Modernity, Madness, & Orwell’s Warning.
A Critique of Sociological Relativism.
[Written in the 1990’s – resurrected and slightly revised after 2020.]
The Great Promise of Unlimited Progress—the promise of domination of nature, of material abundance, of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and of unlimited personal freedom—has sustained the hopes and faith of the generations since the beginning of the industrial age. … With industrial progress, … we could feel that we were on our way to unlimited production and, hence, unlimited consumption; that technique made us omnipotent; that science made us omniscient. We were on our way to becoming gods, supreme beings who could create a second world, using the natural world only as building blocks for our new creation.
… The trinity of unlimited production, absolute freedom, and unrestricted happiness, formed the nucleus of a new Religion, Progress, and a new Earthly City of Progress, was to replace the City of God. It is not at all astonishing that this new religion provided its believers with energy, vitality, and hope.
The grandeur of the Great Promise, the marvelous material and intellectual achievements of the industrial age, must be visualized in order to understand the trauma that realization of its failure is producing today.” (p.xxiii-xxiv)
—Erich Fromm, To Have Or To Be (1976)
Apparently we are passing through a phase in which it is becoming more and more difficult to sustain that fantasy of man’s omnipotence which has dominated our culture for three hundred years. … An ever-expanding, virtually autonomous super-technology seems to be getting out of man’s control and is increasingly assuming control over human society and thought. Now that man has mastered the technique of nuclear fission, we are threatened by the specter of a state dominated by the exigencies of atomic power, a state like that so persuasively predicted by Robert Jungk. Computer technology is paving the way for the total surveillance of citizens depicted by George Orwell. Biotechnology is bringing closer the day when we will be able to influence human genetic development. We can no longer overlook the interdependence between economic-technological expansion and the growing danger to the ecology. Every year brings further proof that those mechanical devices which were intended to confer on man an ever-expanding power and independence are in fact acquiring a disastrous power over us, increasing our self-alienation, and even directly threatening our survival. Yet we are still caught in a dilemma by our illusion of our own divinity.” (p.162-3)
–H.E. Richter, All Mighty: A Study of the God Complex in Western Man (1984)
Madness deals not so much with truth and the world, as with man and whatever truth about himself he is able to perceive.”
–Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization (1965)
Human beings are clearly quite unlike any other living thing on Earth. There is no doubt that anyone can easily compose quite an impressive list of characteristics that clearly distinguish us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Here, I will address only one: Only human beings consistently gather together into vast numbers like clock-work, in ever more “progressive” ways, for the absurd purpose of annihilating each other, the environment, and even themselves. Nothing else in nature can really compare, for example, to the current allopathic experimentation on the global population and destruction of economies around the world by gangs with flags while blaming a virus; the whole scale slaughter of people such as 20th century genocides, the earlier indigenous populations of the Americas, or medieval witches and heretics; the carnage of world war, in particular the technological zenith of the human drive for destruction: the self-created threat of nuclear self-annihilation. Incessant patterns of uniquely human destructiveness such as these can only be properly understood as expressions of a powerful state of collective dementia, and being a primary detriment in the area of human relations—the aching heart of the human condition—is in dire need of a satisfactory explanation.
