Saturday, December 10, 2005

Is Bigotry a Mental Illness?

This is the question the psychological community is asking itself. The problem with the question they are asking is that they are not making distinctions in the degree of dislike people experience. Here is an example from the article:
The 48-year-old man turned down a job because he feared that a co-worker would be gay. He was upset that gay culture was becoming mainstream and blamed most of his personal, professional and emotional problems on the gay and lesbian movement.

These fixations preoccupied him every day. Articles in magazines about gays made him agitated. He confessed that his fears had left him socially isolated and unemployed for years: A recovering alcoholic, the man even avoided 12-step meetings out of fear he might encounter a gay person.

"He had a fixed delusion about the world," said Sondra E. Solomon, a psychologist at the University of Vermont who treated the man for two years. "He felt under attack, he felt threatened."

This isn't bigotry--it's a phobia, a rigidly held false fear. The case cited here is an example of an irrational fear that intrudes into the individual's life in unwanted ways. This man is not a homophobe.

I feel I need to make clear, based on what I am about to say, that I abhor hatred in all its forms--race, gender, religion, body size, or sexual status. It is never, under any circumstances, acceptable to treat anyone as a lesser person based on some form of hatred or bigotry.

That said, I think it's a mistake to pathologize hatred. To do so is to set up situations where KKK members will get therapy instead of prison for violence against groups they don't like. To declare racism a disorder is to absolve the individual of responsibility for his/her actions. The skinhead will be able to stand in the courtroom and say to the judge, in all seriousness, "I'm sick, judge, it's an illness. Please--I need help."

I hope I never see that day.

As human beings develop, one of the stages everyone must pass through has "fear of the other" as one of its components. If adults also hold this viewpoint, then the "other," in all its forms, is to be shunned, feared, hated, or killed. This is the foundation for tribal warfare, nation-states, gangs, racial identity groups, and all other forms of us-versus-them thinking. Most nations on the planet are still largely homogeneous, so nationality can still be a form of ethnic identity.

In the United States, however, we don't have that homogeneity. Further, we don't recognize ethnic separation as a tolerable stance any longer--even though it still exists in some areas of the country. This poses problems for people who live their adult lives within that ethnocentric developmental level, which for them is a worldview.

Some therapists aren't looking at the bigger picture and argue against a new DSM classification on anti-PC grounds.
Darrel A. Regier, director of research at the psychiatric association, said he supports research into whether pathological bias is a disorder. But he said the jury is out on whether a diagnostic classification would add anything useful, given that clinicians already know about disorders in which people rigidly hold onto false beliefs.

"If you are going to put racism into the next edition of DSM, you would have enormous criticism," Regier said. Critics would ask, " 'Are you pathologizing all of life?' You better be prepared to defend that classification."

"I think it's absurd," said Sally Satel, a psychiatrist and the author of "PC, M.D.: How Political Correctness Is Corrupting Medicine." Satel said the diagnosis would allow hate-crime perpetrators to evade responsibility by claiming they suffered from a mental illness. "You could use it as a defense."
I agree with both these doctors. Yet I think they are missing the point I was trying to make above. We cannot pathologize an entire developmental stage or its corresponding worldview.

Most adults pass through this stage in childhood, but not everyone does or we wouldn't have racists, homophobes, sexists, and so on. These various -isms of hate are extreme forms of "fear of the other," but they should not be seen as pathological in a clinical sense. They do not require medication to cure. They develop as a result of isolationist thinking, which results in segregation and apartheid. They can be cured with information, reframing, and experience.

Racists in their twenties or thirties tend to outgrow that worldview by their fifties and sixties. Here is one view that explains this process in more detail.
[I]dentity development is influenced by personal experiences during the lifespan. For example, encounters in childhood may influence the kind of views that are construed about one's ethnic identity at an early stage. However, as the person develops through the lifespan and is exposed to numerous other encounters, these views may change as the person adapts his/her values, beliefs and attitudes. The qualitative differences generated through these encounters reshape the cognitive, emotional and attitudinal aspects of identity formation. Some aspects of early identity perception may be reinforced and become an integral part of the person's ethnic/cultural identity, whilst other aspects may be given to changes over time and through acculturation.
This quote allows, as I maintain, that people can outgrow hatred. The authors also suggest, however, that ethnocentric beliefs can be reinforced and become permanent. While this may be true if left unconfronted--and assuming the individual(s) remain isolated from experiences that may trigger change--it is not reasonable or responsible to pathologize a behavior that can be reformed. However, the behavior should not be accepted or encouraged any more than one accepts a child throwing a tantrum whenever s/he wants attention.

Rather than pathologizing bigots, they should be given the opportunity to grow beyond their limited worldview--providing they have not committed any hate crimes. By providing an opportunity to gain new experiences and new understandings, many people who hold hateful views can learn to reject such narrow perceptions of the world.

Adding racism to the DSM is not going to do much for changing things. We need to think much earlier in the developmental process. Children are not naturally hateful. Adults turn a natural fear of "the other" into hatred by teaching hatred. If we want to eliminate bigotry, we need to start with children.


JMP said...

