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Are You Talkin’ To Me?

The lack of privacy in the modern age should be more concerning

In the classic 1976 Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver, there’s a famous ‘mirror scene’ in which cabbie Travis Bickle (mesmerizingly played by Robert De Niro) rhetorically confronts himself with aggressive persecutory impulses; it is a moment of conscience that seems to say, “You see what you see; now what are you going to do about it?” Fight or flight, but when you gaze into the mirror abyss it gazes back, and there is no fleeing.

Bickle, a war veteran and no doubt a witness to atrocities, doesn’t further implode inward but explodes outward and confronts a world in which corruption and degeneracy have been normalized, and people conform by looking away, but he does as the voice of his conscience bids him in an effort to bring redemption – for himself and to the world.

A long time ago, way before these two Bickles were even flicker frames in Scorcese’s directorial eyes, the radical Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing lashed out at blind conformity and a psycho-social regimen that coerced individuals into moral assimilation to such warped bell curve standards, even at great cost to their psychic integrity.  Said Laing in The Politics of Experience (1967), “Society highly values its normal man. It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal. Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000 of their fellow normal men in the last 50 years.”  Conformity can provide safety and certainty, but its necessary submission to authority makes the potential for evil-doing strong.

Bickle and Laing came to mind as I was reading the newly released book by the brothers Joel and Ian Gold, titled Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness. The Golds claim to have discovered a new behavioral pattern that inscribes a growing psychological condition they are calling the Truman Show Delusion, which, as the name suggests, is a conviction that one is being watched and televised, as if imprisoned in a reality TV show, wherein everyone is a player acting out a script. 

Joel Gold writes, “The delusion raised questions about the interplay between mental illness and our environment, and larger questions about the relationship of mind to culture.” This strikes one as a refreshing alternative to the purely neuro-biological His brother Ian adds that he believes such “delusions have to do with our relationships with other people and the new media creates a larger community with more threats and opportunities.” 

One thing that our increasing online activity results in, they imply, is a deterioration of our boundaries with others the more interactive and immediate we become, not only with internet activity but texting, emailing, and frequent cell phone talk as well. Maybe this what CEOs Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Eric Schmidt of Google mean when they argue that we can no longer have the expectation of privacy.

Another surprisingly readable and interesting psychology title I came across recently was Paranoia: The 21st Century Fear, also by two brothers, Jason and Daniel Freeman. This book flatly posits that there is a growing percentage of the West’s population that is engaged in paranoid thoughts; they say that right now a startling 25 percent of those around us believe someone is out to do them harm, either by words or deeds. 

As the authors put it, “the days when paranoia could be written off as a meaningless sign of insanity are long gone. In this book we put paranoia centre stage. It’s only right, because paranoia is centre stage in our culture and in our individual lives.”

Paranoid thinking, while not in itself necessarily psychotic, is nevertheless seen as a precursor to delusions such as the Truman Show syndrome.  In both instances, there is an intensified sense of threat and a perceived rupturing of boundaries.

A really excellent and relatively brief (23 minutes) discussion of why these boundaries matter was given just a few days ago by the premiere revelation journalist Glenn Greenwald in a TED talk titled, “Why Privacy Matters.” While he reiterated (and explains why) yet again that citizens who pooh-pooh the threat of state surveillance are deluding themselves when they say they have “nothing to hide,” he also effectively castigates those pooh-pooh heads for their laziness, self-deprecation and failure to execute their duty in the participatory democracy they defend so well with memes and rhetoric.

One thing that Greenwald says that really stood out as an incontrovertible truth is that in addition to be social beings who need to share, “equally essential to what it means to be a free and fulfilled human being is to have a place that we can go and be free of the judgmental eyes of other people. There’s a reason why we seek that out, and our reason is that all of us — not just terrorists and criminals, all of us — have things to hide.”

These books remind me of the themes I found in another book, which I reviewed in these pages a few weeks ago, Thomas P. Keenan’s Technocreep: The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy. It’s interesting to compare them, actually, because Keenan’s catalogue of technological creepiness goes much further in explaining and providing details for the growing ego “disruptions” we face as a result of ceding our privacy to the world of interactive digi-stim. 

In fact, in a disturbing follow-on to his book, Keenan’s describes incidents where marketers have used directional speaker technology to target shoppers and place voices in their heads (leading to bigger sales, of course). While it’s refreshing to see in the Golds’ and Freemans’ studies an explicit acknowledgement of the role culture and environment play in leading to paranoid thinking and delusions, no effort to express culpability for the role their psychiatric profession plays in making these conditions is extant. 

Certainly, the deterioration of privacy has lots to do with this trend toward more ‘abnormal behavior’, and Golds at least reference that the Truman Show syndrome is in many cases directly linked to 9/11 trauma (they describe one poor ‘Truman’ who thought 9/11 had been staged as part of his reality TV sub-plot), but no mention is made of the comprehensive and penetrating surveillance state. 

This is partially excusable for Paranoia, which came out in 2010, well before the Snowden revelations pulled the blinders off all kinds of people, but not so excusable for Suspicious Minds which is a very recent release.   Do the authors really see no connection at all between the deep intrusions of the surveillance state, as well as all the corporate algorithms and trackers digging at our desires for gold?  What it does is remind one of what R. D. Laing acknowledged all those years ago – psychiatry, which often is in the business not so much to help the individual per se, as to find a way to have that individual adjust and assimilate to the system, no matter how absurd or abnormal that system is. (Maybe that’s why, despite some superficial affinities with Laing’s concerns of yore, no mention is made of his previous criticisms of the profession.)

And that’s a benign criticism that doesn’t even address breaches of patient confidentiality; or, as outlined in Anatomy of an Epidemic, the psychiatric collusion with Big Pharma to unnecessarily hook people on debilitating psychotropics; and ignores the trust-annihilating outrage of psychologists teaching government spooks how to torture more effectively.

I’ve heard Taxi Driver criticized for glorifying vigilantism, but that take misses the point.  Scorsese is not reveling in such street justice.  He’s pointing out that even this one-man lashing out against systemic sleaze and corruption can be accommodated, even lauded, because it looks like reform, but, of course, Bickle changes nothing muchin the end, although a no-longer-innocent girl is set free.  However, to change the system, we must all become simultaneous cabbies challenging ourselves in the mirror. But it looks to me too late; the glass is cracked, the self divided.

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