Activism and the gift of delusion

  • Manu Joseph
  • Updated: Aug 31, 2014 00:16 IST

A story in The New Yorker magazine by Michael Specter on the acts and claims of Vandana Shiva, the curse of genetically modified organisms, begins as a tribute, proceeds to imply that she is a quack, and finally arrives at what is in the core of some highly influential activists.

The ultimate objective of Vandana Shiva is dear to all sane people — the world is beautiful and it has to be preserved. Her ideas to achieve this end have endeared her to many, especially in the West. Others see her as yet another affluent Third World savant who is inconvenienced by the progress of the poor because it is not aesthetic, it brings with it the visual uniformity of the changing times, the destruction of pretty folk cultures, the cute old ways. A hero is in need of an arch-villain and she has found her foe in a large corporation with a terrible reputation but one that has transformed farming in most parts of the world.

The New Yorker story says what a segment of Indians knew — that Shiva has often exaggerated and overplayed the farmer suicides in Maharashtra to shock her audience. She has blamed the biotechnology major Monsanto and its monopoly on genetically modified cotton for the suicides.

Specter portrays her as a person who uses spurious means to defame the idea of GMOs. For instance, he reports that she leaned on “a single research paper, released last year, in a journal called Entropy, which charges scientists to publish their findings,” to promote a scare that Monsanto’s herbicide causes autism. Specter also questions the general perception that she is a scientist. When Specter asked her if she had ever worked as a physicist as her book jackets claim, “she suggested that I search for the answer on Google. I found nothing, and she doesn’t list any such position in her biography.”

Shiva has attacked any research that she does not agree with and has claimed that Monsanto controls “the entire scientific literature of the world”. She has said that three of the most reputed science journals in the world — Nature, Science, and Scientific American — “have just become extensions of their propaganda.”

Last year, when the environmentalist Mark Lynas, who was a fierce opponent of GMOs, recanted and became a supporter, she tweeted. “#MarkLynas saying farmers shd be free to grow #GMOs which can contaminate #organic farms is like saying #rapists shd have freedom to rape.”

Lynas, in the New Yorker story, arrives at an analysis of Shiva that is true for many strident activists like her. “When you call somebody a fraud, that suggests the person knows she is lying… I don’t think Vandana Shiva necessarily knows that. But she is blinded by her ideology and her political beliefs. That is why she is so effective and so dangerous.”

What Lynas is saying, when stripped of polite language, is that Vandana Shiva is deluded.

Karl Jaspers, the influential German psychiatrist who was the first to define delusion, wrote in a book published in 1913 that a belief is delusional if it met all three criteria — that the belief is held with absolute conviction; that it cannot be shaken no matter what the evidence against it is; and that its content is bizarre. Modern psychiatrists have questioned the wisdom of such a definition on various grounds, including the fact that most of humanity cherishes beliefs, say religious beliefs, with an intensity that would qualify them as delusional. The field of psychiatry is reluctant to cast most of humanity as delusional. Sanity, whatever that is, is a majority condition. So, if most of humanity exhibits irrational behaviour, it is human nature and human nature cannot be put on the spectrum of mental disorder.

Yet, in a world where there is no technical nomenclature, the everyday world, we do see the delusions of the clinical sane, ‘the other people’ in the grip of powerful beliefs. We see this clearly even though we cannot see our own delusions. From the safety of neutrality we see curious things happening to believers, who are otherwise sane, even clever.

Activism is not filled with the deluded, but it has a special place for them. They do well there because the balance of neutrality does not provide the intensity and drive that a powerful conviction does. An open mind is useless to a revolutionary. An open mind cannot convert other open minds. Activists have to stay with a cause for years, for decades, as the science changes, as the circumstances change, as the economy, people and the times change. They cannot do this if they have not given themselves completely to an idea. It is the belief that makes them special and sustains them. To allow even a germ of doubt is to demean their whole lives.

In the world of activism, delusion is a gift. The great and the ordinary are separated by this gift. Most of the time activists are up against very powerful and violent forces driven by self-interest, greed or a set of delusions. Such forces cannot be opposed merely by good intentions, a laughable thought. An indestructible conviction, and the imagination of messianic purpose, is the equal and opposite force against the extraordinary resources of, say, capitalism or nationalism. Without activists who are so strung we would be at the mercy of thugs.

Shiva has responded to Specter’s story as activists usually do — most of her defence is against accusations the story has not made. For instance, the story says that her claim that Monsanto’s herbicide causes autism was based on a poor interpretation of a research paper and that she had “committed a common, but dangerous, fallacy: confusing a correlation with causation.” In her defence, Shiva does not talk about herbicide or autism, but about how debt leads to suicide.

She has implied, in her defence, that Specter and The New Yorker are corrupt. On the social media, Shiva’s followers, too, defend her by defaming the writer and the magazine. Their faith in her is as indestructible as her belief in herself. A powerful delusion is always transmitted, and what is transmitted is often received.

‘Folie a Deux’, or ‘the madness shared by two’, is a psychiatric phenomenon that has other forms, like ‘the madness shared by a family’ or ‘the madness of many’, in which a primary source of a delusion transmits it to others. The relationship between the founder and the followers of a cult that believe they are about to receive an alien signal is an example of shared psychosis. But when thousands or hundreds of thousands of people believe in an irrational or an outlandish idea or a conspiracy theory that has been proven to be wrong, psychiatrists are reluctant to call it a disorder or a delusion. Because the sheer number of people involved makes it human nature or culture or subculture, or movement. Whatever be the name, the transmission of an activist’s idea to a type of people who are ripe to accept it is seldom through the medium of rationality. Rationality is a poor conductor of ideas.

(Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel The Illicit Happiness of Other People.)

also read

Why ‘Ab ki Baar, Trump Sarkar’ will not impress Indian-Americans
Show comments