One of the greatest writers and journalists of the 20th century, George Orwell, framed it this way in 1946:
…I do suggest that we shall get nowhere unless we start by recognizing that political behavior is largely non-rational, that the world is suffering from some kind of mental disease which must be diagnosed before it can be cured…. It is not easy to find a direct economic explanation of the behavior of the people who now rule the world. The desire for pure power seems to be much more dominant than the desire for wealth. … And if it has reached new levels of lunacy in our own age, as I think it has, then the question becomes: What is the special quality in modem life that makes a major human motive out of the impulse to bully others? i
Phrased more simply in 1990 by archaeologist Robert Wenke:
How did human beings become their own principle hostile force of nature? ii
I have been observing our species for a considerable length of time now, and actually being a Sapien myself, have been prone to an occasional minor fit of denial. It’s not that I hate people, mind you—not at all. It’s just many of the insane things people do that I have a serious problem with. I have been repeatedly struck with an over-whelming, sometimes even crushing feeling that there is something severely wrong with society, a recognition that seems to be increasing these days. As philosopher Wesley Barnes expressed it:
Never in history have there been such strong feeling and belief that the external world of things, ideas, and people are absurd beyond belief and beyond endurance.iii
Of course, there’s nothing new to the idea that modern humanity may be mad. Following World War I, for example, in the year Hitler came to power, David Lloyd George (former British Prime Minister) took a good long glance around and stated: “The world is becoming like a lunatic asylum run by lunatics.” iv An unfortunate situation that was hinted at a bit earlier by Walter Bagehot in The English Constitution (1867) when he acknowledged: “It has been said, not truly, but with a possible approximation to truth, that in 1802 every hereditary monarch was insane.” v And let’s not forget that multitude of committed “lunatics” who have all insisted that it wasn’t them but everyone else who’s crazy, as for example, restorian playwright Nathenial Lee put it: “They called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me.” vi
In fact, Jesuit priest and psychoanalyst Anthony de Mello calls this the very criteria for knowing when you’ve made contact with reality. In Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality (1992) he asked:
Do you know one sign that you’ve woken up? It’s when you’re asking yourself, “Am I crazy, or are all of them crazy?” It really is. Because we are crazy. The whole world is crazy. … We’re living on crazy ideas about love, about relationships, about joy, about everything. …[People] are crazy, they’re lunatics, and the sooner you see this, the better for your mental and spiritual health. vii
Even the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, seriously considered the possibility that humanity was “neurotic”. In Civilization and It’s Discontents (1930), when struggling with (what was if fact not really-f.n.) his own theory of the instinct of death to explain civilization’s extreme manifest aggressiveness, he asked:
If the development of civilization has such a far-reaching similarity to the development of the individual…may we not be justified in reaching the diagnosis that…some civilizations, or some epochs of civilization—possibly the whole of mankind—have become ‘neurotic’? viii
Here Freud hit a vital point. To claim that a society could be mad contradicts a basic premise of western psychology called sociological relativism (socio-relativism) which is accepted by a great majority of social scientists today. It basically asserts that “…each society is normal inasmuch as it functions, and that pathology can be defined only in terms of the individual’s lack of adjustment to the ways of life in his society.” ix Only individuals may be considered insane, not whole societies. Said differently, if only one person is, say scuffling around with his pants around his ankles while clucking like a chicken, he’s insane, BUT if everyone were to do this then it would be perfectly sane.
By clinging to this foundation-less position, one has little choice but to see, for example, the progressive “nuclear” zenith of human lust for destruction—the very power of the Sun itself—as a consequence not of possibly being severely out of touch which ourselves, each other, and reality, but of “natural” human aggression (of our “instincts”) and is therefore simply “normal”. As if the ability and drive to split an atom were itself “encoded” within our genes. Instinctivism, as it’s traditionally known, is largely a subjective sedative–and a very profitable one. In The Paradox of American Violence (1970), Hugh Davis Graham, Ph.D., summarized it aptly as an “…ancient notion, recently resurrected and refurbished in scientific garb…” x It’s a very old idea, dressed up in new-fangled high-tech imagery. On the one hand, it’s all too handy for rationalizing hatred for and control of others. On the other, it actually requires an escape from all the tedious hard work, pain, and trouble of open and honest social and self reflection—the Key! In reality, it hasn’t explained anything, as psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973): “The thesis that war is caused by innate human aggressiveness is plainly absurd to anyone with even the slightest knowledge of history.” xi Instinctivism contradicts not only history, but also archeology, anthropology, and even geneticist R. C. Lewontin echoed Fromm nearly twenty years later in Biology As Ideology. The Doctrine of DNA (1991):
… The claims that human warfare, sexual dominance, love of property, and hate of strangers are human universals are found over and over in the writings of socio-biologists, whether they be biologists, economists, psychologists, or political scientists.
