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The Pleasures — and Pitfalls — of Paranoia

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The Pleasures — and Pitfalls — of Paranoia

The New York Sun December 5, 2022

The paranoid person is assured that he is at least worth persecuting: it lends him an importance of a kind that he would not otherwise have.

A couple in New Zealand have demanded that surgeons use only non-vaccinated blood to perform a life-saving heart operation on their baby. 

Since the New Zealand blood transfusion service does not categorize blood into vaccinated and unvaccinated groups, and it would be futile even to try, this amounts to the parents refusing to allow the surgeons to operate. 

Not surprisingly, the hospital has gone to court to have the parents replaced, at least temporarily, as legal guardians of the child.

Man is supposed to be the rational animal, and so he is — in part. After all, only the prolonged exercise of rationality could have resulted in even the possibility of a life-saving operation on the heart of a baby.

On the other hand, there is a strong strain of irrationality in humanity as well. Humankind, said T.S. Eliot, cannot bear very much reality: to which he might have added, or long remain entirely rational.

The parents of the baby are more concerned with a completely conjectural and notional danger, that has probably emerged from a paranoid mindset fed or even created by too assiduous a frequentation of certain websites on the internet, than with an immediate and serious hazard to the life of the child.

This is interesting from the psychological point of view. It is an extreme example of something that affects us all, namely a failure to understand, assess, and fear risks according to their objective likelihood of eventuating. 

I am sure that more people experience a frisson of fear when the plane takes off than when they get into their car, though the likelihood of being involved in a fatal accident in the latter is many times as great. 

It stands to a certain kind of reason that sitting in a metal tube that leaves the ground at high speed must be more dangerous than going at a relatively low speed on four terrestrial wheels, but such reason is wrong by orders of magnitude.

In the early days of railways, passengers were terrified of accidents, and it is true that by the standards of later railways they were frequent. But the passengers of the time were not to know this. By contrast, they could have known that traveling by horse-drawn carriage was many times more dangerous than traveling by train, yet it was the latter of which they were deeply afraid.

People vary in their ability to assess the statistical likelihood of dangers and their ability to conform their behavior to that likelihood, and the parents of the baby are obviously at one extreme of the spectrum.

Then there is the paranoid aspect of the parents’ mentality. I hesitate to refer to the pleasures of paranoia: perhaps the rewards of paranoia would be a better way of putting it.

The paranoid person is assured that he is at least worth persecuting: it lends him an importance of a kind that he would not otherwise have. I remember a patient who lived in the most terrible squalor, having been separated by madness from his family for several years. 

He believed himself to have been followed, tracked, traced, and sometimes even poisoned by the KGB, though to all outward appearances he was of the utmost insignificance. Being the object of the KGB’s attention, however, lent meaning to his life, and purpose, too, since he spent his time thinking about how to evade the murderous attentions of that omnipresent organisation.

It would have been cruel to deprive him of his delusions, for then he would have had to face up to the reality of his madness and the irreparable wreckage of his life that it had wrought.

Paranoia lends meaning and importance to a life that is otherwise without one, but also to the world of events that seem so various, trivial, arbitrary, and incomprehensible that they have no overall meaning. Paranoia is like giving a shake to the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in a box and tipping them out so that they form a perfect picture.

There is another psychological advantage of paranoia, too: the paranoid think that they have an insight into the workings of the world that is not given to others. It gives them a certain sense of superiority, therefore. The refusal of others to accept their delusions only reinforces them and goes to show how right they are.

The paranoia of the couple who would rather see their baby dead than given the blood of those who have been vaccinated is of a milder kind, probably more a mood of mistrust than a fully-fledged delusion, and therefore (paradoxically) all the harder to treat. 

They probably have sheaves of evidence, or pseudo-evidence, at their disposal. It is also entirely possible that they are, in their own way, quite learned, like those who maintain that Shakespeare (the author of the plays, that is, not the ignorant hick from Stratford) was really the Earl of Oxford.

This mentality, I suspect, is more and more common, as trust declines and mistrust grows, and egoism combines with the explosion of undigested information that is available to all.    

This piece originally appeared on The Sun


Theodore Dalrymple is a contributing editor of City Journal and a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Photo by nemke/iStock