The need to eliminate the sense of helplessness and to reinstate the sense of control explains many forms of, seemingly irrational, political behaviors. As a priority, getting rid of the feeling of helplessness beats many conscious and logical needs a voter could act upon.
The first way someone can try to do away with the sense of helplessness is gaining information edge.
“…I had ample chance of studying his methods and in noticing that he often learned more of the patient by a few quick glances than I had done by my questions. Occasionally the results were very dramatic, though there were times when he blundered. In one of his best cases he said to a civilian patient:
“Well, my man, you’ve served in the army?”
“Not long discharged?”
“A Highland regiment?”
“A noncom officer?”
“Stationed at Barbados?”
“You see, gentlemen,” he would explain, “the man was a respectful man, but did not remove his hat. They do not in the army, but he would have learned civilian ways had he been long discharged. He has an air of authority and he is obviously Scottish. As to Barbados, his complaint is elephantiasis, which is West Indian and not British.” To his audience of Watsons it all seemed most miraculous until it was explained, and then it became simple enough. It is no wonder that after the study of such a character I used and amplified his methods when in later life I tried to build up a scientific detective who solved cases on his own merits and not through the folly of the criminal.”
The Truth About Sherlock Holmes, An Essay by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
– emphasis my own
Access to information is power. Accurate knowledge and understanding of how the world works is an advantage that many are missing, whether they know it or not. The craving to solve problems by knowledge and information – rather than relying on the world to provide a solution – is the essence of internalised control. The awe we experience at Sherlock Holmes’ deductive skills is all about him being in control on his own merit, and the power over reality that comes with information.
There are countless ways humans try to gain this sense of (often illusory) control – often by proxy of enforcement. The first is the homogenisation of society as a means to achieve understanding as well as asserting control (by proxy of the state).
Homogenisation as information control
Left and right wing thinking may look radically different in its view of society and how it should look like. But that’s just an insufficient level of attention given to the driving force behind those visions. When taking a step back, one can see the parallels between the two visions: the desire to create a homogeneous society paired with the desire to enforce that vision by the force of the state.
Whether the homogenisation efforts are horizontal (identical life paths, religion, the only right vision of family) or vertical (economic equalisation), the underlying desire is similar: to gain information control over others by enforcing homogenisation, and thus making them identical in one, crucial sense. The so called “left” offers to homogenise society materially, while the so called “right” wants the same but in terms of life choices.
Whether one feels it more acceptable to meddle in others’ life choices or bank accounts is merely a difference of taste.
A world where one can tell so much about another person by just the way he wears his hat or the pattern of his tan is a very under-control world indeed, it is safe to navigate because we have the power of knowledge on our side. When we don’t have that kind of information anymore, it’s unsettling.
The desire (for the state to execute) vertical vs horizontal homogenisation of everyone follows nicely from the desire to control. It also nicely covers and explains at least half of the traits typical to authoritarian minds: conventionalism, intolerance, fear of the unknown, group authority, hierarchical and status-oriented thinking, fondness for order and unease with uncertainty, and of course, their desire to live in a homogeneous society.
A simplified view of the world is highly preferable to complex systems and reduces anxiety over the unknown by trying to eliminate it.
Needless to say, control by homogenisation is only necessary when one’s own, individual efforts to gain control over his own life have been frustrated or thwarted – while threats to his economic standing or physical security are perceived to be present. Otherwise, preoccupation with others’ life choices or bank balances would be an unwelcome distraction from our own lives.
Our priority is not what we think
The priority is not what people normally believe they pursue: wellbeing, security, the good of other people by either helping them live the only good life or by redistributing money to the needy.
The priority is to feel on top of things – to make the painful sense of helplessness go away by gaining knowledge and asserting indirect control by the proxy of the state. Don’t forget that discussing what the state should be doing on our behalf is also politically safe, because it doesn’t questions the state’s power to do so in the first place.
The next way of information control is discussed in the next post. It is more illusory, but no less satisfactory: conspiracy theories are a means to project a (false) understanding on the world that makes it look more under our control.