Harris: Bigotry not a mental illness

One of the problems I have with terms like racism, sexism, “bigotry” and “ignorance” (these last two deserve scare quotes because they are the most problematic) is that they are too frequently cashed out in terms of mental illness.

Far too often, the rhetoric surrounding these issues includes words like “cure” and “-phobia,” decidedly scientific terms. The goal is obvious: if things like racism are located within the sphere of morality and personal values, there is very little we can do to address (“treat”) them, because liberalism and democracy celebrate the freedom of values and pluralism.

But if we can move these terms into the scientific or medical realms, then we can legitimately intervene because the person is defective in some way.

Discussing the issue in terms of education runs the risk of creating the same scientific problem, one more degree removed. If the equal moral worth of minorities, women, gays or Muslisms is not a moral truth but a scientific truth, then we have a responsibility to teach those who don’t know these facts.

These facts are not up for debate; these are facts on which your teacher can give you a quiz or test, and your grade may be based on whether you know right from wrong. If attempts to “educate” have failed, then the unlearned might even be diagnosed with a learning disorder; and we are back in the realm of medicine and mental illness. Racism or homophobia can actually be diagnosed and treated medically — people who have them are not morally sick; they are physically or mentally ill.

In the beginning of the 20th century, homosexuality was listed in the DSM, the encyclopedia of mental illness used by the psychological and psychiatric community, alongside schizophrenia or depression.

It has since been removed because the community has agreed that it does not meet the criteria for being an illness (a decision with which I believe most would agree — I myself do).

Since then, though, especially in the last few years, there has been a push to include homophobia in the DSM. It is true that some people have extreme delusions about gays, but in order to be a mental illness, those misconceptions have to go beyond “normal” prejudice. In these cases, the diagnosis is “delusional” — the object of this delusion is irrelevant to the diagnosis.

This model of “bigotry” is Aristotelian in nature. Aristotle believed that every entity (be it a knife or a human being) needed certain qualities in order to be virtuous, and that any entity that lacked those qualities was simply “defective.”

The qualities of a knife (uninterestingly) included sharpness. The qualities of a person, however, included the appropriate temperament. A good human being would react in a certain way to a given circumstance. Period. Any deviation from that fundamentally human temperament was a defect.

By prescribing how “good” human beings should react to incidents of racism, for example, the suggestion is that anyone who does not react in the way that is prescribed (generally outrage, disgust and solidarity) is simply a defective human being. If I laugh at racial humor or a joke about women (involuntary actions), I am simply a defective human being, and maybe there should be a DSM-certified name for the defect/illness I have.

I’ve written about this issue before on these editorial pages when incidents of “hate speech” (a term I still don’t know how I feel about — maybe I’m deficient for not immediately subscribing to the label) have happened on campus. Make no mistake about my position — these incidents are serious and need to be addressed in a way that heals the brokenness of community spirit that accompany them.

As an individual with mental illness myself, however, I react with hurt and outrage at how moral issues often are conflated with medical ones.

To say that racism and sexism are like schizophrenia and autism is to humiliate and disrespect those who are mentally ill by equating mental disease with moral blameworthiness. The mentally ill are already one of the most stigmatized and marginalized groups in the country without the added scorn of association with “bigotry” and “ignorance.”

This year, no incidents of public discrimination have occurred on campus — and I hope there will be none — but if and when something does occur, I hope we can go about dealing with unjust descrimination without committing injustice against the mentally ill in our community.

Michael Wayne Harris is a senior in Branford College. Contact him at michael.w.harris@yale.edu.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    George Patsourakos
    I would say that racism, sexism, bigotry, and ignorance are not results of mental illness;rather, they are stereotypes that a person has learned and may even enjoy using. Most people probably adopted these stereotypes from their parents, while others might have adopted them from their peer groups. Some people -- especially young people -- enjoy using these stereotypes, because they think they are being "cute" or "with the current times" by doing so. We really need to give more classes to children in elementary schools -- a time when it will best have a significant impact on children -- to illustrate the seriousness of the hatred that is associated with such stereotypes. If a person uses any of these stereotypes in college, then the college must take appropriate punitive action -- including expulsion -- against that person!

  • Ofelia

    Can't bigotry be an emotional response from a person with mental illness? If a person show signs of mental illness and they are at the same time, yelling at the person across from him/her to go back to China, then can't you dismiss that comment as an episode of mental illness?