Living at the Borderline—You are Free to Repeat After Me

In this blog, for the sake of analysis, I violate my policy of avoiding language that medicalizes attitudes and conduct. The attitudes and conduct I see today look a lot like what psychiatrists call borderline personality disorder (BPD), also known as emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD), as well as several other disorders that fall into the Cluster B type detailed in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association (APA). I am not the first person to sense this (Joshua Slocum makes the case that we’re living in a Cluster B world in his controversial series of podcasts Disaffected) and I have long avoided giving in to that part of my mind that has long made this association. But it’s becoming an unavoidable conclusion. At least it is a useful heuristic.

As a life-long atheist, I’m particularly sensitive to belief systems that operate like religions. Having grown up in a religious community (Church of Christ), I am also sensitive to how peers can pressure a nonbeliever into accepting or at least keeping to himself the doubts he has about doctrine. At the same time, there are many religious folks who tolerate the disbelievers in their midst. I appreciate these people very much. They share with me the desire for a free and open society. Except for the faith-belief piece, we have more in common, I think, than they do with the zealots in their ranks. Just because a person is religious doesn’t necessarily mean that he is irrational.

Maybe that last part is wishful thinking. But I do have lots of examples in my life (my father is one of them) of liberal rational religious thinkers. Whatever their disposition, as a civil libertarian, I have always defended the right to religious belief. The problem with religion comes in when it is forced upon others, when others are required to accept the tenets of the faith. This may occur when the government intrudes into the realm of conscience to compel disbelievers to believe or believers to disbelieve. The government should be neutral on matters of religion. Leave me to my beliefs (and disbeliefs). The government should moreover prevent corporations from discriminating against people on the basis of religious faith or irreligious belief. Leave people to their beliefs (and disbeliefs). And, of course, the government should protect those who wish to leave or remain apart from a religion. Religious faith must never be compelled if a society is to be free and open. The imposition of faith-belief is not as bad here in America as it is elsewhere in the world. But it’s bad enough. The government should do more to defend religious liberty.

However, today’s society is marked by secular faith-beliefs that strongly resemble and function like religious faith-beliefs and the government is not only not protecting the people from it but has become the instrument of the zealots—or, more precisely, the instrument of power that finds the zealots useful. There are interesting sociological reasons for popular support for religious-like faith that I may discuss in greater detail in a blog at some point (see A Fact-Proof Screen: Black Lives Matter and Hoffer’s True Believer for a past analysis). If will suffice here to suggest that quasi-religion may substitute for religion in a secular culture. In today’s blog, I explore the psychological reasons for support for quasi-religion in the present circumstances.

An example of a quasi-religion is critical race theory, a faith-based doctrine that supposes abstract and transcendent relations that burden with blood guilt and original sin a race that represents a physical manifestation of evil marked by a collective will to commit racist acts of commission and omission. CRT literally describes an alleged white institutional culture as constituting a “perpetrator’s perspective,” while portraying all blacks as the victims of it. With this doctrine in back of them, CRT activists demand from whites confession of and eternal atonement for their guilty, evil sin. (I have written extensively on this subject. See, for example, The Metaphysics of the Antiracist Inquisition.)

It would be one thing if critical race theorists shared and affirmed their doctrine in their places of worship or among fellow congregants. As with those who express religious faith, I respect their right to do so. The problem is when the government and government-like entities, such as corporations, make policy using a quasi-religious doctrine and demand citizens and consumers take it up or attempt to persuade them to do so. One sees this in the requirement of employees to attend struggle sessions wrapped in the language of “diversity, equity, and inclusivity” (see “The Origins and Purpose of Racial Diversity Training Programs. It’s Not What You Think”). As I said, leave people to their beliefs (and disbeliefs). But leave me out of it. No government or corporation should take up a cause like critical race theory and foist it up the public, teach it to children, and so. This act violates our rights of free speech and association. It is not the place of government or corporations to tell citizens and employees what to think. Government exists to protect the rights of individuals, and the right central to a free and open society is cognitive liberty. Compelled speech is a violation of cognitive liberty.

