Delusion

THE NSW CIVIL AND Administrative Tribunal, which rules on the correctness of decisions made in some lower decision-making bodies, was asked to decide whether a ‘Qanon’ blog, run by a psychiatrist, was itself evidence of mental impairment, for the purposes of deregistration. It decided it was, and with the—extremely, as they say, wild—other behaviours, upheld the decision. ‘Qanon’, for the uninitiated, is an umbrella-term for a set of far-right conspiracy theories largely to do with imagined opponents of President Trump, and range from the banal, to the tediously anti-semitic, to the truly, literarily, strange.

I am personally fascinated by the question of delusions, and where they can be drawn as separate to merely unusual political or religious beliefs. I don’t think it’s possible to easily identify one from the other, at least not permanently. N Hennessy ADCJ, obiter dicta:

60. As to the beliefs about global conspiracy, Dr Wright acknowledged that “a range of people hold these beliefs, and that they do not necessarily indicate mental illness.” Nevertheless, Dr Wright regarded such beliefs as “bizarre and suggestive of impaired reality testing.” Again, we agree with that opinion.

I recall when I was a tutor, talking to a young man who was certain that any computer or telephone he used was thoroughly bugged by the Chinese Communist Party to surveil him—he had every sign of delusional beliefs, but I wasn’t going to be the one to tell him the CCP wouldn’t do that.

It was one of the breakthroughs of mental health as a science to come up with a category for these kinds of weird beliefs that people have—strange, irrational, often offensive, sometimes unwanted beliefs, unsupported by any evidence—without calling it heresy, demonic possession, treason, or error, or crime. But psychology, because it’s a science, also assumes an external reality which we all share, a reality there to be tested and measured, and which can be judged separately from the people relating or listening to the delusion. Exogenous reality is not, needless to say, the world in which political priors or religious faith occur.

Take the famous clauses of the Nicene Creed, to which billions of Christians subscribe, and regularly say, together. Jesus is God; he was crucified; he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven; he will return to judge the living and the dead. Shorn of the necessary context—two thousand years of Christianity—these are extremely strange beliefs indeed. What makes it familiar and orthodox is the collective experience of it
and agreement (won at sword-point and stake over many of those two thousand years) that it’s a legitimate religious standpoint. Ask the Cathars, the objects of the famous saying ‘kill them all, and let God recognise His own’ how reality testing of statements of faith works.

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