Insanity is a tricky condition. Can we expect an insane person to know if he or she is insane? Not likely. Therefore, the diagnosis of “insanity” is recognized and imposed by others — that is, it’s socially defined. For example, in legal proceedings involving “temporary insanity” it has to be demonstrated by psychiatrists or other mental health workers that the accused “did not, at that moment, comprehend his or her acts” — they literally did not know what they were doing.
We are careful to note that temporary insanity is temporary. This is important. It means that sane people can experience a period of insanity, but then recover their sanity.
There is another mental condition directly related to this called “functional insanity.” Unlike temporary insanity, functional insanity indicates a more prolonged form of insanity — perhaps lifelong. However, it is usually hidden and difficult to discern. It only appears during very special situations — whenever a person says or does something completely absurd in public with a straight face. (The act must happen in public, since we all do or say absurd things in private.)
The phrase “functional insanity” was coined in 1979 by students and professors at the University of Minnesota. The Center for Death Education and Research had organized a nuclear war study group of about 30 people. They’d meet once a month and discuss what they had read about nuclear weapons. They were interested in nuclear war-fighting strategy, as well as the technology.
Around December 1979, after Ronald Reagan had been elected, they saw a shift in tone and content among military people. Up until then, throughout the “cold war,” the defense posture between the U.S. and Russia had been based on “mutual assured destruction” — MAD. According to this “strategy,” neither country could launch their nuclear-armed missiles because both would be destroyed.
The Pentagon had never really liked this strategy, especially as new technologies allowed for pin-point accuracy and more compact warheads. Finally, Ronald’s team decided it was time to scrap the old strategy and adopt a new one — the possibility of “limited nuclear war.” According to this new strategy, the U.S. claimed the option of delivering a “limited” nuclear strike anywhere in the world, and that this “limited use” of nuclear warheads would not escalate into an all-out nuclear exchange.
Mr. T.K. Jones, an incoming Defense Department official, held a press conference to announce the new policies. One reporter asked Mr. Jones what would happen if Russia misunderstood and a nuclear exchange occurred. Mr. Jones answered this way: “If there are enough shovels to go around, then everyone’s going to make it.”
Mr. Jones went on to explain what we should do. First, take the doors off your house, then dig holes in your lawn, one for each person, then place the doors over the holes, shovel dirt on top of the doors and get down in the hole. “In this way, everyone’s going to make it.”
The study group was stunned speechless by this performance. They knew the blast effects and fire storms unleashed by nuclear explosions, and Mr. Jones’ statements had gone way beyond misinformation and into absurdity.
By making such absurd statements in public with a straight face, Mr. T.K. Jones revealed a streak of insanity. On the other hand, he seemed to function alright — he walked, he talked, he acted “normal,” but what he said was clearly insane.
Functional insanity is a useful concept for describing indescribable behavior among people who seem otherwise conventional. For example, when someone asked Dick Chaney why the U.S. won’t negotiate with Iran, he said this: “We don’t talk to evil.” He said it in public with a scowl on his face. In fact, Mr. Chaney has made enough absurd statements in public to confirm the diagnosis. I once heard Sarah Palin make this statement (in regards to Vladimir Putin): “It takes a good guy with nukes to stop a bad guy with nukes.” She said this in front of cameras with a straight face, clearly exhibiting functional insanity.
Now, with the upcoming national elections in the U.S., we’ll witness much more of this mental condition. It might drive us nuts!