April 12, 2014

QotD: Canada’s “small country” syndrome

Filed under: Cancon, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:23

It’s been a decade since Robert Fulford popularized the term: “The Longest Undefended Neurosis in the World.” It’s about as accurate a description of Canada-US relations as has ever been offered. The eagerness which, even at this late date, we lap up any mention of Canada on US media is oddly pathetic. This is the sort of behaviour typically seen in small bankrupt countries. Any mention of Portugal outside of Portugal is almost immediately reported on the state broadcaster. There is a strange cloying quality about such reports. A desperate yelling: “Hey we used to be important!”

It’s a small country thing. When a big country thinks this way you get French-style arrogance: “Hey we still are important, it’s that you lot aren’t clever enough to realize that blindingly obvious fact.”

Today Rob Ford is probably the most famous Canadian in history, save William Shatner. Neither men’s careers has done much to change international perceptions of Canada. We’re boring and probably polite. From time to time we kill seals and moose, though not necessarily in that order. As a general rule we avoid doing evil things. Short of carpet bombing a small country, which is well beyond our military capabilities, nothing we do will change these perceptions. We could annex Buffalo, something within our military capabilities, but I suspect most Americans would probably be grateful. They might throw in Rochester as a parting gift.

Richard Anderson, “Talking With Americans About Canadians”, The Gods of the Copybook Headings, 2014-04-10

March 24, 2014

QotD: On Women’s Power

Filed under: Media, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:05

If you have never been sexually attracted to women, you will never quite understand the monumental power of female sexuality, except by proxy or in theory, nor will you quite know the immense advantage it gives us over men. Dating women as a man was a lesson in female power, and it made me, of all things, into a momentary misogynist, which I suppose was the best indicator that my experiment had worked. I saw my own sex from the other side, and I disliked women irrationally for a while because of it. I disliked their superiority, their accusatory smiles, their entitlement to choose or dash me with a fingertip, an execution so lazy, so effortless, it made the defeats and even the successes unbearably humiliating. Typical male power feels by comparison like a blunt instrument, its salvos and field strategies laughably remedial next to the damage a woman can do with a single cutting word: no.

Sex is most powerful in the mind, and to men, in the mind, women have a lot of power, not only to arouse, but to give worth, self-worth, meaning, initiation, sustenance, everything. Seeing this more clearly through my experience, I began to wonder whether the most extreme men resort to violence with women because they think that’s all they have, their one pathetic advantage over all she seems to hold above them. I make no excuses for this. There are none. But as a man I felt vaguely attuned to this mind-set or its possibility. I did not inhabit it, but I thought I saw how rejection might get twisted beyond recognition in the mind of a discarded male where misogyny and ultimately rape may be a vicious attempt to take what cannot be taken because it has not been bestowed.

There were other surprising discoveries. With all the anger I felt flowing in my direction — anger directed at the abstraction called men — I was not expecting to find, nestled within the confines of female heterosexuality, a deep love and genuine attraction for real men. Not for women in men’s bodies, as the prejudicial me had thought. Not even just for the metrosexual, though he has his audience, but for brawny, hairy, smelly, stalwart, manly men; bald men, men with bellies, men who can fix things and, yes, men who like sports and pound away in the bedroom. Men whom women loved for being men with all the qualities that testosterone and the patriarchy had given them, and whom I have come to appreciate for those very same qualities, however infuriating I still find them at times.

Dating women was the hardest thing I had to do as Ned, even when the women liked me and I liked them. I have never felt more vulnerable to total strangers, never more socially defenceless than in my clanking suit of borrowed armour. But then, I guess maybe that’s one of the secrets of manhood that no man tells if he can help it. Every man’s armour is borrowed and 10 sizes too big, and beneath it he’s naked and insecure and hoping you won’t see.

That, maybe, was the last twist of my adventure. I passed in a man’s world not because my mask was so real, but because the world of men was a masked ball. Eventually I realised that my disguise was the one thing I had in common with every guy in the room. It was hard being a guy.

