A Paranoid Style Guide

I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics.

Richard Hofstadter.

“The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” (1963/1964)

Paranoia is so frequently linked with conspiracy theories in the media and mass entertainment that it is difficult to imagine decoupling the terms.  Given the clear overlap between the two concepts, their pairing may have been inevitable, but it was Hofstadter who brought the language of popularized psychoanalysis to the world of popular politics. This move is largely responsible both for his essay’s success and its harsh criticism by subsequent scholars. 

Hofstadter is quick to disavow any suggestion of psychological diagnosis in his use of the term “paranoid”:

  • “I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style,” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. […]  When I speak of the paranoid style, I use the term much as a historian of art might speak of the baroque or the mannerist style. It is, above all, a way of seeing the world and of expressing oneself. ”

In other words, “paranoid” for Hofstadter is essentially a metaphor, and one that fits perfectly with the term’s use in ordinary conversation (“You’re just being paranoid.”).  The scholars who have come after Hofstadter were educated in a milieu that takes metaphor seriously, treating it with justifiable suspicion (if not paranoia). 

Chief among the complaints against Hofstadter is that, in fact, this metaphor is by no means innocent.  As Bratich puts it, Hofstadter “pathologized” both the conspiracy theory and the conspiracy theorist:  such terms as “the paranoid style” or “political paranoia” are “in essence more sophisticated ways of calling someone a crackpot” (5).  Knight finds the “paranoia” analogy to be tautological: “[W]hat is paranoia, if not a propensity to believe in conspiracy theories?” (“Making Sense", as quoted in Dentith). Keeley concurs:  “To label a conspiracy theory ‘paranoid’ is merely to restate the claim that it is unwarranted; it is not evidence for rejecting it” (118).

Keeley sees the “paranoid” label as an unfounded, and perhaps irrelevant, diagnosis of an individual: “To attempt to reject conspiracy theories on the grounds of their proponent’s mental condition is bogus” (118).  Other scholars take this objection further, as an unwarranted characterization not just of the theorist, but of the society in which the theorist functions.  After all, Hofstadter’s primary target is the entire culture.  As Knight puts it, “The diagnosis of paranoia—even if it is not individual but collective— still carries with it the suggestion that conspiracy theory is not simply misguided but a sign that society is suffering from an illness that should be pitied and, if possible, cured.” (Conspiracy Culture). 

In a a particularly complex argument, Bratich treats the media and scholarly coverage of so-called conspiracy theories within the tradition of the “moral panic”.  He argues that the “conspiracy panic” targets  "a particular form of thought (and its potential links to action). The scapegoating of conspiracy theories provides the conditions for social integration and political rationality. Conspiracy panics help to define the normal modes of dissent.”  Though Bratich himself does not put it this way, the shift from “conspiracy” to “conspiracy panic” is also a transposition of the  “paranoid” metaphor: now it is the “experts” on conspiracy who are paranoid about conspiracy theories. 

This, in turn, brings us back to Hofstadter, and the peculiar overreaching in his definition of the paranoid style, which, as Dentith puts it, “characterises conspiracy theorists not as people who see some conspiracies here and there but, rather, as people who think that conspiracies are ‘the motive force in historical events.'” Perhaps Hofstadter’s insistence on the unrelenting paranoid epistemology of the conspiracy theorist (who seems incapable of not seeing a conspiracy theory anywhere and everywhere) transforms the conspiracist from a political subject possibly capable of nuance into what Stanley Cohen, founder of the study of moral panics, calls a “folk devil”?  (9)

There is, I believe, a better way to account for a possible relationship between (non-clinical) paranoia and conspiracy theories.  But proposing it requires some familiarity with the alternative frameworks developed since Hofstadter’s time.  These frameworks are built on a shift in vocabulary that also suggests a shift in discipline:  the replacement of psychology with philosophy. 

Next: Only Connect

Works Cited

Bratich, Jack. Z. Conspiracy Panics: Political Rationality and Popular Culture.  Albany: SUNY Press, 2008.

Cohen, Stanley.  Folk Devils and Moral Panics. New York: Routledge 2011. 

Dentith, Matthew R. X.  The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Hofstadter, Richard.  The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. New York, Vintage 2012. 

Keeley, Brian L. "Of Conspiracy Theories.” The Journal of Philosophy 96.3. (March 1999), 109-126.

Knight, Peter.  Conspiracy Culture: From the Kennedy Assassination to The X-Files. New York: Routledge, 2013. 

Knight, Peter.  "Making Sense of Conspiracy Theories.” Knight, Peter (ed.) Conspiracy Theories in American History. Volume 1. ABC-Clio , 2003. 15-25.