We see the government pushing other doctrines that should also be left to the people to take up if they wish but be free from if they do not subscribe to that doctrine. I wrote about this yesterday in the essay “The New Left Practice of Eschewing Anthropological Truths.” I explained there that, as a libertarian, I defend the right of an individual deciding for her or himself what gender identity he or she wishes to express or, if preferable, to identify with no gender at all. In a free society, men and boys and women and girls are free to identity as the opposite gender or neither, none, or all genders. I have no business telling people how to identify gender-wise any more than it’s my business to tell them which gods to worship. Moreover, consenting adults are free to alter their bodies to appear as the opposite sex or no sex at all. I do not wish to modify my body, but I do not wish for a government that would prevent me from doing so (except perhaps in those cases where modifications are destructive or disabling). Freedom of appearance and expression comprise an ethic, the ethic of inalienable rights. Part of that ethic is the right of free speech, which includes freedom from consequences in conjunction with utterances or silence (if there is a cost to something, it is not free). Yet, as I discussed in yesterday’s blog (and in other blogs), we are seeing in the West the emergence of law and policy punishing individuals for expressing opinions about gender—and for failing to express the “correct” opinion.

Nearly two years ago, Inside Higher Education published an article titled “The Trans Divide.” In the article, a former graduate student and a trans woman, in an open letter on Medium, claims to have been adversely impacted by the opinions of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (sometimes referred to as gender-critical feminists), in her environment. “I am writing this letter because I want people to know that there are real, concrete, macro-level consequences to allowing hate speech to proliferate in philosophy under the guise of academic discussion,” she writes. “In sharing my pain and anger at being forced out of a career that I once loved, I hope to stir some of you to greater action.”

Was this individual being harassed? If so, then this is a case of discrimination and should have been addressed by the institution. Assuming that hurtful comments or questions about being trans aren’t tolerated in other work environments, the complaint was instead that this is not true in academe. “I do not feel safe or comfortable in professional settings any longer,” the student writes. “How can I be expected to attend professional events where people deny and question such an integral part of my identity and act like that is tolerable or normal?” My gender “is not up for debate,” the student writes. “I am a woman. Any trans discourse that does not proceed from this initial assumption—that trans people are the gender that they say they are—is oppressive, regressive and harmful.”

What is the “greater action” that the student hopes to stir? How could it not be to stifle academic freedom and require colleges and universities to affirm the student’s gender theory over against any others that call her theory into question lest they be engaging in oppressing and harming her? Why does this student get to choose which theory is correct and compel everybody else to accede to it? How is this not an expression of authoritarian desire? This person doesn’t seek to persuade people to agree. This person seeks to compel people to agree. What makes it particularly vile is that the rant is couched in the language of victimhood. Playing the victim, the person who desires to control the thoughts and expressions of others skirts the mantle of tyrant. The oppressor becomes the oppressed.

Those who know me know well know that I have been committed to the ethic of inalienable rights all of my life. One will find no case of me arguing against a person’s right to free, personal, and voluntary expressions. Indeed, I have lived a life of personal expression that has frequently run afoul of the social controllers. For much of my life I wore my hair down to my waist and dressed androgynously. I appeared in public in makeup and in ensembles that included stereotypically women’s clothes. I had no problem gender-bending then and I have no problem with it now. I have sharply criticized the prudes who believe in modesty in art, dress, film, literature, and music. My tastes run towards the provocative—David Bowie and Rocky Horror Picture Show.

What is so troubling about the present cultural and political climate, however, is that my ethic of the right of people to freely express themselves and a biography of defending free expression and indulging in offensive art and speech is not for a growing number of people good enough. The demand is building for liberals like me to operate in bad faith by repeating the formulas and slogans of particular faith-based beliefs. That open letter in Medium represents such a demand and its rhetoric is familiar. The ensuing two years have not seen the impulse diminish but grow. Against our wishes, to be acceptable persons, to avoid cancellation, we are supposed to take up the doctrine in question and repeat it uncritically. We are not allowed to be agnostic or silent on matters. Silence is violence.

If I publicly state my political loyalties, I risk being asked why I left this or that item out of the articles of faith. More than once I have been publicly “invited” to finish checking the boxes. I have been chastised in anonymous letters to my residence and comments from anonymous social media accounts for having fallen away from the faith (those letters and comments are often deranged). If I am to avoid apostasy, I am instructed, I must return to the fold (as if I were ever so comfortably ensconced), reaffirm the abstract and transcendent notions, and retake my place as an ally. I have no doubt that, if and when a group who expects this of me can compel it, they will not hesitate. Until then, they will berate, ostracize, and shame me, often in some sideways passive-aggressive manner. The hypocrisy is deep and relentless and, I am beginning to believe, the mark of a personality disorder (s). I know that it is, in the present moment, almost exclusively a leftwing phenomenon. (Ever wonder why the left devotes so much time and energy portraying conservatives as backwards and irrational?)

