Inquiry: Estrangement XVI – Distrust & Paranoia, Introductory Notes

Three Days of the Condor. Sydney Pollack, Director (1975)

by LJ Frank

This series on estrangement seeks to understand some of the differing faces of estrangement and the crossroads it approaches for good or ill.

Things seen or believed through fear.”  Tacitus, Annals. Book. ii, sec. 24. (116 CE)

Turner (Robert Redford): “I don’t know you either.Three Days of the Condor. Sydney Pollack, Director

Irvin D. Yalom, M.D., in his work Existential Psychotherapy (1980) writes about man’s existential aloneness, his concern with death and why we do what we do. At one point he discusses disidentification or the process of shedding what we think we know about our self and become more in tune with who we really are beyond self-perception. This “identity” process is ancient and is embodied in ascetic traditions. And during this exploratory process is the realization we must deal with the nature of our fears and resulting estrangement. 

Fear and Estrangement in the form of Distrust and Paranoia. 

The roots of distrust and paranoia are complex and appear to be descended from the wilderness of fear – emotional and physical. Distrust and paranoia have developed a symbiotic relationship, the separation of the mind from wholeness – and threaded in the fabric of alienation.

Libraries and urban bookstores are filled with literature on distrust and paranoia. Scholarship continues to research, collect data and analyze. Cherry picking to support one’s view is not unheard of. But the study is complicated as purposeful fake news is spread across the social media landscape that in turn amplifies disinformation while promoting narratives of untrustworthy others.

Distrust and paranoia are characteristics of the cloak of estrangement. And this form of estrangement is severe and threatens to topple democracies around the world. The modern form of distrust it would appear retains a cannibalistic appetite. It feeds on itself and others. It feeds into conspiracy theories and the theorists who seek to divide and conquer – the nature of this distrust feeds into a generalized paranoia. 

Who do you believe and about what?  How do you know for sure about anything? Is it what you don’t know that bothers you? These are a very small sampling of the questions that nurture insecurity and distrust. Years ago I recall several lawyers and political officials telling me, don’t trust anyone about anything …the exception,  “my insider group with insider knowledge” about what’s really happening

It’s been noted – “distrust is a feature of populist authoritarian politics, the right-wing version of which is spreading across most democracies…Left-wing authoritarian populism also exists, e.g., in Venezuela, but it’s not much in the rich democracies.” 

A vast amount of scholarly work exists on authoritarian populism and its role in fomenting distrust through conspiratorial narratives (“the deep state, alternative truth,” etc.). A recommended and excellent short work on this subject is Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism? (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

Is right-wing authoritarian populism tied to certain plutocratic interests? To what degree does politics play in deceiving the public by raising panic about “elites” overwhelming them with immigrants, people of color, Muslims, LGBT people, women and so forth? Does cancel culture align itself with this type of alarm? 

Politically, within the USA a core GOP campaign strategy is to project their identity as populists for “the people” against “elites” but rule for plutocrats who want impunity to make money – with the end justifying the means.  Examples include but not limited to Boris Johnson’s Brexit strategy worked on the same playbook, as did Bolsinaro, Orban, etc.  The objective is plutocratic oligarchy. 

And what of the super-rich and their financial/political alignment?  See. Mark S. Mizruchi, The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2013).

An intriguing and brilliant scholarly paper about where people get into social groups (Epistemic bubbles) that circulate false and paranoid beliefs that become resistant to correction by evidence, due to the ways people in those groups relate to each other.  Epistemic Bubbles and Authoritarian Politics by Elizabeth Anderson, Political Epistemology. Ed. Elizabeth Edenberg and Michael Hannon, Oxford: Oxford UP. (2021) 11-30.

Numerous books and films investigate the bias in algorithms. See the film Coded Bias and the Atomic Scientist’s Bulletin and the Doomsday Clock. Nuclear war, climate change, etc. warns us we are  100 seconds to midnight and the end of the world as we know it. Can climate change be reversed? Can nuclear war be avoided? Can humans resolve their differences and their fears?

I return to Existential Psychotherapy. Much of the Yalom’s substantive work is about identity of the person, why do I do what I do, and the stark and unsettling nature of how easily “I” is influenced by the cacophony of influencers and manipulators of my thinking, not for my benefit, I would add, but for their financial causes that ultimately lead to greater alienation and estrangement.

That estrangement seeps into the nature of self, family and country and across all political, geographical and cultural borders. The psychological nature of distrust is felt on every continent and factors into human health and identity.  Human identity within the context of an emerging higher technological environment (e.g., artificial intelligence, surveillance) is on trial.

We appear to exist entrapped in an entangled web of our own making. At what juncture will factual knowledge / evidence and the humane eclipse disinformation, distrust and estrangement?