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Paranoid History

In response to:

Paranoia and American History from the September 23, 1971 issue

To the Editors:

In his review essay “Paranoia and American History” (NYR, Sept. 23), William H. Freehling raises issues that go far beyond the merits or defects of my three published lectures, The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style. Readers can decide whether they should accept my overt definition of purpose or Professor Freehling’s “psychological” interpretation of my hidden intent (“Davis claims that he is not writing about the causes of the Civil War or about the degree of reality behind the paranoia he describes. His argument, however, blunts his claim”). I am more concerned over Freehling’s admonitions to the “new psychological historians” whose works are becoming “the latest form of orthodoxy.”

The core of Freehling’s case against the psychological historians is that they search for what he interprets as pathological behavior (paranoia) among people who were simply responding to reality. The reality presumably justifies the paranoia, but Freehling still calls it paranoia. Although he repeatedly uses this clinical term, I carefully avoided the word, explaining that “the word ‘paranoid,’ as distinct from the disease of paranoia, may refer to patterns of behavior that can be found on a continuum from extreme abnormality to relative normality. And we all have our paranoid moments.”

The late Richard Hofstadter, who was no doubt the dean of the new psychological school, cautioned that his phrase “paranoid style” had to do “with the way in which ideas are believed and advocated rather than with the truth or falsity of their content.” I tried to be even more explicit when I stressed that “the belief in conspiracy can be treated as a theoretical construct, not necessarily less reasonable than other constructs which help explain disturbing and unexpected happenings.” I also emphasized that paranoid perceptions “may tell us as much about social realities as [does] the image of a classless and conflict-free consensus,” and went so far as to say that “even the wildest theories of conspiracy must have some credibility to win the minds of judicious men.” This would seem to be the very point Freehling is trying to make.

I am frankly puzzled, however, when Freehling notes that the paranoid-hunters have arrived “at a time when Freudian explanations are all the rage,” and then recommends R. D. Laing as an antidote to depth psychology. So far as I know, Freudian explanations are far from being the rage, and there is surely nothing Freudian about my book, which makes no use of such key Freudian concepts as repression, libido, Oedipus complex, or sexual symbolism. My theoretical assumptions were not derived from Freud, but from Cooley, Bateson, Goffman, Berger, Szasz, and Laing—all of whom deal with the dialectics of social perception.

According to Freehling, the new psychological school has much to learn from Laing about external “reality”—especially paranoia or schizophrenia-producing situations. But this advice involves Freehling in a theoretical double-bind. Unlike Laing, he seems to adopt a position of naïve realism. Thus political conflict represents hard reality, but psychological “hang ups” do not. A person who fears persecution or conspiracy must either be responding to reality or indulging in fantasy. Yet the dominant theme of Laing’s work is the way reality is perceived and defined. Laing insists that “what we call ‘normal’ is a product of repression, denial, splitting, projection, introjection and other forms of destructive action or experience.” He adds that our definitions of madness refer to forms of alienation that are simply out of step with the “prevailing state of alienation” (The Politics of Experience, pp. 27-28).

For Laing, the important questions do not involve reality or normality but whether perceptions open or restrict human choice. When Freehling applauds Laing for focusing on schizophrenia-producing situations and thus for offering clues to “real social conflict,” he omits half of the problem. The crucial matter, as Laing and others have argued, is not whether there is sufficient reason for paranoid fears or other “symptoms,” but rather how social interaction produces a particular mode or style of perception—dramatized, for example, by Laing’s knot-tied Jacks and Jills—and how this interplay of perceptions can lead to a reciprocal set of misunderstandings and self-confirming fears.

Freehling may object that sometimes Jill is right and Jack wrong, though this is clearly not Laing’s message. No one would deny that in practice we need to draw distinctions between fears aroused by genuine danger and fears that seem totally unfounded. Yet to say that a fear is realistic is only to say that we, or people we consider realistic, could be expected to experience a similar fear in the same situation. One must ask, however, why the situation is defined the way it is. There is nothing inevitable or absolute about our perceptions of social reality, which involve, as Laing and others insist, a variety of screening mechanisms and half-concealed needs. There is more than one “truth” to any social conflict, a point which Freehling would seem to acknowledge, rather inconsistently, when he suggests that both the North and South had reason for their paranoid fears.

This was, I thought, one of the themes of my book, which tries to elaborate on Freehling’s premise that “subtle conflicts, as the Southern reponse to the Republicans shows, can cause as much anger as broad ones.” If I had been writing on the causes of the Civil War, which would have required considerably more than eighty-six pages, I would of course have discussed the political questions that interest Freehling. I was concerned, however, with a much more limited topic—the interaction of paranoid styles and rhetoric, or what Jack and Jill said to each other.

David Brion Davis

Professor of History

Yale University

New Haven, Connecticut

William W Freehling replies:

Aside from my so-called misreading of Laing, Davis seems most provoked by my ignoring similarities between his book and my review. Davis’s book does contain a few sentences bowing in the direction of my criticism. My review does contain several statements bowing in the direction of his views. But all of this obscures the crucial difference between us. And in the process of obscuring that difference, Davis’s letter nicely illustrates again the difficulties of the emerging paranoid interpretation of history.

Words have meanings. Just what does it mean to call a perception “paranoid”? Davis would bar all definitions which stress “paranoia,” “abnormality,” “pathological”; with Szasz, he might bridle at “the concept of mental illness.” So lest we plunge into the semantic wilderness which bedevils Szasz and his critics, I will cheerfully use Davis’s words. “The crucial matter,” he here tell us, is “how this interplay of perceptions can lead to a reciprocal set of misunderstandings.” The question, which no amount of word games and qualifying phrases can avoid, is do our perceptions reflect correct understandings or paranoid “misunderstandings” of the objective world we face?

Davis, like most of the new psychological historians, tries heroically to discount the question. But unless the question is faced with more than lip service, the word “paranoid” has no meaning and all human interactions become transactions between paranoids. Furthermore, the answer to the “misunderstanding” question governs the strategy of subsequent analysis. If perceptions be “misunderstandings” and men paranoid, then the emphasis must be on the psycho-social causes of human distortion. Thus Davis in his book uses role theory to explain Northern and Southern irrationality. But if perceptions be largely correct understandings of objective reality, men are hardly paranoid and the emphasis must be on the situation they accurately perceive. In that case, irrational psychology becomes irrelevant and Davis’s “role theory” approach an exercise in futility.

The student of “paranoids,” in short, whether discussing rhetoric or actions, can hardly evade the obligation to demonstrate massive “misunderstandings.” Davis might reply that North and South did hugely “misunderstand” each other. That argument is nowhere in his book, and I believe it would be erroneous. I remain persuaded that Northerners and Southerners understood each other with ominous precision by 1860. This is not the place to debate that issue. But this is a good place to insist again on the theoretical consideration which makes the “misunderstanding” matter so vital. If Southerners were largely correct in describing what anti-slavery Republicans were about, and Northerners were largely correct in describing what Southern disunionists were plotting, it makes no earthly sense to call everyone paranoid. Whether in contemporary psychology or past history, an analysis must first discover whether Jack and Jill “misunderstand” each other much at all before discoursing on “paranoid styles” and “self-confirming fears.”

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