Rather than choosing to become a woman again, it is probably truer to say that I reverted to form. I stopped faking it. I came back to myself, proud, free and glad in every way to be a woman.

Norah Vincent, “Double agent” (an edited extract from Self-Made Man: My Year Disguised As A Man), Guardian, 2006-03-18.

March 17, 2014

QotD: Psychology

Filed under: Health, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:05

It’s extremely important in this connection to remember that psychology is not a science, not even remotely. It is not the product of careful hypothesis-formation and controlled, repeatable, peer-reviewed experiment. It is nothing more than a collection of folklore and the armchair opinions of committees, less credible and valid than global warming. The authority it speaks from is purely political.

I know all of this because in college, I was a psychology major, myself, until I saw how empty the field is of anything resembling science or a decent, genuine regard for the well-being of other people. I read Dr. Thomas Szasz, beginning with his The Manufacture of Madness — in which he defines schizophrenia as a particular relationship between a therapist and his patient — and changed my major.

Five hundred years ago, if you were discovered to be in possession of a volume of the Book of Common Prayer that had a misplaced comma on Page 151, you might ultimately be burned at the stake for heresy. This had absolutely nothing to do with religion, it was simply an easy way for the political elite to justify disposing of its perceived enemies.

Psychology, as a body of “knowledge”, is more than just a little fallible. It will commonly declare some violent criminal “cured” and fit to interact peacefully and productively with society, following which the monster will immediately go out and axe-murder an entire family.

Psychology can be fooled into incarcerating individuals who are perfectly sane, as it once did with Nellie Bly, a courageous reporter investigating conditions in a New York mental asylum late in the 19th century. Nor have its powers of diagnosis much improved since then. On the other hand, if, like Ezra Pound or Frances Farmer (look them up), you hold opinions contrary to those the government wants you to hold — especially today on global warming, gun ownership, race relations, or the meaning and significance of the U.S. Constitution — it will more than question your sanity, it will lock you up and tear it to bits.

And today, when it does that, uniformed and armored thugs will show up at your home to shoot your dogs, stomp your kittens to death, terrify your family, empty out your gun safe, and murder you if you resist. Soon it may be enough to say that if you own guns you must be insane.

L. Neil Smith, “The New Inquisition”, Libertarian Enterprise, 2014-03-16

March 2, 2014

QotD: The voices are coming from inside your head

Filed under: Health, Quotations, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

The thesis of the article was simple: though the content of schizophrenic delusions changes wildly in different cultural contexts, there’s an underlying motivation for them that never varies and produces a fundamental sameness.

The simple, constant thing is that delusional schizophrenics lose the capability to identify all the thoughts in their head as belonging to themselves. In an effort to make sense of their experience, they invent elaborate theories which attribute their disconnected thoughts to external agencies. Gods, demons, orbital mind-control lasers — the content of such delusions varies wildly, but the function is always the same — to restore a sense of causal order to the schizophrenic’s universe, to impose a narrative on the eruptions that he or she can no longer recognize as “self”.

It’s a startling shift in perspective to realize that the construction of schizophrenic delusions arises from the same drive that yields scientific theory-building. Both are Heideggerian rearrangements of the cognitive toolkit, strategies driven by the necessity of coping with the experienced world. The schizophrenic’s tragedy is that the most important fact about his or her experiential world (how much of it is self looking at self) is inaccessible.

Eric S. Raymond, “Sometimes I hear voices”, Armed and Dangerous, 2013-10-06

February 27, 2014

Women writing about sex

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:01

In The Atlantic, Claire Dederer writes about the problems women have in writing about sex. Remember the old saw about men not understanding women? (Hint: they don’t.) Dederer admits that women also don’t understand women, at least when it comes to sex.