You make some excellent points, particularly the importance of not pathologizing a perfectly ordinary aspect of a stage of development that we all go through. And yet I think you miss the most interesting point of the article: that there seem to be diagnostically quantifiable distinctions between "ordinary prejudice" and "pathological bias." I don't know if this is true or not, but there seems to be significant evidence worthy of further research. If so, then I think such evidence needs to be pursued. Would you say that you shouldn't classify depression as a mental illness because sadness is a universal human emotion? Of course not. And I'm really not worried about the legal consequences if "pathological bias" is eventually recognized as a mental illness. As the article points out, pedophilia is both a mental illness and also punishable by law. When you say that bigots should not be pathologized, but given the opportunity to grow beyond their limited worldview, this seems not to make sense. Pathologizing bigotry by classifying an extreme form of it as a mental illness (that is, if evidence eventually supports that conclusion) is a healthy way of actually giving such persons the opportunity to grow. They can "reach out and get help" for the problem that they are experiencing.

william harryman said...


I agree with you to an extent--I may have been too hasty in my conclusions. Still, I believe the DSM already covers the type of compulsive, irrational fear the article looks at as distinct from normal biogtry. The subject is indeed worthy of further research, and if a clear distinction can be found, then that's great. My fear is that the distinction may end up being somewhat subjective.

The extreme cases cited in the article are, I believe, unique and may be found, over time, to qualify as a unique disorder. Yet I can't help but be afraid that such a diagnosis will be gradually generalized. The example of pedophilia doesn't really apply because it isn't an experience all individuals must grow through as a part of normal development. Who decides what is pathological in terms of how normal developmental stages manifest?

JMP said...

"Who decides what is pathological in terms of how normal developmental stages manifest?" Well, the way that I look at homophobia, to take one example, it is a normal human response at a middle level of development (say, the blue meme in SDi). And at the same time, at that level, there are pathological versions of homophobia. Every straight man who feels "ick" at the sight of two men making out is experiencing ordinary homophobia; not all those homophobic men are going to murder homosexuals or believe that there is an international gay conspiracy that controls everything. Pathologies of bigotry, if they exist in a sense that classifiable into a mental disorder, are pathologies at a certain developmental level. Perhaps the DSM already covers something like "pathological bias," but I suspect that the DSM is evolving as mental health professionals grow in the practice of their profession, and it seems appropriate to me that the cutting edge of its evolution is in the area of bias against groups.

Anonymous said...

Do I think that by itself being a bigot is mental illness, NO! specially if this person functions normally everywhere else i.e. job, family, etc.
I think that it bigotry is something that is learned.

However, we can't deny the fact that
someone who may have paranoid factors of a mental illness i.e schitz, BD,etc. then yes, but is not necessarily being a bigot as much as having a fear of "something", the example you gave the person is afraid of gays, AFRAID. I think a biggot would be ANGRY and if truly mentaly ill would do what he/she can to stop gays (in his mindonlye hopefully) from continuing to "spread" the livestyle.

I think using mental illness as a defense has really stretched the question "what is mental illness" and of course do the mentally ill are all paranoid or aggressive to the point of killing someone?

I have Multiple sclerosis (NOT a mental illness) and believe it or not immediately those who do not "quite" understand the illness take a step back, won't shake my hand next time, or just ignore me as if I had leprosy.

Is that bigotry or ignorance? are either mental illnesses?

would a biggot be if his famiy was for example buddhist? or from a good family who helps people in need?

We will never know.

Anonymous said...

I'm reading here that to stand against the real agenda of equal group status for honmosexuals akin to groups of race and ethnicity is to indicate a presence of a "mental illness"? Are you kidding me? How about a position grounded on religious reasons? What then? Are you going to persecute me for my beliefs and my attempt to defend those beliefs in a public forum or institution?

william harryman said...

That wasn't the argument of the article, but yes, homosexuality is a biological trait just like race.

If you hate gays and lesbians because you're a Christian, then you surely have never read the teachings of Jesus.

And if you discriminate against anyone in my presence, then yes, I will persecute you. Count on it.


Anonymous said...

Twisted logic, dude. "Hate" and "standing against" are not synonymous. I will stand against the teaching that a gay lifestyle is anything that the Bible teaches, which you've obviously taken out of context. Consistently, the theme is love the sinner, hate the sin. Big difference. Homosexuality, implied in scripture and unproven conclusively in science, while it may be biologically influenced, it's no more so than alcoholism for example, or pedophilia. You can choose to act or not act on it. There are available options and help for people who would seek it, but you and your twisted logic and Hollywood cultural alterationists continue to brainwash people. Not me, and for at least three generations, not the majority of America.

william harryman said...

Jesus never taught against homosexuality, Paul did. Paul also taught against breeder marriage. Obey both or neither, but be consistent.

You are just plain wrong about the science of homosexuality. Do some research outside of the fundamentalist crap you mindlessly repeat.

And those scriptures you love so much are just the writing of men, from 2000 years ago. They have been heavily edited through the centuries to support what the church wanted. Learn some history. Know something about the religion you use as a hammer to condemn others.

The world is a much bigger, more interesting, more compassionate place than your little worldview allows. Get to know it.