December 23, 2012
Halting the Tide of Pseudo-IdealismBy Damon Isherwood
The psychology of extreme liberalism can be summed up as "pseudo-idealism," or "a term coined by the biologist Jeremy Griffith to describe apparently charitable behavior that on scrutiny is revealed as selfish, because the giver is engaging in it only so that he or she can feel good about him or herself."
An understanding of the pathology of this state, and in particular its cause, raises the alarming prospect that as Generations X, Y, and Z come of age, pseudo-idealism will become endemic. Trying to resist ever-increasing numbers would appear to be a losing battle, so the question is, can it be stopped at its source?
Griffith, and the psychiatrist Kyle Rossiter, suggested that the pathology of pseudo-idealism is relatively simple: emotional hurt suffered during childhood creates adults with so much psychological pain that they need to find a way to escape it. Pseudo-idealism then becomes an irresistible option, because by doing "good" deeds, it is possible to delude oneself that one is "good" -- and more to the point, unhurt.
Commentary on this pathology was largely absent during the run into the recent election. Rick Santorum touched on it when he said: "Our values are based on religion, based on life. Their values are based on a religion of self." He is correct in that while pseudo-idealism masquerades as selfless behavior, its sole governing imperative is to make oneself feel good. In that sense, it is "a religion of self."
The delusion and desperation behind this "religion of self" unfortunately manifests itself in irresponsible and irrational policies. Alarmingly, key indicators of childhood "hurt," such as statistics on broken homes, child anxiety disorders, drug use, etc., show that pain and dysfunction are reaching endemic levels among today's children.
It seems likely that these increases are being fueled by increased population densities and improvements in communications technologies. As a result, today's children are being all but overwhelmed by their exposure to dysfunction, anxiety, and stress.
While extremely penetrating, the work of the psychiatrist Kyle Rossiter does not -- nor does it claim to -- solve this core source of dysfunction. Such a solution -- if it is possible -- would require a first-principle biological understanding of our condition.
Unlike Rossiter, Griffith is a biologist, and his theory of human nature -- what he refers to as the human condition -- has genuine explanatory power. It also purports to address the issue of the source of dysfunction at its origin, and as such, it demands our scrutiny.
A History of Pseudo-Idealistic Causes
Griffith explains that as humans' "corrupted condition" intensified (note that Griffith's terminology is rarely politically correct), the causes that pseudo-idealists were able to embrace to escape their condition have had to become more and more "guilt free" -- otherwise, the idealism in the cause would be simply too confronting.
A brief look at the changing nature of pseudo-idealistic causes over the last 60 years supports Griffith's point. Christianity with its inherent honesty began to be abandoned by a portion of the population in favor of communism and then socialism, particularly during the '50s and '60s. However, these causes were then abandoned in turn for the so-called New Age Movement -- the inference being that the cooperative ideals inherent in communism and socialism became too confronting.
As levels of personal corruption continued to intensify, the New Age Movement in turn became too confronting -- presumably because it still included a focus on self. The Feminist Movement then replaced it to become the new cause célèbre.
The Feminist Movement's "idealism" was to dogmatically assert that there is no difference in the value of people -- particularly between men and women. However, the focus was still on us, and in time, that too, became too much. So it was replaced with Environmentalism, which has been described as, "the last best cause, the ultimate guilt-free issue" (Richard Stengel, TIME, 31 December 1990).
Environmentalism contained no focus on self; however, there was a constant reminder of our corrupt state contrasted with nature's purity, so when it in turn became too confronting, it needed to be replaced.
Its replacement was the Politically Correct Movement, whose patent absurdity has been protected by postmodern, deconstructionist theories which say that there is no such thing as truth, thus eliminating even the possibility of arguing.
Obviously, the reality is not as neat as this, and there are overlap and regressions and even anomalies such as the inane "transcend your ego" fad currently being spouted by Eckhart Tolle and championed by Oprah Winfrey. But nonetheless a trend can be discerned that fits the pathology being put forward by Griffith.
This escalation of absurdity is further evidence that pseudo-idealism is rising. The question then remains: how can it be stopped? What is the core source of the dysfunction in human nature resulting in children being psychologically hurt and needing to embrace this deluded state as adults? Is it genetic, is it environmental, or is it something else again?
The Core Source of Pseudo-Idealism
Most biological theories of human nature attribute dysfunctional elements like anger, aggression, and selfishness -- what Griffith terms "upset" -- to our animal instincts -- i.e., "nature is red in tooth and claw, and that's why we are." In other words, these "upsets" are genetic and therefore immutable. Griffith insists that this is not the case, however; rather, these behaviors are psychological and will subside if their source can be properly understood.
It is this source that Griffith claims he has identified by pointing to the moment in humans' evolutionary history when our consciousness tried to emerge in the presence of pre-established instincts (read more here):
There have been other scientists and thinkers, such as Julian Jaynes and Arthur Koestler, who have identified the emergence of consciousness as being responsible for the human condition. Arguably it is also alluded to, albeit in metaphorical terms, in the biblical story of the Garden of Eden. What Griffith does is identify exactly why the two elements of instinct and consciousness must have come into conflict:
This defiance, says Griffith, took the form of blocking out the criticism and retaliating against it, and, because there was no defense available in the form of first-principle understanding of why it had to challenge the role of the instincts, the conscious mind became insecure and preoccupied with proving its worth. In other words, Griffith says that this battle accounts for the "upset" in our human nature, which over time has compounded and ultimately led to the tidal wave of pseudo-idealism that we are faced with today.
The Hypocrisy of Pseudo-Idealism
If Griffith's theory is correct, pseudo-idealism is revealed as hypocritical, and the moral high ground shown to belong to the right wing. By making a virtue of selfishness (to use Ayn Rand's famous expression) the right was championing the defiance necessary for our species to ultimately find knowledge, whereas pseudo-idealists were so exhausted by the battle that they were advocating abandoning it. We have always known this intuitively, but explaining it has been difficult, even for Rand.
An intriguing aspect of Griffith's explanation is that it provides, in a sense, its own solution. Humans became upset not because the instincts criticized the intellect's necessary search for knowledge; rather, we became upset because we weren't able to defuse that criticism with the fundamental explanation of why we had to search for knowledge. Griffith says that this is that long-sought after explanation.
It follows, he says, that having this explanation actually allows the core upset that has been driving the pathology of pseudo-idealism to subside. It is an extraordinary claim. However former president of the Canadian Psychiatric Association Professor Harry Prosen is one who apparently agrees: "I have no doubt this biological explanation of the human condition is the holy grail of insight we have sought for the psychological rehabilitation of the human race."
Griffith's contribution is hard to categorize; it potentially goes beyond the political debate and all the way to the heart of the riddle of the human condition. As I say, it demands scrutiny.
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