4. Has the world gone mad? Bringing insights from bipolar to societal polarisation

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17 March 2022

By Amy Pollard @AmyRPollard


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“It’s mad isn’t it?!”

“What?”

“Everything!”

(Overheard on the bus in Archway, Spring 2022)

. . .

Introduction

Madness is an image of our times. We talk about the threat of “breakdown” whenever big things in society seem close to collapse and describe those on the opposite side of political debates as “mad” when we can’t reconcile with their position. Those who obstinately infuriate us are “driving us mad”. Scrolling through news articles in recent years, it’s striking how frequently the language of mental illness is being used to describe the events of the day.

Sadly, I’m obliged to report that this isn’t part of an effort to signpost all the different places where folks with mental illness can expect to be very warmly welcomed. It’s typically about providing a journalistic flourish, a sense of political urgency or a campaigning imperative; and reflects the deep fear of mental illness that still pervades our culture. When people say “the world’s gone mad”, they’re using the term to convey “this situation is out of control and nobody has a clue how to handle it”. It’s not supposed to draw clinical parallels with any seriousness – it’s a metaphor.

But the thing about metaphors is that they make a comparison to reveal the truth of something on a symbolic, rather than a literal level. There is a boring, fear-driven ignorance that equates a bout of mental illness with shame and humiliation – this attitude belongs in the past and is frankly quite weird. Using psychosis as a synonym for catastrophe and disaster is a bit silly (you wouldn’t do this with any other illness). However, the comparison between individual ‘madness’ and societal-level ‘madness’ does raise some interesting questions. Let’s not prevent ourselves from exploring them just because previous answers have been stupid.

Are there any similarities between individual and collective breakdowns? Is there any sense in which the world is “going mad”? What lessons can we draw from individual-level breakdown that might be useful in the context of societal-level breakdown?

As a social scientist, I’ve been very interested in the collective-level ‘madness’ which commentators have described as arising due to political polarisation. In this piece I will compare this phenomenon with my personal stomping ground – the individual ‘madness’ of bipolar.

 

Part 1: The similarities between polarisation and bipolarity

Times of extremes

The most striking similarity between British society in the 2020s and the mental health condition bipolar in that both contexts involve dealing with extremes. Bipolar, as the name suggests, involves handling two poles of mood, with high levels of energy and speed during hypomania contrasting with depressive periods where life seems to grind to a halt. I’ve offered a phenomenological account based on my own experience.

British society in the 2020s, meanwhile, is widely recognised as having become more polarised both in terms of positions on political issues, and in terms of societal splits between ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’ who distrust each other [1]. Polarisation in Britain aligns with trends that have been identified in many other large democracies around the world, particularly the US [2]. Whilst analysts warn against an overly simplistic reading of these trends, there is a broad acceptance of polarisation as a phenomenon [3]. Recent research found that half of Britons say they can’t recall a time when the country seemed divided into such stark and contrasting camps [4].

Polarisation rose to prominence as an issue in Britain during the 2016 EU Referendum campaign, and appeared to cement through the bitter negotiations of the Brexit deal and prorogation of parliament in 2019. In the US, commentators report that societal divisions have been an engine for political power; revealing as well as deepening divides in the world-view and values of different social groups. Both sides of the UK’s ‘culture war’ debates have accused each other of exploiting ‘us versus them’ dynamics for their own gain. Whilst some have suggested journalistic reporting overstates division and neglects common ground, recent surveys report that the public has lost confidence about what safe assumptions they can make of their neighbours [5].

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen new configurations of polarisation, where people not only disagree on the issues but about which sources of information are reliable. From lockdowns to masks, hand-washing to vaccines, during the pandemic there has been a marked divergence between those who align themselves with official advice and denounce ‘conspiracy theories’, versus those who align with alternative sources and denounce their counterparts as ‘sheep’. We see echoes of these patterns in battles between climate activists and climate deniers. As disagreement about which ‘facts’ are true grows to a schism, people in one camp can find it almost impossible to imagine why the other side thinks as they do.

But apart from linguistics, are there any similarities between societal polarisation and the bipolarity of individuals? Obviously these contexts are very different and the causes, dynamics and remedies for these two forms of polarity are distinctive in a number of ways.

However, there are also striking parallels – especially if you lift your eyes above the micro-detail of each context and step back to look at the big themes.

