Warning: Contains a point of view that may be objectionable to some and incomprehensible to others. Reader discretion is advised!
By training, psychologists treat individuals not dysfunctional societies, cultures, or civilizations; however I will attempt to do just that. I’m in good company because Sigmund Freud attemped this when he wrote Civilization and Its Discontents from exile in London where he fled to escape Hitler’s war. It was his last book.
I want to distinguish between the clinical depression of one and the collective depression of many that evolves into a “new normal.” I will call it pseudocultural depression. Is there such a “thing?” Does it matter when considering the suicide of Robin Williams?
I believe pseducocultural depression is real even though it has never been diagnosed or treated. You’re hearing about it here for the first time. It belongs to a class of low-level, culture-bound, ailments I call pseudocultural pathologies which include pseudocultural paranoia which is gaining in America following the aggression of 911. Historically, this low level and mostly invisible cultural paranoia especially "infected" Middle European Germans, but is now reaching the rest of the world under the threat of twisted religious ideologies incubating in failed states.
Folie à Plusieurs and Co-Morbidity:
Along with the German concept of weltanschauung referring to the world view of individuals and societies, I’ve found the French concept of folie à deux, meaning the insanity of two, and the concept of folie à plusieurs, meaning the insanity of many, provocative and useful. In short, the weltanschauung (i.e., spirit of the times or climate-of-opinion) can suffer from folie à plusieurs (i.e., collective insanity), presenting shared mental problems and delusional beliefs supported by strange ideologies. I invoke these concepts in the present discussion of society‘s role in the death of comedic actor Robin Williams
Let’s consider the possibility of a rising tide of cultural depression in the societies and cultures of the world, including developed and undeveloped nations. Here at home, the considerable social response to news of the death of Robin Williams is rooted in more than an appreciation of his talent. It likely involves an unconscious identification with his depression, such that we have the co-morbidity of pseudocultural depression and clinical depression feeding off each other. This hypothesis raises many questions; questions that can teach us more about mental illness and how we disown it and fail to cope with it.
How could Robin Williams make so many laugh so much and touch so many lives so strongly? What was the source of this hypnotic-like appeal producing such a massive public response? At a recent meeting of the American Psychological Association, I spoke with a publisher of psychology books. His booth displayed many books including one to which I was a contributing author. I asked him what topic sells best these days? Without hesitation, he replied “depression,” and suggested I consider writing about depression. Not long after our meeting, I received news that Robin Williams had taken his own life and then learned of the public’s response to this news.
The tragedy of his passing is something others have spoken and written about. I want to raise questions concerning social and cultural factors that may have played a role. I will explore, as Sigmund Freud did, what’s going on with civilization and its discontents.
With my publisher’s comments, and the tragic death of Williams in mind, I set upon exploring the frontier of co-play and counter-play between individual clinical depression and collective pseudocultural depression. The number of hits this blog records in the coming weeks will help me decide whether to write a book on the subject.
Robin Williams fans are representative of a large segment of our society and culture that fails to appreciate how depressed he was behind the mask of his talented defenses taking the form of comedy and acting. As a professional “mind watcher” of sorts, it was clear to me he was clinically depressed beyond any cultural level regarded as "normal." So much so, I could not bring myself to watch him. It troubled me that others saw it differently. I thought about the legion of fans that unknowingly and innocently egged him on in the manner of the crowd that yells “jump” to someone clinging to the edge of cliff or bridge. I believed the man was killing himself and that society enabled him to do so...not unlike what happened to Michael Jackson.
We know vital absorbing interests and action overcomes depression; but is always being “on” like a “whirling dervish,” without pause, healthy? Of course not! Yet, what better way to escape the grip of depression than to actively create artistic distractions to the applause of so many? Isn’t too much of a good thing supposed to be a bad thing? Might we also suspect a folie à Plusieurs?
