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.