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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Thursday April 26 2007

Quote from this:

From the left marched battalions of self-styled mental health “liberation activists” steeped in the writings of Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing. Though he denied being opposed to his own profession, Laing’s notion that madness could be a reasonable reaction to an unjust society, or even a vehicle for spiritual transformation, helped fuel the anti-psychiatry movement of the post Love-In era. The most radical of Laingians carried revisionism one step further: Not only wasn’t psychosis a bad thing, it was evidence of a superior level of consciousness.

The libertarians were fueled by Thomas Szasz, an iconoclastic psychiatrist who was, and remains, an outspoken foe of virtually every aspect of his chosen specialty. Hungarian-born in 1920, and witness to vicious state exploitation of medical practice by the Nazis and the communists, Dr. Szasz pushed an absolutist dogma of individual choice, finding ready converts among members of the Do-Your-Own-Thing generation. Though his early essays offered much-needed critiques of the Orwellian nightmares that can result when autocracy corrupts health care, Dr. Szasz devolved into something of a psychiatric Flat-Earther, insisting in the face of mounting contrary evidence that mental illness simply does not exist. Currently, he serves on a commission, cofounded with the Church of Scientology, that purports to investigate human rights violations perpetrated by mental health professionals.

This is one of the aspects of libertarianism - perhaps “offshoots of libertarianism” would be a better way of putting it - that I have always had a problem with.  My prejudice about Thomas Szasz is (a) that he thinks that mental illness does not exist, and I further believe (b) that this is an absurd opinion for anyone to hold.  But (a) has only been a prejudice, which I acted upon by not reading much of Szasz’s actual writing.  (I have never made any fuss about Szasz being on the Advisory Council of the Libertarian Alliance, as I suppose I might have done.) So I am kind-of relieved that someone who has obviously studied Szasz and his opinions with somewhat greater care than I has arrived at the same conclusion, i.e. (a) above.  He clearly also agrees about (b) as does anyone with any sense.

Whether or not Szasz himself really does hold it, the opinion that mental illness does not exist seems to me, as I say, absurd.  Every other part of our bodies is capable of malfunctioning, so why not our brains?  What conceivable reason can there possibly be to suppose that our brains are incapable of getting damaged, by all the kinds of things that damage our livers, hearts, muscles, bones, skin, blood, breathing, and so on, until every bodily organ or function has been listed?  The idea is ridiculous.

Which is not to say that all behaviour diagnosed as brain damage through injury or illness is necessarily that.  “Laing’s notion that madness could be a reasonable reaction to an unjust society” is surely reasonable, provided you are careful to include that “could”, and don’t say that all behaviour diagnosed as mad is actually sane, no matter how self-evidently mad.

Meanwhile Laingism/Szaszism (by which I mean the habit of not making the above distinction nearly carefully enough) has done terrible damage and caused terrible unhappiness, not only by closing the asylums and turning mad people loose on the world, to cause misery for themselves and for others, but also by blaming the families of mad people – the parents especially - for having caused the madness, on top of all the other miseries they had to contend with.

I suspect that this cruel folly is an example of one those great Bad Ideas that I like to spot - the truth is obvious and the fixed quantity of wealth fallacy being two of my other favourites.  This Bad Idea states that, if something is extremely hard to measure, to understand, to find the right words for, to distinguish between some thing or person being or having that something, and not being or having that something, it therefore follows that the something in question doesn’t exist.  I am sure that all that has been said before and said far better, but by whom, and more to the point: how?  I wonder if it is to be found in this list.