Monday, March 7, 2016

The "mental illness" smear of Sanders is nonsense

Less than a week after rolling out an extended (and ill-informed) piece on the pathological psychology of Republicans, Vox has decided to condemn pathologizing the psychology of Republicans. The difference, of course, is that it was Bernie Sanders who did it this time, which means that talking about mental illness in this way is now Outrageously Ableist and Wrong.

But bias isn't the whole story: part of the problem, as I've discussed at length in the past, is that liberalism still has no idea how to talk about mental illness. It remains torn between, on one hand, the rational-scientific tendency to accept medical orthodoxy, which generally recognizes certain conditions as pathological and requiring treatment - and on the other hand, the postmodern tendency to understand the role that social construction and oppression plays in determining that some mental conditions are aberrant and unacceptable.

Here, I'll just point out that this (dare I say) cognitive dissonance has even emerged in the attempts to criticize Sanders. Vox, for example, can't even condemn the supposedly "ugly, ableist language" he used without invoking their own - characterizing the differently-abled as "people with mental illness". If we're going to take up this critique of Sanders with any consistency and rigor, we have to reject any pathologizing of people who simply have different ways of thinking than we do. Otherwise, one can only wonder: if Lopez insists that (say) paranoia is a kind of sickness, in what sense does he actually believe that "stigma is bad"?

This is not, it has to be stressed, some kind of arcane or irrelevant ad absurdum point I am making about logical consistency: the debate over whether or not we should pathologize certain psychologies has been historically and politically central to the critique Vox is trying to wield. That they uncritically accept the healthy/ill dichotomy indicates that they are operating well outside of the intellectual tradition at hand, and with no understanding of the real concerns that real people with different mental conditions actually express. At best, they're committing precisely the sort of artless gaffe that Sanders (arguably) made; at worst, it's evidence of cynicism from critics who aren't coming from a place of genuine concern over how we talk about mental conditions.