David Benfell

Are conservatives mentally disordered?

Research Journal -

It's a question I intentionally evaded in my dissertation, writing instead that in that work, I wanted to specifically address conservative arguments.1 But having done all that, if you ask me if I think on some level that conservatives are mentally ill or disordered, my answer would be yes.

And the question gains urgency as Donald Trump, who might merely have been repulsively quirky as a reality show host, has risen to the presidency, provoking a number of mental health professionals to question his mental health and suitability for office.2 The question of context appears important as some psychiatrists cite a "duty to warn" against Trump as a threat to others.3 More might speak up but feel constrained by the "Goldwater Rule," which apparently only strictly applies to psychiatrists4 but has been widely (and I think generally correctly) embraced by mental health professionals5:

As for the Goldwater Rule itself, it is essentially a gag order, part of the code of ethics of the American Psychiatric Association. It was created in the years after the 1964 presidential election, when the fiery conservative Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination. (Goldwater ran on anti-communist rhetoric suggesting that he just might start a nuclear war, on the slogan “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right”; Lyndon Johnson’s counter-slogan was “In Your Guts You Know He’s Nuts.”) Press outlets, notably a magazine called Fact, asked psychiatrists and psychologists to diagnose Goldwater, and they did, enthusiastically and damningly.6Fact magazine called this “the most intensive character analysis ever made of a living human being.” What it was: a complete embarrassment to the field of psychiatry and the beginning of the end for Fact. After his election loss, Goldwater successfully sued the magazine for libel; the $75,000 settlement put the small publication out of business.7

But then there is that "duty to warn" and, apparently, some 800 mental health professionals who have banded together to assert that the Goldwater Rule cannot be absolute8:

“Duty to Warn” is a term with some history. In 1974, a trial known as the Tarasoff case established the law — now in force in 38 states — saying that if a patient is in imminent danger of physically hurting someone, his or her doctor may break confidentiality and alert the likely victim or call the police.9

The question I'm meaning to take up here is what it would take to put some scholarly weight behind that suspicion that conservatives are disordered.

First, we have to settle the question of what constitutes a disorder. Some mental health professionals, I think including all the ones I respect, disdain labels and categorizations entirely. They seem to feel that such are at best a distraction from the individual cases that come into their offices and will employ 'diagnoses' only when necessary to satisfy a bureaucratic requirement, be it insurance, disability, or something else. And the organizational history, here involving two separate groups, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association, is not pretty:

Only in 1968 was the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders rewritten, for its second edition, to drop the grievous classification of nonconformists, such as homosexuals, under “sociopathic personality disorder.” Two contract psychologists devised the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, acknowledged by President George W. Bush. The American Psychological Association has admitted that key officials secretly “colluded with Department of Defense officials to loosen ethical guidelines” motivated by the wish to “curry favor with DoD.” Only in 2006 did the APA strictly prohibit psychiatrists from participating in “enhanced interrogations.”10

As I look at the foregoing, a second question jumps out at me. Whose suffering? Are we narrowly construing as significant, as some seem to do, the suffering of the individual? Or can we consider, for example, the prospect of thermonuclear war and the widespread suffering that that would entail?

We should remember that early in the Cold War, anti-communists in the United States advocated a first strike on the Soviet Union, not on any evidence, not even on an assurance, but rather on a slender hope that enough of 'us' would survive to found a new 'American' society from the ashes.11 Nuclear deterrance was gained through a doctrine of "mutually assured destruction," in which each side knew that if it launched a first strike, the other side would retain sufficient capacity to launch a devastating counterstrike. Humanity lived with that fear for decades, which was its own harm.

But there are also questions of how we decide which suffering counts and to what degree. Yes, I think anti-communists were stark raving mad to contemplate destroying the world as they did. They, however, lived in fear of what they saw as intolerable tyranny. Adjusting how we weigh these fears could produce a conclusion that I am stark raving mad for agreeing with the anti-anti-Communist slogan, "Better Red than dead."