By now, of course, it’s difficult to think of female desire as in any way hidden. The cultural speculum has been firmly inserted for a good look around. Women have long since learned all about how our tucked-away stuff works, with pioneers of second-wave feminism as our guides: Our Bodies, Ourselves was practically standard-issue along with the dorm-room furniture when I arrived at my very liberal college in 1985. Meanwhile, female lust has been thoroughly documented (or at any rate, endlessly and theatrically depicted) by the adult-film industry. How would porn get along without horny females? Science, too, has lately been busy substantiating the existence of girl lust. In his recent tour of burgeoning research into female desire, What Do Women Want?, Daniel Bergner reports a current verdict: women are at least as libidinous as men.

There it is. We can finally all agree that women want to have sex. Variously portrayed in the past as tamers of men and tenders of children, we’re now deemed well endowed with horniness. But does that mean we experience desire in the same way that men do? My lust tells me we don’t. Mine, I confess, isn’t blind or monumental or animal. It comes with an endless internal monologue — or maybe dialogue, or maybe babel. My desire is always guessing, often second-guessing. Female lust is a powerful force, but it surges in the form of an interrogation, rather than a statement. Not I want this but Do I want this? What exactly do I want? How about now? And now?

At least that’s how it’s always been for me, and I experienced a sense of relief and recognition while reading a recent crop of memoirs whose authors go to great lengths to get at this double- and triple-think thrumming in female desire — only to discover, as I have, just how hard the quest is.

H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link.

February 23, 2014

QotD: Gratitude

Filed under: Humour, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:52

What is one to think of a man so asinine that he looks for gratitude in this world, or so puerilely egotistical that he enjoys it when found? The truth is that the sentiment itself is not human but doggish, and that the man who demands it in payment for his doings is precisely the sort of man who feels noble and distinguished when a dog licks his hand. What a man says when he expresses gratitude is simply this: “You did something for me that I could not have done myself. Ergo, you are my superior. Hail, Durchlaucht!” Such a confession, whether true or not, is degrading to the confessor, and so it is very hard to make, at all events for a man of self-respect. That is why such a man always makes it clumsily and with many blushes and hesitations. It is hard for him to put so embarrassing a doctrine into plain words. And that is why the business is equally uncomfortable to the party of the other part. It distresses him to see a human being of decent instincts standing before him in so ignominious a position. He is as flustered as if the fellow came in handcuffs, or in rags, or wearing the stripes of a felon. Moreover, his confusion is helped out by his inward knowledge very clear if he is introspective, and plain enough even if he is not that he really deserves no such tribute to his high mightiness; that the altruism for which he is being praised was really bogus; that he did the thing behind the gratitude which now assails him, not for any grand and lofty reason, but for a purely selfish and inferior reason, to wit, for the reason that it pleases all of us to show what we can do when an appreciative audience is present; that we delight to exercise our will to power when it is safe and profitable. This is the primary cause of the benefits which inspire gratitude, real and pretended. This is the fact at the bottom of altruism. Find me a man who is always doing favors for people and I will show you a man of petty vanity, forever trying to get fuel for it in the cheapest way. And find me a man who is notoriously grateful in habit and I’ll show you a man who is essentially third rate and who is conscious of it at the bottom of his heart. The man of genuine self-respect which means the man who is more or less accurately aware, not only of his own value, but also and more importantly, of his own limitations tries to avoid entering either class. He hesitates to demonstrate his superiority by such banal means, and he shrinks from confessing an inferiority that he doesn’t believe in.

H.L. Mencken, “Scientific Examination of a Popular Virtue”, Prejudices: Second Series, 1920.

February 12, 2014

As a class, writers are world-class procrastinators

Filed under: Humour, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 14:15

Megan McArdle gets to the source of so many writers’ problem with getting the writing done:

Over the years, I developed a theory about why writers are such procrastinators: We were too good in English class. This sounds crazy, but hear me out.