It seems to me that societal polarisation shares a high-level pattern with bipolar: in both contexts, breakdown emerges through a three-stage process: 1) you speed up; 2) you can’t stop; 3) you lose contact with the anchors of reality that other people share.

Let’s look at these each in turn.

1) You speed up

In the early stages of bipolar hypomania, your mind starts to operate at a higher speed than the neurotypical norm. A lot of ideas and observations come, you have a lot of energy, and you become sensitive to exchanges of information which usually operate subconsciously in our social lives. You get more data from the world, more quicky than usual. This can be a productive, creative time and it is a part of the bipolar experience which many people value.

Compared with how life was for human beings during our first 200,000 years on the planet, life in the 21st century is vastly quicker than what we might consider the human ‘norm’. Thanks to the internet, we can find information almost instantly, in ways that were unimaginable when our grandparents were born. Thanks to social media we can share it – and share lots more besides. Our manufacturing and food-security operates on a just-in-time basis; our emails, texts and DMs arrive instantly; and with rolling news we can keep ourselves updated on external events as frequently as we care to refresh the page.

Bipolar folks have brought many incredible things into the world whilst in a hypomanic state – from great works of art and music, to new inventions and technology. Equally, the speed of the information age has brought incredible benefits to human society – all sorts of innovation, technology, creativity and improvements. In both contexts, having access to more data, more quickly sets up ideal conditions for having new ideas and bringing new things into the world.

2) You can’t stop

The challenge with bipolar, however, comes in when the pace of ideas and observations becomes unrelenting, and the intensity of the energy doesn’t dissipate. You find it impossible to rest, even if you want to. The basic needs of your body – sleep, food, drink – start to go unmet as thoughts, images and ideas overwhelm your attention. As your body gets weaker, the boundary between your conscious and unconscious mind becomes more porous – sort of like when you’re halfway between awake and asleep, and you can’t tell whether you are dreaming or not. The enormous amount of stuff that you’ve seen, heard and felt during your life doesn’t sit neatly at the back of your mind; and neither does all the unfathomable inherited psychological stuff that human beings carry around. Instead, this normally unconscious material starts breaking through and taking the reins.

As many commentators have described, in the information age, tech companies have an incentive to hold our attention for as long as possible. The landmark documentary The Social Dilemma (2020) described how social media companies calibrate their content to hold our attention, and then display adverts which have been chosen especially for us, so that they can make more money through advertising. Every click, scroll, search, ‘like’ and comment that we make is tracked, and this enormous pile of data is used to predict who we are, what we are like, and what kind of advertising products will appeal to us. Algorithms analyse this big data to select the content they show us from friends, family, groups, news sources, and whatever we’ve chosen to sign up for online, and therefore hold our attention. They sell this attention to advertisers who are then able to target their markets with an extraordinary level of precision.

This technology is overtly designed to be addictive. Social media features such as the refresh function, likes, filters etc are underpinned by behavioural science – explicitly using what we know about human beings to keep us using the technology for as long as possible. In some instances, the strategies used are the same as those found in casinos – offering intermittent rewards to keep you swiping down to refresh the page, just as gamblers are encouraged to keep pulling the handle of a slot machine.

There has been much discussion about whether or not concerns over social media are an over-egged moral panic, or whether they really do represent a threat to mental health and personal relationships in the 21st century [6]. Like the printing press before it, this new communication technology is prompting big societal changes.

But I wonder if part of what’s going on here is not that social media is driving us mad, but that the feeling of ‘big data taking the reins’ reminds us of madness itself. It triggers a fear that we’ve passed down for generations – a fear of losing control.

The big data that drives the information age means data so large, fast or complex that it’s difficult or impossible to process using traditional methods. The unconscious can be defined as a sea of knowledge and material so vast and deep that it is beyond the control of the conscious mind [7]. Both are about having an unfathomable amount of stuff which is too much for human beings to think about in the normal way.

The use of big data feels threatening when it undermines our ability to deliberately choose how we direct our attention. It feels scary when, even when it would be in our best interests, we seem unable to put down our screens.

This reminds me of the way that, when hypomania ramps up, the unconscious starts to overpower our conscious, waking mind. In both cases, there is an enormous body of knowing that is too big to comprehend, and it seems to make us keep going even when it would be in our best interests to stop.

