Paranoia: … Mental derangement; spec. chronic mental unsoundness characterized by delusions or hallucinations, esp. of grandeur, persecution, etc.


[This is Fred. We’re back today with a second piece on Erich Fromm. If you remember, last week we touched on Fromm’s general analysis of U.S./Soviet relations, and his (Fromm’s) concern that each side more or less was deluded about the other’s capabilities and intentions. This was the case, Fromm said, because we and they were addicted to a common pathology, i.e. to distorted and unrealistic modes of thinking about each other. There were four of them – modes, that is –  and Phil was just getting into the details of how they worked when I had to interrupt. We’d run out of time.

Phil’s back today to continue the discussion. I promised not to take up a lot of space with an introduction, so let’s get right to it. But, never fear, I won’t censor him, but I will interrupt if it’s necessary to amplify points or speed things along.]

Thanks, I think. I’m not sure I understand how interruptions will make things go faster, but no doubt you’ll show me later. Erich Fromm was a psychoanalyst and he tended to think that way when he looked at foreign relations. The first of Erich Fromm’s big four impediments to our understanding the Soviet Union and vice versa was, wait for it: … our mutual paranoia.

Today psychologists, or others of that ilk, say paranoia manifests itself in two ways. Patients who are preoccupied with delusions or auditory hallucinations often are diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenics. [2] But not all paranoids hear voices or see things that aren’t there. Those who don’t, but are chronically suspicious and distrust others to an extreme, are said to have a paranoid personality disorder. [3]

Of course, that’s the modern view and Fromm published his book over 50 years ago. But still, I think when he spoke about paranoids in politics, he really wasn’t talking about politicians who had visions or heard voices in the desert. He honed in specifically on the chronically suspicious. “The man who tells us that everybody is ‘after him,’ that his colleagues, his friends and even his wife are conspiring to murder him is recognized by most as being insane.[4]” He was concerned, to go back to our dictionary, with people who thought they were persecuted.

[Fine. What’s wrong with being suspicious? These are dangerous times, and there are lots of bad people out there. Why should we go all sincere and naive in a world like that? It’s better to be safe than sorry[5], isn’t it?]

I’m getting to that. The problem with paranoid thinking is that paranoids have the same answer to practically everything. A paranoid usually can tell when something is not logically possible. If you said, for example, that all monkeys were animals, all humans were animals, and therefore all humans were monkeys, a paranoid might well reject that. It’s not a valid inference; it violates the rules of logic.

But the paranoid is at a loss in situations where there are a number of possible reasons why things happen. If he thinks everybody is out to get him, he’ll reject other, more benign explanations even though they might seem more plausible to sane people. That’s because paranoids can’t evaluate probabilities in the normal way. “As with every … patient, his contact with reality is exceedingly thin and brittle. Reality, for him, is mainly what exists within himself, his own emotions, fears and desires. The world outside is the mirror or the symbolic representation of his inner world.”[6]

In short, a sane person studies a confused situation to determine what best explains it. He looks at the facts. The paranoid looks inside rather than out; he rearranges events to reflect his own inner needs.

[That’s all very well and good, and it may explain some of the oddities we hear from our media and politicians, but how does it relate to public opinion and foreign policy? Was Fromm saying that our whole country was (or is) clinically paranoid?]

I don’t think so. He certainly didn’t suggest putting everybody in the U.S. on the analyst’s couch. But even back then he recognized that our media and politicians served up lots of paranoid thinking. He simply thought the rest of us should recognize paranoia for what it is. We should try to be sane when we think about foreign policy; to consider the possibilities, but also the probabilities; and to make the best possible estimate of what might happen, based on analysis and not fear. “That means to examine the realistic situations, and to predict to some extent an opponent’s probable action by means of an analysis of all the factors and motivations that influence his behavior.[7]

In short, don’t let the bumper stickers or slogans do our thinking for us.

[Let’s explore a little more.  Suppose a high government executive says to you, ‘Hey, there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; I know of 700 places where they might be. So you go there and look, and don’t find any. Frustrated, you complain, and he says: ‘Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.’ What’s your answer?]

Yes it is! If I go to 700 sites, where you said I would find WMDs, and find nothing, that’s pretty much proof that you had crappy information. Sure, it’s logically possible that there might be something somewhere else. I didn’t look everywhere, but I went to your 700 best bets. So pardon me if I don’t trust you again. And for sure, the fact I didn’t find anything the first time around is not proof positive that there are Iraqi WMD’s someplace else. So far as I can tell, Iraqi WMD’s exist solely in your mind and the minds of those who helped you dream them up.

[All right, let’s try another one. Suppose I’m a defense contractor, and develop a handy new suite of hardware and software solutions to bug every private bathroom and public restroom in the country. Excited, my marketing department initiates contact with key people in DHS, the FBI and NSA. The marketing pitch is that, by some oversight, restrooms, etc. are not comprehensively monitored by U.S. security forces. This is serious because who knows what plots can be hatched in those places? The 9/11 hijackers probably went to the bathroom some time or another while they were in this country. Did they discuss their plans in the john? If so, we missed a valuable opportunity to stop them. Also, if we had that kind of information on file, even today we could use it to track suspects and possibly relate them to other crimes. So my guys are ready to go into town and brief senior executives. What advice would you give?]

That’s interesting. You have the technology and now you want to convince the Government agencies that they need it. But you have a weak case. There are possible threats out there, but you have no evidence the plots are hatched in bathrooms. You haven’t produced any proof of plots detected, or interrupted in public facilities. Surely you could go to some local police forces for help with that? And private bathrooms? I’ll bet you haven’t been able to find any video that’s legal and suitable for Government executives to watch.

So given the obstacles, you’ll have to rely on personality to make the sale. Find the most paranoid individual you have on staff, one with a very large paranoid personality disorder; enlist him; and trust him to examine his inner world for all the evidence he needs to make the case for bugging bathrooms. And hope that the Government people listening are paranoid as well. And of course, the usual rules apply: if somebody on the Government side opposes the program, for lack of evidence or whatever, try to get him (or her) fired.

[Thanks, Phil. I hope Erich Fromm and the people who read this understand we’re just teasing. We’re simply trying to liven up a depressing subject with a little satire. Anyway, that’s what I’m trying to do. Phil looks like he’s breathing fire over there.]




[1] See The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically (Oxford University Press, 1971) at paranoia, Vol. 2, p. 2074. (Henceforth, we’ll cite this version as OED (1971) at __.) A paranoid should be distinguished from a paralogism, which is a piece of faulty logic. See OED (1971) at paralogism, also on p. 2074. But more about that later.

[2] See Desk Reference to the Diagnostic Criteria from DSM-IV-TR (hereafter, Diagnostic Criteria at __) at Paranoid Type, 295.30. Note that we’re not citing to the new DSM V, largely because, as of yet, we don’t have a copy in the Zoo library. Eric Fromm, in 1961, didn’t have a copy either.

[3] See Diagnostic Criteria at Paranoid Personality Disorder, 301.0.

[4] See Fromm, May Man Prevail? (Doubleday Anchor, 1961) (cited hereafter as MMP? at __) at p. 19.

[5] See Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (Oxford, 6th Edition, 2004) (hereafter, ODQ at __) at Proverbs, p. 615, n. 24.

[6] See MMP? at p. 20.

[7] See MMP? at p. 21.