One of the basic tenets of Alfred Adler’s theory is that most social realities are fictions – and they are either socially useful fictions, or else socially useless (harmful) ones. This “psychology of ‘as-if,’” which Adler adopted from the philosopher Hans Vaihinger, is similar to the post-modern or social constructivist way of thinking, and says that common-sense (or consensual) reality is usually the healthiest basis for an individual’s construction of social reality. The closer to common-sense thinking we remain, the healthier our beliefs tend to be. An over-reliance on “private logic,” in Adler’s view, is a mark of pathology.
Adler was well aware, however, that just because a belief is shared by many people, it is not necessarily healthy or pro-social. After all, Adler fought in the First World War and watched as Nazism took over his homeland of Austria. Adler acknowledged that “fanaticism,” as he called it, could be a shared pathology among large numbers of people. But despite that, Adler felt that any peaceable, cooperative society has its own “iron-clad logic of social living,” which functions almost as if it were natural law. We need to work together to solve problems, and what hurts one group of people hurts us all. Further, Adler saw that the striving for power and greed could hamper and even destroy a society’s functioning. We all need to look out for each other, and we are at our best when we all contribute to a common good. Success and good fortune should not come to some at the expense of others.
But the events of this week have given us profound sadness and pessimism for our ability to coexist peaceably in this nation and world. We feel more than “divided”… we feel that large numbers of our fellow citizens are not even living in the same reality in which we live. And we find ourselves spending increasing time and energy defending our social reality to those who refuse to consider any views but their own – views that strike many of us as frankly crazy. Yet our views are ridiculed as “fake news,” and those who support Trumpism and conservative rhetoric, in particular, seem immune to logic or reason. Projection and (frankly) gaslighting seem to rebuff our best efforts to come to a common sense understanding with those who disagree with us.
And the perpetrators of this week’s heartbreaking terror and violence – at the Kroger store in Kentucky, the synagogue in Pittsburgh, and postal facilities around the country – seem to all have been inspired by conspiracy theories that keep surfacing on right-wing radio and Internet sites and the social media feeds of Republican politicians.
This Twitter thread (and replies) from Andrew Kaczynski are informative and quite chilling. They show how the pipe bomber was radicalized before our eyes. Especially alarming is the perfect synchronization with changing right-wing propaganda talking points and conspiracy theories (Fox, Breitbart, Infowars, etc.) as well as Russian troll farm memes and talking points.
Paul Krugman has done a similarly thorough job of connecting the dots on the “Jews will not replace us / Soros is paying for the Caravan” rhetoric that appears to have inspired the Pittsburgh killer.
Some of the same exact false conspiracy theory ideas, by the way, that were expressed by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, in a now-deleted tweet.
The man who is in line to be the next Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Let that sink in.
We have more than a divisiveness problem in America. We have a consensual reality problem. Thousands – or millions – of people are living their lives based on absolutely false beliefs that they are 100% convinced are real. (The reply down-thread on the Twitter thread that says “My electrician exploded when Hillary was mentioned” is a great example).
When the pipe bombs were being discovered, my first thought was, “I wonder how long it will be before we hear right-wing pundits claiming that it was being orchestrated by the Democrats as a ‘false flag’ operation.” Actually, it had already been said, many, many times.
It’s cult psychology, spread and repeated massively and constantly. Human beings have not had to deal with anything like this before. I don’t know how we’re going to maintain our civilization in the face of such a deep and massive disconnect between people’s basic perceived realities. In particular, we have to figure out how to preserve the logic of social living in the face of absolutely crazy and anti-social beliefs – what a group of angry radicalized people who live among us believe with all their hearts – and instead try to operate according to what social reality tells us we should be understanding: First and foremost, that we are all in this together, and that we must stand for something – and stand up for each other – or else we’ll “fall for anything.”
One truly scary aspect of this distorted reality is the way political opponents are described with language that paints them as an existential threat to America or its leaders. An example was Fox News claiming in 2017 that “the left wants Tom Price dead.” But if someone calls this incendiary language out, they are accused of “hating” the speaker. It has evolved into what family therapy expert Jay Haley used to call a “self-canceling communication.” In other words, no matter how we respond to it, we are wrong. No wonder this kind of communication has been called “crazy-making.”
Another quality of this broken social reality is that it has been made argument-proof to a large extent. The massive and relentless projection used by the hard-right (including many many elected officials), and the “both-siderism” practiced by corporate news organizations (including, quite ironically, CNN) are some of the most pernicious aspects of it.
But we have to learn to talk to each other again, in the language of reality rather than ideology. Because there is really only one socially adaptive and useful consensual reality. Anything else is cult-think. We are divided, but we are divided between clear thinking and seriously distorted thinking. And the effort to create, promote, and spread distorted thinking, in order to gain, wield, and consolidate power, has been a conservative project since the days of Willie Horton and “welfare queens.” They have exploited hate, fear, and ignorance in order to leave the people confused and emotionally unbalanced, because they can manipulate us more easily when we are angry, fearful, blaming, hateful, and irrational. So our job is to be clear-headed, concerned for each other and for our society, determined, and smart.