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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #6, 8/19/2006

Paranoia and Its Uses

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

Pity the poor paranoid. Everywhere he goes, he is followed by enemies. People are whispering about him behind his back. His phone is being tapped. His family members have been replaced by clones. Poison has been added to his tap water. The CIA sends mind control rays into his house.

What a horrible existance! Who would choose to live like this?

The answer: All of us would at one point or another. Paranoia happens for a reason. It doesn't just come out of thin air. We choose to see threats where they don't exist because it serves an internal need. Paranoia helps us escape our own self-doubt and responsibility.

Paranoia is a mechanism to help us restore our self-esteem when it has been damaged. It is rarely effective in the long run, but that's not the point. Paranoia addresses our immediate feelings of inferiority and self-reproach. It is a knee-jerk reaction to some perceived threat to our inner worth.

How does paranoia work? Here is a simple example: Let's say you fail an important test at school. It pretty humbling, eh? You think to yourself, "Am I dumb? Am I worthless?" — which are very difficult feelings for most people to hold.

You do not have to feel worthless if the teacher deliberately made you fail. This is where the conspiracies begin. Maybe the teacher marked the test wrong, or maybe she deliberately gave you the questions she knew you couldn't answer. She's a fat, ugly teacher anyway. She doesn't know anything about teaching, because if she did you would have learned more and passed the test.

Failing the test is not your fault; it's the teacher's fault. She is part of a deliberate conspiracy against you. There, don't you feel better already?

This is the essence of paranoia: an alternative explanation for ones own failings and insecurities.

Even the grander forms or paranoia have the avoidance of self-reproach at their base. If there are voices in my head, they can't be my fault. I'm not crazy, so someone else must be putting the voices in there. The CIA! They must have the technology. If not them, then the NSA, the KGB or the aliens. (Aliens are great for this kind of thing, because their technology is limitless.)

Why is the price of gasoline so high? It must be the Jews conspiring with the Arabs and the oil companies to strategically foment unrest in the world and increase the value of their assets. High oil prices are a humiliation to anyone who just bought an SUV and thought that $1.50/gallon would last forever. You don't have to feel so humiliated if there was a conspiracy against you. Then the bad judgement wasn't yours and you can't be blamed for your own mistakes.

Paranoia gives us a sense of control over otherwise humiliating or uncontrollable events. We aren't just tiny, worthless corks floating in an incomprehensible ocean. If we understand the grand conspiracy behind it all—or think we do—then we are in control of the ocean and don't feel so small and helpless.

Paranoia is not limited to a false perception of threat. Another form is hopeless idealization. If you think that Madonna is secretly in love with you and is singing every song with you in mind, that is also paranoia, even though there is no immediate sense of threat. Common infatuations are a milder form of paranoia. Whenever we fall in love, we inevitably fall for a delusion—what we want the other person to be, rather than what they really are.

Paranoia can also be a defense against potential rejection. Whenever we encounter some bit of good fortune that is better than we feel we deserve, we will try to find fault with it. If something (or someone) seems "too good to be true" in comparison to our own self-image, then we search for its flaws, and paranoia guarantees that we will find them. Rather than waiting for rejection to happen, as we know it will, we make it happen ourselves.

This is often seen in the romantic realm. Single people aren't just searching for the best mate; they are searching the best mate who won't reject them. They may dream of a Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie or equivalent perfect partner but actually dating one generates internal tension. Why would Brad Pitt be interested in dumpy little me? Inevitably, we detect something wrong with Brad and find an excuse to reject him. We dump him before he can dump us.

Paranoia assures that we will end up with someone who matches our internal self-image, whatever that may be.

How do some attractive women always end up with abusive men? When good men come along, these women go cold and reject them. The good guys create internal tension, and paranoia will always give us an excuse for letting them go.

Sexual paranoia is a common delusion of anyone who was ever attracted to the opposite sex (or the same sex). Our emotional needs are huge: We expect from an intimate relationship not just sex but the repair of all of our existential wounds. No relationship can really provide this, but we expect it to, and we idealize real and potential partners to the point where we are bound to be disappointed.

When our hearts are finally broken, we blame all "men" or all "women" as though each was an organized conspiracy specifically designed to deceive and demean us. When love falls apart, we idealize our ex-partner and his "kind" in the opposite direction, as a perfect villains. In fact, men and women are pretty much the same: oversensitive little children in unfamiliar bodies who are struggling for self-esteem and not always choosing the best way to find it.

Paranoia is the great enforcer that keeps people in their place. It assures that factory workers in grimy northern cities stay there. "I wouldn't want to live anywhere else," they proudly proclaim, mainly because they actively find flaw in any other alternative. Paranoia assures that our prior investments are protected. We know we made the right choice because whenever we see a credible alternative we neutralize it by unfair means.

Paranoia helps explain the Great Mystery of Family Court: Why are divorces so nasty? When a relationship falls apart, it can't be my fault. It must be the other person. I need to find fault with them—and quickly—because if I don't, then the fault will fall on me, which is emotionally unacceptable.

Paranoia is inherently aggressive (even when it is pursued in secret). It is driven. Wherever there is paranoia, there is usually an obsessive internal need to prove it. A paranoid theory is inherently flawed, and if it is left undefended, it will disintegrate. To neutralize internal doubts, paranoia needs to be actively "sold" to the public whenever the subject arises. That is why the paranoid is often agressive, violent and pompous. He needs to put on the theatrical show to counter perceived criticism coming from within.

At divorce, a traumatic and ego-challenging event has a occurred—the collapse of the love illusion—leaving both parties at emotional risk. Their vulnerabilities tend to lead to paranoid reactions. It can't be my fault; it must be theirs. The pleasant fantasy we had at the beginning—of perfect love—easily gets turned around 180° to a perfect threat.

When a divorcing couple walks into court, both parties claim to be the victim. But usually one is more aggressive in their victimhood. He or she is angrier, is making more colorful claims and can't seem to stick to the point. The person with the weaker factual argument usually tries to compensate for it by yelling louder and promoting more extravagant theories.

On the surface, both parties seem justified. If you talk only to one of them, you may be totally convinced that the other is at fault for whatever has gone wrong. In TPO court especially, it often comes down to, "He said, she said." So how does a judge figure it out?

For the most part, the judge doesn't have to. They simply divide the assets in an equitable manner and move the case along. When they do have to determine fault, however, it isn't hard. You just ask the parties intelligent questions and let them talk. The paranoid position is inherently aggressive and inherently flawed. The paranoid is the one who gets livid when pushed. Their theory may sound coherent at first, but when you start asking logical questions raised by their position, you will soon find the fatal flaw. You know you have found it when the party gets angry and tries to initiate a whole new set of charges.

Paranoid theories are inevitably twisted, and the brains that hold them become twisted, too. The paranoid brain quickly short-circuits if it thinks too much or is asked too many questions, so paranoids don't like to think or be asked questions. In public, they'll push the questions away with anger. When alone in their room, they'll turn on the TV to block out any uncontrolled thoughts. When there is no TV and no one to get angry at, don't despair. There is still a solution.


(Also see our essay on Evil.)

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