Reality Wars: Measuring the Collective Mental Health of a Nation

Originally published on The Huffington Post, February 22, 2012

As a nation, we are fighting several “reality wars” at once. These wars are not only political, but deeply psychological. As a result, our collective mental health as a nation is being severely challenged and tested.

Like that of individuals, the mental health of a nation is measured primarily by how well it is in touch with reality. (Social scientists have long recognized that everything that applies to individuals has a direct analogue with larger social entities. Thus, the “mental health of a nation” is not an absurdity or a contradiction in terms.) Even more basic, mental health is measured in part by what an individual or nation calls reality in the first place, and how it treats it subsequently. Since language is the primary means we use to describe and invent reality, the language a nation uses to frame and treat important issues is a measure, however imperfect, of its mental health.

For example, consider what Republicans call “class warfare.” To call legitimate demands that the richest pay their fair share in taxes “class warfare” is not only a gross insult towards the downtrodden and poor, but it obfuscates the basic fact that the gap in wealth between the rich and the poor/middle-class is as large as it has ever been in our history. It tries to dismiss this painful fact through the use of a clever phrase.

We live in a society where inequality is as great as it has ever been. To ignore this painful fact is to ignore basic reality itself. In a word, one of the prominent measures of the ethical, if not mental, health of a society is its attitudes towards and treatment of its poorest citizens. Denial of what it is to be poor in contemporary America is harsh and unusual punishment.

The upshot is that the very term “class warfare” is self-reaffirming! The very denial of class warfare by those who coined and use the term is an especially pernicious form of class warfare!

The very term “class warfare” is injurious in itself. It would have us believe that there are no such things as class differences whatsoever in American society. True, Americans like to believe (delude themselves) that they live in a society governed solely by individual merit, i.e., we are a classless society. And yet, study after study shows that social–i.e., “class” factors–matter tremendously. For instance, the family into one is born is one of the most powerful predictors of one’s success later in life.

As another example, consider Congressman Darrell Issa’s disavowal of the fact (reality) that millions of women depend daily on the use of contraceptives for their health and general well being. His refusal to call any women to testify in behalf of their own health issues boggles the mind. It is nothing less but a complete dismissal of reality. For another, to call the Obama Administration’s attempt–whether it was politically right or wrong–to have hospitals of whatever denomination help pay for contraception purely a “religious issue” is another distortion.

Consider another prominent assault on reality. Even though a substantial number of women approve of abortion if only in the sense that they don’t want the government interfering with their bodies, the issue of abortion is only one part of a larger cultural war over the rights of gays to marry, etc. The point is that we are at war on multiple fronts simultaneously.

We are certainly bogged down in a prolonged and bitter war over the nature of political reality. Indeed, we are tearing ourselves apart daily over it. The issues include among many the basic legitimacy of our government, whether it has overstepped its bounds in mandating health insurance, whether President Obama is a socialist and wants us to become a “European type ‘nanny-state’,” etc.

No one is more aware than I of the dangerousness of labeling the divisiveness that grips us on nearly every front of our existence as not just a battle over the nature of political and social reality, but even more, as a measure of our collective mental health. To label those with whom one disagrees as somehow lacking in mental health is at best highly contentious. Worst, it borders on the dangerously irresponsible, if not demagogic. Indeed, I am among the first to deplore the fact that we are surrounded by candidates that so freely use demagoguery. For me, this is one of the surest signs of how low our health as a society has sunk.

Thus, I do not use such terms easily or lightly. In short, I am deeply worried about the health of a society that has let its grip on language and reality deteriorate so badly. It’s not just our physical but our underlying mental infrastructure that is in need of repair.

The history of the world is a long battle between narrow mindedness and an ever-expanding view of the universe and humankind’s place in it. For long periods, there is no denying that the forces of darkness and narrowness have assumed the upper hand. But, despite all the wars, destruction, etc., there has been an inexorable march towards greater understanding. I call this “greater understanding” a march towards greater “collective mental health.”

Originally published on The Huffington Post, February 22, 2012

About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Affiliate with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
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