The canaries of coal miners alerted them to bad air in the mines by dying before they do! Leelah Alcorn’s call to “fix society” is something worth thinking about; especially when we consider how she might have been a canary in the mine of society, responding to the unfinished business of society that needs fixing. Should we be moralizing or pathologizing about what happened? Are we dealing with moral insanity (a new concept) or clinical insanity (an old concept) as diagnosed and treated by psychologists. Is this an important distinction going forward? Finally, is there even the question of "insanity," or a "sick society," that needs "fixing?"
“Fix Society. Please!”
Leelah Alcorn’s call to “Fix Society. Please!” is a very different response to the unfinished business of society than say the behavior of anarchists or terrorists who resort to violence. Some regard them all as canaries in their own right. The fix in her case must involve biological and psychological interventions; some known and some to be discovered. Sexual identity these days may well involve industrial and pharmaceutical pollution acting as gender benders, followed by the mind benders of diminished self-esteem and emotional distress.
It’s easy for a knowledgeable biologist and psychologist to sympathize with her call to fix society. In my case it’s even easier because I believe that in the background we have run-away science and technology, without the constraints of a science of morals, and that this makes it all worse. I discuss such things in the following blogs: “The Ultimate Evil,” “The Self,” “What is the Value of a Human Being,” and “Depression.”
Leelah was depressed and not successfully treated for depression. Any successful treatment must consider two problems. Let’s call them “the reality problem” and “the head problem.” The reality problem concerns biology, Christian family values, and peer pressures. The head problem concerns how she thinks about these problems (i.e., what she is telling herself or self-talk in her search for meaning and struggle to authenticate and validate her sense of self). The treatment she received sought to change reality without changing thinking which gives rise to identity and also emotional distress. This approach acknowledges what can be changed, what cannot be changed, and the difference between the two...and sometimes having to accept that there are no good choices.
What was Leelah telling herself? We will never know for sure, but clinicians suspect she was thinking “it’s hopeless, I’m helpless to change things, and it will all go on forever!” This evoked primary depression with diminished self-esteem and associated emotional distress. Being a witness to it all, a wave of secondary depression followed which made her depressed about being depressed, along with the intensification of emotional distress. This cognitive processing can be represented in a “flow chart” of sorts; one we call the Super ABC Paradigm.
For those not familiar with the Super ABC Paradigm of cognitive psychology, it is Ellis’ Clinical Model or Therapeutic Paradigm where “A” stands for “activating events” (e.g., someone insults you), “B” for “belief systems” (e.g., what you tell yourself about it), and “C” for “consequent emotions and behavior” (e.g., your anger, anxiety or other upset). It’s important to understand that “A” doesn’t cause “C,” and apply this to one’s life. It is “B” that causes “C.” However, the "maps" at “B" must not be confused with the territory at "C." Fanatics and true-believers are prone to confuse the map (i.e., ideas) with the territority (i.e., facts with reality). The Super ABC Paradigm reminds us that the world doesn’t upset us, it is we who upset ourselves by what we “tell ourselves” about the world. We upset ourselves!. (Many are not aware of this simple truth, or fail to be aware of it in moments of crisis). Finally, many under stress tend to confuse B with A, or the mental maps with the territory or reality; especially when critical thinking is called for. See following blogs:
“Tomorrows Healing Today”
“How to be Strong While Naked: Collective Humiliation.”
Treating Leelah Alcorn for depression should have been a priority. It wasn’t, and she took her own life. Religious values conflicted with existential and humanist values. The treatment of her behavior was made more important than addressing the individuality and uniqueness of her being and becoming. In axiological terms, beliefs or Thinking (T) plus behavior or Doing (D) are made more important than self-esteem or Feelings (F). This is symbolically represented by T = D > F.
(Note: This is “axiological code” equating Thinker (T) with systemic values, Doer (D) with extrinsic values and Feeler (F) with the intrinsic values of personhood, identity, and self (i.e., existential values). These are the dimensions of value identified by axiological science, where the terminology of TDF is more intuitive and interpretive than more abstract and technical IES terminology. Both refer to the three dimensions of value or “seeing with values,” or “value-vision.” They define the cognitive structure of “B” of our Super ABC Paradigm. The Feeler, Doer, Thinker dimensions of “B” give rise to valuational styles, which in turn give rise to thought styles at “B.”
...Each of these dimensions varies as to (1) sensitivity, (2) priority, (3) balance, and (4) plasticity among persons and across situations. Some individuals possess a higher degree of “axiological intelligence” than others. These four variables are in turn influenced by other faculties such as memory and temperament (i.e., biological personality). Memory, temperament et. al. are also influenced by the four modifying or modulating variables above. This reciprocal relationship is like the dog chasing its tail, except the outcome becomes adaptation and survival. "Plasticity" refers to the absence of rigidity. Rigidity is a consequences of genetic and / or psychological influences. It is also a consequence of trauma related brain damage. It will take a "Supercomputer" one day to model or simulate such reciprocal, interactive, dynamisms. When all is said and done, “axiological intelligence” (e.g., valuational styles) plays an important role in the development of both intellectual and emotional intelligence.
