Insanity has structure. It can also have goals. And as any shrink worth her or his DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the bible of the trade) will tell you, understanding a patient begins when you accept that, from the patient’s point of view, his ideas and actions are the most natural things in the world.
On Dec. 23, Reuters reported on a British study that concluded: “Taking part in protests and demonstrations can be good for your physical and mental health. Psychologists at the University of Sussex found that people who get involved in campaigns, strikes and political demonstrations experience an improvement in psychological well-being that can help them overcome stress, pain, anxiety and depression. The finding fits in with other studies suggesting that positive experiences and feeling part of a group can have beneficial effects on health.”
Before deconstructing this bit of insanity, two caveats. First, you don’t need fancy degrees or humongous research grants to know that, yes, “positive experiences and feeling part of a group can have beneficial effects on health.” Nor do we suggest that all protesters are crazy. Far from it: Many are rational and sincere people who commit themselves to their causes. What troubles us is the notion that people should protest because it makes them feel good.
And what troubles us even more is the fact that, here in America, we’ve been doing it for 40 years nonstop with predictably insane effects on our politics and our culture. All the post-9/11 “Blame America First” blather and pro-Saddam demonstrations are only the latest examples of the insanity.
One Seattle-based writer, Philip Gold, a former Georgetown University history professor, has studied this phenomenon for several decades. According to Gold, this pattern of “therapeutic protest” began during Vietnam. While a small minority of protesters were sincere, many (especially those middle-class college kids bought off by student draft deferments) were in it for the psychological payoffs – deriving unearned moral stature from their “resistance” while enjoying the “feelings” that came from being part of “The Movement.” Then and since, writers as diverse as psychologists Kenneth Keniston and Robert Jay Lifton, former Yale law professor Charles Reich and journalist James Fallows – not to mention Tom Hayden – have documented the “cult of protest” as a way of feeling good about yourself.
Nor did it end in the ’60s. In a vital but now-forgotten 1983 book, “America’s Quest for the Ideal Self,” sociologist Peter Clecak held that, since the goal was personal growth and fulfillment, what you protested about mattered less than that you did it. When Vietnam got boring, you could always fret over the whales. When whales no longer gratified – or you no longer found the people so engaging – there was always nuclear war, or nuclear energy, or apartheid or whatever.
All in all, a lavish buffet of issues on which to snack and gorge – and to “grow.”
Therapeutic protest became a fixture of American life for three other reasons. One was the modernist conceit that “real,” i.e., superior artists and intellectuals and patriots always oppose and aggravate the Establishment, even and especially if the Establishment is paying their salaries and royalties. Another, resulting from the weakening of older forms of community – neighborhood, church, lodge, etc. – was the rise of the “small groups movement.” People began meeting their sociability needs through associations that made few heavy demands.
But the third factor was perhaps the most pernicious. That factor was reality. Many of the problems the protesters addressed were and remain real. Very real. Also very complex and intractable. But when the protesters’ primary payoffs are psychological, reality matters less. And if it pays, psychologically, to attack your own country as the source of all the world’s evils, maybe it’s time to rethink your goals.
The reason these demonstrators have the right to protest in order to feel good is that millions of men and women before them – and currently – risk and give their lives for the rioter’s right to speak out. We suggest that if you feel an obligation to protest, why not root for America against Osama, al-Qaida, Iraq, Yasser, Hamas, the terrorists world-wide and those who openly without apology or shame pledge to kill us. Does protesting against the U.S. somehow give them immunity against planes, trains, trucks, nukes, chemicals and the smallpox virus?
We think not. Perhaps rooting for the home team would also assuage their depression while helping the country. These rioters need to learn to cut the parental cord in a more constructive way. Perhaps constructive political demonstrations by all of us would decrease the epidemic widespread use of anti-depressant medications!
We’ve reached a point where therapeutic protesting actually increases the evils the protesters claim to hate. If they really want to accomplish something, it’s time for a little reality testing.