It is the fearful, unthinking herd instinct and the forces that exploit it that are making us such a polarized nation.

You don’t have to have a sick religion or be a right wing Republican to be delusional. Twitter is dripping with delusionalism in politics and atheism. And just try to convince me that Oswald acted alone – I can get red-faced and argumentative with the best of them. Most of us are passionately irrational about something.

I have a friend who is bucking the traditions of her culture and divorcing her husband. This is causing quite a hurricane among her close circle of friends. She predicts they all will leave her. I don’t doubt that. So why would a whole group of people fall into the sick sport of “synchronized panic” over one of their own who is leaving a hopeless, mutually harmful marriage?

The answer has to do with fear, group pressure, emotions, and irrationality costumed as reason.

Imagine a tightly knit group whose identity revolves around meeting every night to eat ice cream cones. The only flavor available to them is licorice. All of them hate licorice, but no one admits it. Some of them are allergic to licorice, or to ice cream, or to the cone. Some of them go home after the party and have to throw up. A few sturdy Calvinist types stick it out and over time convince themselves that licorice really tastes pretty good. The extremists insist that they have always loved licorice, it is the only flavor worth having, and anyone who disagrees with their evangelistic bumper stickers about it is sinning against God. They, too, get sick and throw up every night after meeting with the Fellowship of the Licorice Ice Cream Cone. But they attribute their continual digestive revulsion to other things: They aren’t eating enough of it, they missed a meeting, they have a bad stomach, or terrorists are hijacking the ice cream trucks.

Then the unthinkable happens. Someone, right in the middle of the meeting, takes one lick and then throws her cone directly at the little statue of Jesus eating a licorice ice cream cone. Okay, it could be Mohammad, Rush Limbaugh, Obama, or a prominent atheist like Carl Sagan. (Remember, delusions come in many flavors.) In any case, the cone hits it mark, and everyone in the room goes into shock. The shock becomes outright mortification when the heretic announces, “I’m not eating any more of this crap. It is making me sick!”

What happens next? Some will try to reason with her, using the hijacked truck theory if necessary. Some will quietly pull away from her. The rest will pile double and triple dips of condemnation upon her.

But the one thing that NO ONE will do is reconsider their entrenched opinions. Instead, they will grip their nocturnal treats more and more tightly. They will hold on until the cones crack in their hands. They will hold on when the ice cream starts to melt. They will hold on until the sticky mess runs down the entire length of their arms and their armpits smell like licorice.

Why? This is clearly insane. We have to probe the emotional factors in order to explain it, and fear is always a good starting point.

In the case of the woman divorcing her husband, many of the people in her circle are unhappy in their marriages, too. They believe, consciously or unconsciously, that there is nothing that can be done about it. When someone demonstrates that something can be done, the others are in a dilemma. They will now have to struggle against any conscious awareness that their own unhappy marriage could dissolve. Or they will have to stop struggling and make an individual decision about whether or not to stay in a situation they have never liked in the first place. If they leave, they will lose not only the false security of their marriage, they will also lose the comfort of being propped up with the approval and belonging they crave by being a part of the group.

But there is that third choice, the one that almost everyone makes to avoid internal struggle or group banishment. They will band even more tightly together and brand the renegade as a lost soul unworthy of their God-ordained inclusion. Then they will keep clutching their licorice ice cream cones until every drop of it has melted, baptizing their whole bodies in a sticky coating that will eventually harden into a glaze making them as immobile and lifeless as their reassuring statuette of Jesus, Mohammad, Limbaugh, Obama, or Carl Sagan.

Delusions, including some beliefs of the these living icons, usually have elements of truth. It is the unwillingness to question our beliefs, to change and grow, to listen and learn from opposing viewpoints, that turns such beliefs into something unreasonable or even pathological. It is the fearful, unthinking herd instinct and the forces that exploit it that are making us such a polarized nation.

My new blog will take a fresh and often controversial look at a number of mental health, religious, and relationship issues. You can check it out at MarkMercer.blogspot.com. You will find a version of many of my posts here first on BloggerNews.

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