James Lindsay on Psychopathy and the Origins of Totalitarianism
I love James Lindsay’s essay Psychopathy and the Origins of Totalitarianism. I believe it’s important and deserves to be widely read. Unfortunately, it’s so long that I’m afraid few people will actually read it. So I have made an abridged version of it. Its length is less than a sixth of the original. The obviously means that lots of information is missing, but I hope most of the main points still come across. I have kept the original heading (except one), so it should be possible to look up the corresponding section of the original for a deep dive.
Some comments to avoid basic misunderstandings: Two of Lindsay’s key concepts are:
- reality as opposed to pseudo-reality
- normal people
From a philosophical or neuro-cognitive perspective, reality and normality are complex, nuanced and subject to endless discussion, ambiguity and interrogation. But Lindsay’s terminology (as I understand it) is based on simple common-sense usage: the way most of us use them when we talk to friends and family about ordinary things.
Reindeer are real (I’ve seen them), Santa Claus is not. Pseudo-realities have a nasty tendency to confuse matters that are (almost) similarly clear—from a commonsensical point of view.
A pseudo-reality is not simply any false belief system. It is an ideology that is capable of driving the dynamic Lindsay describes and to cause damage to the individual and society. Essential elements are a utopian outlook, perversions of both logic and morality, and an ability to effectively manipulate ordinary normal people to draw them into the system.
So given this context, what exactly does it mean for a person to be normal? My provisional answer is: the ability to make decisions based on observations, using knowledge and feedback from the world. The ability to relate to others using mutual understanding, cooperation and two-way communication rather than a power-based, asymmetric and adversarial approach. These are abilities that are disrupted by psychopathologies and personality disorders as well as by the pseudo-realities Lindsay describes.
The text that follows is my shortened version of Lindsay’s essay. I take no credit for the ideas and the way they are expressed; they are Lindsay’s. I’ve only tried to make them more easily accessible. Of course, I recommend reading the original in full.
James Lindsay: Psychopathy and the Origins of Totalitarianism—short version
Many of the greatest horrors of the history of humanity owe their occurrence solely to the establishment and social enforcement of a false reality.
Pseudo-realities, being false and unreal, will always generate tragedy and evil on a scale that is at least proportional to the reach of their grip on power—which is their chief interest—whether social, cultural, economic, political, or (particularly) a combination of several or all of these.
The Nature of Pseudo-realities
Pseudo-realities represent plausible but deliberately wrong understandings of reality. They serve two related functions:
- To accommodate small proportions of people who suffer pathological limitations on their abilities to cope with reality as it is.
- To replace all other analyses and motivations with power.
Pseudo-realities are social fictions and political fictions. They are maintained because enough people in the society they attack either believe them or refuse to challenge them. Normal people interpret reality more or less accurately. They achieve that through the heuristic called common sense, though much more refined forms exist in the uncorrupted sciences.
People who accept pseudo-realities as though they are “real” are no longer normal people. But normal people will reliably misunderstand the motivations of ideological pseudo-realists. Thus, many normal people will reinterpret the claims of pseudo-reality to seem plausible in reality. That makes them helpful to the ideology, generating camouflage for the pseudo-realists. This is key to the success of pseudo-realities.
Pseudo-realities are claimed to be accessible only by special methods or forms of understanding. Thus normal people can be accused of not seeing reality accurately, and of willful ignorance of the pseudo-reality.
Pseudo-realities and Power
The ultimate purpose of creating a pseudo-reality is power. The pseudo-reality structurally advantages those who accept it over those who do not, often by double standards and moral-linguistic traps.
Cult Pseudo-realism and Utopianism
The Utopian vision provides the rationale beneath and means by which an ideological pseudo-reality is created. The pseudo-reality is a construction that misunderstands actual reality as compared against the imagined Utopia that resides at the end of the ideological rainbow.
Thus, the ideological pseudo-reality becomes a kind of mythology that contains a pseudo-real explanation for why we have not yet arrived at Utopia and how we might get there yet. Details are light—specifically because no plan can replace reality with pseudo-reality.
Pseudo-realities as Language Games
Pseudo-realities are constructed by linguistically capable manipulators who wish to control other people. It’s reasonable to assume that a sufficiently convincing (and convicting) pseudo-reality will then draw in more such people who are able to develop the pseudo-world and its fictions.
Pseudo-real world-builders tend to manipulate people upon their vulnerabilities, which is a well-known fact of cult recruitment. Thus, they are most effective on people who have an underlying baseline of psychological, emotional, or spiritual illness.
Pseudo-realists tend to target the (bourgeois) upper-middle class. A high proportion of such individuals are employed in education, media, politics, and especially academia. (The most potent and dangerous ideological pseudo-realities are the kinds of absurdities only academics could truly believe.) Pseudo-reality enables a path to careerism and credentialing in these sorts of professions far more than in most others.