In his landmark Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm identifies an authoritarian personality. “We usually see a clear difference between the individual who wants to rule, control, or restrain others and the individual who tends to submit, obey, or to be humiliated,” he begins. “As natural as the difference between the ruling and the ruled might—in many ways—be, we also have to admit that these two types, or as we can also say, these two forms of authoritarian personality are actually tightly bound together.” Thus, Fromm identifies this personality type as a paired set. “What they have in common, what defines the essence of the authoritarian personality is an inability: the inability to rely on one’s self, to be independent, to put it in other words: to endure freedom.” That the authoritarian pair may present without a specific leader does not change the underlying dynamic of the authoritarian personality. Not all cults have a central figure. Movement ideas organized around the desire to rule, control, and restrain others serve the function of the personal leader.

For the authoritarian personality, liberalism is evil because it protects the right of people to choose not to accept or affirm the doctrine of other persons, to not be ruled, controlled, or restrained by others beliefs in which he has no interest or finds false or repellant for whatever reason (he doesn’t have to explain himself). The refusal to not take up a doctrine is portrayed as an act of aggression by authoritarians, but it is no so. There is a deep insecurity expressed in this attitude. The insecurity flows from an inability to endure freedom, to be independent and self-reliant.

Earlier, when I noted those religious people who tolerate my disbelief, I was referring to those who, secure in their convictions, do not need me to affirm their beliefs. They’re already convinced of the veracity of the doctrine they have accepted or, if they have doubts, they rely upon their own intellect to work through those, work that requires the freedom and openness of a liberal society. The person I am concerned with here, who I will, following Eric Hoffer, label “true believer,” is different. The true believer needs others to affirm his doctrine because, deep down, he is not all that sure of it himself or of his capacity to work it out for himself. As Hoffer pointed out in True Believer, it is not the righteousness of the belief that makes the true believer eager to aggressively intervene in the lives of others so much as it is the righteousness of the personality, the desire not only to appear to intensely believe in something but to demand others also intensely believe in this thing. They seek commitment from the reluctant and the unwilling. This is why the true believer can be as zealous in one doctrine as he is in another. The desire is not peace of mind, but a piece of somebody else’s.

I never wanted to go here, as I find the medicalization and psychiatrization of attitudes and conduct problematic, but the attitude I see a lot these days looks a lot like what psychiatrists call borderline personality disorder (BPD), also known as emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD), and I am compelled by honesty to note it. The DSM checklist in any case usefully describes the type of personality I am seeing all around me. I will pursue it as a heuristic.

The BPD affected person has a distorted sense of self, overwrought emotional responses, and a strong desire to manipulate and control others. He is prone to harming himself and engaging in other dangerous and destructive behaviors (destructiveness is a feature of Fromm’s authoritarian personality). Characteristics of a true believer mentality is a detachment from reality that prepares him to readily adopt idea systems that conjure through formulas and slogans illusions and hyperrealities that his worldview privileges him to see and deconstruct. And if only you could. If only you would. This is why religious-like belief is so appealing to this type. Feeding his need for the fantastic is fear of abandonment and feelings of dread and emptiness. BPD types are easily triggered, finding normal things offensive and demanding others take note of them and their definitions and reorganize their world around them (hence the bizarre construction “microaggression”).

This disorder begins in early adulthood, so perhaps it is no coincidence that we see it in the present circumstances where youth culture has become so obnoxious and overbearing. FoxNews carried a story yesterday of a survivor of Mao’s Cultural Revolution objecting at a school board meeting (as many are now doing) to the teaching of critical race theory. She had seen all this before. Xi Van Fleet told the board that the Cultural Revolution began when she was six years old and “pitted students against one another and their teachers.” Mao gave the youth formulas and slogans, a vocabulary that revealed evil in need of purging. Fleet sees this happening in the United States and it compels her to sound the alarm. Check out the history of Mao’s cultural revolution and you will see what she sees. The Chinese refer to as the “lost decade.” (See Mao Zedong Thought and the New Left Corruption of Emancipatory Politics.)

Critical race theory and other critical theory and postmodernist teachings are designed to convince a person that everything he knows to be true is really false, that good is really bad, the right is really wrong, all in order to bring him under the control of a project. What is this project? To be sure, strategies differ here and there (Wolin’s inverted totalitarianism appears differently than its more explicit cousins), but the project goal is essentially no different in western-style state corporatism than under the bureaucratic collectivism of the People’s Republic of China or the national socialism of the Nazi Party: an obedient society that sustains the power and privilege of those who stand apart from it by transforming societal relations fundamentally. One can’t go too long without seeing or hearing a demand that a teacher affirm this or that woke formula or slogan that has been taken up by his student for the sake of social justice. So it was in China’s lost decade.