Robin Williams was aware he was depressed. He sought help. He self-medicated to the point of addiction. He joked about it when he said: “You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it” (Los Angeles, Times). The funny man was only human as he struggled to survive by making the best of a bad thing. Sadly, his naïve (i.e., with respect to mental health issues) fans are a representative sample of a society that doesn’t want to face or deal with mental illness.
Where are the Community Mental Health Centers?
I suppose my chosen profession allowed me to see what many failed to see, but there is more. We are socially not inclined to face mental illness. The subject is taboo. There was never a sufficient social consensus, or political will, to enact President Kennedy’s vision of Community Mental Health Centers. Instead, we were forced to build atomic bombs to end a war, and then go to the moon during the "cold war." In the end, Williams’ depression was a "loaded gun," and the medical diagnosis of Parkinson Disease “pulled the trigger.” His depression, before the trigger was pulled, amounted to spending some twenty years jumping in the proverbial river in a society that so easily turns a blind eye and deaf ear to depression.
To the hammer everything is a nail. Is it possible my thoughts regarding pseudocultural depression and folie a plusieurs, in relation to the suicide of Williams, are more the expression of an occupational hazard of mine than reality? Time will tell. Meanwhile, let’s consider both as problems of civilization and its discontents, and look at possible causes and remedies.
The invisible hand of subliminal, collective depression is probably rooted in something Charles Baudelaire called "modernity." What about modernity accounts for this and should concern us? If I'm correct, it all comes down to the asymmetric evolution of historical natural science without the restraint (i.e., checks and balances) of a science of values and morals. I know! This is an abstraction that stretches the imagination! But, I'm serious. These are existential and structural failures on a massive scale throughout history. It especially impacts developed societies like our own and is the failure of science to cover values in a world of facts. This lopsided evolution of natural science without value science has weakened societies and mental health the world over, and now the "chickens are combing home to roost;" referring to the fact this has consequences!
This historical distortion has released a cascade of other cultural aberrations including opportunistic rather than humanistic capitalism, the unemployment of young people the world over, the flawed science of economics contributing to the Great Depression of 1929 and the Great Recession of 2008, and society's flawed treatment of the mentally ill. Also in play is the absence of a unifying world-view of the kind that existed in ancient times. We must turn to the science of values and morals to find anything like that unifying world-view in modern times. Without some sort of common-ground in the 21st century humankind remains vulnerable to all sorts of competitive, half smart ideologies. Making matters even worse is the question of sustainable population densities tailored to the resources of the planet, which is something humankind isn’t ready to face as the author of the “Malthusian Challenge” discovered in an earlier century. For these reasons, we're facing a grim future and it isn't surprising that this promotes pseudocultural depression.
These problems with modernity contribute to rising levels of background "noise" that take the form of pseudocultural depression which favors spikes in clinical depression over and above the underlying, level of subclincial depression infecting society. It was Charles Baudelaire who coined the concept of modernity, which refers to being modern. Modernity likely increases the probability of pseudocultural depression, while events like 911 increase levels of pseudocultural paranoia, anxiety, and anger. These latent tensions or subclincial forms of cognitive dissonance have biological and psychosocial origins. They rise and fall in response to natural and man-made events such as hegemonic natural science without a science of values, and events like 911. If I’m right about pseudocultural depression favoring the public's identification with Williams, beyond the question of talent, while in the grips of the societal la belle indifférence to depression, then we have some work to do in advancing a system of preventive psychology capable of dealing with this in a proactive way. Sadly, there is no preventive psychology to complement today's evolving preventive medicine! How do we get there from here?
Here's how: let's assume the cause of pseudocultural depression lies in the poorly understood collision between human nature and modernity, the very same modernity that produces the evil of weapons of mass destruction and the good of creature comforts while promising the undeveloped world a higher standard of living. But, there is a problem: it is the same modernity a growing number of people here and abroad see as lacking in "soul." The same modernity that needs the benefits of a preventive psychology founded on moral education; in turn grounded in the culture-free, religiously-neutral, universal science of values. A moral education designed to complement the learning of our elementary school ABCs and 123s. Let's find the moral dimension of psychology, based on a science of values, and consider it to be one of the imprortant remedies for what ails modernity!
