The role of mental health in the decline of political civility and personal responsibility

Edward Walker : 30/09/2017
We live in an affluent, urbanized, modern world.  As we see a rise in physical and mental health problems, from a sedentary lifestyle and social media fixations, we must consider what effects this has on society. It is unsurprising then, to notice the correlating rise in political polarization and in civil social discourse. Self-responsibility has become increasingly unpopular. Replaced by self-interest groups, victimhood and the state.
Personal experience is the driving force behind our beliefs as well as opinions of other groups. The way in which we draw our conclusions from that experience is the factor that leads to both moderate and extreme beliefs. Two people in the same situation can come to very different conclusions. Whether moderate or extreme, it all depends on the thought patterns we use and how those thoughts make us feel. When a thought pattern involves some kind of mind reading or magical thinking, this is known as a cognitive distortion. An objective observer to these patterns can see that either the thoughts are untrue, or the owner of the thought had no way of knowing whether the thought is true. Cognitive distortions usually lead to negative emotions. Negative emotions tend to lead to antisocial behavior, which in turn leads to more negative thoughts. This cycle makes distortions hard to treat, as they reinforce themselves. It is impossible to help someone with distorted thinking, unless they see they need help and ask for it.
Seen on both sides of the political spectrum, scapegoats are a prime example of how cognitive distortions, can change the direction of political discourse. Driven by unchecked mental health issues, these distortions allow the political extremist to bludgeon conversation in the direction of their choosing.
Filtering / Over-generalizing – A self-identified victim of oppression, will see clearly whatever perceived harm, they may or may not experience from their puppet master of choice. Whether it be Jews, controlling the world, the rich, or the patriarchy. It makes little difference. However, filtered from sight, are the possible perceived benefits of alleged oppression? The rich are greedy and withdrawn, but also create wealth for the nation and employs most of its citizens. But is every rich person greedy or withdrawn? This leads us to the next distortion, Overgeneralizing.

The classic over-generalization is the assumption of the inferiority of blacks, by the far right. In an isolated bubble, it can be easy to assume that the black criminals they see on their news feeds are representative of that demographic as a whole. Any objective observer can see this is untrue, based on simple crime statistics. However, without the will or ability to check, a distorted thought pattern will reinforce itself rapidly, with confirmation bias.
Jumping to Conclusions – Feminists and men’s rights activists, are two of the extremist groups most affected by this distortion. Without much direct reference being made to them, a victim will infer all manner of beliefs and opinions regarding themselves, from their opposition. A leap of logic is required, to come to their unfounded conclusions. Feminists can assume their opposition is misogynists by sole virtue of disagreement with feminism. Such a feminist knows, without a doubt, that their opponents hate women. Despite their lack of ability to read minds, of course. Admitting anything to the contrary would not only humanize their opponents but bring them dangerously close to self-responsibility and the notion they could be wrong. ‘Always being right’ unsurprisingly is another cognitive distortion.
Should / Fallacy of Change – The authoritarian nature, of some extremists, stems from these distortions. ‘Should’ are sets of ironclad rules. Anyone who opposes those rules is not merely honestly mistaken, in the extremist’s mind, but sinful or evil. Reluctance to agree with or implement these rules often results in anger and disdain.The insistence of minorities’ emotions being guaranteed by government legislation, as a right, is an example of a subjective ‘should’.  Here we see a non-binary student asking the psychiatrist, Dr Jordan B Peterson, whether he is aware of a Tran’s boy who killed himself after being called the wrong pronoun. In this instance. The questioner believes the boy should have been a treated certain way, as not having things their way would result in distress. This belief is divorced from the harshness of reality and self-responsibility. A reality where the only person that can directly control their thoughts and emotions, is themselves.
‘Should’ usually tend towards the Fallacy of Change. The belief that enough pressure, complaint or abuse can cause any person to change their mind. This necessity for agreement even further removed from self-responsibility, as they put the burden of their happiness in the hands of others. Only by changing those, who they feel ‘should’ act a certain way, can they come closer to their illusory happiness. Though not always abusive, attempts to cajole and persuade are about as effective. When the persuasion fails it often leaves no other option but verbal or even physical abuse. Even those who believe informed people will change their mind after a debate, though moderate, also fall prey to this distortion. Few things are as inherent and unchanging to a person that their sexuality and sexual preferences. ‘You can unlearn your own prejudices it just takes time and conscious effort’ Riley, tells us. But this is a naive assumption based on the fact Riley changed his opinion on a matter. However, another person given the same information would not necessarily change their mind.
These examples have been only a few of the many common cognitive distortions (others including, polarized thinking, blaming, catastrophising, control fallacies, fairness fallacies, etc.) The effect they have on radical discourse seems obvious. As reason and empirical evidence matter less and less in politics, it should come as no surprise to see a decline is self-responsibility. When your problems are solely the fault of others, it becomes natural to think the solutions to those problems must also come from others.
So, what can we do? Challenge distorted thinking when it presents itself in discourse, in a non-combative manner. Ask questions. Some self-identified victims are beyond the help of anyone but professionals. Fortunately, most people are open to dialogue. Sometimes just asking ‘why?’ encourages critical thinking, and can be enough to change a mind. When this gentleman was asked whether he thought the police were racist, he replied ‘Hell yeah, you got some out there. I got beat by a police and he called me a n****r’. An overgeneralization. However, after further questioning he realized he was suffering from a distortion and corrected his thinking of his own accord, ‘Yeah, you’re right, I didn’t stop. He asked me to stop and I didn’t stop’. While no doubt, his mind was not completely changed, this was a single step from polarization and victimhood.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is currently the best method for addressing and treating these distortions. While not a cure for the root cause of the distortions, it is the best treatment we have for negating their effects. Investing intensively in mental health will likely incur high costs. The benefits affecting the next generation significantly more than current generations, who will incur the costs. High costs that should require a constant evaluation of their effectiveness. Quests for root causes of social ills can be wild goose chases, but problems are seldom fundamental in nature as mental health.

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