The Mental Illness of Homo Politicus

Our cranial roommate, Homo Politicus, identified by Aristotle long before the birth of Christ, is a trouble maker.

The following observation is true enough, but Homo Politicus latches onto one word and says “There you go again!”

All forms of conservatism are symptoms of mental illness.  The fact that they are collective and rooted in ancient fragments of wisdom does not change the fact, just makes them more dangerous, difficult to acknowledge as pathological, and hard to treat.

Because Homo Politicus sees everything as political and “conservative” is a political label, (s)he distracts us from what’s important, the root of the mental illness that manifests as conservatism.

What is that root?  Fear of change.

That’s important because so may of us fear change.  It’s not just Republicans, Christian and Muslim fundamentalists or others who profess conservative values.

And conservatism is not our only mental illness that manifests in politics.  Progressivism is also a delusion because we cannot in real life manage societal change.

Although our every behavior causes change, we cannot control the result.  The network of causes in which we exist encompasses everything that ever happened.  We cannot be in control because we are embedded in that network of causes.

Over-excitable Homo Politicus distracts us from the fact that knowing we cannot be certain about all its results does not mean our behavior doesn’t matter.

In fact, it is only our behavior that matters!  Because they so often guide our behavior, we must be very wary of our mental roommate’s beliefs.

It is foolish, for example, to think that those with a different political bias are mentally ill while we are sane.  That leads us to ignore important truths they point out.

And Homo Politicus blinds us to our own contradictory beliefs.  Conservatives who oppose government activism at home, for example, passionately advocate the use of force to change other nations.

There are such contradictory beliefs all across our political spectrum.

The result is we live with great social and economic inequality, inadequate access to health care, persecution based on beliefs or identity – all these ills and more – and we don’t know what to do.

We might imagine too much government got us into the mess, or stronger government could fix the problem.  But corrupt and incompetent as our government may be, it is not our primary problem.

That’s good because government’s flaws are very hard to correct but our individual problems are more tractable.  Of course we must correct our government’s flaws but we will get results faster by correcting our own.

What can we do about our insanity?  We can:

  • Reject “us-versus-them”, start building bridges across perceived divides.
  • Focus more on broader long-term consequences of our actions, less on short-term self-interest.
  • Resist appeals to fear and anger that cloud our judgment, use more analysis.
  • Assume misunderstandings result not from malice but miscommunication, practice empathy.

That we have an insane cranial roommate whose friends and enemies are also deranged doesn’t mean we must remain deluded.  We can pay less attention to their chatter and act more wisely.  We will be happier if we do.

8 comments on “The Mental Illness of Homo Politicus

  1. I was thinking about the following statement in your post today:

    “Assume misunderstandings result not from malice but miscommunication, practice empathy.”

    I would like to propose that children who were deeply harmed by another person as opposed to general circumstances tend to assume malice when things go wrong for them rather than miscommunication. For example, if a child was physically or sexually abused they might become hyper-vigilent to protect themselves and view others as untrustworthy and hence others’ actions as malicious, especially when these actions cause difficulties for them.

    On the other hand, when someone grows up in bad circumstances where those circumstances are not specifically aimed at them, e.g. poverty or bigotry, they might be deeply harmed by those circumstances but might not see others’ behaviors as malicious because everyone around them was in the same boat.

    I wonder if there is any validity to what I am saying?

  2. Martin,

    Having been involved in deep investigation of trying to understand my “mental roommate’s delusions” for many, many years, I know first hand that even getting to know which ones exist is a very, very difficult process. After decades of personal psychological investigation I knew that a family tragedy that happened when I was 20 months was very significant for me. However, it wasn’t until very recently that I was able to understand how this tragedy actually manifested in creating this “mental roommate” for me and how the “mental roommate” governed my life.

    Because I had no direct memory of the event the only thing I was able to go on were significant experiences that occurred when I was a bit older and able to remember. I had to infer that these later experiences were directly connected to the original. In doing so I was able to construct a scenario of what might have happened and how it affected me when I was just 20 months old. I very slowly began to realize that the effects were pervasive in forming the way I operated throughout my life. It formed a good portion of the lens through which I viewed things. Because at 20 months I felt I had to deal with this very frightening situation all by myself, it caused me to take that approach throughout the rest of my life without any understanding that I was doing so. So instead of being able to share my feelings with others who could help me, I operated mostly by myself to solve my own problems even though I had no clue in how to do that. This might have made me stronger and more self-reliant but it also prevented me from forming closer bonds with others.

    So the question I ask is how can this very difficult process of getting to understand ones’ “mental roommate’s delusions” be available to everyone? I certainly was fortunate to have the time and money to explore this part of my life with professional assistance. I would think that those less fortunate, perhaps living far more stressful lives, wouldn’t have the resources to do this investigation and therefore would be doomed to live their lives with these mental roommates controlling far too much of it.

    Knowing only how this has worked for me, I would love to hear from others how they dealt with their “mental roommate’s delusions”.

  3. Regarding Harold’s first comment and the phrase “everyone around them was in the same boat.”, I can’t think of many groups so isolated that “everyone around them” is homogenous. All one has to do is turn on a television to see how small their boat/community/tribe is and how the many other tribes around them are in quite different circumstances.

    • Since most of our mental roommate’s delusions are created when we are very young I was thinking about children whose worlds are usually quite small.

        • Parents do pass down their mistaken beliefs to their children. When I wrote my comment I was thinking about how specific events create our mental roommates rather than the belief systems we grow up with.

  4. Wikipedia says “A delusion is a belief held with strong conviction despite superior evidence to the contrary.” Unless there is some agreement on the form and substance of the “superior evidence”, the “delusion” label is not useful.

    Wikipedia also says “An illusion is a distortion of the senses, revealing how the brain normally organizes and interprets sensory stimulation.” I find this term a better description of the symptoms.

    I have been subject to both illusion and delusion and have had a very hard time recognizing them in my experience. It takes “hard knocks” and “painful consequences” to dislodge them one-by-one and replacements are always at hand.

    As I get older I deal with these “mental roomates” by a practice of “Skepticism, generally any questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts.” (Wikipedia again). This skepticism practice sometimes alters my beliefs, but even if it does not change the beliefs it changes the way I act on them. Knowing that something I believe may not be true or may not be true for another person is very moderating.

    I can relate to Harold’s second comment. I ended up in much the same “mostly by myself” frame of mind, although I cannot trace it to specific past experience. Any progress I have made in this part of my life has come from loving and trusting and marrying a person who is helping me change the patterns. I found my “very difficult process” in direct experience, but I think the process is unique to every individual.

  5. Martin wrote “All we can do is fit little bits of incoming data into preexisting mental structures.”

    My spouse Ilana found and gave me an interesting book that describes this process:

    It’s Not Your Fault
    Patricia Romano McGraw, Ph.D.
    Bahai Publishing
    ('s+Not+Your+Fault.-a0123925958 )

    The “preexisting mental structures” are called templates in the book, which explains the deep physiological foundations of the process. It also goes into great detail about traumatic memory and how it differs from “normal” long-term memory.

    The book gave me a much better understanding and appreciation about how stories/structures/templates begin at birth and are shaped throughout infancy and the rest of our lives.

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