Most writers were the kids who easily, almost automatically, got A’s in English class. (There are exceptions, but they often also seem to be exceptions to the general writerly habit of putting off writing as long as possible.) At an early age, when grammar school teachers were struggling to inculcate the lesson that effort was the main key to success in school, these future scribblers gave the obvious lie to this assertion. Where others read haltingly, they were plowing two grades ahead in the reading workbooks. These are the kids who turned in a completed YA novel for their fifth-grade project. It isn’t that they never failed, but at a very early age, they didn’t have to fail much; their natural talent kept them at the head of the class.

This teaches a very bad, very false lesson: that success in work mostly depends on natural talent. Unfortunately, when you are a professional writer, you are competing with all the other kids who were at the top of their English class. Your stuff may not — indeed, probably won’t — be the best anymore.

If you’ve spent most of your life cruising ahead on natural ability, doing what came easily and quickly, every word you write becomes a test of just how much ability you have, every article a referendum on how good a writer you are. As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good. Before you take to the keys, you are Proust and Oscar Wilde and George Orwell all rolled up into one delicious package. By the time you’re finished, you’re more like one of those 1940’s pulp hacks who strung hundred-page paragraphs together with semicolons because it was too much effort to figure out where the sentence should end.

Most writers manage to get by because, as the deadline creeps closer, their fear of turning in nothing eventually surpasses their fear of turning in something terrible. But I’ve watched a surprising number of young journalists wreck, or nearly wreck, their careers by simply failing to hand in articles. These are all college graduates who can write in complete sentences, so it is not that they are lazy incompetents. Rather, they seem to be paralyzed by the prospect of writing something that isn’t very good.

Update: I just added this comment on the Facebook link, and realized it should have gone into the original posting. “Do read the whole linked item … I just grabbed a small section that talks particularly about writing. If you suffer from “impostor syndrome” or have experience (either side) with “helicopter parenting” or if you are (or work with) Millennials, there’s something in this you should read. (It’s excerpted from her new book, which I’m adding to my “must obtain soonest” list.)”

January 23, 2014

QotD: The media, politicians, and moral panics

Filed under: Media, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:45

No one who has given any study to the development and propagation of political doctrine in the United States can have failed to notice how the belief in issues among politicians tends to run in exact ratio to the popularity of those issues. Let the populace begin suddenly to swallow a new panacea or to take fright at a new bugaboo, and almost instantly nine-tenths of the master-minds of politics begin to believe that the panacea is a sure cure for all the malaises of the republic, and the bugaboo an immediate and unbearable menace to all law, order and domestic tranquillity. At the bottom of this singular intellectual resilience, of course, there is a good deal of hard calculation; a man must keep up with the procession of crazes, or his day is swiftly done. But in it there are also considerations a good deal more subtle, and maybe less discreditable. For one thing, a man devoted professionally to patriotism and the wisdom of the fathers is very apt to come to a resigned sort of acquiescence in all the doctrinaire rubbish that lies beneath the national scheme of things — to believe, let us say, if not that the plain people are gifted with an infallible sagacity, then at least that they have an inalienable right to see their follies executed. Poll-parroting nonsense as a matter of daily routine, the politician ends by assuming that it is sense, even though he doesn’t believe it. For another thing, there is the contagion of mob enthusiasm — a much underestimated murrain. We all saw what it could do during the war — college professors taking their tune from the yellow journals, the rev. clergy performing in the pulpit like so many Liberty Loan orators in five-cent moving-picture houses, hysteria grown epidemic like the influenza. No man is so remote and arctic that he is wholly safe from that contamination; it explains many extravagant phenomena of a democratic society; in particular, it explains why the mob leader is so often a victim to his mob.

H.L. Mencken, “Roosevelt: An Autopsy”, Prejudices, Second Series, 1920.

January 20, 2014

“Most psychologists are not capable of organising a quantitative study”

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:33

An interesting article by Andrew Anthony in the Guardian talks about an assault on the “mathematics of happiness”:

“Not many psychologists are very good at maths,” says Brown. “Not many psychologists are even good at the maths and statistics you have to do as a psychologist. Typically you’ll have a couple of people in the department who understand it. Most psychologists are not capable of organising a quantitative study. A lot of people can get a PhD in psychology without having those things at their fingertips. And that’s the stuff you’re meant to know. Losada’s maths were of the kind you’re not meant to encounter in psychology. The maths you need to understand the Losada system is hard but the maths you need to understand that this cannot possibly be true is relatively straightforward.”

