The objection is frequently raised in the comments sections of the psychobloggers that the host (at least) is diagnosing a mental illness in the people that disagree with them politically. This is seen as a contemptible dodge, an attempt to dismiss logical arguments without attending to them and answering them. The diagnoser is often further accused of hatred, fear, or anger. Those accusations have a humorous irony, as the accuser is engaging in the layman’s version of what he accuses the professional of. “You only think that because you fear/hate/don’t care/stink.”
An additional irony is that people with certifiable diagnoses object to being diagnosed as well. “You’ve hardly met me! You’re believing what my wife says about me! You’ve only talked to me twice since I’ve been here!”
The accuser often does not understand what we mean when we speak about symptoms, clusters of symptoms, and diagnoses. We are not saying that those we disagree with are “just crazy” with the implication that nothing they say on any subject can be trusted. You will notice that the diagnoses offered in the psychosphere do not typically run to “schizophrenic,” “bipolar,” or “autistic,” or the specific neurological disorders. Those are strongly definable biological illnesses with somewhat predictable courses. Political groups do not fit those categories well, though individual aspects of understanding those illnesses may come into play. You do not “become” schizophrenic by refusing to deal with the truth at deeper and deeper levels. Becoming unable to negotiate the truth is a description of what happens to you as you descend into schizophrenia.
These are conditions that are treated biologically. Therapy is used, but in much the same way that a therapist would help a person deal with paraplegia or diabetes. Talk therapies are not going to cure paraplegia, but they may help the person deal with loss, acceptance, illness management, and the like.
The misimpression that we are referring to disease conditions leads to the idea that we are being merely dismissive, attaching some obscure fancy name to our refusal to engage the intellectual debate. When a Dr. Sanity or a Gagdad Bob uses the term “narcissistic” readers mistake that meaning in two directions: either they conclude that some specific illness like schizophrenia is being postulated, or they conclude that we are sneaking in the common meaning of “self-absorbed” as a fancy way of being insulting.
Narcissism is in a different category from those illnesses. The defense mechanisms that Dr. Sanity puts so much effort into describing for her readers are not infections which come upon us and render us unable to reason. There are elements of choice, and understanding, and insight which come into play. (For those professionals reading, yes I understand that there are exceptions and variations here).
The clusters of symptoms and diagnoses used in political discussion are those which we are all prone to. Every human being uses not-quite-perfect ways of dealing with difficulty. Under increased stress, we use them more. Use of rationalization or intellectualization ebbs and flows in our lives, changing as quickly as within the course of the day, and as slowly as entire seasons of our lives. We are as susceptible to such evasions of painful realities as those we criticize, and we have every recognition that these symptoms exist along spectra.
Further, these diagnoses are made with awareness that other parts of a person’s life may be fully intact, and their reasoning just fine in other areas. A person may be in denial that his wife no longer cares for him, but have full and courageous acceptance that his business is failing. We all also use varieties of the defense mechanisms. We may have our favorites, but with such a full menu and such a variety of painful experiences, it is inevitable that we use different tools for different situations.
If this distinction explains the difference to you, you don’t need to read Part Two. If you still believe that diagnosing the political opposition is invalid, perhaps the next section will justify it to you.