Disagreement Is Not Mental Illness
We construct our personal experiences, the relationships we engage in and the seeming choices we make through the mind’s eye that is our conscious lives. As we do these things, we typically believe that we are mentally coherent, sane and possessed of a degree of accuracy we deny to those who disagree with us. Unfortunately it is that last point, the acceptance of a quality that is denied to another, which often defines mental health. In other words, mental health or mental illness is often used as a means of differentiating Us and Them.
Within the world of Us vs Them, to be mentally healthy is considered a quality belonging to the dominant, whether it be an individual person or a culture. The pejorative use of “you’re insane” is practiced in debate to demean or otherwise dismiss the contrary party, by selecting one or another behavior or idea, removing it from a broader context and then condemning it. When this singular behavior or idea is placed against the now broader and more comprehensive position of the person making the judgment, seeing the other from a paternalistic high ground becomes easy.
Let’s note first that calling another person “insane” or “crazy” for the purpose of denigration or dismissal is puerile at best and demeaning to those who truly do suffer from a debilitating and/or clinically disruptive pathology. That those who are using this condemnatory wording typically have little knowledge of psychology is an easy observation, as is the equally obvious point that the purpose is not one of diagnosis in the pursuit of helping the other. Psychology, specifically therapeutic practice and the diagnostic skills that are one support for it, serves as a means of generating understanding through empathic communion. It is about sharing the space of humanity in which we all reside and seeking through relationship bonds to support the person moving into a greater and more healthy expression of their life. Using any form of diagnosis, clinical or arm-chair, to dismiss or otherwise remove the other from a mutually beneficial space of generating understanding is as profoundly unethical as it is dehumanizing.
Declarations of “insanity” seem to be offered when faced with two situations: 1) an idea or behavior that is not agreed with and 2) as a substitute for being uncomfortable.
- There are few areas in life where disagreement is on greater display than that concerned with religion. Within many social circles it is commonplace to mock or otherwise demean the religious ideas of others as being insane, “obviously” stupid, and/or indicative of mental illness. The memes alone, were they applied to a minority group, would be considered a profoundly disturbing display of dehumanizing dismissal. Rather than looking at the whole of a religious system as a means, tentative at best, to give structure to an uncertain reality and therefore as an attempt to address the existential crisis we all must work through, examples of ideas or behavior are isolated and taken as singular proof that if a person believes or does x their entire life can be characterized as a waste-product of a mental illness.
- At the base level of individual observation, we are all profoundly conservative. Our fight/flight/freeze response is generated by a sudden change in perception as we are jolted out of the assumption of a continuity of experience. When faced with a behavior or idea that is considered odd or otherwise weird, we fall back on, largely unconscious, standards supplied to us from our socio-cultural backgrounds. Every generation laments “the kids these days,” even as every community shakes their collective head at the new person moving in with non-“traditional” hair, piercings, clothes, spouting political rhetoric, etc. Being uncomfortable, or what is otherwise known as the “ick factor,” is then dealt with by declaring “there’s something wrong with the person.” That “something wrong” is the perceived lack of a mental health quality.
Sadly this tactic of declaring the behavior and ideas of those identified as different or strange or simply other, does more than diminish the struggle of those who truly are suffering from mental illness, it radically limits our ability to consider the enormity of the human experience.
There are few ideas now considered amazing that were not initially thought of as impossible or ridiculous. Everything from fashion to the expression of social bonds has evolved from and through various iterations that now would be looked at as politely quaint if not absurd and horrendous. We exist, each of us and our communities, in a bubble of our own limited cognitive structure. What is “normal” and “correct” feels that way precisely because it stems from a projection of our own identity.
“Individually and collectively, our very existence depends on our ability to reach accurate conclusions about the world around us. In short, the experience of being right is imperative for our survival, gratifying for our ego, and, overall, one of life’s cheapest and keenest satisfactions” (Schulz, 2010)
Noting the limitation of our individual and collective perceptions is less about embarking on some flight into cosmic relativism, than it is concerned with humbly asking bigger questions when faced with that which we disagree or find uncomfortable. There is no set of values that is somehow present in one and absent in another; we all pursue truth, admire honesty and seek to maintain our integrity (to name but a few examples). Disagreement and discomfort are not indicators of the other person’s lack of care for these things, it is a pointer towards the profound breadth to which humanity seeks to answer how we put them into action.
Rather than using disagreement as a means of identifying and then dismissing the other as “insane,” we can instead seek to understand the why and how of the person’s worldview that led them to this idea or behavior. In the end, there may need to be steps taken to ensure the safety of self and society, but such will be done from a place of a broader understanding and appreciation of humanity, not as if seeking to excise a cancer.
© David Teachout
Schulz, Kathryn (2010-05-25). Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (pp. 4-5). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.