Pathological Politics

Pathological Worldview, defined

I know someone who I would describe as pathologically cynical. She has an uncanny ability to interpret any comment as a slur, and attack, or a personal affront. This seems to be based on a worldview in which virtually all other people are out to get her. In addition to this common purpose, they are willfully deceptive and deceitful, and are willing to work together whenever possible to accomplish their nefarious goals.

If someone were foolish enough to comment on the weather, her reaction would be something like "You clearly don't care about me enough to offer any more than a conversational token. We both know you don't care what I think about the weather".

A compliment on her hair would be interpreted as a sign that the only interest was in her value as a decorative object. For any potential conversational partner, this is a no-win situation. Not surprisingly, she has passed through a long sequence of jobs, none of which lasted long, and none of which was enjoyable. I suspect that relationships may display the same pattern.

This life experience has only served to reinforce her view that she is the victim of a world that is out to get her. Attempts to suggest that not everyone is hostile towards her are met with a litany of specific examples of mistreatment. Anyone who hasn't actively harmed her is not innocent - they just haven't had a good enough opportunity yet, or they are cunningly concealing their true nature. Others who are less perceptive might be deceived, but not her.

A mutual friend and I were discussing her behavior. We digressed into making a game out of trying to respond as she does - in effect, to see the world through her eyes. It was surprisingly easy, and deeply disturbing. It's a small step requiring very little effort to be able to ascribe a hostile motive to every action. If you do that, it follows automatically that the person displaying this hostility must be a bad person. The fact that the hostility is hidden behind an apparently friendly remark demonstrates that they are engaged in active treachery. After playing this little game for a short time, the world starts to become a very dark place.

Pathological Politics

It seems to me that way too many people play this 'game', perhaps unconsciously, in the political arena. We surround ourselves with people who think like we do, and view others as enemies who are evil and not to be trusted. We strive to find examples that reinforce this belief, and share them with each other. We view this proof of their treachery as more validation that our cause is right and just.

I am struck by the extent to which this pathological world view has become the norm in our political discourse. Far too many people on both sides of the fence are unable to see that their supposed opponents might actually be good people who mean what they say. The ad hominem attack is the order of the day, and no one seems to see that it's a problem. I am thoroughly disgusted by the rabble-rousing us-versus-them school of politics that tries to describe the other side as evil and find a base motive for every act and statement. We should have learned from the lessons of history that no good comes from creating and reinforcing division among people.

Introducing this mindset poisons the debate. If you attack someone who has an opposing viewpoint, you and your supporters may feel good about yourselves. However, you've done nothing to demonstrate the validity of your position, and you've made thoughtful discussion unlikely.

Optimism as a starting point

I prefer to maintain a more positive outlook. My default assumption is that everyone is basically good and honorable, and I'll maintain that opinion until it's decisively and unambiguously proven wrong. I prefer to believe that everyone is trying to do the right thing as they perceive it, although I'm realistic enough to know that we all fail from time to time. There's plenty of room for debate and dissension. Politics and policy are complex enough that intelligent and knowledgeable people can disagree on a course of action.

I'm actually far more interested in identifying common ground. Can we agree that actions and policies that increase personal freedom are desirable? Can we agree that in a tradeoff between freedom and security, freedom is a tad more important? Can we then discuss how these common principles might inform our positions on important issues such as tax policy and health care?