Opinion » John Rember

Cultural Psychosis Explained

What to do when reality goes haywire


If you're sane in an insane culture, you're insane--at least according to your culture. If your Emperor has no clothes, and you say that the Emperor has no clothes, you're going to upset the Emperor's tailor, who has constructed a consensus that insists the Emperor is wearing clothes. You will be called crazy, by the tailor and everybody else sharing the Emperor-wears-clothes consensus. They will put you away if they can.

This idea comes from British psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who devoted his life to showing how civilization robs its citizens of experience, leaving hallucination in its place. Laing suggests you're insane when you live with nuclear weapons, religious wars, rape culture, prison-industrial complexes and mind-destroying jobs--and still keep your head down, show up at work, go to classes, take standardized tests, pay taxes and tithes, raise kids, wait for retirement and call yourself normal.

Laing's thinking bothers people, because he shows that being normal requires a frenzied self-deception indistinguishable from psychosis. When normal people graduate from college, they trade the wide world for an office, their time for meetings, their lives for money. That money goes to car payments and mortgages and child-care and package vacations.Normal people's fears and joys are delivered to them by marketing departments. Normal people's social lives are conducted in franchise restaurants with themed menus. Normal professionals front their names with titles and back them with degrees. Laing is convincing when he says that if a person is comfortable in civilization, his entire identity is hallucination.

To those familiar with Laing, The Matrix movies are a simple extrapolation of early 21st century life. Either you take the blue pill and relax into cultural illusion, or you take the red pill, wake up to a hellish world, pull the tubes out of your orifices, escape your cell and find out what reality is all about. Most people find this path too difficult to contemplate.

But--if only it were so easy. Laing also says the thing we call the self is a pastiche of the cultural and the biological, and that we can't function without both components. Those who make the break--who take the red pill, as it were--end up without a cultural narrative. They are unable to construct a purely biological sanity. Their selves shatter into pieces, as do their senses of time and event.

We normals experience these people as schizophrenics. If their break is absolute, they become the muttering homeless, the militia-bound paranoids, the staring orange-tinted faces in the Statesman's arrest photos, the catatonics in the back wards, the Internet trolls, the bridge-jumpers, the suicides-by-cop. Laing says that their word-salad monologues, secret languages and multiple personas are artifacts of a culture whose illusions are so shabby that schizophrenics have seen right through them.

He also cautions that just because you can see the truth doesn't mean you can see the truth for everyone. Lots of people ignore this caveat and read Laing to reassure themselves that they're right and everybody else is wrong. That's harmless, mostly, except when armed paranoids decide that civilization is a pack of lies and liars and a few brave right-thinking individuals are needed to restore lost illusions.

Laing has lost credibility since he published The Divided Self and The Politics of Experience. Contemporary neurochemistry uses far different metaphors to explain mental illness. Psychoanalysis has become passé, obsoleted by theorists who insist there's no such thing as a psyche or even a self. Postmodern critics have promoted the idea that all truth is culturally constructed, which is to say there is no truth--and no sanity--and there's no point in trying to define them or seek them out.

Laing himself relaxed into what looked like dementia near the end of his life. Still, his writing offers us the possibility of real experience. He defines sanity by showing what it's not, and he suggests that once you've identified the general neighborhood where sanity hangs out, you can, most days, choose it over craziness. He demonstrates that some cultures are saner than others. He shows that civilizations must eventually face the constraints of reality.

To return to the most valuable and most chilling of Laing's insights: Culture relies on violence to enforce consensus. Such violence can be as blatant as a forced lobotomy or as subtle as a C-minus on a fifth-grade homework assignment. Schools suck in 5-year-olds, who delight in being in the midst of a bright new world and its creatures. Seventeen years later they spit out disaffected and frightened job-seekers whose highest spiritual aspirations involve mortgage-sized tuition loans. That's educational violence in action.

You might consider these words ironic, coming from a man who spent his life as an educator. But when I taught journalism I made good use of Laing's ideas. I insisted that the craft required honest witnesses above all else. Journalists who substituted cultural narrative for truth were mere propagandists for a crazy-making normalcy. "If the Emperor has no clothes," I told my classes, "write that he has no clothes. Never write consensual lies. Define the truth by showing what it isn't."

My advice might not have been worth my students' tuition. The ones who went on to become politicians ignored it. The ones who went on to become journalists never got rich. But I was pointing out an incremental path to the true and the sane. If they followed it, their financial investment would cease to matter--in the real world, if not in this one.