This is my second piece concerning the issue of left-wing bias in the mental health industry.
Left-wing bias in the mental health industry threatens more than just the political dialogue in our country. It threatens the foundations of the mental health industry itself, and perhaps even the stability of our very society.
Psychologists and psychiatrists, on the whole, are not uniquely qualified to speak about politics. They are qualified in the way that your Uncle Joe and every other citizen of a free society is qualified to have a political opinion. However, mental health professionals remain political laymen, with no background in political theory or political philosophy, and if they present themselves otherwise, they are being dishonest.
To claim that you are an authority on the subject of politics, you must have a fairly extensive working knowledge of the fields of politics, philosophy, and economics. This is a very high standard to meet, and most people (including a great many who are politically relevant) do not qualify. Most psychologists, however intelligent or accomplished they may be in their own fields, cannot claim to meet this standard.
In fact, psychologists with no political credentials who attempt to present themselves as political experts are corrupting their own field, by applying value judgments to morally neutral scientific observations.
For instance, a 2011 study found that conservatives, on average, have larger amygdalae than liberals. The amygdala is the part of the brain that, among other functions, triggers the fear response. In and of itself, this observation of the difference in amygdala size is a value-neutral judgment.
Some on the political left have seized on this observation to make the claim that conservatives have overactive amygdalae, and therefore there is something wrong, or defective, in the conservative brain.
As one Psychology Today article boasted, “The liberal party is generally more intellectual and the conservative party is more anti-intellectual… The conservative party is big on national defense and magnifies our perception of threat, whether of foreign aggressors, immigrants, terrorists, or invading ideologies like Communism. To a conservative, the world really is a frightening place.”
(Other articles in less reputable publications than Psychology Today had even more pronounced expressions of pro-liberal value judgment.)
If one were so inclined, one could easily make the opposite argument: that conservatives have healthy, strong amygdalae that are capable of recognizing legitimate threats to our collective survival, and liberals have weak, stunted amygdalae that prevent them from recognizing the seriousness of these threats.
Communism and radical Islamic terrorism, after all, are not imaginary threats. They are dangerous ideologies with a proven track record of harming society. Perhaps the conservative brain should be held in higher regard for its sharp perception of this.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, devoid of political value judgment. Neither liberals nor conservatives have atypical brains. Some variation in amygdala size, as with a great many other phenotypical traits, is probably normal within a population, and a healthy and functional society needs both: liberals to explore new frontiers and take risks, and conservatives to watch the horizon for danger and warn us when we are going too far.
In 2008, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt made a similar argument at TED. Drawing upon findings which show that one of the major differences between liberals and conservatives involves openness to change, he made a strong case that these perspectives need to complement each other and work in harmony with each other.
Change, after all, is neither unilaterally good nor unilaterally bad. Some changes are for the better, and others are for the worse. Society will inevitably need to change as time passes, but it will also need to make sure that it does not thoughtlessly do away with traditions and norms that may have existed for very good reasons.
Libertarian values such as individualism and self-reliance, and traditionalist conservative values such as religious faith and an emphasis on the family unit, have the potential to be values that promote positive mental health.
Take one of the few notable libertarian-leaning psychologists: Nathaniel Branden. Branden introduced some powerful new ideas into the mental health canon (such as his conception of “self-esteem”) which he might never have developed if not for his individualistic worldview rooted in the philosophy of Objectivism pioneered by Branden’s one-time mentor, the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. We are richer for these ideas.
Finally, there is one very good reason to be concerned about the left-wing hegemony in the mental health industry: it may pose a serious threat to our most basic freedoms.
Battles over political correctness and free speech have been waged on American college campuses for decades. Only in recent years have left-wing students and professors begun to explicitly use mental health as a justification for censorship, arguing with straight faces that hearing conservative opinions will cause them to suffer mental health crises.
The now-infamous “trigger warning” is, in fact, a crude political bastardization of a legitimate mental health concept: the trauma trigger.
Feminist activists, such as Melody Hensley, claim to have suffered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of harassment on social media. In response to these sorts of claims, websites like Facebook and Twitter adopt draconian new policies on harassment, often silencing legitimate forms of political speech.
Even the United Nations has taken an interest in stopping “cyber violence against women.” One can only wonder how it will go about doing this.
This is what happens when mental health is promoted at all costs, and prioritized over such basic democratic norms as free speech. Mental health is important, but it should not be a concern of policy makers, and it should never take precedence over any of our liberties.
The famous 19th century French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville, in imagining the sort of tyranny that could one day come to a free country like the United States, famously predicted a “soft despotism,” a government that “extends its arm over the whole community… The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided… Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
If we allow the government, and its subsidiaries such as the public universities, to take an active interest in protecting our mental health above our liberty, then de Tocqueville’s dystopia will emerge, perhaps even more completely than he could have ever predicted. The mind is the most intimate and private part of the individual. It is the part that remains, at least to some small degree, free even when the body is enslaved. I can imagine nothing more frightening than a government with an active interest in the contents of your brain.
A government with an interest in mental health might not destroy, or tyrannize, but it will compress, enervate, extinguish, stupefy, and prevent existence, just as de Tocqueville predicted it would. And this, above all, is why we must end left-wing bias in the field of psychology.
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