Although the youthful energies we see converging in the current Maoist Cultural Revolution are unlikely to be the phenomenon of birds of a feather flocking together (“They all can’t have this diagnosis, can they?” I ask myself), the cultural force that is driving the zealotry of contemporary true believer syndrome functions like a mass BPD event. Throw in some of the other Cluster B types and you get a more complete picture. Histrionic personality disorder (HPD), characterized by excessive attention-seeking behaviors, usually beginning in early childhood, marked by an excessive desire for approval—that’s in there. Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), seen in an inflated sense of self importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, and a lack of empathy for others—that’s in there. The antisocial personality disorder (APD) that lies behind the acts of physically assaulting people and ruining careers over words—that’s in there, too.

How did this mess become a social movement? Social media platforms are gathering places for Cluster B types, where technology gathers and concentrates personalities across great distances and gives them permission to act out. Political-ideology points them in a direction. The so-called “Resistance” triggered by the election of Donald Trump—remember that? Have you seen the videos of people crumpling, wailing and prostrate on the ground in hysterical displays of emotional trauma? Be honest: what do you see there? They weren’t offered therapy for their disorder(s) in their colleges and universities. They were provided counseling for their grief. Faculty were asked to be understanding. They may not be in class today. Give them time. Antifa and Black Lives Matter run amuck over imagined—exaggerated, at best—racist police violence, assaulting and even killing people, defacing monuments and statues, burning down churches and police stations, and invading restaurants and demanding diners to swear fealty to the cult. The panic over COVID-19 and virtue signaling over masks and vaccines. It’s a Cluster B fuck.

In life at the borderline, it’s not good enough to be a tolerant person who defends the rights of people to speak openly and expresses themselves freely. One must to adopt a doctrine. There is no nuance. Your standpoint is beside the point. The principle: You are free to repeat after me. A lot of people who confide in me admit to going along with the mob because they’re terrified by the possibility of being shamed or cancelled. They are appreciative when they learn they may speak freely around me—in those moments away from the world of electronic surveillance. I don’t encourage them to be brave and speak out because I hear the fear in the hushed tones that carry their words and sentiments. The fear is so contagious that the back of my mind sometimes wonders whether theses conversations may actually be covert debriefings aimed at gleaning positions to fortify persecution. (I hope my blog would circumvent such subterfuge. Want to know what I think? Read Freedom and Reason.) Over time, some of those who express trepidation at the coming revolution talk themselves into believing the doctrine and embracing the change in order to negotiate the internal shame of ceding cognitive liberty and conscience to the mob. Many did this before ever expressing trepidation. I get it. Mobs are scary. Human instinct raises the alarm. Tragically, that same instinct often manifests as paralysis. It makes prey of people—in a world where the abusers and gaslighters are portrayed as “victims.”

What is particularly scary about life at the borderline is how state and corporate power have enabled it and legitimize its doctrine of wokeness in our cultural institutions, including academe. “I’ve been very alarmed by what’s going on in our schools,” Van Fleet told the Loudoun County School Board members. “You are now teaching, training our children to be social justice warriors.” Van Fleet is not rescuing her child from the compound of a cult. That’s public school! That the state is training children to be social justice warriors clues us into what it’s all for. This is not the spirit of a democratic republic government working by the rule of liberal and secular law. If anything political-ideological is to be properly reinforced there it is citizenship and civic responsibility (the balance should be art, English, history, math, music, and science). No, this is the technocratic work of state bureaucratic corporatism. This is a totalitarian moment. They are trying to get our children. From the looks of it, they already have.

I want to close with a note about gaslighting. Gaslighting is not just somebody in your life who is close to you or important to you or in charge of some aspect of your life lying to you or withholding information from you or telling you that you are crazy or bad. Gaslighting is the act of orchestrating a situation that causes a person to doubt what he has known to be true and, more importantly, what he knows everybody else has known to be true for millennia. Gaslighting is a project to destabilize a man’s sense of reality—to disrupt common sense and ordinary truths. It is a stealth form of bullying.

If you suddenly feel like you have been wrong about everything or the most important things in such a way that you are doubting your sanity or your intellect, take a close look at those around you. You may find toxic people there. If you are told that your growth and development, your abandonment of lunatic notions, your “red pill” moment suggests something about your sanity or your intellect, take a close look at those around you. Why are they repeating nonsensical and suspect things while trying to pass them off as great insights or discoveries? Why are they presuming to know obscure “truths” that you don’t or can’t in your ignorant state of being? What makes them so profound that they can suddenly know that what you have always known to be true is not really true after all? Why did it take a new way of talking about the world to make their world appear actual and real? Ask yourself that. Are you in a cult and don’t know it? It’s worth taking some time to find out.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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