This draws in a third question. The experience of the Cold War implicated the entire political classes and entire military-industrial complexes in both the Soviet Union and the U.S. as all were complicit in preserving that fear and as Russia and the U.S. retain considerable stockpiles of nuclear weapons today. Are we to count all participants in those groups as insane? And not many political leaders would escape harsh scrutiny for an almost certainly even more deadly failure to come to grips with climate change.12 Will we now count nearly all politicians all around the world as insane? (I'm not saying we shouldn't.) If not, how and where do we draw the line? (It might be worth remembering Erich Fromm's take on our entire society as profoundly harmful.13)

Of these questions, only the first seems to me reasonably resolvable. We can decide that, regardless of how it is rationalized, choices that would or in fact do inflict unnecessary suffering, whether on the self, others, or both, indicate a disorder. Some might reductionalistically object to allowing context to weigh on whether a condition should be described as a 'disorder,' but the potential to harm oneself or others, and thus to produce suffering, seems to me entirely context-dependent. Others may question what suffering is necessary, but a humanistic starting point would suggest that society has a reciprocal duty to all its members.

On the second question, I think any notion that to count a condition as a disorder only if it produces suffering in the self seems calculated to exclude the likes of Donald Trump. We must extend the remit to include suffering in others. But conflicts over what counts and what counts more as suffering seem intractable.

Finally, on the third question, I would be willing to accept as disordered any desire to impose authority, and thus suffering, over others, thus including nearly all politicians everywhere. But I also understand as an anarchist that my anarchist proclivities just might have something to do with this assessment. And I'm not seeing how we settle that.

Short URL: http://greybeard95a.com/3m-

The Bill Cosby mistrial exposes the legal system as a fraud

Not Housebroken -

When last I visited the case of Bill Cosby, I labeled him a rapist because there have been so many accusations and to view him otherwise is to diminish the accounts of so many women and to privilege instead the word of a single man.[1] I have had no reason to alter this view. As Jeannie Gersen puts it,

The sheer number of Cosby accusers who have come forward, and the consistency of their descriptions of his modus operandi, are so overwhelming that they produce little doubt that Cosby used his fame and power to lure women, give them incapacitating drugs, and have sex with them without their consent. When one views Cosby and [Andrea] Constand as stand-ins in a narrative of rapists acting with impunity against powerless victims, it is tempting to consider the failure to convict Cosby as one of the highest-profile examples yet of assaulted women being disbelieved and devalued.[2]

That failure to convict cropped up with a mistrial in the one accusation against Cosby to make it to criminal trial.[3] Gersen updates the story succinctly:

During Kevin Steele’s successful election campaign for District Attorney of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, in 2015, he attacked the longtime incumbent, Bruce Castor, for having “refused to prosecute Bill Cosby” and promised “tough sentences for sexual predators.” After taking office, District Attorney Steele immediately moved on his promise to vindicate Bill Cosby’s victims, arresting and charging Cosby for the sexual assault of Andrea Constand, one of nearly sixty women to have accused Cosby of sexual assault over several decades. But Cosby’s criminal trial, on three counts of indecent assault for the 2004 incident, ended in a mistrial due to a hung jury, after six days of deliberations produced neither conviction nor acquittal.[4]

But Gersen largely defends this failure by pointing to an adversarial legal system in which

Standards that enable criminal conviction and punishment for a specific act differ markedly from the ones that lead to personal beliefs that someone must be guilty of wrongdoing. In the midst of fifty-two hours of deliberation, the jury requested clarification of what proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” meant. The judge explained that a reasonable doubt is a real doubt that causes a juror to hesitate. In other words, if a juror were mostly or nearly convinced that a defendant was guilty, but still had some doubts that seem reasonable, the appropriate vote would be for acquittal. Apparently, some of the jurors did have such doubts, while others did not.