But to make such claims, one must be quite blind even to the history of European society…” xii
… There are deep contradictions in simultaneously asserting that we are all genetically alike in certain respects, that our genes are all-powerful in determining our behavior, and at the same time observing that people differ.” xiii
Instinctivism is blind to history and deeply contradictory, while Freud’s point mocks and giggles at socio-relativism. And why shouldn’t it? If an individual may be considered mad, and if the development of civilizations closely parallels that of individuals, then why can’t whole societies be insane? Are we seriously expected to consider the Third Reich’s experimentation on and slaughter of millions of innocent, living, breathing, feeling, human beings as “sane” simply because they were very efficient at it?
I seriously don’t think so.
A hefty dose of caution may be called for, however, in taking such an idea too seriously, for aren’t we from the very start facing a rather peculiar semantic problem? If a particular society was in fact insane, then one good reason for a popularity of socio-relativism may be denial, rationalization, a way of making livable the un-livable. But if said society was sane, then wouldn’t they reject the idea just the same? Most people would disregard the idea no matter what, wouldn’t they? Then we really couldn’t “prove” anything since “proof” depends on: 1) sufficient evidence (the list is truly endless); and 2) ultimately on a majority’s acceptance (simply impossible). So how could we really know?
I had originally composed over a half a dozen chapters of material arguing that since whole herds of sheeple often behave as insane individuals do, then those herds could also be declared insane. Only then did it occur to me that I hadn’t yet pinned down and defined what insanity actually meant in the first place; it was merely assumed—a “given.” As soon as I tried to nail it down in objective terms, the whole argument collapsed like a house of cards. Trying to define what it means to be “mad” turns out to be really no different than trying to define “witchcraft,” “heresy,” Biblical “leprosy,” or Orwellian “thought-crime.” In the simplest terms, it’s a two-sided puzzle. On the one hand, there isn’t, nor has there ever been, more than a vague agreement on what it means to be mad. Any attempt to work out a definitive, objective meaning to the terms “madness,” “insanity,” “mental illness/disorder,” by consulting dictionaries, encyclopedias, and authorities quickly gets twisted into a dizzying, even maddening tangle of inconsistencies and contradictions. On the other hand, “defining” and “proving” are by their very nature acts of logic and reason, while madness is the very anti-thesis of things logical and reasonable. Madness is without a voice (of reason), while being defined by the reasonable, in reference to the reasonable—see previous point. (Can you see the blind-spot—the scotoma?)
The definition of the word mad shows how silly-putty or chameleon-like the concept is—its meanings are as varied as can be: insanity, foolishness, rage, obsession, ecstasy, enthusiasm, infatuation, frenzied or irrational behavior, rabies, irresponsible gaiety and merriment, and so on…. Its meanings can even be opposites, such as a repulsive violent sicko, or an attractive midnight madness sale where the prices are insane. All these meanings (with the exception of “rabies”) literally reside both in the person who uses the term, as well as in the person who hears it. So technically, the meaning is itself split—it exists in two forms: implied and inferred, and is thus a “function (or dis-function) of an interaction between people.” It’s utterly dependent on the “who,” “what,” “where,” “how” and “why” of observation. Change any of these factors, and you can dramatically effect what’s being defined as mad. As one historian of medicine put it:
…psychiatrists have always been liable to the ‘uncertainty principle’ objection. The disorder may not be ‘real’ in nature, but an artifact of the psychiatric encounter itself.” xiv
Expressed a little differently 32 years earlier by psychoanalyst Ernst Schachtel,
…experiments in the area of sensory, intellectual, and emotional experience change the nature of the experience by the very method with which they study it. While the parallel phenomenon in physics is today recognized (Heisenburgs law of [quantum] indeterminacy)… [also known as the uncertainty principle] …in psychology, where this phenomenon is much more grossly palpable, its bearing on the science of man is still far from sufficiently appreciated.” xv
