Let’s not refer to conservatism as a mental illness because why, again?

Remember the other day when I said I sometimes wished I could be the bigger person, and blah blah blah?  Yeah, me neither.  Check out this rant, one of about a million I could have picked about Sandra Fluke and the “controversial” idea that birth control is healthcare:

It’s no longer hyperbole to deem liberalism a mental illness. These people are literally insane. Not to mention unbelievably entitled. She wants other people to pay for whatever she wants to do. There’s no personal accountability here, no notion of being responsible and understanding the consequences of one’s own actions. This is no longer demanding a safety net for those taking calculated risks; this is demanding society subsidize hedonism (believe me, these loose bitches ain’t married). And note how she casts having sex as some unalienable right. As if it’s akin to other legitimately sacrosanct American freedoms like that of religion and the right to bear arms (whoops, she probably doesn’t like that last one).

Honestly, I don’t even know what to say to these types of liberals anymore. This woman literally believes that freedom of action means that society must sanction that action. It’s not enough that we allow her to do whatever she wants; we also must actively support those actions through subsidization and moral countenance. And if you don’t, you’re not “treating her equally”! Yes, demanding that someone either abstain from sex or find their own way to pay for a leisure activity is an “untenable burden.”

How about we make a deal? We give that insufferable harpie all the birth control she wants just so we avoid anyone sharing her DNA coming into the world.

Setting aside all the dreary, dismally unimaginative misogyny in this little rant, it is just so chock full of hilarious wrongness it would take the entire day to unpack all of the myriad ways this idiot is disconnected from reality.  I’ll just make two brief observations:

There’s no personal accountability here, no notion of being responsible and understanding the consequences of one’s own actions.

BWAHAHAHAHA!  I cannot even fathom…what?… I just… wait…huh?  if using birth control is not the ultimate shining example of (a) personal accountability, (b) being responsible, and (c) understanding the consequences of one’s own actions, then nothing is.

But this part displays so much entertaining arrogance it belongs in a narcissist museum:

This woman literally believes that freedom of action means that society must sanction that action. It’s not enough that we allow her to do whatever she wants; we also must actively support those actions through subsidization and moral countenance.

The important thing to note here is that “society” does not include Sandra Fluke. Nope.  Considering that 95% of Americans have premarital sex and have done so since the 1950s, “society” does not include them, either.  So who, pray tell, is this “we” who “allow” Sandra Fluke to do anything?  Because guess what?  At 53% of the population, WOMEN ARE SOCIETY, MOTHERFUCKER.  And yes, “society,” however it is defined, should actively support healthcare, which is what birth control is.  So who even gives a shit about your personal “sanction” or “moral countenance”?  We’ve seen your idea of morality and it cannot die in a fire soon enough.  Have a nice day.

* * * * *

I was reading a Phayngula comment thread yesterday.  A regular commenter who goes by raven, referring to some dumbass creationist troll who appeared out of nowhere to infest a three-year-old comment thread about Kent Hovind, made the observation that it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between creationists and the “mentally ill.”  Another regular commenter, Brownian, immediately rebuked her, saying this:

Are they? Are they really hard to tell apart?

How long are you going to ignore people who’ve asked you not to use this over-the-top conflation of religiosity with mental illness or use mental illness as an insult, raven?

This has troubled me since I saw it, so I’ve done some thinking about it.  There are two different objections being voiced by Brownian here:  one to an “over-the-top conflation of religiosity and mental illness,” and the second to the use of “mental illness as an insult.”  These are two very different things, and I want to take these objections seriously.

First, we have the “over-the-top conflation of religiosity and mental illness.”  So this particular creationist troll — and it is not an unusual one by any stretch — was arrogantly spewing onto a long-dead comment thread ignorant falsehoods about the age of our planet and the origins of the species on it.  In light of his posts, it should be uncontroversial to say that this troll suffers from delusions.  PZ himself called the troll “deluded” in his post.  There is no reason that anyone living in the year 2012 with unfettered internet access should not know — and if one wishes to voice opinions contrary to the scientific consensus, understand how we know — that all life on this planet is descended from common ancestry, that evolution happened and continues to happen, and that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old and not less than 10,000.  These are facts about reality that everyone in an advanced civilization can and should know, and there is no reasonable scientific controversy about any of them.