In hypomania, we have a sense of losing control to the unconscious. In the information age, we have a sense of losing control to the algorithms.

3) You lose contact with the anchors of reality that other people share

The dimension of the information age which many consider particularly dangerous is the way that it leads people to view the world through increasingly separate bubbles. As we understand external reality through algorithmically mediated prisms, we have fewer shared reference points in terms of what facts are true, which sources are reliable and what is ‘really going on’.

In order to hold our attention, social media companies personalise our feeds with content that they predict we will find engaging. No two people have the same Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter feeds – every person has their own individualised portal. Even people who have very similar friendship groups, political views, tastes and preferences will see different content because of the fine-grained sensitivity of the algorithms which anticipate what will hold our attention and attract our engagement.

Some parts of the internet which don’t present themselves as customised are tweaked according to what tech companies know about us. Whilst there are places online which show the same content for everyone (for example, Wikipedia or static organisational websites), many of our major windows on the world (such as YouTube or Google) are dynamic for different users. Depending on which location you are in and what Google knows about your interests, Google will suggest different autocomplete text when you search for something. For example, if you type “climate change is…” in some parts of the world, the autocomplete might come up with “inevitable”; “not real”; “a hoax”; or “fake”. Entering these same terms from another part of the world, the autocomplete will come up as “disrupting the planet”; “not weather”; “real”; “the greatest threat” or “changing our economy” [8].

There is a compound effect to the ways that algorithms personalise information. If you click on a New York Times article, you are more likely to be shown something from the Guardian or BBC. If you click on a post about Pizzagate, you are more likely to be shown content about flat earth, QAnon or anti-vax. In this way, people either ‘fall down the rabbit hole’ or ‘stay trapped in the swamp’ (depending on your point of view). As people are served more and more content which aligns to their existing worldview, fault-lines and differences become more pronounced. Thus, society starts to polarise.

Experts broadly agree that the way technology mediates our sense of reality is an important factor behind societal polarisation in the 2020s [9]. Other factors are certainly at play and it’s not the only dimension to what’s going on, but as algorithms take us further and further into our bubbles and away from shared reference points, traditional authorities are becoming less universally trusted. People look through such different prisms that they genuinely appear to be ‘living in a different world’. It’s not self-evident that people are just looking at the same thing from different points of view – instead, there appears to be a break from consensus about the nature of reality and how we can know about it.

To echo my definition of psychosis, this is a process of losing touch with the anchors of reality that other people share.

 

When shared reality has been lost

In the case of individual psychosis, this is a matter of one person (who is unwell) losing contact with the anchors of reality that orientate everyone else in a social environment. I’ve argued that when you are unwell in this way, you are dealing with your own truth – something which is unavailable to the scrutiny of others. You’re experiencing a bit of life which can’t be verified by external sources – the singular way in which your inner life and outer life interweaves. It’s possible (and tracks with my own experience) that you may encounter spiritual or archetypal forces of some kind, but no other person can check this or validate your interpretation of them. You are wrestling with demons in what is best understood as a living nightmare.

In societal polarisation, people lose touch with the anchors of reality that some other people share, but they may find a different community for knowing what’s going on in the world – others who share a new regime of truth [10]. You can find validation for your ideas and observations amongst like-minded people, even if others would see your perspective as untethered from reality.

We have seen this in the florid and outlandish conspiracy theories which have spread online at lightning speed in recent years [11]. In the US, the QAnon theory has claimed that the US government is run by a secret cabal of paedophiles and that Donald Trump is a saviour destined to defeat them. In Nigeria, a theory has widely taken hold that Muhammadu Buhari, the president since 2015, actually died in a hospital in London in 2017 and has ever since been impersonated by a Sudanese body double called “Jibril” [12]. In India, Narendra Modi’s government alleged that Greta Thunberg, the climate activist, is part of a global plot to defame his country’s tea [13]. During the Covid-19 epidemic, a theory emerged worldwide that the billionaire Bill Gates planned to use vaccines to implant monitoring microchips into billions of people.

These conspiracy theories share a common theme – that a small number of powerful people have secret plans which are intended to harm a larger group of ordinary folk. They remind me of the terrifying paranoia and sense of persecution that is often a theme of psychotic delusions. The strength of conviction of many who believe in the theories – and the apparent failure of ‘rational argument’ to dissuade them – reminds me of how futile and counter-productive it can be to tackle fully-fledged psychotic beliefs with conventional logic.