The Question of Soul:
The anarchist Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, is remembered for his murderous campaign against modernity. Jihadists, and some disaffected young idealists, including many of the Arab Spring, believe modernity lacks a soul. Their methods have given any critique of modernity a bad name, while missing what’s really wrong and how to fix it. They totally miss the negative impact of the lopsided, one sided, asymmetric, evolution of science and technology without the checks and balances of a second system of science devoted to the study of values; the seeds of which are sown in the pages of The New Science of Axiological Psychology.
What happened to comedian and actor Robin Williams, riding the wave of this poorly understood cultural phenomenon, inspired me to look at it and go where no clinical psychologist has gone before by encouraging a discussion of psedocultural pathology. I appreciated how the comedian and actor's talent must have been the creation of clever and resourceful personality defenses; indeed "brilliant defenses." They surely gave him relief from his demons in the near term, but were lethal in the far term. His “speech pressure” and "manic behavior" were symptoms of an anxious depression and impulsivity. For his generation "speech pressure" must be taken seriously; however it is fast becoming a "new normal" among "new humans." One day we may find ourselves acknowleding the existence of subclinical, pseudocultural speech pressure as the cultural base-line against which to judge clinical significance of speech pressure encountered in treating patients. It will likely morph into a "new normal" because modernity "will make it so."
It already has generational consequences. Some have difficulty following what "new humans" are saying. I encountered this at a McDonald's in rural Louisiana and elsewhere in urban New York. It will be interesting to see how this behavioral phenomenon plays out in decades to come. I don't like speech pressure. Language is beautiful and it's corrupting language. It's also alienating and depersonalizing. But, it's becoming a new normal,and I find myself getting use to it because it's bigger than all of us! My point being, for Robin Williams' generation, speech pressure is a red flag...clinically speaking! It will take a while to see what its clinical implications are for generations to come. What we call "psychopathology" (i.e., problems in living along the lines of anti-self, anti-social behavior as opposed to pro-self, pro-social behavior) changes with the times. Hysteria was more common (i.e., "fashionable?") in Freud's VIenna while dissociative defenses appear more common these days.
Williams saw doctors. He self-medicated. He compartmentalized "public" and "private" selves in a way that involves dissociation. His public talent was a “big plus” hiding a “big minus.” He entertained successfully for the wrong reasons and not the right reasons. His audiences mindlessly, not maliciously, rewarded him with adulation and applause. Those fans are part of today’s society and culture...the same society that disowns mental illness and doesn’t want to think about it.
The fact that so many failed to share my concerns intrigued me then as now. However, back then I soon forgot and ignored it all, just like society at large. In the end I was no different. I didn’t want to face it. Besides, what could I do about it? Instead, my thoughts turned to theoretical considerations of the sort I’m discussing now; such as the need for a preventive psychology based on moral science and moral education designed to complement the learning of ABCs and 123s. A moral education based on the science of values and valuations frequently discussed in my blogs. The only hope of finding a unified-world-view approaching anything like that of the ancient world (i.e., content aside), lies in developing tomorrow's universal and culture-free science of values today, enabling preventive psychology, culture-free moral education, the expansion of earned free will, and a more rational search for meaning by individuals and collectives.
The existential and systemic failure of humankind to develop two systems of science has contributed to a growing cynicism and distrust of natural science, psychology, economics, Supreme Court decisions, governance, etc. It has evoked some hostility towards modernity; especially among people of the undeveloped nations of the world, causing them to reject modernity and our democracy as role a model, while embracing questionable ideological systems including the corruption of an ancient religion. Today's awakening of minds, here and abroad, can be dangerous without a grounding in moral education. Value science and its many applications and implications, including values appreciation, values clarification and value measurement, makes moral education (i.e., preventive psychology) possible. It is needed to save science itself!