And what does this mean? The problem with defining madness bears a remarkable resemblance to the problem with measuring quanta in high-energy physics: the objects observed are partly “created” by the very actions of those observing. To briefly over simplify, at a thresh-hold level of microscopic reality, matter and energy cease to act in the way our ordinary world of the familiar does. At this quantum boundary, scientists find their objects of study act either as discrete entities (particles, solitons) or as boundless (electromagnetic) waves, depending entirely on how one decides to interact, observe, and measure them. And as just stated, this bizarre wave-particle duality of quanta—the quantum paradox—shares some very interesting parallels with the madness paradox:
First, like quanta, the mad are famous for their bizarre divergences from ‘normalcy’—both are often referred to as the anti-thesis of reason and the epitome of irrationality. On the one hand, a Protestant Minister, Paul Tillich has drawn attention to the same parallel between the quantum paradox and trying to talk about God. xvi On the other hand, it’s no secret that many of the worlds most respected religious icons (Jesus the Christ) as well as the most feared and demonic (Charles Manson) were both widely regarded as lunatics. For better or for worse, we can consider this ‘irrationality’ in many cases as disenchanted or secularized religious experience.
Second, just as splitting the atom was necessary to create the most dreadful power to ever grace the war-ridden face of the Earth, the mad like-wise share the same reputation of being both split and the epitome of violent sickos: “psycho-pathic serial-killers.”
Finally, besides irrationality and dangerousness, it’s third reputation of disease has been traditionally, even Biblically divided into discrete (organic/ of the body) and without boundaries (disorder of the mind/ ritually impure). Divided until 1994, that is, when psychiatrists abandoned this empirical distinction: A sacred psychiatric “vote” miraculously made them ONE:
The distinction made between organic and non-organic psychoses…is strongly supported on clinical grounds. xvii
Since most forms of mental disorders fall into the latter category…psychiatrists are unable to rely on laboratory or other tests to … confirm their clinical diagnoses. xviii
–The Oxford Companion to the Mind (1987)
A compelling literature documents that there is much “physical” in “mental” disorders and much “mental” in “physical” disorders. xix
The term organic is no longer used… xx
–The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4thEd (1994).
“Reality control,” they called it; in Newspeak, “doublethink.” xxi
–George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four (1949)
This enigmatic disease of dangerous irrationality is a two-sided, amnesia-ridden problem whose “clinical-reality” is grounded in the “words” of compelling psychiatric literature (disenchanted inspirational scripture), the oldest and central lexicon of our official modern, secular, religious language: Political Correctness. Over seventy years ago, George Orwell portrayed these very things in his classic Nineteen Eighty Four as thought-crime, double–think, the memory hole, and Newspeak respectively. And he did so portraying society as both secular and religious, as well as completely insane.
Perhaps today we should seriously reconsider what Mr. Orwell had to say:
(click to get free pdf)
…Orwell’s 1984 is the expression of a mood, and it is a warning. The … warning is that unless the course of history changes, men all over the world … will become soulless automatons, and will not even be aware of it.
—Erich Fromm, From the 1961 “Afterword” of 1984, (bold added)
Question? Comment? Criticism? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
iThe Collected Essays… 1968, v. 4, p. 249
iiPatterns In Prehistory, 1990
iiiSource uncertain … it is a book on existentialism.
ivDictionary of Quotations, p. 424
vIbid, p. 46
viPorter, The Faber Book of Madness, 1991, p. 1
ixFromm, The Sane Society, p. 12
xThe Annals of the American Academy of Political Science, vol. 391, Sept., 1970, p. 80
xiiP. 91-2, italics added.
xiiiP. 97, italics added
xivPorter, The Faber Book of Madness, 1991, p. 384
xvSchachtel, Metamorphosis, 1959, p.16
xviErickson, Theologians Under Hitler, 1985, p.3, 22
xviiP. 466, italics added.
xviiiP. 471, italics added
xxP. 123, italics added