Clearly, the world as occupied by those in the grip of conspiracy theories feels very frightening. When people are in desperate times, they may take desperate measures – and both bipolar breakdown and the breakdown of societal polarisation can be dangerous. When people slip into a very deep psychosis they may provoke so much concern that they are judged to be a threat to themselves or others. It is much more likely that the unwell person themselves is at risk (rather than anyone else), but sadly there have been tragic outcomes when people at their most vulnerable haven’t been properly cared for.

In the context of societal polarisation, the conspiracy theories outlined above have had major real-world consequences both for the individuals who believe them and for wider society. Lack of confidence in Covid-19 vaccines has been a matter of life or death for whole populations, and smears of legitimate democratic processes have disenfranchised millions of citizens. Climate denial obstructs action which would safeguard the future of millions. In a polarised and conspiracy-fueled context, people can become so convinced of their vision of reality that false beliefs seem to threaten the very fabric of society. Indeed, they have led some to literally attack its institutions in a material way.

 

A reckoning of force

Perhaps the clearest example of this in recent times was the United States Capitol attack in January 2021. In action underpinned by the QAnon conspiracy theory, a violent crowd of Donald Trump supporters forced entry to the most sacred chamber of American democracy and disrupted proceedings to formalise President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Five people died and more than 140 were injured as the crowd broke into the building, occupying, vandalising and looting it for several hours. They assaulted police officers and reporters, erected a mock gallows and threatened to capture and harm the lawmakers inside [14].

The crowd that gathered and the lawmakers inside the building had completely different understandings of what was going on. In the minds of those who stormed the Capitol, a dark and malevolent injustice had been perpetrated on the American people to falsify the election results. In their reality, it was a patriotic act to wrestle back the levers of power by any means necessary. This was irreconcilable with the reality of the lawmakers and mainstream authorities, which was that Trump had lost the election fair and square. According to them, it was the threat to a peaceful transition of power which posed true peril for the nation.

Whilst some observers attempted to straddle both sides, the key protagonists were not only divided in their views, but also on the core facts about what was real and what was not. These were not limp challenges from the margins, but full-throated battles over whose truth could rightfully determine the occupant of the Oval Office. In a very concrete and consequential way, these different actors in American democracy had ceased to be anchored by a shared reality.

It was a pretty big deal on British shores too. The President of America has long been held up as ‘the Leader of the Free World’ – and so the crisis sent shockwaves across countries like ours which broadly share the values of liberal democracy. For some of us to whom America represents leadership of a particular world-view and global stability, the threat to the process of appointing an American president felt almost like a threat to the world as we know it.

The Capitol Hill crisis reminded me of the reckoning that can unfold when individuals are assessed under the legal framework which governs psychological crisis – the Mental Health Act. When there is a full schism in what different parties consider to be reality, it is no longer possible to resolve differences of opinion through a mutually agreed process. The different parties feel so strongly about the danger of a situation that they pull on an emergency lever and attempt to wrestle back control using every tool at their disposal. They seek to impose their regime of truth by force.

In both a psychological crisis and a societal level one, the ultimate lever of force is the law. The Capitol rioters were disturbing to many mainstream Americans because they were not using the law, but attempting to seize control of lawmaking itself. With the alleged collusion of some police officers and officials, there was a genuine question about whether pulling on levers of the justice system would have the desired effect – and a sense that the rioters were just the visible face of an alternate reality which extended, at an unknown depth, throughout American society and beyond. At this point, many commentators described not just concern about the actions of certain individuals, but a deeper sense of despair and confusion: a sense that “the world’s gone mad”.

 

Confronting our shadow

I’ve always instinctively felt that describing those who stormed the Capitol as mentally ill is to impugn the good name of the psychotic community. Belong with our people? They should be so lucky!

Gatekeeping aside however, there is much wisdom in the Goldwater rule which prohibits psychiatrists from expressing an opinion about the mental health of someone in the public whom they have not examined. Speculating about someone’s diagnostic status without a clinical mandate is a foolish errand no matter what your qualifications; and if you do this to discredit a person’s legitimacy then it is your own beliefs that you should be examining.

