The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV, 2000, cited in the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy”) defines a delusion as a False belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is ﬁrmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture.
Delusions are beliefs “held with great conviction in spite of little empirical support.” A delusion is a “false belief based on incorrect inferences about external reality that is firmly sustained.” A person is deluded when he hold a particular belief with a “degree of firmness utterly unwarranted by the evidence at hand.”
We have observed that Hitler and the Nazis embraced a delusion about the Jews and Jewish power. They believed that Jews were acting to destroy the German people and the civilized world; they asserted that Jews were equivalent to bacteria or viruses; they claimed that “international Jewry” stood behind Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, working to unite these leaders and their nations in a conspiracy to cause Germany to disintegrate.
The term “delusion” usually refers to a clinical syndrome associated with paranoid schizophrenia. How, then, are we to characterize a delusion that is widespread within a society? What can we say about delusions that are embraced by large numbers of people within a culture?
Although Nazi leaders such as Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels were deluded regarding to their beliefs about Jews, they were not psychotic. Indeed, according to the conventional psychiatric definition, these men could not be considered psychotic. In response to my essay on “Social Madness/Collective Delusion,” a newsletter subscriber commented that ‘Madness’ understood as mental illness — a psychotic break from reality — does not apply in situations where a substantial portion of individuals from a given group share their beliefs, no matter how irrational or fantastic or bizarre those beliefs may seem. A common belief within a group becomes a norm, and as such, the act of believing is not abnormal. Therefore the postulate that Nazis were ‘mad’ or ‘insane’ does not apply.
In spite of this psychiatric definition, we can’t help but feel that — however “normative” their cultural beliefs or behavior — the Nazis’ ideas and actions were “mad.” Somehow, gassing people en masse, incinerating them in ovens (“the Jew goes out the chimney”), endlessly torturing and brutalizing Jews (before killing them) does not seem normal.
Yet we hesitate to apply the term abnormality to actions performed within the framework of politics and history. If the Nazis’ beliefs and behavior were mad or insane, how are we to characterize the twentieth century itself and the numerous episodes of revolution, war and genocide that resulted in the deaths of over 200 million people? On the one hand, one might say that if certain forms of behavior occur with great frequency in history — however bizarre, weird or destructive they may be — they are normal simply because they have occurred so frequently.
Or we can consider the possibility that psychopathology is contained within the political or historical process. Perhaps “madness” is a central characteristic or quality of this domain. Yet we hesitate to say that political history is a place of madness or psychopathology.
The Politics of the Slaughterhouse
Our difficulty in using the term psychopathology is related to our belief or fantasy that the behavior of political leaders is governed by “rationality.” In Terror and Liberalism (2004), Paul Berman discusses not only suicide bombers, but also Nazis and the history of the twentieth century. He points to our reluctance to say that political behaviors are irrational and manifest severe psychopathology.
Writing in a satirical tone:
It is very odd to think that millions or tens of millions of people, relying on their own best judgments, might end up joining a pathological political movement. Individual madmen might step forward – yes, that is unquestionable. The Reverend Jim Jones might lead the demented residents of his pathetic Jonestown in Guyana to their collective suicide.
But, surely, millions of people are not going to choose death, and the Jonestowns of this world are not going to take over entire societies. Is the world truly a place where mass movements bedeck themselves in shrouds and march to the cemetery? The very idea of a pathological mass movement seems too far-fetched to be believable.
I have frequently written about the destructive, suicidal quality of political behavior, for example, in my online essays “The Goal of War is Death,” “Mass-Murder by Government,” and “Civilization and Self-Destruction.” I have hesitated to use terms like pathology or psychopathology — because they are not useful from an analytic perspective.
Still, there is value to the term pathology — lest we begin to conceive of episodes of mass murder as normal simply because they occur frequently. Berman writes again satirically:
Is the world truly a place where mass movements bedeck themselves in shrouds and march to the cemetery? This seems unthinkable. And, all over the world, the temptation becomes great, irresistible, to conclude that, no, the world remains a rational place, and pathological movements do not exist.
Finally, Berman concludes that, yes, “from time to time, mass political movements get drunk on the idea of slaughter.”
The evidence of the twentieth century suggests that Berman is correct: Societies frequently get “drunk with slaughter.” Indeed, why should he — we — hesitate to draw this conclusion? Simply because we would prefer not to acknowledge or look closely at this reality: the political history of the twentieth century as the politics of the slaughterhouse.
Normality as Pathology
In THE ‘EVIL’ MIND: Pt. 1: GENOCIDE AND MASS KILLINGS, Johan M.G. van der Dennen says:
We may imagine that so-called normal people could never believe in anything as ludicrous as the delusional systems of the insane. Yet, historical evidence suggests the opposite. Whole societies have been persuaded without much difficulty to accept the most absurd calumnies about minority groups (e.g., witches, heretics, Jews, ‘enemies of the people’) portrayed as enemies of the majority. Such accusations originate from a particular type of fantasy which is comparable with, indeed equivalent to, paranoid delusions of the kind found in psychotic subjects.
How may one characterize beliefs or delusions that seem fantastic and generate destructive acts of extraordinary magnitude — but that are embraced by many people within a given society? When an entire culture embraces a massively destructive ideology that seems bizarre, one can’t call the people who embrace this ideology psychotic. On the other hand, certain ideas embraced and actions performed by cultural groups do possess a psychotic quality.
We aren’t used to saying that ordinary forms of political behavior are pathological. Psychiatric institutions are ready, willing and able to classify the behavior of individuals as disordered, yet hesitate to identify collective forms of behavior as manifestations of psychological disorders — even though the cost of these episodes of political destruction and self-destruction have probably been greater than the costs of individual disorders.
By gentleman’s agreement, we decide that only individuals can suffer from psychopathology — not entire societies. We have created a sphere of reality — the domain of international relations — where human beings are released from the rules and laws that govern behavior outside. In this privileged place, strange and crazy things occur, but we agree not to call these forms of behavior strange or crazy — much less to characterize them as psychopathology.
International politics and “history” constitute domains where the massive acting out of fantasies occurs. Humans collectively release their despair, anger, violence and self-destructiveness here — knowing that behavior in this realm will not be labeled pathological. The political sphere allows the enactment of psychopathology — while simultaneously denying psychopathology. How can things that occur so frequently be pathological?
Many people deeply identify with the political world in which “nations” play a leading role. We don’t want to abandon our identification with this world (it is the place where “immortality” occurs). If we were to acknowledge that this domain is the site of profound, destructive pathology, we might be tempted to abandon our identification… We simply prefer not to do so.
Richard A. Koenigsberg, Ph.D
Director, LIBRARY OF SOCIAL SCIENCE