So what are we to make of someone who not only disbelieves these things, but is so confident in his certainty that he disputes them on the blog of a rather infamous atheist biologist?

I understand how a person could be indoctrinated as a child into believing a lot of crap about gods and demons and angels and talking snakes and Noah’s ark and a worldwide flood and a virgin giving birth and the history of the earth and our Super Special place in it.  Believe me, I understand it perfectly, because I was such a child.  But why is it that by young adulthood (or even earlier) some of us effortlessly begin to take these stories less and less seriously, some are compelled to go beyond that and seek out satisfactory explanations for the glaring inconsistencies and baffling nonsense of religious doctrine, and yet others become ever more enamored with those absurd myths taught to them in childhood?  And why do some people, in the face of mountains of compelling evidence from multiple scientific disciplines that directly contradicts these myths, dig in even deeper and spin ever more farcical rationalizations like  “Adam and Eve must have lived with dinosaurs and they were all happy vegetarians until Eve sinned and god had a big tantrum”?  What can we say about them?

Well, we cannot say that they are simply ignorant or confused, not when they have been directed time and time again to enough good information and resources to thoroughly debunk their false ideas… and yet they persist.  We cannot say that they are all stupid, not in the sense of IQ or basic intelligence:  many who suffer under such delusions seem to function pretty well in many aspects of life.  We cannot say we think that they are wrong, in the sense that we have a difference of opinion: that evolution happened and that the Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old are not matters of opinion, like our thoughts on whether Congress should cut spending or raise taxes.  They are facts that we can know with as much certainty as we can know anything.

But there is nevertheless something very, very wrong with these people, and it is obvious to anyone who reads the Pharyngula threads they inhabit, or who has ever tried to have a conversation with them about evolution or the age of the solar system.  They do not ask questions in good faith, and do not take good answers under consideration.  Ironically, such a mind is both a perfect illustration of evolution in action and an equally perfect metaphor for evolution’s mode of action:  good enough to get by, but hardly optimal.  Such a mind’s functioning is impaired, and in a very specific way.  It does not seem inaccurate in the least to call this impairment a “mental illness.”

Strictly in a technical sense, using “mentally ill” to describe the ultra-religious or ultra-conservative paints with too broad a brush:  the term covers everything in the DSM-IV, and so it says almost nothing.  But when we say of someone like a Young Earth Creationist troll (or an anti-choice zealot, or a free market dogmatist) that there is something really wrong with his mind, we are speaking of something very specific; we just lack the language to more precisely name it.  We can recognize this specific something, because unfortunately it is an all-too-common impairment. That being the case it is easy to see why, lacking a label for it, we might resort to “mental illness” to describe it when perhaps we should not. Nevertheless, it is not sufficient to simply say that someone is a “creationist” and leave it at that, because “creationist” does not account for the cluster of other delusions that almost invariably accompany that one.  “Creationist” is fairly specific, but it is too narrow.  This is why I coined the term Conservative Personality Disorder (“CPD”).

Personality disorders are a tricky and troubling area of psychology.  Many providers will not treat patients with personality disorders, because they experience these clients asnegative, rejecting, demanding, aggressive or manipulative.”  There is disagreement among clinicians and researchers about where to draw distinctions between the various types, whether and to what extent clients with personality disorders can realistically expect to improve and if so how best to treat them, at what point a personality type becomes a personality disorder, and relatedly whether personality disorders are even mental illnesses at all.  Defined as “[a] deeply ingrained, inflexible pattern of relating, perceiving, and thinking serious enough to cause distress or impaired functioning,” they remain as controversial as they are difficult to diagnose.

There is also great difficulty in estimating the prevalence of personality disorders (as they are currently defined), mainly because absent a serious life crisis, ultimatum, or a court order, people who have them generally do not seek diagnosis or treatment.  Like our conservative friends, people with certain personality disorders, particularly NPD and OCPD, do not believe that there is anything wrong with them, no matter how much destruction lies in their wake.  It may be plainly obvious to people close to an individual that he or she suffers from “a deeply ingrained, inflexible pattern of relating, perceiving, and thinking serious enough to cause distress and impaired functioning,” but the individual with the personality disorder experiences any distress or impaired functioning as the fault of others, and never as a direct result of their own impaired thinking.  There is no reasoning them out of this view (see “deeply ingrained, inflexible”).  Nevertheless, distress and impaired functioning is very much experienced by people who are close to those exhibiting the symptoms of personality disorders, and thus we have a dilemma:  people with personality disorders frequently wreak havoc on the lives of those around them — and yet they are rarely the ones in therapy.