It is wholly inappropriate, then, to conjecture about whether the Capitol attacks were the result of diagnosable personal or collective mental illness. If the question is whether this particular group of people were literally ‘mad’ or not, then there is nothing of value to say.

A better question, I think, is to ask what we might make of this situation on a broader level. The world hasn’t diagnostically ‘gone mad’, but perhaps there’s something of this going on in a symbolic sense.

I would argue that the storming of the Capitol was a symbol of confrontation with shadow – the most frightening parts of our society which we don’t want to know about. From the perspective of the lawmakers and mainstream authorities, the shadow was the irrationality, contagion and lies of QAnon, which perhaps represents an inescapable underbelly of the cherished democratic principle of free speech. It was the untrammeled executive power of a strong-man leader, which may be baked into what’s possible within a constitutional republic.

From the perspective of those who stormed the Capitol, the shadow was perhaps the state’s ability to drive through an unfair decision based on its monopoly on the force of law. This may be an inescapable underbelly to our pact with the modern state, the social contract, which prevents the war-of-all-against-all [15]. Perhaps it was the conglomeration of power amongst an elite network of media outlets and political actors, which may be an inescapable result of the value that these institutions place on elite education.

Seen either way, the event arguably represents a confrontation with the parts of liberal democratic society which we least want to know about – the parts of ourselves that scare us. These were not forces that had been put there by a malevolent external actor – they are intrinsic dimensions to our own body politic; constituent parts which are built into the modern state itself.

On a symbolic level then, the parallel with psychosis couldn’t be clearer: in both contexts, we are confronting the darkest sides of ourselves. We are wrestling with our demons.

 

Part 2. Applying a bipolar lens

In my view, there are enough parallels between the macro-level ‘madness’ of the 21st century and the individual level ‘madness’ of bipolar, to suggest that some lessons from the bipolar experience might read across to this broader context.

In my last piece I described the pith of my own bipolar expertise: four attitudes – playfulness, acceptance, compassion and curiosity – which have served me well during periods of psychological crisis. Applying these attitudes to a polarisation context, I would offer four questions:

1. Where can we be more playful?

The psychologist Hugo Mercier suggests that one of the most effective ways to engage with the supporters of conspiracy theories may not be to tackle them in a head-on collision of views [16]. Instead he suggests a slightly playful approach – asking people if they would take their beliefs to a fuller logical conclusion. For example, if they are genuinely concerned about the paedophilic abuse of children, then perhaps they should phone the police? If they believe that there is a secret government conspiracy to drug the population using the contrails of jetliners then perhaps (like dissidents in repressive regimes like North Korea or Saudi Arabia) they should be careful about exposing the truth online?

Of the millions of people who say they believe in QAnon, it is striking how few have taken the practical steps you might expect them to take if they were convinced that the events of the conspiracy were literally taking place [17]. Mercier suggests that by asking people if they would take the practical next step in terms of their stated belief, you can gently help people recognise that believing in the idea of something isn’t the same as believing it in a practical, concrete, material sense. The former, crucially, doesn’t require an action point.

Such an approach resonates with playful techniques for de-escalating the anxiety vortex which can exacerbate times of crisis for bipolar folks and their carers. It is a form of flexible space-making, like the “yes, and” of improv comedy. Taking a rigid, defensive position against madness (whether individual or collective) often prompts fear, anger, shame and intransigence, and drives two sides further and more deeply apart. By working with whatever gets thrown at you in a mad situation and then offering an idea of your own, you can often take the momentum away and create more breathing room.

It’s not a silver bullet and it won’t work all the time, but this light, playful approach can be a useful string to the bow – helping to diffuse a mad situation before it escalates to crisis point.

2. What needs to be accepted here?

Conspiracy theories are nothing new. The sexual depravity described by QAnon echoes the 2nd century slander against the Cult of Dionysus, and Saint Augustine’s accusations of paedophobia amongst the Gnostic Manichaens in the 4th Century. Ancient Romans accused Christians of being cannibals; whilst in the early middle-ages, Jews were accused of torturing children. Whilst such rumours can spread at an unprecedented speed and scale in the present day, human beings have long revealed a susceptibility to florid fantasies that demonise a selected ‘Other’ – often as part of an economic and political struggle for power.