Brown had studied maths to A-level and then took a degree in engineering and computer science at Cambridge. “But I actually gave up the engineering because the maths was too hard,” he says, laughing at the irony. “So I’m really not that good at maths. I can read simple calculus but I can’t solve differential equations. But then neither could Losada!”

He went back over Losada’s equations and he noticed that if he put in the numbers Fredrickson and Losada had then you could arrive at the appropriate figures. But he realised that it only worked on its own terms. “When you look at the equation, it doesn’t contain any data. It’s completely self-referential.”

You might even call it the “hockey stick model” of psychology.

Following much negotiation, Brown, Sokal and Friedman had their paper accepted by American Psychologist and it was published online last July under the only slightly less provocative title of The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking [PDF]. Referring to the bizarrely precise tipping point ratio of 2.9013 that Fredrickson and Losada trumpeted applied to all humans regardless of age, gender, race or culture, the authors — in fact Brown, in this sentence — wrote: “The idea that any aspect of human behaviour or experience should be universally and reproducibly constant to five significant digits would, if proven, constitute a unique moment in the history of the social sciences.”

The paper mounted a devastating case against the maths employed by Fredrickson and Losada, who were offered the chance to respond in the same online issue of American Psychologist. Losada declined and has thus far failed to defend his input in any public forum. But Fredrickson did write a reply, which, putting a positive spin on things, she titled Updated Thinking on Positivity Ratios [PDF].

She effectively accepted that Losada’s maths was wrong and admitted that she never really understood it anyway. But she refused to accept that the rest of the research was flawed. Indeed she claimed that, if anything, the empirical evidence was even stronger in support of her case. Fredrickson subsequently removed the critical chapter that outlines Losada’s input from further editions of Positivity. She has avoided speaking to much of the press but in an email exchange with me, she maintained that “on empirical grounds, yes, tipping points are highly probable” in relation to positive emotions and flourishing.

“She’s kind of hoping the Cheshire cat has disappeared but the grin is still there,” says Brown, who is dismissive of Fredrickson’s efforts at damage limitation. “She’s trying to throw Losada over the side without admitting that she got conned. All she can really show is that higher numbers are better than lower ones. What you do in science is you make a statement of what you think will happen and then run the experiment and see if it matches it. What you don’t do is pick up a bunch of data and start reading tea leaves. Because you can always find something. If you don’t have much data you shouldn’t go round theorising. Something orange is going to happen to you today, says the astrology chart. Sure enough, you’ll notice if an orange bicycle goes by you.”

January 18, 2014

The view from the “loser” demographic and the rise of “anti-success” sentiments

Filed under: Economics, Media, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:50

Scott Adams thinks he’s identified a trend, and it’s a troubling one if he’s right:

I have been seeing a pattern in the past several years that makes me wonder if a sizeable portion of the public has become anti-success. The media has pitted the general public against the one-percenters for several years, so that might be a factor. And the bottom-feeders on the Internet (Gawker, Jezebel, etc.) have business models that involve taking celebrity quotes out of context to demonize them. So it would be no surprise if the public disliked successful people more than ever.

But I have also lately observed people who seem to reject their own best paths to success in favor of paths that are clearly bad. Let’s call those choices “loser choices” because any rational and objective observer would see it that way. I wondered if I was seeing an emerging pattern or an illusion.

And in a follow-up post:

The other day I asked aloud in this blog if there might be some sort of anti-success trend emerging in society. I think I found it.

Some folks emailed me directly to say they believe it is a waste of time to pursue success because it is a zero-sum game. In other words, they believe they can only be successful by making someone else less successful, on the theory that there isn’t enough success in the universe for everyone to get a meaningful slice. They tell me it would be “wrong” on some level to pick the pockets of strangers for self-enrichment.