As I learned more about personality disorders, the parallels between some of them (particularly NPD and OCPD) and political conservatism became vividly apparent to me.  Right wing religiosity is just one manifestation of authoritarian conservatism — a twin to free market fanaticism and kindred spirit to wingnut dogmatism of every other stripe.  I would argue that any adult Young Earth Creationist pissing all over PZ’s blog has a personality disorder, and moreover that it is the same (or very similar) disorder that a climate change denier has.  Conservatives are above all narcissists (small “n”), constitutionally incapable of accepting blame or fault for anything:  they can never be sorry, because they can never be wrong.  (“Conservatism can never fail, it can only be failed.”)

Before I get to Brownian’s second objection — the use of “mental illness” as an insult — I want to address another question:  setting aside whether you agree with me that a creationist troll has a “personality disorder,” or whether that is a “mental illness,” why should the delusions of a Young Earth Creationist matter to us?  Well, there are several concerns.  One is that reality is so much grander, more majestic and awe-inspiring than any self-serving myth at the heart of a conservative belief could ever be — and Young Earth Creationists are missing out on it.

This is a picture of the lid of a small box I picked up a few years ago in Sedona, Arizona:

The box is made of fossiliferous limestone from the Late Mezozoic, in which you can see cross-sections of 70 million year old marine fossils from the Tethys Ocean: corals, snails and clams.  I find it beautiful aesthetically, a view that any creationist may or may not share.  But what is truly astonishing, humbling and exhilarating to ponder is that I can hold in my hand the actual remnants of 70 million year old life forms.  To touch this box is to be connected through eons of time to my ancient ancestors on this spectacular little planet.  No storybook can deliver this feeling, and no Young Earth Creationist can ever know it, because it is based on truths that are magnificent and real.

But the fact that certain people are missing out on so many incredibly moving and powerful experiences is hardly the only reason creationist delusions should matter to us. (They would likely say I am missing out on moving and powerful religious experiences — to which I would respond “bullshit,” because I have been there and done that and there is no comparison.)  The reason I care deeply about this problem is that those with CPD are destroying and dismantling our society and making countless lives miserable — and everyone is paying dearly for it, or will be soon enough.  Without a basic understanding and appreciation of reality among a majority of its citizens, there is not much likelihood of the United States making any progress and indeed plenty of indicators that it is regressing.  At this very moment, people with CPD are scheming to get their utterly unscientific and completely wrong ideas taught to American schoolchildren in science classes, and they will not quit.  CPD parents homeschool their own children by the thousands and indoctrinate them with total nonsense.  They waste enormous amounts of human capital, time and resources building giant monuments to their ignorance, and seek only to perpetuate it.  And that should be reason enough for the delusions of a Young Earth Creationist to matter to us, but there is another issue that makes it a paramount concern: it is a pretty good bet that a Young Earth Creationist holds a whole constellation of dangerous delusions, such as disbelief in man-made global warming, belief in abstinence-only sex education, belief in rigid and traditional gender roles, belief that church and state should not be separate, belief that it is good and proper for parents to physically abuse and humiliate their children, belief that the poor deserve their lot in life, and all sorts of related ideas that have absolutely horrific effects on millions of individual lives and indeed the entire planet.  That is why we should all be concerned — very concerned.

So, now to Brownian’s objection to using mental illness as an insult.  It rests on the entirely laudable notion that people who struggle with mental illnesses deserve our compassion and respect, and that we insult and diminish such people when we call someone who is extremely religious “mentally ill.”  I suppose it could be seen in terms of making an observation more than an insult, but it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that is usually the intent.  In my own circle of family and friends, I have known very few people who have never struggled with depression or another genuinely debilitating mental illnesses, including myself.  But is a personality disorder debilitating in this same sense?  Remember, in the same way that people with NPD or OCPD do not believe or accept that there is anything profoundly wrong with them, neither do people with Conservative Personality Disorder as I have defined it.  They do not “struggle with mental illness” in the same way a depressive or schizophrenic does, because from their own point of view they are perfectly fine — better than fine, actually.  In fact better than everyone else.  Every single problem they experience (over and over and over again) is entirely the fault of those “Other” people, whether particular individuals or stereotyped groups.  To the extent CPD cases can be said to “struggle” with anything, it is with reality, self-awareness, and empathy.  They manifestly do not struggle with their own stubborn and intractable refusal to see that they are the ones directly causing or exacerbating their own problems — and pretty much everyone else’s problems, too.

