The Power of Paranoia

January 2001

Almost immediately after my book Suspicious Minds : The Triumph of Paranoia in Everyday Life was published in the fall of 1999 it made headlines. In it I alleged that Quebec nationalism was rooted in paranoid thinking, a remark that prompted Bernard Landry, the Deputy Prime Minister of Quebec, to denounce both me and the book. But for members of SAFS the book will mostly be worth reading because of my comments about how paranoia has come to dominate life on the modern day university or college campus.

The thesis of my book is that in recent years paranoid tendencies have increasingly shaped thought, rhetoric, and behaviour in Canadian and American society. By paranoid I mean the temptation to indulge delusions of persecution, grandeur, and hypochondria, the classical symptoms of clinical paranoia (or “delusional disorder,” as it's now called). I cite recent research which has argued that the elementary emotions of fear, suspicion, hatred, and resentment are products of millennia of evolution and can be localized in the limbic system of the brain. In most people these feelings lie dormant. But in a society that likes to celebrate paranoid thinking they surface with stunning and dangerous regularity.

The most obvious examples of this kind of paranoia are the many conspiracy theories circulating throughout society, including theories about JFK's assassination and the tragic death of Princess Diana. Then, too, there are the conspiracy theorists, the various militia and neo-Nazi hate groups who like to air their views on the world wide web. But I contend that the most disturbing sign of cultural paranoia is its increasing popularity among society's elites in government, business, labour, the arts, the entertainment industry, and especially academia.

It's been my experience as a university teacher for fifteen years that more than anything else inspired me to write this book. Nowhere else, I write in Suspicious Minds, does paranoia thrive more robustly than on university campuses. Critical race theory, gender, feminism, deconstructionism, affirmative action admissions and hiring, gay/lesbian studies, “zero tolerance,” Foucauldian experientialism--the list could go on longer, but SAFS members know what I'm talking about. They are the campus causes supported by the people author Tom Wolfe called recently the “rococo Marxists.”

Why do I call these trends paranoid? Because what unites them is their debt to a paranoid world-view that divides the world up into two neat categories: the totally innocent oppressed and the all-powerful oppressors. The former imagine themselves locked in a titanic, literally life and death struggle with an absolutely malevolent power that seeks to oppress them by hoodwinking them into thinking they are actually free. They take immense pride, in typical paranoid fashion, in being able to see what others cannot, and believe that this knowledge sets them apart from the masses. As this impression sets in, they believe they are a charmed and privileged elite. Hence, they fall prey to delusions of grandeur and persecution.

All this would mean little, of course, were it not that university administrators either tolerate these views or are simply too afraid to challenge them when they are used to extort concessions. The more concessions they obtain, the more their views gain official currency. At the same time, the inevitable institutional response is to increase university bureaucratization by hiring counselors, equity officers, harassment officers, or conflict resolution mediators. Or more visible minorities. Or more role-models. But this only exacerbates the atmosphere of suspicion, creating an even greater “need” for more bureaucracy.

Most tragically, a fashionable consensus forms on campus, one that stifles debate and free inquiry, as SAFS members well know. Those who champion this consensus behave like clinical paranoids, first trying to browbeat critics through ad hominem arguments directed against an opponent's sex, class, or skin colour. If that doesn't work they condemn open debate, alleging that it's merely a tool wielded by a dominant class to further silence them. Whatever the result they retain their paranoid attitude toward the world; if they win, they go on to other, reality-defiant demands; if they lose (which is rare) it merely reinforces their self-perception as a persecuted yet privileged minority.

My book actually ends on a hopeful note. While it documents the many instances of fashionable paranoia on campus, it argues that most who support this trend do so out of opportunism, guilt, or simple fear. They are the ones who let the paranoids dictate the agenda. It is the campaign to change their minds and restore a sense of civility and candour that matters, not the effort to convert the paranoid minority. The former in their infinite tolerance for paranoid ideology are the ones really responsible for the epidemic Suspicious Minds describes, not the latter who will nurse their grievances and sense of victimization indefinitely.

And the soft majority can be won over, in the academy at least, by the power of persuasion, by the unrelenting effort to publicize the virtues of rigorous scholarship, free speech, and freedom of conscience, by the unremitting attempt to expose the errors of fashionable thinking. In other words, their minds can be changed by following the example set by SAFS, the voice of civilized and informed reason.

Dowbiggin, I., Suspicious Minds: The Triumph of Paranoia in Everyday Life, Toronto: Macfarlane, Walter & Ross, 1999.