Ever since the new US president declared his candidacy, commentators have speculated about his mental health, armchair diagnosing him, and making claims about his psychological competence as if malignant politics would be comprehensible if only we had the right DSM label for it.
This tactic demeans millions of people who live with mental health conditions yet don’t compulsively promote bigotry or make policies that provoke nationwide protests. It also has roots in the implicit belief that the therapeutic sciences have the lens we should use to interpret and explain what’s most real and true about people and their behavior.
As Heather White explains in her recent book Reforming Sodom, this “therapeutic orthodoxy” has been used since the 18th Century to pathologize socially minoritized people, including those classified as non-heterosexual. Authors like Kelly Brown Douglas and M. Shawn Copeland show that the therapeutic model’s targets have also included African-American people and others colonized by European states.
So using medical categories to interpret political figures and social groups isn’t a new thing. It’s not especially helpful in our time either.
There’s no refuge in being crowned “normal,” not when “normal,” ordinary, unremarkable, middle-of-the-bell-curve people have always been the ones to help exceptional political figures carry out their work.
Technical communication professor Steven B. Katz caused a stir in the early 1990s by pointing out the ‘objective’ language and technically efficient processes that one German soldier used to improve his small part in the Third Reich’s extermination program.
The writer shows no concern that the purpose of his memo is the modification of vehicles not only to improve efficiency, but also to exterminate people… The whole society organized into a death machine for the efficient extirpation of millions, lauded by the Nazis as a hallmark of organization, elegance, efficiency, speed, all of which became ends in themselves for those planning and those executing the procedures.” —Steven B. Katz, The Ethic of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust
“There are hardly any excesses of the most crazed psychopath,” Terry Pratchett once wrote, “that cannot be easily duplicated by a normal, kindly family man who just comes in to work every day and has a job to do.”
Maybe it would be easier for us if all queens and fuhrers and the pawns and foot soldiers who execute their strategies could be collapsed into an Other category, biomedical or psychological or theological or whatever.
If they could, we wouldn’t have to reckon with the role that unremarkable, efficient normalcy and people who perceive themselves as “normal” play in implementing politics of extraordinary cruelty—both historically and again today.