Monday, April 22, 2013

Dialogue and Delusion: Psychosis and the Art of Meme Warfare

For some time now, I have perceived a great and widening rift between left and right (hence the graphic). Certainly this is nothing new in world or American history. Perhaps it is only my perception that grows and not the rift. Nevertheless, the rift appears larger to me now than ever before. I suspect that one of the primary causes of this rift is the money-driven nature of many news agencies. Such sources as Fox and MSNBC, for instance, strike me as being at the forefront of this new phenomenon of perpetual partisan editorializing which masquerades as news. The more vitriolic and bombastic the attack on those who differ, the higher the publicity and ratings. This serves to polarize their respective audiences. As those audiences grow, their opinions calcify, and the politicians seeking their votes must shift their public persona to meet those expectations. The result is an ever-widening rift between right and left.

Bear with me, if you care to do so, as I relate this to psychosis and the art of meme warfare (with apologies to Sun Tzu).

As both a crisis counselor and a budding practical theologian, I often find myself reflecting theologically on my experiences as I work with people in mental health crisis. The clientele with whom I work often deal with severe mental health problems as well as the relational difficulties and legitimate emotional turmoil that often commingle mental health disturbances. One of the most immediate problems in mental health problems like psychosis (a cognitive/perceptual disconnect from reality such as seeing things that aren't really there or believing that secret messages are being communicated through TV or radio) is that the person experiencing it does, indeed, perceive it as genuine and real. That often sets up a battle of indicatives between the person experiencing psychosis and non-psychotic family members or friends. An indicative is simply a verb indicating something (rather than a command, question, or possibility). For example, the person experiencing paranoia cannot be talked out of their conviction that a government conspiracy is closing in upon them. Family members often believe that repeating their version of reality often enough or loudly enough will correct the delusion. They may insist over and over again that the paranoia is foolish or wrong.

Client: "I can't go to the crisis center. They're listening through the outlets there!"
Family: "That's ridiculous. Nobody is listening to anything!"
Client: "They are. The radio told me."
Family: "That's impossible!"
Client: "I'm not going."
Family: "Yes, you are."
Client: "Last time I went they stole six of my vertebrae!"
Family: "That's ridiculous!" infinitum

The indicatives convince neither side. The rift grows.

I see similar phenomena on a regular basis in that splendid virtual-reality portal known as Facebook (or read Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc). Whether it is theology or politics or a favorite sports team, it is common to see a type of "battle of indicatives" waged in the form of pithy sound bites like memes. One important difference is that there is far less consensus on reality in the world of meme warfare.

Right: "Obama is a socialist!"
Left: "Obama is an American hero!"
  Right: "Abortion is evil!"
  Left: "Abortion is a right!"
Left: "Homosexuality is okay!"
Right: "Homosexuality is sin!"
  Left: "Tighten gun restrictions!"
  Right: "Tightening gun laws is tyranny!"
Left: "The government lied!" [with the error toward conservatism]
Right: "The government is good!"
  Right: "The government lied!" [with the error toward liberalism]
  Left: "The government is good!"
Left: "My memes!"
Right: "My memes!"

(I am aware of the risk of overgeneralization, so please take my characterizations with a grain of salt. Thank you!)

In meme warfare, there is seldom a real consensus across the population. However, as in the animal world, birds of a feather flock together, and so we are able to establish the sense of a majority - and thus of reality - by "like"s and approving comments. Recently I noticed how my posts generally get responses from the same general group of people. I think I could predict fairly accurately the people most likely to respond and the general nature of their responses. Moreover, since Facebook only has a "like" button and not a "dislike" button, responses are more likely to foster a sense of camaraderie and support; negative responses require more effort and are thus less likely to occur. It is a system which I suspect tends toward cognitive inbreeding. I post, others "like", and I feel the subtle affirmation of my version of reality. Others post, I "like," and their sense of reality is affirmed.

We affirm a particular take on reality and rail against a perceived delusion in our opponents. Each side fancies itself a prophetic "voice in the wilderness" to the other. The result is an ever-widening rift. We grow skilled in the art of meme warfare, of perceiving that consensus which affirms our sense of reality. Meanwhile, dialogue languishes like a worm on the sidewalk, and our skill in it atrophies.

I share all this in the hope that the insight will lead us out of our rhetorical psychosis. That is, we are often self-deceived by ingrown (like a toenail) attention to only those opinions which support our own. This is no great insight, really. It is a well-documented psychological phenomenon called self-confirmatory bias. I know it well and write as one profoundly vulnerable to it. Combating self-confirmatory bias requires dialogue and those character traits which allow dialogue to occur. I would count humility, openness, and the ability to listen honestly, patiently, and actively as chief among those virtues which empower dialogue.

Whether right or left (read in any binary appropriate to your need: Protestant/Catholic, Conservative/Liberal, gay/straight, etc) the cycle of self-confirmatory bias is like a form of psychosis. I hope we can grow out of that as the same tendency manifests itself in our meme warfare. Unity comes not through affirming soundbite but through dialogue.

(please note that my use of "memes" is merely synecdotal; memes serve as a convenient illustration of a deep problem intrinsic to human pride).