The consistency of this pattern asks us to accept, perhaps, that conspiracy theories speak to something very human. The cognitive psychologist Stephen Pinker suggests that we divide our worlds into two zones [18]. One consists of the physical objects around us, the people we deal with directly, and the rules and norms that govern our lives. In this zone, we apply a ‘reality mindset’ which is governed by rationality, and where we can test our beliefs in practical ways to determine whether they are true or false. The other zone is the world beyond immediate experience – the distant past; unknowable future; faraway people; remote corridors of power; the microscopic, cosmic and metaphysical. People may imagine what happens in this zone, but they aren’t able to test these beliefs in a concrete, material way. Instead, they apply a ‘mythology mindset’, sharing narratives which create a sense of meaning, purpose and identity with others. In the mythological zone, questions about verifiable ‘facts’ are secondary to what people find resonant and ‘true for them’ on a deeper level.

Mythology is a crucial part of the human experience – the foundation of much religious thinking and national identity. It is a mythology mindset which speaks to our deep questions about what life means – and that speaks to our hunger for belonging. But there needs to be a clear boundary between the ‘mythology mindset’ and ‘reality mindset’. Conspiracy theories emerge when the separation between these two zones becomes blurred. As lurid rumours take hold, the ‘mythology mindset’ seeks to expand its territory, break free, and threatens to overwhelm the public square [19].

I would suggest that mythological thinking might pose no threat – and, indeed, could serve us as a huge asset – if we made proper space for it in the first place. Since the Enlightenment rose to prominence in the 17th and 18th centuries, a process that Max Weber called “the disenchantment of the world” has steadily marginalised and discredited the mythological – beating it back and chastising it as a psychological crutch. This has run alongside a process whereby those with lower levels of education and fewer qualifications have been steadily marginalised in a complex world, expected to simply accept the judgements of experts because of their superior qualifications. It is hardly surprising, in my view, that eventually a backlash has emerged, whereby truth derived solely from a ‘reality mindset’ tastes chalky in the mouth and the call for something deeper becomes irresistible.

In previous writing I suggested that, when dealing with psychosis, the crucial thing is not to punish the thoughts we don’t like but to accept and channel them. If we can recognise that mythological thinking fulfills a crucial human need, then we can put this instinct in its right place. This means allowing mythology a seat at the table, rather than belittling and silencing it. It means engaging with what myths are getting at underneath, rather than applying narrow tools of reason which are predisposed to misunderstand them.

We shouldn’t allow this dimension of the human experience to take charge, but by showing respect to the mythological mindset we can prevent it from running amok. There is also scope for tremendous creativity and beauty here – and much energy to harness if we can get the boundaries right.

3. How can we bring compassion?

To my mind, today’s polarised political debates are characterised by a remarkable lack of empathy. Imagine for a second honestly believing that your country’s rightful president was going to be denied an election victory because of lies and sabotage. You would probably feel angry, frightened and defensive. Likewise, if you honestly believed that a violent mob was threatening to take the levers of your country’s lawmaking by force, you would probably feel angry, frightened and defensive, too.

And yet, it is rare to find accounts of conspiracy theories and their opponents which start by considering the emotions experienced by each side. Usually, those seeking to debunk conspiracy theories launch straight in with an arsenal of facts and counter-argument; or bypass this and go directly to name-calling. There are thoughtful explorations of where these stories came from and who started them, but these usually focus on the facts rather the feelings involved [20]. Some commentators give the impression that an act of imaginative empathy would be somehow damaging to them – blunting their ability to make an effective challenge, colluding in misguided beliefs, or polluting their own analytic respectability.

Such attitudes can lock polarised actors into their stated positions and prevent each side from drilling down deeper. This is a situation that a conflict resolution specialist might analyse in terms of the ‘Positions-Interests-Needs framework’, which helps us understand what’s going on at different levels in order to resolve the underlying issues [21]. The PIN framework maps how, on the surface, the different parties have polarised positions with no common ground between them, but beneath this layer they have interests which sit more closely together. Deeper still they have needs – fundamental aspects of being human – where there will be some overlap.

