By David Asia

In an earlier article (Methow Valley News, April 4), I talked about how, throughout our history, a kind of mass hysteria can overpower an otherwise reasonable group of people, a culture or a nation state. I suggested that we all hear voices, and that these voices can feed a disorder of thinking so powerful that we willingly rise up and lynch a neighbor or 12, burn down the villages across the river or talk ourselves out of rescuing a boatload of refugee families.

More often than not, the only real difference between acts of collective madness like these and that of the lone gunman in a high school is the body count. They have more in common than we have supposed: what they share are the voices feeding a thought disorder which makes it all possible. This is the very essence of mental illness.

In this article, I want to answer the following question: how does such insanity overtake us? Not enough God? Too much God? Too much evolution? Not enough evolution? Tip of the tongue explanations like these remind me of what H. L. Mencken said: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”

Here’s a different theory based on some current thinking about how our minds work. It begins with how we define ourselves, with each of us creating our awareness of a self that is distinct from all other selves. In our society, generally, the self is an individual. In others, people might define themselves based on kinship, tribal membership, religious affiliation, or more recently, as nation states. Doesn’t matter. Wherever there is a “self,” however it’s defined, there has to be an “other” or not self.

It seems increasingly apparent that both the “self” and the not self exist primarily in our minds. They are creatures of consciousness, like Orion or the Big Dipper, with some stars separated by as much as 1,000 light years, but which exist as distinct features in the night sky because we have agreed that they do. How we see our world is driven more by consensus than by actual observation.

Building patterns

So how do we turn the not self into the not human? Our voices, after all, have to dehumanize, or make alien, the not self before nightfall, before we set out with machetes, AR-15s, or Stealth fighters, before we force their children into boarding schools or detention centers.

We’re not born believing that Jews, Muslims, Mexicans, Somalis or anyone else is less than human. We are, however, each born with a brain whose main job, after keeping us alive, is to seek out patterns, reinforce them, build on them over the course of our lives. Individuals, families, whole cultures have to learn for themselves who to blame, who to demonize. This is what we hand down from generation to generation.

Richard Dawkins calls lessons like these “memes.” They comprise the enormous, shared library of software our brains use to make sense of the world, guide our decisions, determine our course of action. They are constructed memories, the stories about ourselves that we tell ourselves over and over again.

For individuals, the most powerful of these memes, those learned as children (often before we have language), have faces and voices attached to them. They are disassembled and reassembled by consciousness repeatedly over the course of a lifetime, expanding and contracting, smiling or scowling inside our heads while they whisper or shout at us about power and shame, about what we are owed and what we owe. At their most extreme, they do not negotiate: they refuse to be silenced until we do what they say or we end our lives. This is the excruciating desperation of an individual’s depression or schizophrenia.

These voices soften us up as targets for the broader cultural memes of victimhood, of being denied or devoured by others whom we eventually turn into demons. They amplify all our rage and resentment, igniting the fires that have burned through our history. This is the excruciating desperation of the madness of mobs.

Having a theory like this creates opportunities to look at the experiences of our children and grandchildren. We can then understand how those experiences affect the stories they construct about who they are, where they come from, and why they’re here. This is how we make history.

David Asia, PhD, lives in Winthrop.