I read with great interest a recent piece in the New York Times entitled How Meditation May Change the Brain. The article reports on a study published in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, in which the researchers documented brain density changes in subjects who meditated about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks. As revealed by M.R.I. brain scans, the meditators in the study showed increases in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, and empathy, and a decrease in gray matter density in the amygdala, a region of the brain implicated in anxiety and stress. The non-meditating control group showed no such changes.
A 2008 study also found in meditators stronger activation than in non-meditators in the part of the brain linked to empathy.
I find this absolutely fascinating. Whether by sheer coincidence or deliberate intent, these researchers appear to have confirmed that meditation has a significant, positive impact on exactly those areas of the brain implicated in Conservative Personality Disorder.
For the uninitiated, Conservative Personality Disorder, or “CPD,” is my diagnosis for individuals exhibiting the specific array of distinct, pathological, and destructive behaviors typically exhibited by right-wing conservatives.* A particular individual afflicted with CPD may display all or only some of these behaviors, but in general, the more numerous the symptoms and the more extreme their manifestations, the more destructive the disorder is to the CPD sufferer, and, unfortunately, to anyone within his or her sphere of influence. There is no known cure for CPD, which is presently at epidemic levels in the United States and shows no signs of abating. The sheer scale of the tragedy that is CPD – the cost in countless lives, relationships, communities, entire nations, and vast swaths of the planet – is truly staggering. The wide-ranging devastation is especially troubling in light of the fact that the disease vector, although presently of unknown cause(s), appears to run in families. This is why the staff here at the Palace is dedicated to exploring any and all promising new avenues of research into the prevention and treatment of Conservative Personality Disorder, and hopefully someday, finding a cure.
I will get back to how the aforementioned meditation research relates to CPD, but allow me to first review the current diagnostic framework for CPD. Broadly speaking, the main categories listed below are representative of key types of behavior; the specific examples that follow the broader category are meant to provide illustrative examples of the broader types of behavior which have actually been observed, and therefore the lists are by no means exhaustive. Due to the all-pervading nature of cognitive dysfunction, there is necessarily some degree of overlap between these broader categories such that specific, real-world behaviors can be correctly classified under two (or more) categories. In light of this, the categories themselves should be considered as representative of clusters of symptoms, and not discrete delineations that are set in stone. Indeed, the author very much welcomes suggestions regarding further refinement.
As presently contemplated, the symptoms of Conservative Personality Disorder include, but are not limited to:
-superficiality: fixation on appearance as an indicator of identity and character in self and others, particularly with respect to tribal markers (e.g., flag pins); pretentiousness; highly conformist in self presentation (e.g. dress, grooming, decor) and perennially critical of others whose presentation lies outside one’s arbitrary norms; ostentatious displays of material wealth, or, alternatively, self-aggrandizing displays of “holier-than-thou” behavior; braggart; grandiose; name-dropper;
-hierarchical worldview: opposed to equality in principle; pronounced preference for institutions with rigidly maintained lines of status or authority; insistence on win-lose outcomes regardless of obviously superior benefits to alternative win-win scenarios; rigid belief that one person must be “in charge,” and rejects team-oriented approaches to decision making and power-sharing (e.g., proponent of unchecked Executive power, male place as unchallengeable head of household, etc.); rationalizes and justifies social Darwinism, typically along racial, ethnic and/or gendered lines; projection of one’s own “dog-eat-dog world” mentality onto all others; displays anxiousness over status or ranking of self in social or professional hierarchies, especially when ambiguous or unclear;
-willful ignorance: incurious; refusal to consider or integrate new knowledge, information or facts which contradict existing, self-serving opinions; dogmatic;
-irrationality: hyper-religiousness pervading all social interactions; global warming denialism; unwavering belief in young earth creationism, prayer power or other supernatural interventions; anti-intellectualism; illogical; superstitious;
-emotionality: temperamental; histrionic; tense, anxious and uptight presentation as if straining to effect an even tone and calm demeanor, with seething rage or roiling emotionality evident just below the surface; easily triggered outbursts; others frequently report need to “walk on eggshells” around subject; frequent vacillation between extremes of emotion, or between state of extreme emotion and strained effort to tightly control it; contemptuous of emotional displays of others;
-authoritarianism: bullying; controlling and manipulative behavior; extreme deference to the dictates of those authorities perceived to be legitimate, and an eagerness to act with unrestrained aggressiveness on their behalf (see: Altemeyer, R., 2006); punishment oriented; domineering; tyrannical;
-tribalism: obsession with strict in-group/out-group delineation, typically with respect to race, class, ethnicity, sex, religion, cultural practices, immigration status, gender, and/or sexual orientation; avoids, marginalizes and demonizes out-groups; fixation on “purity,” usually in connection with race or sexual behavior; believes out-groups are inherently, profoundly, and fundamentally different from and inferior to in-group members, and denies or rejects obvious commonalities; blindly nationalistic, (“My country, right or wrong!”); believes in-group members have a moral obligation to recruit or “out-reproduce” other tribes;