And there it is.

I doubt that sort of thinking would have existed before the massive media campaign against the “top 1%.” The power of the top 1% story is in the false impression that rich people stole the money from the poor and middle class, and therefore it would only be fair to give most of it back.

Clearly some of the financial titans are doing little more than picking pockets. But those are the exceptions. Most one-percenters are growing the economy and creating jobs. That’s obvious to people who were born in the “rising tide lifts all boats” era. And it’s obvious to anyone with a bit of economics education.

But if you are in your twenties, with no deep understanding of economics, wouldn’t you believe success is evil? That’s the dominant story of their generation.

QotD: Belief

Filed under: History, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:59

Why do so many people believe in a god? Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is an attempt to examine that question, for Christian fundamentalists, Islamic teachers, Buddhist monks, atheists, and others. He begins by pointing to the commonality of pre-scientific answers in groups of people: “How do thunderstorms happen?” answered by “It must be someone up there with a giant hammer” (our example, not his). Then, probably after a minimum of discussion, a name such as “Thor” becomes agreed. Having successfully sorted out thunderstorms, in the sense that you now have an agreed answer to why they happen, other forces of nature are similarly identified and named. Soon you have a pantheon, a community of gods to blame everything on. It’s very satisfying when everyone around you agrees, so the pantheon soon becomes the accepted wisdom, and few question it. In some cultures, few dare to question it, because there are penalties if you do.

Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, & Jack Cohen, “Disbelief System”, The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day, 2013.

January 13, 2014

Defining glamour

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:22

Virginia Postrel is interviewed at Paleofuture:

I think of glamour as a form of communication, persuasion, rhetoric. What happens is you have an audience and you have an object — something glamorous. It could be a person, could be a place, could be an idea, could be a car — and when that audience is exposed to that object a specific emotion arises, which is a sense of projection and longing.

Glamour is like humor. You get the same sort of thing in the interaction between an audience and something funny. It’s just the emotion that’s different. So when you see something that strikes you as glamorous, or you hear about or see something glamorous, it makes you think, “If only. If only life could be like that. If only I could be there. If only I could be that person, or with that person. If only I could drive that car, fly in that spaceship, or whatever.”

And there are always three elements that create that sensation: one is a promise of escape and transformation. A different, better life in different, better circumstances. The other is there is a sense of grace, effortlessness, all the flaws and difficulties are hidden. And the third is mystery. Mystery both draws you in and enhances the grace by hiding things.

Another way of thinking about glamour is to think about the origins of the word glamour. Glamour originally meant a literal magic spell that made people see something that wasn’t there. It was a Scottish word. A magician would cast a glamour over people’s eyes and they would see something different. As the word became a more metaphorical concept, it always retained that sense of magic and illusion. And where the illusion lies is in the grace; in the disguising of difficulties and flaws.

January 4, 2014

By DSM-5 standards, most of us are suffering from personality disorders

Filed under: Health — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:55

From the last issue of the City Journal, Theodore Dalrymple‘s critique of the latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) includes a rather wide-ranging diagnosis that applies to a huge number of people:

The overlap between straightforwardly pathological conditions (in Szasz’s sense) and those that result from social, psychological, or personal factors, or from bad moral choices, suggests that psychiatrists should show discretion in what they regard as genuine illness. The state of ignorance in which psychiatrists now practice, which will probably endure, ensures that they will often be wrong; but no one who has encountered, say, a manic in full flight is likely to doubt that he is in the presence of illness. But nor would it be easy, then, to see so-called factitious disorder, which consists of “falsification of physical or psychological signs and symptoms, or induction of injury or disease, associated with identified deception” in quite the same light: that is, to grant the same status to someone pretending to be ill as to someone genuinely ill.