Young idealists are known to refuse the perceived Faustian bargain of selling their souls for modernity even if it leaves them and nations in poverty forever. Some with fanaticism and preemptory ideation (i.e., thinker-doer consciousness with undeveloped or diminished feeler consciousness) end up valuing death over life. In the absence of a unified world view and employment opportunities, the young experiment with half-smart, dumb ideologies to be in solidarity with other discontents. This is one solution for alienation and identity crises! It's not complicated!
Philosopher Hartman's theory of value got my attention as a young professor, then clinician and published scientist. It is technical and presented in The Structure of Value (1973). I say "technical" because it involves mathematical modeling of values and valuations (i.e., value-vision is based on three "axes" or "lenses" of the mind-brain system called Intrinsic (Feeler), Extrinsic (Doer), and Systemic (Thinker) dimensions of cognitive processing. They receive formal validation in my research and informal validation in the many proprietary applications of the HVP by business consultants. The Structure of Value is "heavy" reading and for those with an interest in studying moral "mechanisms" as distinguished from moral "content"), I suggest beginning with Freedom to Live: The Robert Hartman Story. Follow this with Forms of Value and Valuation and The New Science of Axiological Psychology. Then read Hartman's The Structure of Value and Knowledge of the Good. You may want to visit ww.hartmaninstitute.org serving the “Hartman Circle” now based in America, Europe and Mexico. This is a professional society devoted to the advancement of basic and applied value science with resources on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
Because of the universality of values, value science covers lots of ground including entrepreneurial business applications; a "quick test" of personality, clinical, and vocational strengths and weaknesses; the development of preventive psychology; a values based cognitive psychology, and a healthy critique of the "social sciences," which are pre-scientific disciplines (This includes the half-smart and "dismal science of economics" which contributed to the Great Depression of 1929 and today's Great Recession of 2008 with its persisting unemployment, social unrest, polarization and paralysis of governance, regulatory politicalization, expanding income inequalities, and the incredible "Romancing" of Ayn Rand's dehumanizing ideology by some economists who should have known better...but then how could they?). These pre-scientific disciplines will remain so until they embrace a scientific understanding of the moral dimensions of these disciplines!
I’m not alone in my long march advancing a scientific understanding of values and morals in a world of facts. It's been a great adventure involving mostly philosophers and business men and women more than my peers in the fields of psychology and biology. My research has focused on cognition or "moral mechanisms" more than the "moral content" covered by philosophy, ethics, and religion. Few focused successfully on the "cognitive mechanisms supporting moral content or moral reasoning. This changed with philosopher Hartman's success defining the meaning of "good" in our lives. He found a way to define "good" without using examples of "good." This achievement resulted in a theory of value (i.e., remember morals are normative values) that enabled us to explore the "dark continent" of valuational-styles and moral reasoning. It also gives us a view the "world" beyond Good and Evil that was unknown to philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844 – 1900).
Research and business applications have established the empirical validity of Hartman's theory. I have also challenged psychology and anthropology by publishing clinical and cross-cultural studies of values. I've served as an Adviser and Reader of an anthropology doctoral dissertation by Gary G. Gallopin published under the title of Beyond Perestroika (Rodopi Press, 2009). With respect to the relation between pseudocultural-depression (i.e., involving society) and clinical-depression (e.g., Robin Williams), more data is needed.
I will end with the following grahic which depicts the "insanity of many" and a question: Is this "psychosocial phenomena," and its clinical expression as "pseudocultural pathology," worth exploring at levels ranging from prevailing and unseen influences to more overt signs and symptoms... whether they be of depression, humiliation, anxiety, anger, or paranoia?
© Dr. Leon Pomeroy, Ph.D.