Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Medicalization of Bigotry

While writing another post I went into a digression that seems worth pursuing, so I decided to give it a post of its own.

I was writing about various kinds of discrimination, and not for the first time it occurred to me that there's a problem with the word "homophobia."  Merriam Webster's definition is revealing:
irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals
"Irrational fear" and "discrimination" are two different concepts, though they often overlap in practice: a person might discriminate because of an irrational fear of those she discriminates against, but there are other reasons too.  Irrational fear and aversion might, it seems to me, arise when a society maintains certain social divisions, and the aversion might be more of a reaction to the breaching of those divisions than to the specific instance.  So, for example, there is no innate revulsion against eating pork, but if you've grown up in a society where pork is forbidden, you might very well be disgusted by the thought of eating it, or by people who eat it.  There's no innate revulsion against political parties, or against athletic teams, but people learn to invest intense emotion in these rivalries, and to despise their opponents.  As with other forms, it doesn't really make sense to call an attitude a disease when it's a sanctioned majority position in a society.  It's a sign of how people have confused the two that Webster found it desirable to conflate them in a single definition.

"Homophobia" was invented out of whole cloth in the 1960s by a psychologist named George Weinberg.  I see from this 2012 article that he wants it to be put in "the index of mental disorders," though he still evidently has no evidence that it is one.  Anecdotes about abusive attitudes and behavior do not constitute such evidence.  Indeed, what constitutes a mental disorder has never been settled among mental health professionals.  Why would Weinberg want to confuse bigotry, which merits moral condemnation, with a mental disorder, which ought to be regarded with compassion and given treatment to cure it?  I think he wants to have the best -- or perhaps the worst -- of both worlds, treating illness as a moral failing which can respectably be regarded with repugnance.  That's a familiar pattern in itself: it used to be the normal (though not universal) attitude among mental health professionals toward homosexuals: revulsion and fake compassion.  We need to get rid of that pattern, not switch targets.

Weinberg presumably also wants his profession to have authority to deal with social problems, as opposed to the law or the Church -- again, the same pattern Foucault identified in the medical profession as it dealt with sexuality and other matters in the nineteenth century.  Without any evidence at all save the kind of lurid case histories Weinberg offered at HuffPost, doctors claimed that they understood the true nature of (for example) homosexuality, and should be authorized to determine its treatment, though they had none to offer.

What Stuart A. Kirk, Tomi Gomory and David Cohen wrote in Mad Science (Transaction, 2013) about the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders fits Weinberg's methods as well.
DSM offers behavioral diagnostic criteria as if they confirm the existence of a valid disorder, when the criteria merely describe what is claimed a priori to be an illness. Descriptive diagnosis is a tautology that distracts observers from recognizing that DSM offers no indicators that establish the validity of any psychiatric illness, although they may typically point to distresses, worries, or misbehaviors [166].
Weinberg doesn't even mention treatment of homophobes in his 2012 screed; it doesn't seem to be a concern of his.  I expect he knows that homophobia can no more be "treated" than homosexuality can; maybe it's inborn?  If not, where did it come from?  But the important thing is that in inventing "homophobia," Weinberg is working on the same principles that had made "homosexuality" a mental illness too.

This is is why, though I'll use "homophobia" loosely to refer to a gut-level emotional reaction to gay people or homosexuality, I prefer to call it antigay bigotry.  I think it's better to make forthright moral judgments, when that is what one wants to do, than to hide behind pseudo-scientific terminology in hopes of seeming more objective, or unbiased.  Curiously, though, it seems that many people who are quite comfortable judging others for "homophobia" are uneasy about calling a bigot a bigot.  I think such discomfort is most likely to arise when someone generally considered liberal reveals him or herself to be a bigot, as opposed to ignorant dirty Bible thumpers.  (Not always, of course.)

This, I think, is what the philosopher Walter Kaufmann called "decidophobia" in Without Guilt and Justice (Wyden, 1973).  He wasn't pretending to diagnose an illness; like me, he used "phobia" loosely to refer to a pattern of feeling, a nervousness about making fateful decisions and judgments and taking responsibility for them.  Among the patterns he identified was "moral rationalism," the belief that morality can be decided by reason, mechanically, rather than by human reflection and judgment.  "Homophobia" as a pseudo-medical term is a prime example of moral rationalism, especially when people use it as an epithet, judging while pretending not to.