If ever there was a case in which over 900 people committed suicide by consuming poison at the direction of a charismatic cult leader, it would be tempting to dismiss them as crazy, insane, and psychotic, particularly when over 200 children are amongst the dead. Unfortunately, such a tragic event did occur some thirty-four years ago. So prominent was this event in American media that it even spawned a new meaning to the phrase “drinking Kool-aid”, which now means blind adherence to the dictates of a specific ideology or individual, especially a dangerous one. Those astute in history may know what is being referenced, while some readers may even be old enough to remember it: the Jonestown Massacre.
Jim Jones, the leader of the cult he founded known as the Peoples Temple, instructed his followers to partake in “revolutionary suicide” by first giving cyanide to their children in the form of a powered juice drink (hence “drinking Kool-aid”) and then taking it themselves. The California-based group began as a radically egalitarian Christian sect, but Jones slowly and methodically tweaked the ideology of the group until it became an openly Communist organization. When family members of some of the children began requesting that the government grant them custody and revoke the custody of the children’s current guardians, Jones moved the entire cult to Guyana and set up a commune. After some of Jones’ men murdered a San Francisco Congressman along with those “traitors” who decided to leave with the Congressman, Jones called for the suicide, even ignoring the pleas of one of his members to save the children. Though more extensive concepts such as “crazy” and “irrational” are certainly applicable to these actions, “psychotic” is not likely one of them, at least not as it applies to the group as a whole. This leads us to the central issue to which the previous example will help illustrate: fundamental flaws in modern psychology.
Doubtlessly, psychology is a special science which has proven its worth in many ways since its inception: the identification of chemically-induced depression, an increased understanding of dissociative conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and the prescription of treatments for these illnesses have all come out of this field. At the same time, the science of psychology has demonstrated a severe level of ineptitude in other areas, largely as they relate to man’s motivations for his actions. Schools of thought like instinct psychology reject man’s faculties of reason and free will, schools like Behaviorism apply those rejections in an attempt to prove that man can be trained like lab rats, and even some more reasonable theories which recognize these faculties falsely assume that all men employ them rationally (Rational Choice Theory). Though all of these errors – the denial of man’s free will, the repudiation of the existence of his rational faculty, and the false assumption that all men behave rationally – are worthy of discussion, they are not the focus here.
The error being examined here is much less academic and much more cultural. Though it certainly is true that adherents to the Rational Choice Theory commit this error frequently, it is even more frequent amongst the laymen who look at the world around them and project their own psychology upon others. The error, as exemplified by the average American’s reaction to the events at Jonestown, is the false assumption that whenever individuals behave irrationally or self-destructively, they are necessarily “crazy” or “psychotic”. Individuals reading news reports about Jonestown likely asked themselves, “What would drive me to do something like that?” As they could think of no rational reason (for there was none) they immediately concluded, “Well, I’d have to be insane to do it, so the people in Jonestown had to be insane.” This is a sad misrepresentation of the motivations behind the actions of the Peoples Temple (and other similar events, particularly Islamist-driven terror). It hinders individuals from truly arriving at the heart of the problem and, as such, precludes them from remedying it.
The term “psychosis” applies to any disease or condition which physically or chemically affects the brain such that man’s mind (i.e. his consciousness) suffers a disconnect from reality or an inhibition of his free will. In general, these are the two kinds of psychosis – one in which man’s perceptual or cognitive faculties are severely impaired to the extent that he is unable to correctly comprehend the world around him, and one in which man’s actions are beyond his control. It is important to note that these two are not mutually exclusive, as man’s perception of the world and his actions are undoubtedly linked, but most members of the Peoples Temple church did not appear to suffer from these conditions. By definition, psychosis is a medical condition, but members of the Peoples Temple, or at least the overwhelming majority, were medically healthy.
In other words, there was no reason that the members of the Peoples Temple should not have been able to reject Jones’ ideology and refuse to participate in this act of suicide and murder. Their senses were completely functioning, they were not under the influence of any psychotropic drugs, there were no “voices” in their heads, and their actions were undertaken purely through their own volition (instances in which Jones’ cronies forcibly injected others with the poison or shot them notwithstanding). More simply, there was no organic issue attributable to their actions. Neurologically, their minds were healthy, but philosophically, they were stricken with the poisonous doctrine of altruism – members were called to sacrifice themselves for the the common good, their “brothers”, the cause of socialism, and, of course, for Jones. The concept of the self had been completely obliterated.
Unlike psychotics who suffer from mentally debilitating conditions which disallow them from correctly perceiving, understanding, and acting within reality, neurotics stubbornly choose to ignore reality. All forms of neurosis and all its symptoms – e.g., anxiety, anger, depression, and obsessive behavior among others – result from issues in an individual’s personal philosophy. When that personal philosophy is one which conflicts with reality as it is, particularly as it relates to man’s code of values, man’s actions will necessarily conflict with pursuing the full enrichment of his life. Emotional turmoil, irrational and self-destructive behavior, destructive behavior toward others, and a defiant defense of one’s beliefs against all logic and reason are the hallmarks of neurosis.
