There is a wonderful aphorism credited to Albert Einstein – ‘Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing it is stupid’.
He didn’t necessarily say it, but it’s something he could have said. And it sums up one of the main conceptual tyrannies of the human condition – the tendency to regard something different as ‘wrong’ or ‘inferior’ rather than simply ‘different’. I suspect it’s hard-wired into us, and it was turned into an art form in the early twentieth century when ‘different’ became not just ‘wrong’ but ‘demanding correction’.
That led to a whole raft of issues, including eugenics. ‘Normal’ was narrowly defined. Anything ‘not normal’ – meaning something that didn’t conform to a very narrow definition framed by immediate period and national-cultural values – had to be either ‘fixed’ or got rid of. And conformity was the name of the game: regimented, consistent obedience. In part it was a function of the social exhaustion provoked by the First World War: people welcomed a safe, well-defined world.
In the early twentieth century conformity to a narrowly defined ‘normal’ was – inevitably – a keystone of the new field of ‘psychology’, which styled itself a ‘science’ although in reality it was at best pseudo-science, at worst dangerous woo woo. Into the mix was infused period demand for categorisation into hard-edged boxes. Once it reached full flower in the early-mid twentieth century at the hands of Carl Jung, B. F. Skinner, and others, everyday people suddenly found themselves targeted and labelled ‘psychologically wrong’ – for no better reason, often, than being left-handed, or dyslexic, or because some arbitrary and personally irrelevant test ‘identified’ them as thinking in ways different from the test-writer.
Everything about ordinary people was game for being defined as ‘abnormal’. Introversion, for instance, which the APA actually attempted to include in their DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for psychological disorder as recently as 2010. Hey – some people need space. It varies with individuals. What did the APA think it was doing?
To me, the reality of ‘normal’ – in the usual sense we have of everyday and ordinary people who have a thoughtful acceptance of their own self-worth – is still a spectrum. I have a faith in the goodness of humanity – if we do not blind ourselves to that quality. As we so often do, alas – and that is the problem I have with ‘psychology’.
Irrespective of the conceits around which ‘psychologists’ wrap their view of everyday folk, the ‘science’ behind their field has always been pure junk – based on subjective judgements which, by nature, fail the falsifiability test that defines science. I recall, for instance, one ‘psychological test’ I did, where the human condition was reduced to a carbon isomer (!) in which I got different results each time I took it. Why? Because it was mindlessly trivial to reverse-engineer the ‘scientific’ conceit that underpinned it and I could ‘game’ any result I wanted. How trivial? Well, that was 5 minutes of my life I won’t get back. Kiddie stuff. It confused the hell out of the psychologist running it, who kept pushing me to confess that I was ‘really’ like the first result. You know…really. See what I mean? Epic falsifiability fail. Junk science.
The main problem, I think, is the way the subjective pronouncements of ‘psychologists’ have been used to justify efforts to force conformity to the pseudo-scientific claims of their field, whatever the cost. By the mid-twentieth century the so-called ‘science’ of ‘psychology’was being extended to using lobotomy as a device to ‘normalise’ ordinary people who ‘psychologists’ had defined as ‘wrong’. A great deal of suffering followed – all of it under the double-think guise of ‘helping’ people. Anybody read Ken Kesey?
It’s important to distinguish ‘psychology’ from the proper medical science of ‘psychiatry’, which is about people who have genuine medical issues affecting their minds, who genuinely stand outside normal, who need help – and who can be genuinely helped.
By contrast, by definition from its first practitioners – Freud, Jung, Reich and Skinner among them – ‘psychology’ identified everybody as problematic and so was always about power and powerlessness, bullying and victims. Because of that early twentieth century concept of conformity, coupled with the human need for validation, the way ‘psychologists’ imagined they were being beneficient was basically:
- I define climbing trees as normal and intelligent.
- Fish cannot climb trees.
- Therefore fish are abnormal and stupid.
- I am a kind and good person, and I want to help fish, therefore I will make them climb trees better.
- If fish cannot achieve this, it proves they are abnormal and stupid and I am a better and more valid person.
Have we escaped that mind-set today? Not at all. I don’t think we ever will, wholly, as it’s always been part of the human condition. I see it around me today in many ways. Damn.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016