by Kerry Dawkins, 2014
Some detractors of subjective phenomena try to criticise those beliefs by calling them ‘delusional’. Whilst mental illnesses that cause delusions are real and should not be dismissed, not everything that is subjective is an actual delusion.
Firstly let’s define what a delusion actually is. Delusions are falsifiable, incorrect beliefs about objective consensus reality; subjective experiences can’t be falsified. If someone makes a delusional claim, it can be disproved. For example if someone believes their ears are made of broccoli and it’s obviously untrue, that’s a delusion. Being plural (or otherkin (people who perceive themselves subjectively as not being human) or anything that involves a subjective self-perception that may not match your physical appearance or embodied history) doesn’t necessarily mean it’s delusional in and of itself – they’re not making untrue claims about the physical world; they’re describing a perception of the self that is different to how their physical body is/is perceived but recognise it as being separate from things in the physical world.
There are plural systems that can have delusional symptoms for other reasons but that doesn’t mean plurality itself is delusional. For example a plural system could have a member who’s a werewolf. If they’re simply saying their self-perception is that of a werewolf that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s delusional. It’s a subjective self-perception that’s different to their system’s physical body, but they’re aware of the difference and recognise it. It’s not a delusion; it’s a parallel belief. But if this same person is claiming their physical body transforms into a wolf at the full moon then there might be a problem. As I’ve said before, ‘delusional is thinking your body is actually, literally, physically a cabbage’. My own background, appearance and identity are different to what we’ve experienced out here in the physical world but I’m aware of it. I don’t claim my own history is the only one we’ve experienced or that our physical body resembles mine. I don’t think I can physically manifest myself in this world or anything of the sort. I’m aware of the contradiction and parallel existence. If there was an actual delusion there I would believe things about myself that can be easily falsified – but I don’t. I do believe I am a separate person with my own history, but it’s a subjective perception, as I’ve said, which is different to a delusion. I don’t believe things about objective physical reality that aren’t actually happening.
People who criticise others’ subjective beliefs will claim they’re ‘delusional’. But as we’ve seen they’ve misused the word in the first place.
It’s fairly common to encounter ‘these people are delusional!’ in internet debates between people with subjective experiences (whether it’s plurality, otherkin or even religion) and people who don’t share their belief system. There are people who even see being transgender or genderqueer as being delusional – which isn’t even the current psychiatric standpoint in most western industrialised countries. I know there’s really no pretence at academic rigour in internet trolling but there are people who attempt to criticise subjective experiences using the language of psychiatry – and failing rather badly at it.
You can have a different belief system to someone else but that doesn’t mean you should use the word ‘delusional’ improperly. You may be a philosophical materialist (a person who doesn’t believe in supernatural phenomena) who hasn’t got an identity separate from what you’d be expected to have. In fact I know systems that have members who are extremely sceptical and don’t believe in the supernatural at all but have subjective experiences – subjectivity and philosophical materialism aren’t mutually exclusive and mustn’t be seen as such.
People like plurals and otherkin mightn’t have a solely materialistic self-perception but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re deluded. You can be sceptical of people’s philosophies of being – I don’t expect everyone to understand or believe our experiences – but you should at the very least criticise them without misusing medical language if you want to be serious about it.