I agree wholeheartedly with Brownian’s underlying principle that we should do nothing to further stigmatize the mentally ill.  And I think that is what we are doing, intentionally or not, when we fling “mentally ill” at the religious right — at least sometimes.  But I think I have made a case that personality disorders generally and CPD specifically are in a very different category than Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or Bipolar II.  They manifest very differently in the real world.  Further, the concept of a “Conservative Personality Disorder” is absolutely critical to what I believe can and should be done about the conservative plague.

Whether this is ethical or not turns on several things, including whether an impairment like a personality disorder is rightly characterized as a mental illness at all.  Maybe the mental health framework is entirely inapplicable, or at least insufficient, to characterize people who go through their entire lives “functioning” in a society while simultaneously attempting to destroy it, perpetuating dysfunctional families and poisoning relationships between humans and their environments for untold generations.  If I were a cynic, I suppose I could just call it “the human condition.”  If I were of the belief that nothing can be done about it, I could just call them “@$$holes,” and in fact I often do.  But when I do, I am talking about a very particular kind of @$$hole, like the writer quoted above who said this:

It’s no longer hyperbole to deem liberalism a mental illness. These people are literally insane.

And in fact, I do believe that in many individual cases, there really is nothing that can be done about it:  Kent Hovind, Ken Ham, James Dobson and Ann Coulter come readily to mind.  But in the larger scheme of things, there is a cultural component to right-wing conservatism — or at least to the depth and breadth of its effects on the unfortunate societies like our own in which it flourishes — and that is where something most certainly can be done about it.  (Thus, the existence of this blog, and my support of the Occupy movement, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, reproductive rights, and many other endeavors in which I engage, all in the cause of liberalism.)

So the question for me, then, is whether my labeling right wing conservatives as CPD cases is equivalent to mocking the “mentally ill,” either in intent or in effect.  I would argue that no, it is not.  Not because there is nothing wrong with the minds of many conservatives — clearly, there is — but because this specific impairment is not accurately characterized by “mental illness” in the sense that most people use the term, derogatorily or otherwise.  CPD is a pernicious mind virus, one to which we are all susceptible at times, and as such it has a great deal more in common with its frequent fellow traveler, racism, than with, say, major depression.  If I am correct about this, it will likely never be eradicated; we can only hope to throttle it back to the point where, like racism, it is no longer acceptable to assert conservative dogma in public. “Right wing conservative” will be as repugnant to a majority of Americans as “racist” has become.  And achieving that outcome requires, among other approaches, mockery.

Can we characterize conservatism as a kind of mental illness without insulting the mentally ill?  I think we can.  But even if you (or Brownian) would disagree, I can live with that.  One thing I know about myself is that I am fighting for what is right and true with some of the same (nonviolent) weapons my enemies have used effectively against me. (Fighting back against bullies with their own weapons is not in the same moral category as bullying.)  Unlike CPD cases, I can be careful to tread lightly into sensitive areas, sincerely try to be respectful and considerate of other human beings, learn where I have fallen short of my own standards, and apologize and change my views and behaviors when I do.  But the fact remains that oftentimes, the best response to poo-flinging by conservatives is to throw their own shit right back into their faces.  Like this:

It is no longer hyperbole to deem conservatism a mental illness.  These people are literally insane.

4 thoughts on “Let’s not refer to conservatism as a mental illness because why, again?

  1. Iris – time and again, I have enjoyed your writing. Your thesis makes perfect sense and targets an insidious disease that affects our media’s portrayal of the clash between conservatives and liberals. When you fight back against conservative hyperbole by administering a healthy dose of their own medicine, it’s all too easy for the conservative bully to cry foul. Thank you for your well-written reply.

  2. Wow. You certainly dealt with my comment in far greater detail than I think it merited, but the topic clearly does warrant some attention. Admittedly, you seem to have given this topic a great deal more thought than I.