 

In terms of the Capitol Hill crisis, the rioters and lawmakers had irreconcilable positions on who should be President – there was no common ground in terms of what they said they wanted. Below that were underlying interests in terms of what counted as a legitimate democratic process – whether the vote had been rigged or not, and how you could tell if it was. But at a deeper level, both sides felt an acute need for justice, security and respect. These common and complementary needs would arguably be the starting point for figuring out how the schism in the American social fabric might be repaired. So often when you drill down into a polarised conflict, the things that are most important are those the two sides do have in common after all.

It is compassion which allows us to drill down below the surface level of a polarised conflict. Marshall Rosenberg described a practical method for this in his Non-Violent Communication approach, where observations are combined with descriptions of feelings and needs to remove the barriers to reconciliation [22]. The greater the extent of polarisation, the more challenging – but more important – a compassionate approach becomes. The time has to be right and people have to be ready, but by acknowledging our feelings and recognising the feelings of others, we allow natural human empathy to break through.

As is the case with psychosis, the less you feel another person is understandable, the more respect you need to show them. It’s not just about being nice (although it’s nice to be nice!) – it’s about effectiveness. Compassion can help us get to the bottom of what’s going on.

4. Where can we show more curiosity?

I’ve argued previously that if you are caring for someone in a psychological crisis, there’s nothing more important than keeping an open mind about what could be going on for them; why they are behaving as they are and what it all could mean. Similarly, I would argue that an attitude of curiosity is essential to prevent calcification in polarised debates. Being alive to how we might look at issues in different ways is a prerequisite to problem-solving, self-reflection and genuine resolution of these complex issues.

It is a particularly important discipline to ask ourselves why the other side see things as they do. Is there any sense in which they are, in fact, right about things? Where do they raise the most uncomfortable questions about our own perspective? It’s all too easy to dismiss the legitimacy of someone else’s position according to our own values, but what if we were to assess it according to theirs?

Resisting complacency about what we think we ‘know’ is crucial for avoiding hubris and ensuring that any truth-claims we make are accurately qualified. But even when we have tested our own positions thoroughly, much can be gained from bringing an attitude of curiosity to our experience of a polarised encounter itself.

Confrontations with those we find maddening can hold up a useful, if humbling, mirror to our own weaknesses and flaws. If we can bear to ask ourselves difficult questions, a fruitful line of enquiry can be “where do I do that?”.

As we notice the ways that we ourselves embody the worst characteristics of our adversaries, or commit their most egregious misdeeds in our own way, we may figure out the deeper reasons that they get under our skin. Using the heat of a polarised encounter to light up our own darkness is perhaps the most powerful bridge-building tool of them all.

 

A place for mad skills

Playfulness, acceptance, compassion and curiosity are not the whole answer to the problems of polarisation in the 21st century – nobody has that. However, I like to think that these mad skills have a place, and can contribute to moving our collective challenges forward.

I call them ‘mad skills’ because they are the essence of the expertise that I have personally developed as a result of madness, and the hallmarks of the approach I bring in my professional life. They are useful for tasks involving integration – for bringing things together. Nobody is yet making Youtube videos about how gnarly these mad skills are, but I take pride in them myself – and am always on the look out for projects where they can add value [23].

But everyone who goes through a psychological crisis and comes out the other side returns with something. People come back with different things – their own mad skills and interpretations of what happened; their own perspectives on themselves and their lives. These vary greatly. Those of us who live with mental health difficulties that never get better often bring an unparalleled skill set in dignity; and it’s not uncommon to find that dealing with the dark side of life sharpens your sense of humour. People who haven’t gone through psychological distress may develop the same skills in other ways, and many bipolar folks have skill sets that are very different than mine. But we all share something: all of us who experience mental health difficulties are privileged to represent the fact that life goes on. This is the case no matter what the outcome of psychological crisis. When someone is lost to the darkness, the loved ones that remain are fated to embody this truth too.

At bottom, the most important thing that the experience of mental ill-health can offer is embodiment of the fact that times of dissolution and breakdown can be navigated. That in times of chaos and uncertainty – when change comes thick and fast, and just will not stop – it’s okay not to be in control. It’s okay not to be okay, as the saying goes. A mad skill set, in my opinion, is about the art of losing control without losing your humanity.