...Measuring the four ways (i.e., involving sensitivity, balance, priority, plasticity) the three core dimensions of value intertact is achieved with HVP-valuemetrics which yields proven personality profiles, vocational information, and useful clinical scales for the diagnoses (i.e., involving the choice of clinical, philosophcial, or axiological interpretations of behavior), and treatment of problems in living. Our science of values puts us at the center of all that's behavioral because of the universality of values and valuations. The basis and validation for this are presented and discussed in my textbook entitled "The New Science of Axiological Psychology." )
Each of us possesses preferred valuational styles dealing with self and world. Why be concerned about axiological styles? Because we are prisoners of our values and axiological psychology is the science of values. It is an approach that brings science to clinical psychology and knowledge of human beings as habitual self-evaluators. Axiological science and psychology reframe clinical psychology, self-esteem, and values in ways that respond to Professor Milton Rokeach’s belief that the concept of value is the most important concept in psychology (i.e., until recently the concept of value was poorly studied and understood. Clinically speaking, Abraham Maslow once suggested that the concept of value might be obsolete because so little was known about it).
Homosexuality: Once Considered Mental Illness
The counseling provided to Leelah Alcorn reminds me of how I treated a patient in the early days of my clinical post-doctoral internship under Dr. Albert Ellis. Those were the days when homosexuality and transsexual issues were equated with mental illness. I was asked to see the son of Greek parents who wanted to become a woman. In our first session “he” displayed wrists with the scars of several suicide attempts in response to his family and wife’s insistence he abandon his desire to become a woman. He was seen by psychologists who tried to talk him out of it (i.e., an early version of transgender conversion therapy). That was long ago when I was a professor and postdoctoral intern. Without hesitating, I assured my patient "He" had come to the right place and that I was going to help "Him" become a woman. “He” became a “He-She” then a “She-He” and then the woman “She” always wanted to be. I’ll never forget the day when “She” arrived at my office dressed as a woman for the first time and announced how “She” had used the Lady’s Room at the Plaza Hotel. I took it as a “rite-of-passage.” I may well have saved her life. At the Ellis Institute in Manhattan, we were among the very first to take this approach with such patients. Had I, or others of my professional orientation, treated Leelah Alcorn, we might have saved her life; but of course her parents would have had to cooperate, and they found themselves in a situation where religious values clashed with the humanistic values of psychology focused on the uniqueness and individuality of patients in a rapidly changing society destined to catch up with us. Riding the two horses of religious values and humanistic values, Leelah fell between the horses. My patient some forty years ago went on to successfully counsel other transsexuals as the climate-of-opinion became more tolerant of such issues and more considerate of the person experiencing and enduring them. It is hoped that the continued development of value science will enrich both religious and humanist values, and bridge the divide between science and religion in years to come, and that this will help to “fix society" and what ails civilization and its discontents.”
Anarchists and Terrorists
Managing terrorism is another story. These canaries in the mine of society and civilization are best discouraged by moral education in the schools which is preventive psychology, and on a global scale. I doubt a reactive, crisis approach would work in most cases. The terrorists have made up their minds. They consulted an expert, namely themselves! Their narcissistic conclusions are embedded in “concrete” of mind and brain. It is their identity and that's where thinking stops! They exhibit the profound rigidity of mind-disease (i.e., “twisted values”) and sometimes brain disease (i.e., “twisted molecules”). The result is a "Manchurian Candidate" (i.e., "killing machine") for police, homeland security, intelligence services, and the military to cope with. We have always had anarchists among us, but today they're on "steroids" and called terrorists! Let’s suppose there are good and bad canaries choking on what ails society (i.e., what needs fixing). Leelah’s struggle reasonably encourages us to look at ourselves. How about anarchists and terrorists? Should we view them as canaries in the context of the present discussion, and can we learn anything from them?
The dictionary defines anarchists as those in rebellion against authority and established order. Wikipedia lists 92 anarchists by name. In college, I studied the Sacco-Vanzetti case drawing world attention in 1925. These alienated misfits sought to overthrow authority and install a “stateless society of voluntary, nonhierarchical, self-governing individuals” as a way to fix society.
Neither anarchists nor terrorists are able to coexist with civilization. Their formulaic anger is simplistic, two-valued logic, black-and-white thinking, them-and-us thinking, anti-establishment, and anti-authoritarian; all of which is where thinking stops. The ideological anarchists of yesterday and mindless terrorists of today corrupt religion and want to destroy Western civilization. These puppets are willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater believing the end always justifies the means. Their funding comes from puppeteers behind the scenes with resources to support them (i.e., “Manchurian Candidates:” brainwashed killing machines). In many cases, the puppeteers are morally insane and their fanatical puppets are clinically insane.