Yet this is precisely what the DSM-5 does, establishing its authors’ lack of common sense, the quality that psychiatrists, perhaps more than any other kind of doctor, need. The manual’s lack of common sense would be amusing were it not destined to be taken with superstitious seriousness by psychiatrists around the world, as well as by insurers and lawyers.

The section of the volume devoted to personality disorders proves the point. Among the criteria for personality disorders in general are the following:

    A: An enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture, in fields such as thought, emotion, interpersonal relations and impulse control . . .

    B: The enduring pattern is inflexible and pervasive across a broad range of personal and social situations.

    C: The enduring pattern leads to clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning.

    D: The pattern is stable and of long duration.

The DSM-5 then informs us that more than one in seven people have such a lifelong disorder — adding up to 45 million Americans and even more Europeans. These astonishing numbers give the authors not a moment’s pause (any more than does the fact that their own prevalence rates suggest that the average American suffers from more than two psychiatric disorders in any one year). Several undesirable characteristics must be present in an individual for a diagnosis of personality disorder to apply. Considering those characteristics, and that such a significant portion of the Western population supposedly exhibits many of them, either a mass outbreak of human nastiness and inability to deal with everyday life must have occurred, or the whole business of diagnosis must be dubious or even ridiculous.

Here is a random list of some of the characteristics that, in the DSM-5, make up personality disorders of various kinds:

    Unjustified suspicions that others are harming, exploiting or deceiving.

    Persistently grudge-bearing.

    Detachment from social relations and limited expression of emotion.

    Behavior or appearance that is odd, eccentric or peculiar.


    Persistent irresponsibility.

    Indifference to risk to self or others.

    Irritability and aggressiveness.

    Lack of remorse.

    Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures or threats, or self-mutilation.

    Inappropriately intense anger, frequent displays of temper.

    Rapidly shifting and shallow expressions of emotion.

    Use of physical appearance to draw attention to self.

    Self-dramatization, theatricality.


    Requirement for excessive admiration.

    Sense of entitlement.

    Interpersonal exploitativeness.

    Lack of empathy.

    Enviousness of others.

    Arrogance and haughtiness.

    Unwillingness to become involved with people.

    Sense of social ineptitude and inferiority.

    Avoidance of risk.

    Difficulty in expressing disagreement with others because of fear of disapproval, i.e., pusillanimity.

    Feeling of helplessness when alone.

    Preoccupation with details, rules, lists, order, organization or schedules.

    Excessive devotion to work.

    Over-conscientiousness or scrupulousness.

    Reluctance to delegate.

    Rigidity and stubbornness.

The diagnoses for most of the disorders require at least four of the undesirable characteristics to be present, predominant, and persistent. One is reminded of the King of Brobdingnag’s view of Gulliver’s countrymen: “I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” Lest anyone object that “only” one in seven people suffers from personality disorders, and that therefore the King of Brobdingnag’s opinion of Western humanity — that it suffers from the “worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, and ambition, could produce” — is not relevant, one must add that, for the DSM-5, people with personality disorders are merely the most extreme exemplars of their type. And if only the extremes have four or more undesirable and frequently horrible dominating characteristics, many individuals must have one, two, or even three such characteristics. If the DSM-5 reflects the American Psychiatric Association’s views, then that organization clearly views humanity with Swiftian distaste. Yet its distaste is not that of a disappointed lover (and certainly not expressed with Swift’s genius) but is motivated, one suspects, by the hope of an endless supply of patients. For those with psychiatric disorders need psychiatrists.

December 23, 2013

Psychiatry does not seek “to colonise everyday life – rather, everyday life now invites colonisation by psychiatry”

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:32

In Spiked, Sandy Starr reviews Gary Greenberg’s recently published The Book of Woe:

There is an inevitable contingency about diagnostic categories, particularly when it comes to psychiatry. Greenberg argues that for all the useful work that goes into constructing these categories, psychiatric diagnosis has a ‘self-validating nature…by which once you’ve created a diagnostic category, the fact that people fit into it becomes evidence that the disorder exists’. Greenberg reminds us that ‘while many diagnoses are made on clinical signs and symptoms rather than on lab tests or other external validators, only in psychiatry are all diagnoses made that way’.