The 21st century is, arguably, a time when human beings aren’t able to kid themselves that they are in control anymore. As I’ll explore in my next piece, climate change, the ‘post-truth’ era, the advance of artificial intelligence and a suite of major structural shifts mean that we are naïve to imagine that human beings can carve out their own destiny through the force of our intentions alone. We are in an era of unsettling, where those with supposed levers of power find they pull the levers but don’t get the result they were expecting – and where we don’t always understand what we’re doing. It’s a funny time, really, but one where it’s no bad thing to have people around who know what it’s like to lose control. Perhaps mad skills could contribute to helping us navigate this time without losing our humanity. Maybe we’ll all end up finding our humanity again, in a different way.

 

Rolling with the punches

It makes sense to me that, amongst the human race as a whole, there are people with different experiences and different skill-sets. It means that when circumstances change, human beings have more than one string to their bow, and can adapt to bring a new approach to a new context. From an evolutionary perspective, this is said to be the adaptive advantage of diversity – if a species has a wide range of characteristics and capacities, then it can be more light-footed when the context changes.

It's tempting to imagine that, as we move into new territory in the 21st century, those with mad skills may be valued in a new way. There’s a scenario whereby mad skills offer an adaptive advantage, not only to the individuals who have developed them but to society more broadly. Maybe we’ll all be recognised as an asset to society, and called up to put our shoulders to the wheel of history!

I think it’s unlikely to work quite like that, not least because history is better imagined as a rolling sphere, rather than a wheel. For a long time, people with mental health difficulties have been on the edges of society – held at the margins whilst those in the mainstream pushed forward their interests in order to create the direction of travel. But when you reach an obstacle, these edges are what allow a sphere to turn and change direction – rolling with the punches, if you like.

The lesson that individual madness can offer to ‘a world that’s gone mad’ is that it’s not about moving things forward all the time. Sometimes, we have to move in other directions, rather than marching ever onwards, and this doesn’t mean that we’ve failed or made fools of ourselves. If things aren’t going perfectly – as seems to be the case in the 21st century – it’s doesn’t mean that we’re irredeemably broken or rotten or damaged in some way. It just means that we’re human.


 

[1] Duffy, B. et al (2019). Divided Britain? Polarisation and fragmentation trends in the UK. KCL Policy Institute.

[2] Boxell, L., Gentzkow, M., and Shapiro, J. (2020). Cross-country trends in affective polarization. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 26669.

[3] Duffy, B. et al (2019). Divided Britain? Polarisation and fragmentation trends in the UK. KCL Policy Institute.

[4] More in Common [2020]. Britain’s Choice: Common Ground and Division in 2020s Britain. Accessed 22/09/21.

[5] Ibid.

[6] My own organisation, Mental Health Collective, wrote a co-produced study about this with young people “There are no #PhoneZombies: Thinking for ourselves about mobile phones and mental health” (2019)

[7] I’m using a Jungian frame for defining the unconscious (taken Deb’s Dictionary of Jungian Terms, DreamSchool).

[8] The Social Dilemma (2020). Netflix.

[9] Find a snapshot of expert opinion in this article in Business Insider, for example

[10] Cremonesi, L et al. (2016) Foucault and the Making of Subjects. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. Maryland.

[11] For a selected overview of some of these, see ‘From Congo to the Capitol, conspiracy theories are surging’ The Economist. 4th September 2021

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Source: Wikipedia

[15] Hobbes, T. (1969). Leviathan, 1651.

[16] Menston, Scolar P. Mercier, H. (2020) Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust And What We Believe. PUP.

[17] According to polling from March 2021 (reported by NBC), an estimated 50 million Americans (15% of the population) believe in the QAnon belief “the US government, media and financial worlds are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping paedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation”. However experts estimate that the attack on Capitol Hill involved no more than ten thousand people (see here). This would mean less than 1 in 5000 QAnon supporters put their beliefs into action in this way.

[18] Pinker, S (2021) Rationality: What it is, why it Seems Scarce, Why it Matters. Penguin. London and New York.

[19] Ibid.

[20] For example, the BBC podcast series, The Coming Storm, gives a valuable history of how QAnon beliefs evolved.

[21] This is a classic framework used throughout the conflict resolution field. The interpretation used here was handed down to me through conversations with Andrew Acland as part of our work on Sciencewise, 2015.

[22] Rosenberg, M.B (2003) Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. PuddleDancer Press (second edition).

[23] Hit me up at amy@mentalhealthcollective.org.uk

Last modified
17/03/2022 - 10:44

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