The extraordinarily high prosecutorial burden of proof in any criminal trial is intentionally designed to heavily favor defendants, because we long ago embraced as a society Blackstone’s principle. Formulated in the seventeen-sixties by the English jurist William Blackstone, the presumption is that it is better to have ten guilty people go free than that one innocent person suffer.[5]

Further, Gersen explains, while “rape shield” laws are supposed to preclude “a repeat of our sexist legal history of putting the victim on trial, of pointing to her sexual past or reputation, to insinuate her dishonesty,” “[i]t was the job of Cosby’s defense to attack Constand’s credibility, to try to sow reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors about whether her account should be accepted as true.”[6]

Epistemologically, there are a couple issues here. First, ‘truth’ is always in doubt. There are several theories of truth; each and every one of them suffers serious defects that mean in some degree that we do not even know what ‘truth’ is.[7]

But worse than that, Gersen is pointing to an adversarial system in which it is an article of faith that ‘truth’ can be discovered  through a contest of two competing claims about the ‘truth’ in any given case. This notion is so profoundly riddled with fallacies it merits serious attention only because it is foundational to a major institution in our society.

Most obviously, it assumes that one of two competing claims is sufficiently true as to justify a decision to impose, or not to impose, penalties of some sort. This in turn reduces truth to that which can be discovered through argument, which in turn assumes that premises and reasoning are sound. It loses context and, with our social prejudices, privileges superficial quantifiable data. Which in turn means that the legal system places great faith in the superficial.

To call that dubious is entirely too kind. But even worse, the system incorporates a series of psychological biases that skew reasoning and evidence, often against defendants.[8] It enacts invidious class and race biases[9] in service of the elite by leading the public to focus on ‘criminals’ as threats to public safety[10] rather than (and as a diversion from) the more dangerous crimes of the elite.[11]

And I haven’t even gotten to the insidious process of effectively putting rape victims on trial.

I think the problem here lies in the adversarial process itself. Rape happens to be an example that highlights its defects. As Gersen notes, the system effectively demands that defense attorneys attack victims,[12] which is to say more generally that opposing counsel are expected to traumatize victims and witnesses in the system’s alleged quest for ‘truth.’ Further, the rules of evidence and questioning too often produce a contest between opposing counsel to see who can get which rules applied. This reaches to a point I have made repeatedly about how justice does not reduce to law, and in my most recent visit to this topic,[13] how even law is subject to subjective interpretation.[14]

Fundamentally, this is a system that treats as objective that which can only be subjective in a paradigm that discounts rather than exploring the subjective. In so doing, it exacerbates injuries, first through an adversarial process that is deeply unfair to all concerned, and second through incarceration, which widens the harm to convicts’ families and communities.[15]

Gersen’s task was to explain the Cosby mistrial within the context of the legal system. She accomplishes this. But in a wider view, it is apparent that her answer is no answer at all. It rather points an accusing finger at the legal system, which should properly be seen as a system of injustice.

Part of a proper answer lies in how we got to this system. It developed from a system that originally placed a great deal more weight on a wider body of ‘law,’ not just statutory law, but so-called ‘natural law’ and canon law. Canon law obviously has no place in a secular system but, also, the history of natural law exposes so-called ‘natural law’ as a social construction. In practice, it was apparent that there is no universally applicable notion of right and wrong shared among all humans in all circumstances. But it was also simply easier to point to written law and precedent and treat it as an objective basis for assessing guilt and assigning punishments,[16] when in fact it is anything but.[17]

If we don’t like how ‘reasonable doubt’ about the nature of the relationship between Cosby and Constand—Cosby’s defense succeeded in raising not proof but the possibility that Cosby’s actions were consensual—produced a mistrial, then we need to take problems of justice more seriously. We need to devote the resources to a proper exploration of causes for transgressions and we need to address those causes[18] rather than pretending that superficial findings of blame amount to ‘justice.’

That doesn’t mean a return to natural law, although the notion that there are standards of right and wrong that we should universally be held accountable to is probably inescapable. Indeed, just as much international human rights law upholds what should be universal norms, much international law on war crimes seems to rest on a premise that some actions are universally abhorrent and should be condemned in all circumstances. I would include Cosby’s actions among them.

But I think also that we need to look at the relationship between sex and power that simultaneously underlies power’s expression in rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment and all too typically renders ‘powerful men’ as desirable mates.

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