Monday, June 20, 2011

Are We All a Little Crazy?

Serious therapists call it the continuum. In their view there is no clear dividing line between mental health and mental illness. We all exist somewhere along the continuum. If they are right, then we are all a little crazy.

Strangely enough, therapists don’t emphasize our relative mental health and emotional stability. To the point where one starts to think that they are not very interested in building up our confidence.

Normally, people have occasion to feel anxious, lonely, sad, demoralized, and even confused. Sometimes, they feel ashamed or guilty.

These are part of life. They are trying to tell us to do things differently about our world and our lives; they are not telling us that we need to to understand why we feel what we feel.

These normal emotions are not trying to tell us that we are a little bit crazy. .

Therapists, however, tend to pathologize normal emotions, telling people that they should not make changes in the way they conduct their lives, but that they must immediately to go into therapy.

I will promise you one thing: if you are feeling lonely, the cure is to make some new friends, not to understand why you feel lonely.

Recently, Ken McLaughlin explained that therapists invented the continuum because they were sensitive to the feelings of those who might be classified as mentally ill.  (Thanks to Lord Somber for bringing this article to my attention.)

Fearing that people were stigmatizing the mental ill and thus making it more difficult for them to enter treatment, therapy declared that whatever they have, we all have. There’s no real difference between those who are mentally healthy and those who are mentally ill. Thus, those of us who are healthy have no business looking askance or even judging those of us who are not.

No other medical or paramedical profession feels the need to exhibit this kind of sensitivity. When it comes to tuberculosis or cancer or eczema, either you have it or you don’t. Physicians do not tell us that we all have an errant precancerous cell... so that we will not judge those who have cancer.

Then, what’s so special about mental health and mental illness? One thing is truly special: the notion of a mental health continuum is one of the more shameless marketing ploys in medical history.

If we are all a little bit crazy, then human beings cannot be divided into normal and crazy.They are divided into those who are sufficiently self-aware to see that they have a problem and those who are so totally clueless that they have missed out on therapy.

McLaughlin offers a further analysis: “Today, the tendency is to view us all, to a greater or lesser degree, as mentally ill, as weak and irrational subjects in need of control and guidance by government and an assorted array of therapeutic professionals.”

Here, McLaughlin is not dealing with the intention but with the effect that the continuum produces on the culture.  

If we are all a bit crazy then we all need a bit of treatment. More importantly, if we are all a bit sick, then we cannot really be trusted. Thus, we need to live in a therapy culture.

We find a similar idea in today’s cognitive neuroscience. There we are all supposed to be prey to irrational impulses and emotions. I do not think it’s too much of a stretch-- actually, it’s not a stretch at all-- to believe that we need to be controlled by government and by the superior class of people who have undergone therapy.

While I was pondering the mental illness continuum, I discovered that this strange idea has now been applied to moral character. Yesterday Maureen Callahan reported on the new view that there are no good or bad men, but only men who were more or less bad.

She wants us to believe that character exists on a continuum.

Presumably, Callahan was impelled to write about this topic because Anthony Weiner has been feeling a bit down these days, what with the revelations about his bad character.

Since we do not want him to feel bad-- empathic souls that we are-- we are all being told that we should introspect and discover that we all have a spot of bad character. Therefore, we should not judge or stigmatize Anthony Weiner.

If you select out a few prominent men who have shown that they have bad or deficient character, why should that mean that,  as Callahan mistakenly assumes, the “good man” is a myth.

Of course, if you persuade people that the “good man” or the “good woman” is a myth, you will see fewer and fewer people taking the time and making the effort to build their character.

For the larger concept Callahan quotes author David De Steno: “If we categorize someone as a good person … that’s supposed to be it. But character is a spectrum, a continuum. There aren’t rigid boundaries around selflessness or selfishness. For us to be able to carry on with others and have relationships based on trust and cooperation, we all have to believe we’re good people. Once in a while, we’re going to see ways we can get away with something — whether it’s satisfying a sexual urge or doing something unethical to get a promotion — and we’ll do it. Biologically, that’s good; that’s the way our brains are wired. We’re not saying that morally it’s good.”

Here, the reasoning is amazingly faulty. Not because the author has not done enough scientific research, but because he has not thought seriously enough about ethics.

If your friend is sometimes reliable and sometimes unreliable, you do not develop a nuanced view of his character. You know that he is unreliable. You know that you cannot count on him.

If your spouse only cheats on you some of the time, would you say that he or she is only partly a cheat? Does it sharpen your moral reasoning to think that your cheating spouse has a mix of good and bad character? Would your circumstances improve if you start saying to yourself that you too might have cheated and that you have no right to judge his behavior.

As it happens, we sometimes say that a cheating spouse or a faithless friend has some good qualities. When we do it, we are, more often than not, looking for a way to excuse the inexcusable.

When you spouse cheats, the moral onus is on him or her, not on you.

Yes, we all make mistakes. Sometimes we make large mistakes. When we make mistakes that does not make us less than a good person?

Of course not. A good person can be wrong; a good person can fail at a task; a good person can do something that is morally wrong.

A misdeed or a failure to fulfill an obligation does not make you a bad person. To be a bad person,  you need to embrace your failure and make it a habit.

Good people have faults, flaws, and foibles. They would not be human if they did not. And their good character would not be worth very much if they could never make a mistake.

A good person apologizes for errors. A good person makes amends for harming people. A good person works to restore his or her good name by withdrawing from social intercourse.

If he does it, he gets back on the path to being a good person again. If he doesn’t then he is not a good person.

Restoring your reputation requires work. It takes concerted effort. Since it is going to feel like a long slog, you need to keep focused and to stay motivated.

If you start believing that there is a continuum of good and bad character your task will immediately become that much more difficult.

If there is no such thing as a good man or good character, then why bother to try to be one. Applying the notion of continuum to character building is ultimately demoralizing.

Also,  if all people contain both good and bad, why trust anyone ever again?

If you had set out to undermine human community, you could not have done much better.


Jordan Henderson said...

Reminds me of the Sociologist who, if I understood their research correctly, contended that we all were criminals, but most had a recidivism rate such that they commit less than one criminal act in their lifetime.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I think you're right about this. Whenever someone commits mass murder or mayhem, we are going to find some talking head on television coming on to say that any of us could be serial killers. This implies that there is a continuum.

The assertion is belied by the fact that most crimes are committed by very few repeat offenders.