Medicalizing the Human Condition | The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Medicalizing the Human Condition
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Admirable-Evasions-Psychology-Undermines-Morality/dp/1594037876">Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality
By Theodore Dalrymple
(Encounter Books, 127 pages, $21.50)

Does it seem to you that most of the findings of psychology are either obvious or daft? Does the whole enterprise reek of morality-canceling relativism by explaining away all manner of bad behavior as being the result of disorders or syndromes that the individual bad actor is helpless before? Does the head trade in all its practitioners (psychologists, psychiatrists, psychiatric social workers, counselors of all stripes) strike you as shamelessly entrepreneurial, forever coining new diagnoses that can be turned into billable hours for the shrinks? Does it seem to you that the entire credentialed profession has no more insight into the complex business that is the human condition than acute observers — playwrights, novelists, bartenders, chief petty officers, your Aunt Eunice — have had for centuries?

Yea, it seems that way to me too. I was put off by the “behavioral sciences” early in Psychology 101 where I was exposed to the ravings of a then highly influential Viennese quack. I had to laugh out loud at Freud’s theory of penis envy, a condition I don’t doubt any number of men have suffered from over the centuries. But I’d bet the mortgage money that no girl or woman ever has.

At least as amazing as how silly this notion is, was the fact that so many otherwise sane adults, including my professors, took this, and similar nonsense, seriously. In fact, the thinking (if such it was) of this skilled self-promoter held enormous sway over the social science and artistic worlds, and even the general culture, for the better part of a century. (For the longest, our Freudian slip was showing.) It finally became so obvious that Freudianism was unscientific and more than a little nutty, and that the helping therapy based on it, psychoanalysis, was helping no one but the therapists, that even highly trained Ph.D.s began to notice. (Some of the artists still haven’t caught on.)

But you needn’t rely on my amateur and jaundiced view of psychology and all its works. In Admirable Evasions we have a credentialed and articulate practitioner, decades in the belly of this beast, to give us chapter and verse on the shortcomings of the various undisciplined disciplines that make up the current therapeutic establishment.

Doubtless many TAS readers have run across the byline of Theodore Dalrymple, the nom de plume of retired British psychiatrist and still-very-active-writer Anthony Daniels. Dalrymple/Daniels splits his time between his Shropshire home and the south of France, from which places he writes for such publications as the Observer, the Times, the Daily Telegraph, Spectator (the one in the UK) and, in America, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, the New Criterion, and City Journal, where he’s a contributing editor.

Dalrymple’s previous books include Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass, Our Culture: What’s Left of It, and Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality. His short essays/columns are collected in Farewell Fear and Anything Goes. In his psychiatry working life, Dalrymple practiced, among other places, at the City Hospital of Birmingham and at the Winson Green Prison in that city. He also practiced in the east end of London. This doubtless taxing work gave Dalrymple a clear view of the underside, and enabled him to parse the way our therapeutic society helps perpetuate the pathologies that spawn a permanent, dysfunctional, and downright dangerous underclass. (It also gave Dalrymple a toxic view of Britain’s National Health Service — another subject for another day.)

Dalrymple is a clear and economical writer, both right and left-brained. He’s a clear-thinking scientist with a literary sensibility. These gifts allow him in a mere 119 pages (less index) in Evasions to marshal his arguments that psychology, psychiatry, and allied therapeutic fields have contributed little understanding of human behavior that acute observers like Montaigne and Shakespeare didn’t beat the shrinks to. He discounts the claims various schools of psychology make to superior knowledge of human nature. Au the contraire, he argues, psychology’s tendency to express itself in abstractions is a barrier to understanding.

If you think that the early seventeenth century was waiting for modern psychology to make excuses for bad behavior, Dalrymple gives us this example from Edmund, the villain’s villain, in Act I of King Lear:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune — often the surfeits of our own behavior — we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by enforced obedience of planetary influence…

More than 400 years later, man is still, now in cahoots with Psychology Inc., an excuse-making species. We no longer lay our goatish dispositions to the stars, but to childhood traumas, chemical imbalances in the brain, rogue genes, various debilitating personality disorders, even evolutionary pressures. This is progress? This is insight? Dalrymple doesn’t think so. Compare Edmund’s disquisition above to the latest things you’ve heard a clinical psychologist say on a television talk show and you won’t either.

Psychology’s big lies, its big over-promises, are that the complex mess that is human life can be completely understood, and that there is a technical fix, whether through talking therapies or psychiatric drugs, for every problem of human existence. This is nonsense. Not only is total knowledge of human behavior not available to us. It’s probably not even a desirable goal. Life without mystery? Who wants that?

While Dalrymple concedes that some patients have benefitted from treatment, most who enter the therapeutic world either do not benefit or get worse. About the only things most patients get from therapy are lame explanations and excuses for their bad behavior, not to mention a bill at the end of the month from the therapist. If they go on psychotropic drugs, they often get side effects as well, some of which are worse than the malady, if it even was a malady, that they originally sought treatment for.

Unlike physical medicine, where there is substantial agreement on diagnosis and treatment, whether the treatment is through drugs or surgery, in psychology there are dozens of schools of the psyche. Many of these schools (and more come along all the time) make contradictory claims about how the psyche works, what constitutes mental health, and how disorders (which they define) should be treated. It’s hard not to conclude that psychology not only can’t cure, it can’t even diagnose. Mental health will remain as slippery a concept as “social justice” or “sustainability.”

Dalrymple devotes separate chapters to the deconstruction of the reigning schools of psychology, including psychoanalysis, behaviorism, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, all of them well short of explaining the complex and fascinating weak timber that is humanity, all of them erecting barriers to real understanding of character, their utopian claims notwithstanding.

Although occasionally amusing, Dalrymple is a witty as well as an insightful fellow, Evasions is not a happy read. Revelations of great frauds usually aren’t. But it’s an important read, fortifying us against the claims of a huge industry that is providing the world, at great cost, with very little in the way of benefit. It gives us something to think about the next time some shut-in does something beastly and the cry arises to provide “more mental health services.” Dalrymple doesn’t say it, but I’d guess he wouldn’t argue with the notion that applying a cost-benefit analysis to mental health services might be enough to drive one crazy.

Larry Thornberry
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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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