-sense of entitlement: believes that he or she is inherently deserving of others’ time and energy, special favors, or preferential treatment; ungrateful; hyper-defensive of unearned privilege; arrogant; narcissistic;
-misogyny: proponent of “traditional family values”; anti-choice and anti-contraception; restrictive with respect to controlling female sexual behavior; anti-feminist; proponent of strictly binary gender roles and stereotypes with power and authority vested only in males; homophobic; uninformed views on sexuality; patronizing and unjust treatment of women (if male) or justifies same (if female); patriarchal;
-seeks constant reinforcement of unexamined privilege or bias: consistent Fox News viewer; daily conservative talk radio listener; regular reader of only bias-reinforcing web sites, blogs, and printed media; steadfastly avoids contradictory facts, opinions or information; seeks out relationships only with those who share identical privilege or bias;
-boundary violations: outright rejection of others’ rights to privacy and personal autonomy; keenly interested in personal aspects of others’ lives, especially sexual behavior; gossipy; provocative in inappropriate settings; rejects repeated requests to cease boundary violating behavior, and often minimizes or even escalates behavior in response;
-self-righteousness: judgmental; hypercritical, scornful and disdainful of out-group “others”; delusions of persecution and martyrdom; inability to sincerely apologize for personal wrongdoing; pompousness; hair-trigger sensitivity to “slights” wrongly perceived as direct personal insults (e.g., being wished Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas);
-sadism: pronounced empathy deficit; taking pleasure in others’ pain or misfortune; pettiness and viciousness; willingness to block the provision of benefits to oneself in order to deny benefits to despised “others”; vindictiveness; rationalizes non-defensive violence as morally justified;
-amorality: justifies actions based on expedience or arbitrary rules; markedly unconcerned with the welfare or suffering of others, especially out-groups; understands “right” and “wrong” as dictates and rules handed down from authorities perceived as higher than self; legalistic; insistence on strict adherence to arbitrary rules with no consideration given to resulting absurd outcomes or destructive consequences; ruthless; exploitative; Machiavellian;
-rigidity: highly resistant to any change in routine or habits no matter how minor or ultimately beneficial; refusal to change opinion in light of compelling contradictory facts; insistence that others perform even inconsequential tasks in a “my-way-or-the-highway” manner, regardless of the pointlessness of the activity or obvious and more practical alternatives; stubborn; actively avoids exposure to diversity, such as people from different cultural backgrounds, foreign travel, or trying new foods; repeats destructive behavior and justifies doing so “on principle”;
-poor facility with native language: writing characterized by bad grammar, rampant misspellings, logical inconsistencies, excessive or unusual capitalization and punctuation; selectively biased reading comprehension; repetitiveness in speech;
-avarice: ungenerous, except as a means of ingratiating oneself with others perceived as higher status, and/or increasing one’s in-group power or standing; obsession with not paying taxes while partaking voraciously in government services; believes others are constantly out to cheat him or her, and construes others’ innocent math errors or counting mistakes as deliberate attempts to cheat or steal; cheap and stingy with others, or with self and others (e.g., unnecessary asceticism while hoarding money or material goods, allegedly as a bulwark against highly unlikely future calamities); miserly; preoccupied with financial schemes; bad tipper;
-limited dimensionality of thought: poor critical thinking ability; anxious and unnerved by cognitive ambiguity, and highly motivated to eliminate it by reducing complex real-world phenomena to discrete dualities; literalist, e.g., difficulty grasping metaphor, satire, nuance, irony, or sarcasm; binary thinking (“all-or-nothing,” “either/or” “black & white” “us vs. them”); simplistic; impaired ability to separate correlation from causation;
-stunted self-awareness: inability to recognize blatant hypocrisy in self or respected authorities; oblivious to self-projection of eminently apparent personal qualities onto others (e.g., believing without cause that others are acting purely out of selfishness, malice, greed, or spite – as they themselves do); insistence that self-created problems are entirely the fault of others or of circumstances beyond one’s control; hyper-defensive in response to well-intentioned constructive criticism; minimization and rationalization of one’s harmful behavior toward others; aggressively defensive of one’s own culture, subculture, family structure, or way of life as objectively superior to all others despite (a) limited exposure to meaningfully diverse alternatives, (b) plainly evident personal anger, poor relationships, bitterness, and persistent unhappiness that no reasonable person would wish to emulate, (c) refusal to acknowledge other practices and points of view as valid, positive, or potentially beneficial, and (d) nevertheless attempting to compel all others to emulate one’s “superior” culture, subculture, family structure or way of life through legislative action, ballot initiatives, and/or social opprobrium;
-compulsive political behavior in the service of extreme right-wing views: easily manipulated by unscrupulous politicians and interest groups into voting for preferred candidates by stoking feelings of persecution, righteousness, or revulsion at out-group “others”; virtually always participates in elections at every opportunity, including primaries and highly localized races (e.g., school boards).
