Sunday, March 27, 2011

A furious egalitarianism

So I'm trying to write an academic sort of paper about (roughly) the politics of knowledge representation and ontology construction, and I'm having trouble -- it's coming out five times as long as it should, every half-appealing idea that's vaguely relevant insists on being a part of it, and I'm having trouble maintaining the right tone. Now I remember this is one of the many reasons I didn't go into academia in the first place. Anyway, if anyone wants to read a draft, drop me a line.

Among the many topics I diverged into in the course of writing this are the status of gay marriage (a threat to the legal and moral ontology, not to mention a challenge for database administrators) and the changing status of homosexuality as a disease. Not a subject I normally spend a lot of time on, but it seems like one of the reasons anti-gay sentiment is so strong in some parts of the culture is that it is seen as undermining not only sexual mores but the very metaphysical foundations of the universe (and hey, wouldn't "Undermine" be a great name for an anarchist gay bar?).

Anyway, in the course of pursuing the topic I came across this indignant quote, which I think will have to be trimmed from the paper, but it's too good not to share:
The American Psychiatric Association had fallen victim to the disorder of a tumultuous era, when disruptive conflicts threatened to politicize every aspect of American social life. A furious egalitarianism that challenged every instance of authority had compelled psychiatric experts to negotiate the pathological status of homosexuality with homosexuals themselves.

-- from R. Bayer, Homosexuality And American Psychiatry: The Politics Of Diagnosis. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1987).
Can you imagine? The objects of science dare to stand up and express an opinion, to act like subjects!

I think one thing that has improved a lot in the last few decades is that this kind of attitude is less prevalent, and it is much more common for groups of outsiders to organize and stand up for themselves. Thanks go to both the "furious egalitarianism" of the sixties, and the net which makes it easier for groups to coalesce.

5 comments: said...
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David Chapman said...

Sure, please send me a draft...

In the "rewriting my PhD thesis" department:

Doing the research for this was quite surreal. I googled myself to find and re-read my old papers. There were several I had completely forgotten. Quite interesting stuff, I thought, although most of it was over my head.

TGGP said...

A true academic would know they need to split it into more papers, to increase the odds that any will be published, or published in a more prestigious journal, or cited. I base that on no personal experience, just reading cynics on the internet.

Are you going to reference Szasz in your paper, even if only to triangulate?

Your database link doesn't work.

mtraven said...

Link fixed, thanks.

A true academic I'm not. There is something in my constitution that won't let me play that game, not sure what it is exactly.

Szsasz's name does come up briefly and somewhat obliquely. But (as I've argued with you before) I think he's wrong. He says (more or less) that because categories of mental disease are social constructs, they aren't real. I'm with Latour (see innumerable past posts) who holds that everything is socially constructed and that that makes it more real, not less.

scw said...

It requires some effort to avoid speaking about human behavior in a normative fashion, whereas it is almost impossible to inject normative thinking into the discussion of mathematics or the physical sciences. This reveals much about the difference between them and the purported social "sciences."

Whether or not you like the tone of the Bayer quotation, it is a fact that the APA and kindred organizations were for years lobbied and pressured by organizations like the Mattachine Society to remove homosexuality from the list of psychological disorders. But this, significant as it may be, was merely one step in a much longer march through the institutions.

The word "homosexuality" itself was coined in 1869 by a propagandist against the Prussian law prohibiting sodomy. This marked the beginning of an effort to persuade people to think in terms not of an action (sodomy) stigmatized by religion and civil society, but of a state of being or condition (homosexuality), of which the act of sodomy is merely a manifestation. There is an implicit appeal in this to the principle that while a person can reasonbly be held responsible for his actions, he cannot be blamed for his intrinsic state of being.

Here we see the familiar pattern whereby behavior condemned by the prevailing moral consensus becomes medicalized. Thus, habitual drunkenness or thievery, previously thought of as moral failings, are transformed into alcoholism or kleptomania, and henceforward regarded as diseases.

The next step, which has largely succeeded in the case of homosexuality, is the transformation of what was considered a pathology into a mere innocuous variation, comparable to left-handedness. Morality, however, has not been removed from the equation - for now, those who continue to adhere to the older views, namely that it is a pattern of criminal or pathological behavior, are the ones who are stigmatized and reprehended for their "homophobia."