summaries for those who are too obstinate to go read the posts themselves. GB uses Bion’s concept of saturation of words as an analogy for words so overloaded with meaning that they no longer serve the purpose of clarifying a thought. They include so much added baggage that their simpler meaning is obscured. “Culture” would be one such word, which is why every anthropology and sociology text has to define it right up front so we’re all talking about the same thing. (They each define it differently, of course, recreating the problem over again). GB notes that many terms in our political discourse have become thus overladen, and are used by commenters on the left to give an impression of meaning rather than actual meaning.

The second post notes similarities between the more extreme pronouncements of the left, so hyperbolic as to be disconnected from observable events, and the crisis cults known to have developed in societies under enormous pressure, such as the Native American Ghost Dance, and the Cargo Cult. Otherwise reasonable and functional people co-develop a set of magical beliefs in an attempt to explain change. He cites as a modern example a fevered essay in the Huffington Post which likens the Bush administration to Medusa.

Instead of saturation, I use the analogy of a movie soundtrack. To convey tension, a high, sustained note will be played. Important events are identified by a louder Da-DUHH!, traveling will be underscored by something rapid, light events by something melodic. The music supports the action, or even tells us what to think, much as a laugh track or drum roll has a specific cued meaning.

Imagine if the soundtrack were wildly off, so that random events were pulsed underneath as important, and innocent conversations had this false tension injected into them by the violins. The movie would become difficult or impossible to understand. The meaning cues would compete against the actual words of the characters and pictures on the screen (Bergman would do this intentionally; Brecht may have started it on the stage). To achieve meaning from the film, one would have to ignore the scoring or impose tortured explanations on the script.

Not a tangent: something like this happens in schizophrenia, in which an impaired portion of the brain sends out false signals which the rest of the mind tries to organise into some coherent explanation. The delusional explanations of satellites beaming in voices are the mind’s attempt to explain the indistinguishable whispers. The whispers are real, in some sense. fMRI’s show the brain reacting to actual sounds and hallucinations in the same way. The mind then imposes some order on the unexplainable. They started when my brother moved back to town... yes, it’s my brother’s voice, calling me a faggot...he must want me to go crazy... he wants me out of the way... maybe it’s an inheritance... maybe he’s found that Dad’s property is really valuable... Delusions can develop in other ways, such as believing that the TV is giving you messages, but the phenomenon of misinterpreting events and then tying it to some explanation is common.

There are not only words, but people and places which have such a powerful soundtrack embedded in them that the simple meaning is obscured. Observing three people talking at church about heart attacks, one mentioned something about how Dick Cheney manages his illness. The other two, both quite liberal, stiffened at the name and looked wary, as if there were going to be some heretical attempt to humanize him. In a moment, they processed the content and relaxed. But in that moment, what they had heard was not about someone with a heart condition, but a comment about DICK CHENEY (Da-DUHH!). The soundtrack was playing so loudly that the script and the pictures on the screen were momentarily overwhelmed.

Political discussion is now a minefield for liberals. Sorry, mixed the metaphor there. Political discussion now has so many words with a built-in soundtrack that denotive meaning is overwhelmed. Constructions like Bushitler are not accidental. They illustrate what is really happening in some people’s minds. Conservatives are not immune to this. We have our own adjectives and nouns that carry their own accompaniment. But it is wildly out-of-control on the left.

Schizophrenics usually impose an explanation fairly quickly. The pressure of the unexplained mumbling is intolerable, and the human personality must fit it in somehow. Group delusional beliefs, even in the crisis cults, develop more slowly. It takes a lot of comparing notes, much trial and error, to reject theory after theory to arrive at something bizarre. Thus, as in the example in the second post, groups look at the success of competitors and theorize. There must be some special power in talk radio. We’ve got to get our guys doing that. They must be tampering with the votes. Bush must be silencing his critics. Maybe they’re being paid off, or (gulp) bumped off. Add in the words with their own soundtrack, like “corporate,” or “cabal,” and it’s not too hard to start finding conspiracies in the glove compartment.

Not all liberals develop these disconnects, of course. I will venture that most don’t. But because the change is gradual, and there isn’t a clear line between unrealistic and completely off the tether, many liberals are more than halfway from the simple explanation (Which is, George Bush and his administration are decent, bright, folk who disagree with you about what works in this world), and thus find the delusional explanations more plausible, even if they’re not fully with the program themselves. All the other psychological defenses, such as projection and displacement, only make it easier to move outward and harder to turn around and face the core. This also explains why people who are otherwise sane do not denounce the absolute whackjobs. It’s not that they just cynically want their votes (though that has its part), but that they can sort of, y’know, understand the points of those who think Bush is a fascist. It seems more important to attack the other side, y’see.. Even if Bush didn’t technically lie, he hyped, which is kinda sorta like lying, if you squint, and he cheated before about Florida – well nothing was proved, but his brother, y’know, and it looks fishy, and some people said... – so it’s not impossible that he lied, and at least that’s closer than saying he’s honest...