It’s worth adding that this may be changing. As psychiatry seeks to predicate itself more and more upon genetics and neuroscience, there are expectations in some circles that biochemical diagnostic tests for psychiatric disorders will follow ineluctably. This prospect does not reassure me. Psychiatry is attempting the difficult feat of relocating its foundations without toppling its façade, and this involves elisions — several of which are discussed by Greenberg — that leave me feeling less persuaded of the profession’s credentials, not more.


That said, one can certainly appreciate the need for psychiatry to appear coherent and confident, given the far-reaching consequences of the DSM’s contents. Greenberg explains, for example, how the use of a single ‘and’ where an ‘or’ might have been used, in the definition of ‘paedophilia’ that made its way into the fourth edition, inadvertently made it far easier for US authorities to detain indefinitely (on psychiatric grounds) people who had been convicted of sexual offences against minors. In other words, a single use of the word ‘and’ in the DSM led to a complex domain of morality and law — the culpability (or otherwise) of people charged with sexual offences in various circumstances, and proportionate sentencing for their crimes — becoming subordinate to the considerations of psychiatry.


‘Once you start to think of your troubles as a disease, your idea of yourself, which is to say who you are, changes’, warns Greenberg. But while psychiatry gives a diagnostic imprimatur to our expectations of ourselves and of one another, psychiatry is not solely capable of bringing about a wholesale alteration of these expectations. To understand what else might account for a psychiatric turn in society, one needs to recognise that we live in a culture in which our adult capacities are constantly denigrated, in which victimhood has become one of the few widely recognised sources of authority, and in which we are constantly encouraged from all directions not only to put our problems on public display (rather than addressing them within the intimate confines of trusted friends, family or — in extremis — psychotherapists or even psychiatrists), but also to assume that our problems will most likely afflict us in perpetuity.

It’s not so much the case that psychiatry now seeks to colonise everyday life — rather, everyday life now invites colonisation by psychiatry. In circumstances such as these, even the most well-meaning and scrupulous psychiatrist might struggle to parse the suffering and idiosyncrasy they encounter, so as to partition it sensibly into the pathological and the normal. Greenberg’s barbs against psychiatry may be well deserved, and are certainly grounded in tantalising insider detail and no small amount of wit. But they represent an incomplete picture of the dynamics he sets out to get to grips with, which lie outside the institution of psychiatry as much as they lie within.

December 21, 2013

Stamp out toystore sexism for the children for the parents!

Filed under: Business, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:38

In the Guardian, Sam Leith says the push to eliminate gender stereotypes from toy stores is really for the parents, not for the children:

My daughter wasn’t yet three when it started. First she refused to wear anything that wasn’t pink. Then she announced that she wanted to change her name to Cinderella Barbie Sleeping Beauty. This was an achievement.

We owned no Disney princess DVDs, had never uttered the word “Barbie”, and she wasn’t yet at nursery so it couldn’t have come the route of the nits.

Are the spores of this stuff, I wondered, in the air?

Now my son is two and a half. Dollies delight him not, no, nor fairies, though by your smiling you seem to say so. The two things in the world that interest him most are fire engines and (oddly) zebras. He has a special dance that he does on sighting a fire engine. When he wakes up in the morning and you ask him what he dreamed about, he says: “A fire engine and a zebra.”

Now Marks & Spencer has joined a growing number of retailers in announcing that all its toy marketing will be gender-neutral. Does that mean my next child will grow up free of these obsessions? I’m not counting my fluffy pink chickens.

I don’t want to troll all you good people by trying to make the case that marketing toys by gender is a positive social good to be applauded. But I think there is a case — a pretty strong case — for not getting ventilated about it. And — not to make the perfect the enemy of the good — for seeing the battle against it as a sideshow, and potentially one that could distract us from the main event.

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