Accepting more of the premises of the pseudo-reality traps adherents, who have almost no escape mechanism, even when ideological off-ramps are made plainly available. They come to lack the necessary epistemic resources to challenge the ideology, even within themselves. Also, their entire social environment is conditioned to keep them in a Hell whose gates are locked from the inside.
A pseudo-reality will employ an alternative logic—a paralogic, an illogical fake logic that operates beside logic—that has internally comprehensible rules and structure but that does not produce logical results.
Paralogic necessarily manipulates normal people outside of its purview into trusting their own (incorrect) assumption that the paralogic must somehow be logical. It reliably leads (very) smart, thoughtful people who utterly reject the pseudo-reality to carry water for the ideologues inhabiting it by normalizing it while portraying accurate critics as kooks and bad actors. This makes the pseudo-reality look far more reasonable and tethered to reality than it actually is.
A paramorality is a morality contingent not upon the facts of human existence as those exist in reality but instead as they are distorted in the constructed pseudo-reality. The paramorality enforces the belief that good people accept the paramorality and attendant pseudo-reality while everyone else is morally deficient and evil.
Because the paramorality is, in fact, immoral, participants in the pseudo-reality will experience vigorous, usually totalitarian, enforcement of the ideological paramorality. In turn, following the cycle of abuse, they will then use the same tenets and tactics to (para)-moralize normal people outside of it, eventually far more vigorously.
This is the true alchemy of the pseudo-realist program; it transforms normal, moral people into immoral agents who must perpetrate evil to feel good and perceive as evil those who do good.
There is no neutrality in a paramoral system, and all shades of gray are alchemically transformed into real black and pseudo-real white. Thus, in a pseudo-realist’s paramorality, there is either fully convicted support or incomprehensible (in the paralogical system) and depraved (in the paramorality) desire to see the continuation of the evils that will no longer exist when the Utopia is realized.This guarantees the paramorality of an ideological pseudo-reality will always be repressive and totalitarian
The Threads Upholding Pseudo-realities
These two elements—a false paralogic and an evil paramorality—are crucial to the creation, maintenance, and spread of all pseudo-realities that go beyond an unfortunate delusional individual. They are the threads holding up the entire distortion and its increasingly criminal enterprise. If these are cut in any meaningful way, so falls the entire pseudo-reality, which cannot support itself (being unreal) and will necessarily collapse under its own weight.
The Caprice of the Party
It is not possible for people ensnared by pseudo-reality to check any claim within it for themselves. This necessitates the elevation and appointment of specialists in one or both of the paralogic and paramorality of the ideological pseudo-reality. The traditional modern name given to this cabal of corrupt “experts” is “the Party”.
It is to the greatest advantage of the pseudo-realists (the Party) for their paralogic to be the most illogical that it can while still passing a generic sympathizer’s sniff-test as “logical,” and it is likewise most advantageous for their paramorality to be maximally immoral in the same way. The unfailing result is caprice from the Party, ever the favored tool of dominance and totalitarianism.
Psychopathy and Pseudo-reality
An ideological pseudo-reality is all but destined, once it starts gaining sway and power, to head toward caprice, abuse, and totalitarianism of the most pernicious, dangerous, and evil forms.
Psychopathic ideologies will degrade the psychological capacity of anyone who comes in contact with the ideology—for or against it. These tend to result in people not being able to discern what is true any longer and to assume the truth—whether material or moral—must be somewhere in between where they were before and the pseudo-real assertion being forced upon them.
A psychopathic ideology makes its sympathizers believe and act in psychopathic ways themselves, at least in a functional sense. Virtues like tolerance and empathy are intentionally perverted until they begin to bifurcate so that they carry a political valence.
Cutting the Threads
What, then, could possibly be the answer to this perilous and perennial tangle? Fortunately, the first step, at the least, is very simple. It’s mere awareness, and beginning to reject unapologetically any demand to participate in it.Speaking practically, there are two straightforward ways this can be done. One is to refute the pseudo-reality, and the other is to reject it.
Rejection means refusing to participate in the pseudo-reality, utilize its paralogic, or bow to its paramorality—and to live one’s life as though it is utterly irrelevant to yours. This is a powerful act of defiance against an ideological pseudo-reality.
Refuting pseudo-reality is harder, as it requires much more specific knowledge along with skill, strength of character, and courage. The paralogic will interpret direct dissent as stupid or crazy, and the paramorality will characterize it as evil.
The way resistance—just plain resistance—works is by restoring to the normal person the epistemic and moral authority necessary to resist the ideologue’s illegitimate demands to participate in a pseudo-real fraud. That is, it restores confidence in normality to the normal.