Perhaps an example from the Right will make it easier to see. When Pat Buchanan was running in the primaries years ago, Buchananites began to gradually believe he could win. If all the prolifers would just stand together...a lot of cultural conservatives would see Pat as their best choice...and we’re going to get a lot of crossover votes from union Democrats...and South Carolina is coming up next, that should help... Shortly after the NH primary, it became apparent that most of Buchanan’s votes were “Smack Bush 41" votes, and it all died down. Each of those little pieces, each of those theories, were overoptimistic but not crazy. Only in the aggregate did they add up to something impossible.


Anonymous said...

It seems as though ASV has fallen into an old trap of selectively using information and posts that criticize the other side, but has not had a very objective view on his own. In order to be taken seriously, use constructive critcism on your own party. Just bashing the left makes this blob the same as any other touting conservative ideology by unfairly demonizing the left. To truly be taken seriously, undertake the weaknesses in your own party before bashing the other, or else it becomes an excercise in futility and the identical twin of everyone of your brothers in arms.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

As I was a liberal for many years, I'm fairly well familiar. You might also want to read all the way to the last paragraph next time.

Gagdad Bob said...

Very good. I like the idea of the off-kilter soundtrack. I read a pychoanalytic book several years ago entitled "Dirty Words," about the magical unconscious power that is invested in certain words. That's what makes them dirty.

The left has a whole panoply of such "dirty words" that no one esle understands. They are obviously invested with a huge reservoir of unconscious meaning and passion, but no one else has any idea what they're talking about: the list is endless: Fox. Halliburton. Stolen election. Voting machines. Bush lied. Tax cuts for the rich. Environment. Homophobia. Quagmire. Little guy. As I've written about before, these words have become "iconic" for the left, conveying no meaning to nonbelievers.

Jonathan Wyman said...

"Anonymous" really got you there! At least he refrains from quoting one of the two Bible verses all liberals know "Let he who is without guilt..." and "Take the log from your own eye..." We should be grateful for that.

Jephnol said...


This is an intriguing post…

I enjoyed your analogy of a movie soundtrack – especially significant to me was the statement, “(C)ues would compete against the actual words of the characters and pictures on the screen…” I believe sub-groups circle their wagons in times of crisis, and individuals identify more significantly with the group identity, resulting in a unification of language within the framework of the prevailing ideology. The ideology, in a sense, becomes the referent for the in-group language, and definitions are skewed in favor of group think. Jargon emerges. The isolation of group think creates a self-reinforcing linguistic barrier between in-group and out-group, which promotes miscues in interactions between individuals from competing groups. A simplistic hypothetical example would be if group (A) individual states ‘Rob is gay’, meaning the gentleman was happy, and group (B) individual understands (A) to intend ‘Rob is a homosexual’. If this occurs in the context of Rob’s wedding day, B’s response will be out of synch with A’s expectations. An individual with a strongly reinforced schema, such as the schema of a sub-group in crisis, would respond to such social miscues with cognitive dissonance because they’re “off-script”. How they manage that dissonance is the important question. I believe terms like Bushitler are a good indication that many people are not handling it well, and there can be no dialogue when terms such as this are regarded as reasonable.

I hope what I said here makes some sense to you. The important thing is I appreciate your post, because this is a significant issue, and you’ve given me some new ideas to work into my thinking.


LiquidLifeHacker said...

But basically it could be that lefties have a chemical imbalance in their brains. Has their been any research on a pet scan or some imagery on the conservative vs liberal brains? LOL I want pictures!!! WAAAAAAAAAA!

Assistant Village Idiot said...

jephnol, I think what you say is spot on, and I will begin trying to integrate it into my larger whole. In academia, deconstructionists have their own jargon, which has expanded to the point of a self-reinforcing language. One of its functions is to keep others at bay -- equivalent perhaps to Masonic knowledge.

jg said...

AVI, the sad part is that a significant portion of the American populace are either 1/too busy with surviving or 2/so easily manipulated by the constant bombardment of the MSM, that they tend to be pulled in by liberal arguments. As you say in your finish, they don't really agree, just are nudged into a half comprehending assent.
This leads to even more incoherency when we debate major national issues.

George said...

Interesting observation by Jephnol. It made me think of a line from an old song: "...and we'll all be gay when Johnny comes marching home." I wonder how the radical left interprets that signal.