* * * * *
One critical caveat must be stressed: all of us exhibit some of these behaviors from time to time. None of us are immune. We are all “conservative,” for example in the sense that we do not welcome changing routine aspects of our lives willy-nilly. Further, at times of endemic fear, environmental stress or extreme personal difficulty, we all become less empathetic and more simplistic in our thinking, as a way to cope with the overwhelming complexity of the difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves. And of course it’s entirely human to bristle at criticism (whether legitimate or not), accusations of wrongdoing (however minor), or insinuations that we have been entirely wrong about our long-held beliefs. Indeed, many of the behaviors under discussion here are entirely appropriate and quite healthy in certain contexts. This is why occasionally evidencing such behavior is not remotely enough for a diagnosis of Conservative Personality Disorder. And it’s not just a difference in degree, but a difference in kind. Two major factors determining whether a particular individual meets the diagnostic criteria are (1) the persistence of such behaviors over many years, and (2) pervasiveness across all aspects of the personality. But the most important threshold to be met, in my view, is (3) the marked and consistently negative impact of symptomatic behaviors on the wellbeing of the self and others. These behaviors must be not only persistent and pervasive, but also destructive, counterproductive, and dysfunctional in the personal, interpersonal, and societal dimensions.
Which brings me back to this meditation stuff. Let’s look again at aspects of personality correlated with the areas of the brain where the researchers found specific physical changes:
Learning and memory. It’s axiomatic by now that when empowered, right-wing conservatives have a tendency to “forget” all of the values they claim to hold near and dear, like fiscal restraint, reverence for the Constitution, States Rights, opposition to divorce, or an aversion to so-called judicial activism, to name just a few off the top of my head. Right-wing conservatives also have an annoying tendency to mis-remember not only the content of well-known historical documents that most people remember quite clearly from grade school, but basic American history itself. Meditation could potentially help with these seemingly intractable memory and learning problems, perhaps someday resulting in an approximation of consistency between conservative arguments and conservative practices. Of course it is also possible that the divergence between one’s professed values and one’s actual behavior is entirely deliberate. If so, the practice of meditation might be steadfastly avoided by conservatives, because an enhanced memory and learning ability would not be in the conservative’s best interests: others might then be able to easily deconstruct and demolish conservative arguments simply by employing things like “historical facts.” More research is clearly needed, especially with regard to whether all of this ubiquitous conservative hypocrisy is actually deliberate, and if so, whether conservatives would ever desire the learning and memory benefits of meditation.
Emotion regulation. Watch any discussion wherein a right-wing conservative’s “facts” are directly challenged, and observe the steam coming out of their ears as they loudly interject to shout down their opponents, and thereby “win” the debate. These tiresome, but all too typical, red-faced, spittle-flecked exchanges bring to mind toddler temper tantrums. The calming benefits of meditation are well known, so it is at least theoretically possible that someday the right-wing conservative’s temper could be kept under better control than a spoiled three-year-old’s. We might also envision a day whereby as a result of meditation, we will see far less of all that embarrassing and humiliating public bawling for which CPD sufferers are notorious.
Self-referential processing. This implicates several key characteristics of Conservative Personality Disorder: sense of entitlement, superficiality, self-righteousness, and stunted self-awareness, among others. Of course we are all hypocrites from time to time, consciously or not, and in ways large and small, but the CPD sufferer takes personal hypocrisy to astonishing levels, all the while remaining entirely oblivious to, or outright dismissive of, the striking contradictions he or she regularly exhibits to the world. Again, such behavior may be deliberate (although to what end, I can only guess). In any case, further research is clearly needed into the means by which meditation may diminish some of the right-wing conservsative’s entirely unwarranted high self-regard.
Empathy. Empathy is where the right-wing rubber hits the retrograde road. Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary (2007) defines empathy as:
the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.
