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Why We Need to Have Empathy for Tea Party Lunatics

If we don't understand how decent, god-fearing, victimized people can come to espouse such dangerous ideologies, we won't be able to fight them effectively.
 
 
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These Tea Party folks seem to most liberals -- well, to most of us who live in the "reality community," or, as I like to call it, "reality" --- like crazy fuckers.

As a recent New York Times article reports, this hodgepodge of people and groups spout frankly paranoid beliefs as received wisdom, e.g. the Federal Reserve is our enemy and should be abolished; citizens should stock up on ammo, gold; and survival food in anticipation of an impending Civil War; states should "nullify" federal laws and even secede; medical records are being shipped to federal bureaucrats; the army is seeking "Internment/Resettlement" specialists; and Obama is trying to create crises in order to destroy the economy, convert Interpol into his personal police force and create a New World Order.

Conspiracy theories involving shadowy elites like the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations have resurfaced. Self-defense and armed resistance are frequently called for. Racist stereotypes, innuendo and hostility run rampant. The Constitution is its sacred text and Glenn Beck its most beloved prophet. They don't usually wear aluminum hats but perhaps they should.

I hate these folks but I also understand them. And, well, uh, I also empathize with them. They share the same psychology as the paranoid patients I treat every day. The only difference is that the paranoid beliefs of the Tea Party movement are political while those in my consulting room are of a more personal nature. The causes and dynamics, however, are the same. And so just as I have empathy for my patients, I have come to have empathy for the Tea Partiers, even as I despise their influence and work hard to defeat their ideology. It's crucial that the Left does likewise because if we don't understand the ways that decent, god-fearing, and victimized people can come to espouse such a dangerous ideology, we won't be able to fight them effectively.

I treat people who are paranoid all the time. Sometimes they're only mildly paranoid. For example, someone I treat can't tolerate blame of any kind, can't take any responsibility for failures, and can't really be optimistic about the potential goodness in others. It's always someone else's fault. Other times, they're more severely paranoid. A patient I saw spun tale after tale of slights, interpreted innocuous events as malignant, saw conspiracies everywhere, and always imputed malevolence to others' motives. The most extreme cases can be found in the delusions of schizophrenics.

There isn't one cause of paranoia. Tomes have been written about it. Individual variations and exceptions abound. A few generalizations, however, can be made. Paranoid people are trying their best to make sense of and mitigate feelings of helplessness and worthlessness. Their beliefs are attempts to solve a profound problem, albeit in ways that distort reality.

People can't tolerate feeling helpless and self-hating for very long. It's too painful, too demoralizing and too frightening. They have to find an antidote. They have to make sense of it all in a way that restores their sense of meaning, their feeling of agency, their self-esteem, and their belief in the possibility of redemption. They have to. They have no choice. That's just the way the mind works.

The paranoid strategy is to generate a narrative that finally "explains it all." A narrative -- a set of beliefs about the way the world is and is supposed to be -- helps make sense of chaos. It reduces guilt and self-blame by projecting it onto someone else. And it restores a sense of agency by offering up an enemy to fight. Finally, it offers hope that if "they" -- the enemy, the conspirators -- can be avoided or destroyed, the paranoid person's core feelings of helplessness and devaluation will go away.

 
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