    Even as I wrote that comment, I felt the sickly pangs of hypocrisy, as I’ve used terms relating to mental illness or brain injury regularly and probably more recently than I should. (Hell, I’ve referred to myself as ‘crazy’, despite being told by my therapist that I’m not and so I shouldn’t.) However, I’ve increasingly become aware of how such language can implicate others, and as someone capable of spewing my fair share of venom, I try to make sure my poisonous gobs hit my target and none other.

    This is my biggest issue with comments like raven’s, and raven’s comments specifically: they’re not an attempt to identify any particular cognitive error (or collection of errors as such might characterise a particular illness in a particular individual) as much as they are to smear all religious individuals as deranged. One may have a reason to believe a certain poster is mentally ill (the troll in question certainly evinced some level of disordered thinking), but raven sure as hell doesn’t, as evinced by the knee-jerk accusation of every religious individual posting on Pharyngula, troll or not, as insane. It’s become the equivalent of calling someone gay as a schoolyard insult. I’m not the first commenter to call shkler out on this, and in fact, wasn’t even consciously aware of the pattern until I saw it pointed out.

    Does that mean we can never identify a complement of personality traits and cognitive errors that characterise certain religious impulses or political stances and describe them as such? I don’t think it means that. Altemeyer nicely does so with his Right-Wing Authoritarian (RWA) index, and you attempt to do so here with Conservative Personality Disorder. Such characterisations can be useful, when done well.

    But they can also be self-serving and poorly described to the point of being less than useless, as you well note with reference to the DSM-IV’s definition. The term ‘delusion’ suffers from the same indiscrimination: you would not only be hard-pressed to find a single human being free from delusion, but a certain level of delusion might be required for optimal mental health (Google ‘depressive realism’, not linked here to avoid being flagged as spam.)

    So, to sum up: defining a pattern or collection of patterns of thinking that may characterise certain religious or political positions as ‘mental illness’: probably okay, if done so in an informed and judicious way (hell, you said it better than I: “Such a mind’s functioning is impaired, and in a very specific way. It does not seem inaccurate in the least to call this impairment a “mental illness.'”)

    Calling everyone who disagrees with you ‘insane’ as a means of insulting them: kind of lazy, and clearly offensive to at least some individuals with mental illness, if not those people as a group.

    So, I think we agree, at least on most aspects. But what do I know? I’m just a smartass who yells at people on the internet as a hobby. There’s clearly something not quite right about that, even if it is exceedingly common.

  3. @ Brownian – Thanks very much for your reply.

    Re: being hard pressed to find an individual free from delusion, and a certain level of delusion being required for optimal mental health (“depressive realism”), I am aware of this and was actually going to address it in my post — but damn, it was already so freaking long I just said fuck it.

    But yeah, it is hypocritical to smear religious people as deranged when we know we are all deranged to some degree. I think the language (at least the English one) is woefully insufficient to capture the key distinctions we are trying to make here, and one of those distinctions is whether we even care that we are deluded. In my experience, skeptics care. Religious people? Well, not so much.

    Even with the best of intentions we all risk slipping up of course, and unfortunately sometimes our “poisonous gobs” can take out innocent bystanders. But I think what I’m doing here is fundamentally different than what raven does. (To be fair, when she’s not smearing all religious people as deranged for the singular purpose of insulting them raven’s deadpan, pithy comments often slay me — and she doesn’t need to be anything other than factual in order to do that.)

    I suspect the reason your comment haunted me is that I, too, felt those sickly pangs of hypocrisy and wondered whether I might be rationalizing something I regularly do when in reality
    i am crossing a line that I really do not want to cross. I regret that it took me a 3,000+ word essay to try and sort it out, but I really appreciate the initial comment you made that sparked it, and the thoughts you offered here. You helped me gain some clarity on an issue that was really bothering me.

    -Another smartass who yells at people on the Internet — one who doesn’t give a flying fuck whether there’s something not quite right about that.

    • I don’t want to come down too hard on raven either: pithy and deadpan characterises most of her (her? I think I knew that, but I’m not sure) comments. It’s just this one thing that she’d do well to consider.

      But we’ve all got our own predilections we’d do well to consider. I think you hit the nail on the head with this:

      I think the language (at least the English one) is woefully insufficient to capture the key distinctions we are trying to make here, and one of those distinctions is whether we even care that we are deluded. In my experience, skeptics care. Religious people? Well, not so much.

      Caring whether or not we’re deluded; accepting that we are and coming up with processes to minimise the implications (as in the scientific method) is really the best we can do.

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