Right-wing conservatives are not sensitive to, much less understanding of, the feelings and experiences of others. Indeed, it is difficult to see how a coherent right-wing conservative political philosophy can be distilled down to anything other than: “I’ve got mine, fuck you. And especially, fuck them.” Their minds are so busy distinguishing and demonizing all of those out-groups, they simply cannot grasp the obvious and fundamental similarities with themselves. Whether such commonalities are an essential component of all humanity (such as a desire for one’s offspring to prosper in peace) or arbitrary cultural traditions (such as the subjugation of women implicit in all three Abrahamic faiths), the very idea that one has anything whatsoever in common with “those people” is anathema. Right-wing empathy deficit is what makes possible the vast majority of human suffering and misery we see today as a direct result of aggressive wars, unrestrained capitalism, intractable poverty, environmental degradation, absurd incarceration rates, underfunded health care, a violent and debased culture, a corrupt and self-dealing political establishment, and a host of other ills on an epic, worldwide scale. But precisely because these evils are so pervasive, devastating, and wide-ranging, if meditation could be shown to stimulate conservative empathy even to a modest degree, the amount of human suffering alleviated would be astronomical. This fact alone warrants immediate investigation into meditation’s effects on the profound empathy deficit characteristic of Conservative Personality Disorder.
Perspective taking. Closely related to empathy although somewhat narrower in scope, the ability to examine an issue from another point of view is critical to developing and implementing effective, practical solutions to societal problems, large or small. The right-wing tendency to think there are two sides (and only two sides) to every issue, i.e., “My side, and the wrong side,” precludes any possibility of constructive collaboration, and any hope of finding novel, workable solutions to the problems that plague us. Meditation may indeed unlock this ability; without further research it is impossible to say whether and to what degree it may have a positive effect.
Anxiety and stress. In 2003, Jost et al (pdf) documented significantly higher levels of fear in conservatives generally, but the study did not differentiate sufficiently between extreme right-wing conservatism (Sarah Palin) and a more garden-variety conservatism which, not so long ago, would have been considered typical of Republicans (Barak Obama). Fear of change – from minor changes like increased auto emission restrictions to serious threats to the established social order like feminism – results in the same visceral and well-documented (pdf) overreactions from conservatives. The problematic aspects of this are numerous: for one thing, change is inevitable, and preparing for and responding to it appropriately is absolutely necessary for positive outcomes. For another, the status quo is not remotely fair or just, and efforts to change it (instead of rationalize its existence) are required if we are to have any hope of reducing or eradicating the systemic social problems that do, or will, affect nearly everyone. To the extent that meditation can lessen this constant state of twitching fear, the right-wing conservative should have a better quality of life. And so will nearly everyone else.
Obviously meditation is unlikely to be a cure-all for Conservative Personality Disorder and all of its attendant dysfunctions. Even if it were a cure-all, getting a right-wing conservative to actually meditate may prove to be an insurmountable obstacle in itself. Still, it is hard not to be optimistic about these promising new avenues of research into the effects of meditation. It provides a glimmer of hope, however small, that there may, in fact, be such thing as change we can believe in.
*I do not dispute that a compelling case could be made for a “Liberal Personality Disorder.” I know people who are so tolerant and open-minded, it appears their brains have fallen right out of their skulls. I know of lefties who are so empathetic toward their fellow living creatures that they are staunchly opposed to eating honey, likening its production to bee slavery. And there has certainly been no shortage of right-wing attempts to pathologize liberalism: Ann Coulter’s Godless and Treason, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, and the boringly typical rants of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and their ilk come to mind. But such attempts are always clumsy and entirely unconvincing, most likely because of these individuals’ numerous CPD-related cognitive deficiencies. (Perhaps if they all practiced meditation, eventually we might all be the grateful beneficiaries of a coherent working hypothesis for a Liberal Personality Disorder?) But there is a very good reason that LPD must be backburnered in favor of continued research support for CDP, and that is that extreme left-wing liberals currently have no political power whatsoever, no prominent voices in mainstream media or culture, and consequently pose no serious threat to anyone or anything. (Not even to bees.)
By contrast, the extreme right currently has a great deal of political power, de facto control over American foreign policy, and many prominent voices in mainstream media and culture. Consequently, it poses a formidable and immediate threat to every man, woman, child, and bee on the planet. Even run-of-the-mill liberals have been largely marginalized into irrelevance as a political force: the Democratic party leadership has been drifting rightward for many years and is now hovering around center-right (at best), while the Republicans have moved so far to the right they seem to be disappearing over the horizon. So while it is indisputable that both political parties have marched ever rightward – hell, by many measures Nixon was more liberal than Obama – no one has adequately explained why this is so. The phenomenon is especially troubling in light of the fact that conservative policies have been repeatedly and unequivocally demonstrated to be abject failures for not only the vast majority of Americans, but for many other people all over the world. My own theory is that a decades-long, epidemic outbreak of a virulent strain of Conservative Personality Disorder may be implicated, and thus we should spare no time, effort or expense into further research before it’s too late and we find ourselves living in a Bronze Age theocracy, wondering how the hell we got here.