Some terrorists are “lone wolves.” One lone wolf, domestic terrorist that comes to mind is Theodore Kaczynski. The press branded him “The Unibomber.” He was convinced society needed fixing and his “critique of society” (i.e. his ideology) proposed a solution which drove him to wage a private war against science and technology between 1978 and 1995. His mail bombs killed three and injured twenty-three others. Do you think he was morally insane, clinical insane, or both? Does it make a difference?
Another was the Virginia Tech student who killed 32 fellow students on April 16, 2007 and wounded 17 others, two hours apart and in two separate attacks. Was he morally insane in the sense of being morally confused; or clinically insane in the sense of more deep seated psychological confusion in the manner of a diagnosable mental illness?
Terrorism is contagious in a climate of despair and under the influence of gratuitous media violence and video game violence...especially with the more vulnerable among us. An example of clinical insanity motivating terrorist behavior is seen in the Virginia Tech shooting, and then the Newtown Connecticut Elementary School shooting on December 14, 2014 when a 20 year old shot and killed 20 innocent children and 6 adults after killing his mother. This and the Virginia Tech shooting are the two most deadly mass shootings by single persons in U.S. History. They are examples of the power of unresolved, unconscious conflicts (i.e., clinical insanity or diagnosable psychopathology) beyond any consideration of moral confusion, moral insanity, and immoral aggression. Both incidents have ignited public debates concerning gun control, but without a vigorous discussion of mental illness issues. It’s hard to think in terms of “gun control” without “mental illness controls;” keeping in mind that science-based, moral education is the preventive psychology (i.e., fixing the core of education) society needs in all schools.
The canaries of anarchism and terrorism involving more than one individual have always interested psychologists. Charles Lasègue and Jean-Pierre Falret in 19th century France made a study of folie à deux (i.e., madness of two), folie à quatre (i.e., madness of four), folie en famille and folie à plusieurs (i.e., the madness of many). Psychologists sometimes refer to this behavior as a “shared psychotic disorder” or an “induced delusional disorder.” It is also called the Lasègue-Falret Syndrome. This terminology suggests a pathologizing approach rather than a moralizing one, and is more descriptive than diagnostic. I site it because the nature of contageous insanity shared by two or more is both interesting and relatively unexplored in spite of many examples including the mass hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials. Certain climates-of-opinion or spirit-of-the-times favor this phenomena: e.g., the collective humiliation of a nation can drive it to war against its neighbors.
The World as Victim
Of all the calls to fix societies on a global scale, none is more serious than that of the canaries in the mine of Middle Eastern conflicts which have been infecting the world with moral and psychological insanity for decades. The problem concerns the worst and most dangerous kind of war: namely, religious war. It is a cancer that has metastasized to the wider world these days. It should have been forcibly policed and contained by the United Nations long ago because of its inherent dangers to the wider world. Along with the Arab Spring, and the corruption of religion, this social unrest, this fragmented zeitgeist, this incubator of anarchism and terrorism, continues to give a narrative, script, and rationale to those seeking to escape alienation, humiliation, unemployment, and a meaningless existence. Let us not forget what humiliation did to German society following World War I ? It was humiliation that resulted in World War II. The "dynamic of humiliation" is alive in the world today causing problems (See my blogs on individual and collective humiliation). Is a consideration of canaries in the mine of societies world-wide relevant when it comes to questions of war and peace these days ?
Prevention of Terrorism
Because of human nature, terrorism will always be with us; however, moral education (i.e., based on the new science of values) in our schools would help to discourage it by raising the level of moral consciousness, the ultimate preventive psychology. This would also help to bridge the divide between science and religion, and give humankind a much needed, more homogeneous, and unifying worldview. A science of moral reasoning and moral education enabling critical thinking would also discourage the formation of an idée fixe capable of gripping, seizing, and guiding the imagination of alienated souls bent on destroying what they can't have.
The French concept idée fixe is more descriptive than diagnostic in our consideration of terrorists as canaries in the mine of civilization and its societies. But, it captures the notion of ideological rigidity corrupting religion, or any other narrative of convenience enabling behavior called terrorism.
In the end, we sail in leaky boats on the rough seas of a new century in search of a better world; one with moral science, moral education in the schools, and one giving us a preventive psychology to compliment an equally humanistic preventive medicine capable of enlightening all who would persecute the Leelah’s of the world, and those inclined to finance terrorism. This would expose the soul of Western civilization and free all that's right with civilization to heal what's wrong with civilization.
© Dr. Leon Pomeroy, Ph.D.