One must recall that all of these things become manifest from an act of volition on the part of the neurotic, not from a biological sickness. Every man possesses a philosophy – this much is involuntary – but there is an element of choice in how he obtains that philosophy. Consciousness, meaning active processes of thought, is a matter of choice – man can, as most do, allow his philosophy to develop haphazardly via whatever events happen to affect his life, never taking the time to critically analyze those events. Oppositely, man can obtain his philosophy through examination, reflection, and evaluation, thus giving him a rational philosophy to guide him in the world. Even still, some may choose to exercise their consciousness yet do so cynically and dishonestly, leading them to vehemently reject the laws of reality, forming arguments they know to be weak but want to believe anyway.
Unfortunately, modern psychology and psychiatric medicine focus far too much on identifying and diagnosing psychosis while neglecting neurosis. The field has too soon separated itself from philosophy, the root of all special sciences and an inseparable part of a man’s individual psychology. As such, psychologists often fail to correctly identify neurotic issues when they exist, instead treating every action, rational or irrational, taken by any man, healthy or ill, as an automatic result of brain’s physical neurology, disregarding man’s capacity for free will and relegating him to the mental level of small rodents – such is the case with behavioral psychology which argues that man can be conditioned like lab rats through a series of punishments and rewards to do or accept any evil. Paraphrasing the movie Angels and Demons, “There are simply some things that psychology is just too young to understand. So philosophy pleads: ‘stop’, ‘slow down’, ‘wait’… and for this – they call us backward.”
Even worse is that psychologists often employ their own contradictory ideologies as standards of rationality from which they can judge the actions of others. The effects of this can be devastating, as experienced by Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964. The inappropriately named Fact Magazine published an article which asserted that Goldwater was psychologically unfit to be president, as evidenced by allegedly factual claims about his personal and public background – his conservative ideology, asserted Fact, was the result of those things. Thousands of psychologists whom Goldwater had never met made a judgment about the state of his neurology, arguing that his policy decisions and personal life predisposed him to being psychologically ill. Fortunately in the case Goldwater v. Ginzburg (1969), Goldwater sued on grounds of libel and won $75,000 in punitive damages.
Still more dangerous are the ethical implications of failing to distinguish between psychosis and neurosis – between those actions which are literally beyond man’s control and those which are a result of his free will. False diagnoses of psychosis act as absolutions from morality, as ways to excuse man of the evil which he committed. Though psychological illness does not alter the fact that if a man cannot respect the rights of others then he should be separated from society, its over-diagnosis facilitates irrational doctrines of subjectivism, amorality, and altruism as just a few examples. Actions which are the fault of the criminal are then blamed on others – the family, the community, society, etc. – absolving the criminal of his own guilt and instead altruistically placing it on others. Or all of man’s actions and their motivations are treated as the result of forces beyond his control, thus demonstrating that there is no such thing as objective morality or as morality at all depending on the intent of the arguer. By this logic, murderers are excused from suffering the punishment for the charges against them because violent video games led them to believe it was okay, rapists are condoned because the “hyper-sexualized” nature of television somehow caused them to lose control of their actions, or thieves are not culpable of their crimes because they grew up in a “rough neighborhood”. No matter an individual’s background or surroundings, his own flawed philosophy should not and ethically does not exonerate a man of the crimes he commits, nor should it allow him to avoid penalization.
These errors are prevalent throughout psychology, where man is treated as a machine with no free will whatsoever. Subconscious “mechanisms”, which supposedly determine man’s actions often lead to entirely opposite responses to the same stimuli, continue to baffle psychologists, largely because they ignore the faculty of volition which all men possess. For example, the “acceptance-rejection mechanism” purportedly argues that, during the years of his formative development, man can either accept or reject the precepts of his elders, though no explanation is given as to why different men can respond in such vastly different ways to the same precepts. The reason, as previously stated, is philosophical, not neurological – man’s employment (or lack of employment) of his active consciousness, correctly or incorrectly, to examine the precepts of his elders is what leads to varying results.
Often, psychologists scoff at the notion that man is a rational being, and if one were to look solely at the events of Jonestown, one would think they had good reason. But just because so many refuse to employ their rational faculty in the defense and furtherance of their own life does not mean that man has no rational faculty. It is often forgotten that not all of the members of the Peoples Temple “drank the Koolaid” – a 79-year-old man laid down in a ditch and pretended to be dead, a 76-year-old woman hid under her bed, a 36-year-old man hid within the foundations of a building, and another 25-year-old man tricked the guards at the gate and fled into the jungle. The fifth survivor who was present at Jonestown during the suicide, a boy no older than five years of age, concealed himself in the surrounding jungle and saved his own life – numerous others were observed to have markings which indicate that they also resisted and had to be restrained until they were either injected with the poison or were forced to ingest it. Man is a rational animal, no matter the number of fools who fail to employ that rationality. Even so, the field of psychology, especially motivational psychology, is gripped by fundamental misunderstandings of man’s consciousness. Now, in the Twenty-First Century, we must throw off the notions that crime and initiations of force are only the byproducts of neurological defect and fully recognize that inalienable part of man’s motivational psychology: his philosophy.