In his post on the Chamber of Guf, Slate Star Codex discussed a slate of psychiatric conditions where the sufferer becomes obsessed with not sinning in some particular way. In homosexual OCD, for example, the sufferer becomes obsessed with fear that they are homosexual or might have homosexual thoughts despite not actually being gay; people with incest OCD become paranoid that they might have incestuous thoughts, etc. Notice that in order to be defined as OCD, the sufferers have to not actually be gay or interested in sex with their relatives–this is paranoia about a non-existent transgression. Scott also notes that homosexual OCD is less common among people who don’t think of homosexuality as a sin, but these folks have other paranoias instead.
The “angel” in this metaphor is the selection process by which the brain decides which thoughts, out of the thousands we have each day, to focus on and amplify; “Guf” is the store of all available thoughts. Quoting Scott:
I studied under a professor who was an expert in these conditions. Her theory centered around the question of why angels would select some thoughts from the Guf over others to lift into consciousness. Variables like truth-value, relevance, and interestingness play important roles. But the exact balance depends on our mood. Anxiety is a global prior in favor of extracting fear-related thoughts from the Guf. Presumably everybody’s brain dedicates a neuron or two to thoughts like “a robber could break into my house right now and shoot me”. But most people’s Selecting Angels don’t find them worth bringing into the light of consciousness. Anxiety changes the angel’s orders: have a bias towards selecting thoughts that involve fearful situations and how to prepare for them. A person with an anxiety disorder, or a recent adrenaline injection, or whatever, will absolutely start thinking about robbers, even if they consciously know it’s an irrelevant concern.
In a few unlucky people with a lot of anxiety, the angel decides that a thought provoking any strong emotion is sufficient reason to raise the thought to consciousness. Now the Gay OCD trap is sprung. One day the angel randomly scoops up the thought “I am gay” and hands it to the patient’s consciousness. The patient notices the thought “I am gay”, and falsely interprets it as evidence that they’re actually gay, causing fear and disgust and self-doubt. The angel notices this thought produced a lot of emotion and occupied consciousness for a long time – a success! That was such a good choice of thought! It must have been so relevant! It decides to stick with this strategy of using the “I am gay” thought from now on. …
Politics has largely replaced religion for how most people think of “sin,” and modern memetic structures seem extremely well designed to amplify political sin-based paranoia, as articles like “Is your dog’s Halloween costume racist?” get lots of profitable clicks and get shared widely across social media platforms, whether by fans or opponents of the article.
Both religions and political systems have an interest in promoting such concerns, since they also sell the cures–forgiveness and salvation for the religious; economic and social policies for the political. This works best if it targets a very common subset of thoughts, like sexual attraction or dislike of random strangers, because you really can’t prevent all such thoughts, no matter how hard you try.
Personal OCD is bad enough; a religious sufferer obsessed with their own moralistic sin may feel compelled to retreat to a monastery or wall themselves up to avoid temptation. If a whole society becomes obsessed, though, widespread paranoia and social control may result. (Society can probably be modeled as a meta-brain.)
I propose that our society, due to its memetic structure, is undergoing OCD-inducing paranoia spirals where the voices of the most paranoid are being allowed to set political and moral directions. Using racism as an example, it works something like this:
First, we have what I’ll call the Aristotelian Mean State: an appropriate, healthy level of in-group preference that people would not normally call “racism.” This Mean State is characterized by liking and appreciating one’s own culture, generally preferring it to others, but admitting that your culture isn’t perfect and other cultures have good points, too.
Deviating too far from this mean is generally considered sinful–in one direction, we get “My culture is the best and all other cultures should die,” and too far in the other, “All other cultures are best and my culture should die.” One of these is called “racism,” the other “treason.”
When people get Racism OCD, they become paranoid that even innocuous or innocent things–like dog costumes–could be a sign of racism. In this state, people worry about even normal, healthy expressions of ethnic pride, just as a person with homosexual OCD worries about completely normal appreciation of athleticism or admiration of a friend’s accomplishments.
Our culture then amplifies such worries by channeling them through Tumblr and other social media platforms where the argument “What do you mean you’re not against racism?” does wonders to break down resistance and convince everyone that normal, healthy ethnic feelings are abnormal, pathological racism and that sin is everywhere, you must constantly interrogate yourself for sin, you must constantly learn and try harder not to be racist, etc. There is always some new area of life that a Tumblrista can discover is secretly sinful, though you never realized it before, spiraling people into new arenas of self-doubt and paranoia.
As for the rest of the internet, those not predisposed toward Racism OCD are probably predisposed toward Anti-Racism OCD. Just as people with Racism OCD see racism everywhere, folks with Anti-Racism OCD see anti-racism everywhere. These folks think that even normal, healthy levels of not wanting to massacre the outgroup is pathological treason. (This is probably synonymous with Treason OCD, but is currently in a dynamic relationship with the perception that anti-racists are everywhere.)
Since there are over 300 million people in the US alone–not to mention 7 billion in the world–you can always find some case to justify paranoia. You can find people who say they merely have a healthy appreciation for their own culture but really do have murderous attitudes toward the out-group–something the out-group, at least, has good reason to worry about. You can find people who say they have a healthy attitude toward their own group, but still act in ways that could get everyone killed. You can find explicit racists and explicit traitors, and you can find lots of people with amplified, paranoid fears of both.
These two paranoid groups, in turn, can feed off each other, each pointing at the the other and screaming that everyone trying to promote “moderatism” is actually the worst sinners of the other side in disguise and therefore moderatism itself is evil. This feedback loop gives us things like the “It’s okay to be white” posters, which manages to make an entirely innocuous statement sound controversial due to our conviction that people only make innocuous statements because they are trying to make the other guy sound like a paranoid jerk who disputes innocuous statements.
Racism isn’t the only sin devolving into OCD–we can also propose Rape OCD, where people become paranoid about behaviors like flirting, kissing, or even thinking about women. There are probably other OCDs (trans OCD? food contamination OCD) but these are the big ones coming to mind right now.
Thankfully, Scott also proposes that awareness of our own psychology may allow us to recognize and moderate ourselves:
All of these can be treated with the same medications that treat normal OCD. But there’s an additional important step of explaining exactly this theory to the patient, so that they know that not only are they not gay/a pedophile/racist, but it’s actually their strong commitment to being against homosexuality/pedophilia/racism which is making them have these thoughts. This makes the thoughts provoke less strong emotion and can itself help reduce the frequency of obsessions. Even if it doesn’t do that, it’s at least comforting for most people.
The question, then, is how do we stop our national neuroses from causing disasters?