Extreme Bias Makeover

Posted: Dec 15, 2005 12:05 PM
Is hate a disease? Some psychiatrists think so. This was the subject of a recent Washington Post article, entitled “Psychiatry Ponders Whether Extreme Bias Can Be an Illness.” The title suggests the ominous implications.

The Post explains, “Mental health practitioners say they regularly confront extreme forms of racism, homophobia and other prejudice in the course of therapy, and that some patients are disabled by these beliefs. As doctors increasingly weigh the effects of race and culture on mental illness, some are asking whether pathological bias ought to be an official psychiatric diagnosis.”

In short, several psychiatrists are now pushing for racists and people who suffer from “homophobia” to be labeled mentally ill.

Could such a label possibly be justified? Well, the Post tries to make the case by telling about a man who turned down a job because he feared a co-worker might be gay, and who would not go places where he thought he might run into a gay person. Now that was an extreme case. The man did indeed have a phobia that was interfering with his life, and probably needed help. The man’s psychiatrist told the paper, “He felt under attack, he felt threatened.” Normally, that would be called paranoia. We wouldn’t be developing some new mental illness.

Just think about where this could lead: In short order, we might begin to put people who strongly oppose homosexual behavior on the same level as people who suffer irrational fears of gays, and declare both people mentally ill. After all, the American Psychiatric Association says that homosexual behavior is normal. So to strongly oppose it would be irrational. It’s a very short step from there to saying that this person is suffering from “pathological bias.”

Already, the California Department of Corrections is experimenting with drugs to eliminate prejudices. “We treat racism and homophobia as delusional disorders,” reported Shama Chaiken, the department’s chief psychologist. A number of distinguished scientists agree that the “clinical experience informs us that racism may be a manifestation of the delusional process.” Sometimes that’s true, as with a woman mentioned in the Post who was deathly afraid of Jewish people. But it’s not true that racism or homophobia always signal mental disorder. And if we do not make that crucial distinction, we are asking for big trouble.

It may sound extreme, but this is the beginning of a process that has long been popular with tyrants. In the Soviet Union, Christians were sent by the hundreds of thousands to mental institutions. The state was officially atheist, so if you believe that there was a God, you were insane. And it’s still a wonderful tool for oppressors in places like China and North Korea.

There’s another side to this. As a psychiatrist told the Washington Post, if we began to call bias a mental illness, it would let criminals off the hook for any behavior. It will take a few years, of course, to go all through the medical and clinical analyses and deliberations of the American Psychiatric Association.

But if the day should come that opposition to homosexual conduct is labeled homophobia, and homophobia labeled delusional, then it is a very short step to saying that belief in the Bible, which labels that conduct sinful, is also a mental disorder.

Frightening? Indeed. Impossible? I’m afraid not.

For further reading and information:

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Shankar Vedantam, “Psychiatry Ponders Whether Extreme Bias Can Be an Illness,” Washington Post, 10 December 2005.

Declan Lyons and Art O’Malley, “The Labeling of Dissent—Politics and Psychiatry Behind the Great Wall,” Psychiatric Bulletin 26 (2002): 443-44.

Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel, M.D., One Nation under Therapy: How the Helping Culture Is Eroding Self-Reliance (St. Martin’s Press, 2005).

BreakPoint Commentary No. 050929, “Salvation through Psychology: One Nation under Therapy.” (Free registration required.)

Jacob Sullum, “Head Games: What Are the Rules for Defining Mental Illness?Reason Online, January 2003.