I’m guessing, just now, when you saw the title “Leftists and Mental Illness,” you thought this was going to be some rambling fringe-right screed where I accuse our esteemed progressive colleagues of all manner of neurosis, disease, and psychiatric disorder. I’m guessing you prepared to eyeroll. Well, shame on you if you did. This is a classy e-publication, and I refuse to submit such rank partisan hackery to it.
Moreover, I don’t even think that’s true. I don’t think most leftists are mentally ill (genderfluid militant ecofeminists notwithstanding). No. Actually, I want to discuss the accusations of mental illness that get hurled in the opposite direction, with such frequency that we often don’t even recognize them as such. I want to discuss how leftists have developed this nasty little habit of explaining even the slightest dissent from their reigning orthodoxy in terms of insanity or psychological derangement.
Now, of course they don’t come right out call a person “mentally ill” just for disagreeing with them. Too obvious. (Not to mention completely insensitive towards the neuroatypical.) Their vocabulary’s a bit more sophisticated than that. A bit more subtle. They’ll call you ethnocentric or a racist instead, a homophobe or a misogynist, a “cryptofacist,” something along those lines. But the gist of it’s the same. They’re not simply implying that you’re wrong. They’re implying that you’re wrong because there’s some malice, some interior pathology, determining the way that you think. They’re explaining the disagreement in terms of your dysfunction. It’s not that there’s a debatable point in play—it’s that there’s something wrong with you.
Our academics, our talking heads on the TV, our politicians, the PR spokespeople for our corporations, our pundits and journalists, they all talk a good game. They’ll wax eloquent about how you never really understand your own arguments unless you also understand the other side’s. They’ll encourage you to “think critically” about your own values and beliefs. They’ll stress the importance of empathizing with the cultural “other,” even if that empathy comes at considerable psychic cost to yourself. Then, often in the very next breath, they’ll explain how up until very recently the history of our American and European ancestors has been one long, uninterrupted parade of xenophobia, bigotry, sexism, heteronormativity, and so on. How we’ve only just now, in the past fifty years or so, started to come out of that darkness and into the sunshine of equality and human dignity for all.
Maybe they don’t see the irony in this: that one moment they’re preaching mutual understanding and the next writing off vast multitudes of people, both past and present, as psychologically and philosophically indefensible.
Take any familiar progressive narrative, “Women have come a long way!” for instance. The contemporary liberal looks back at any point where men dominated public life (doesn’t matter the particular nation or era in question). And he’s already got a pre-fab, one-size-fits-all answer for why that was. It was misogyny. It was male hegemony. It was oppression. Duh. He can’t (or he won’t) even entertain the thought that these were normal, healthy people organizing their communal life in a beneficial or adaptive manner. He can offer no coherent rationale, even just to play the devil’s advocate, in its favor. These propagandists of understanding all the sides clearly don’t understand that one.
In a lot of ways, the question of whether men and women ought to be encouraged to operate in separate spheres is amenable to empirical evidence. We could have a real discussion about this. We could investigate whether children receive appropriate socialization more frequently in a society that maintains traditional gender roles or a society, like our own, that actively polices against them. We could look at the downstream effects that careerist feminism produces on the labor market and worker wages. We could even get biological or neuroscientific. Do traditional gender roles result from basic sex differences rather than from under-the-table social machinations? Hell. Maybe this is a false problem to begin with. Maybe men and women naturally seek complementary specializations, like a sexually dimorphic species or something.
We could even, in our grimmer moods, pose uncomfortable questions about fertility. Has any Western nation weathered the sexual revolution without plunging into sub-replacement birth rates? Is this even demographically sustainable?
Personally, I consider these fair questions. Worth talking through. I suspect, crazy right-winger that I am, there might be something to be said for a social scheme that’s been nigh universal for most of recorded history. I mean it got us out of the Stone Age, didn’t it? But the arbitrators of our public discourse disagree. That social scheme was hatred of women all the way down. Simple as that.
So that’s the function of “mental illness” to the left. It’s a way to account for your disagreement without having to engage with your analysis. Despite all the lip service paid to the idea of “honest conversations,” they’ve already got you figured out. Do you think that Boy Scouts ought to have a say in whether they hire gay scout leaders? Diagnosis: homophobia. Do you think that a sovereign state ought to strictly regulate who immigrates and works within its borders? Diagnosis: racism. Do you think that a pregnancy is something more significant than a simple “choice” that a woman faces? Diagnosis: there you go again with your misogyny. All dissenting opinions accounted for.
Well, alright, so what’s the take home for this observation anyway? What do I want you to do with this information? Good question and one that I’ll revisit from a couple different angles in future columns. But for now all I have to say is that acceptance is the first step towards help.
Accept that the triumphant leftists of our moment don’t have an interest in hearing from you at all, quite frankly. Accept that honest debate isn’t on the table right now. Accept that whatever you say—whether you’re offering a logical critique or just playing “gotcha!” with a liberal hypocrisy—doesn’t matter. It’s the ramblings of a madman to them. This is a necessary realization. The sooner we accept it, the sooner we stop taking their pro-dialogue claptrap at face value, and the better off we’ll be. We can take all that time and energy we saved when we gave up on trying to reason with true believers and invest it in our own people and our own projects instead.