Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Why Diagnose The Political? Part One

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.


C. Owen Johnson said...

There is a question I’ve been wanting to ask for some time and while it is something of a digression from your post, I think it is related and bears on the whole question of diagnosing the political.

My question concerns what might be termed "affected pathologies" vs. the actual condition. To try to put this in a more specific and concrete form [and forgive me if this is a bit elliptical as well as oversimplified], Michael Moore has had a significant impact on the culture of the Left; this is particularly apparent where I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. From everything I have read and observed it seems clear to me that Moore has genuine and pretty severe psychological problems; that he actually is a pathological narcissist. His politics and his disorder are not directly related; that is, neither is the cause of the other -- he would be a pathological narcissist no matter what he believed.

But Moore’s influence on the culture hereabouts is not limited to his just political beliefs; he also has had significant influence on how those beliefs are expressed. So people here, especially in SF, tend to sound like and act like pathological narcissists, especially when talking politics but in other circumstances as well, when in fact most of them are not. To me, it appears that they are simply behaving in what has become a culturally acceptable manner.

So my question is: what happens to a society wherein narcissism becomes the accepted form of communication and expression? Can a society, esp a somewhat closed one -- say the city of SF -- ape the forms of a pathology without in fact being pathological?

[Caveat: In using Moore as my example, I am not trying to imply that he is wholly responsible for this cultural phenomenon, a detailed discussion of which is way out of scope for this comment. I picked him as an example to try to clarify the situation I’m interested in, not to explain the origins of the situation itself.]

I would be very interested in your take on this question should you have the leisure to comment.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Off the top of my head, though I will ponder this and see if I come up with anything actually intelligent.

I have noted elsewhere that societies which devalue women produce whole crops of narcissistic young men. My explanation is that it is not healthy for boys to surpass their mothers in status when they are young, especially if it is for no reason other than the sex they were born with.

As to cultures which encourage narcissism, I would include the arts and entertainment fields. What they produce in terms of coherent thought is not encouraging.