The September/October 1964 issue of Fact magazine notoriously published an article according to which American psychiatrists, purportedly speaking as experts in their specialty, held by a ratio of 2:1 that Senator Barry Goldwater, a very prominent mid-twentieth-century conservative who was then the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States, was psychologically unfit for the presidency:
This was such an egregious instance of the ideologically-motivated abuse of purported science in order to smear somebody that it resulted, eventually, in an ethical standard, promulgated by the American Psychiatric Association, that is commonly called “The Goldwater Rule.”
We sometimes speak of “demonizing” others. And, in the past at least, it was often thought that those who behaved oddly or thought weirdly or, at least, deviated from somebody’s norm, were, literally, possessed by demons.
Nowadays, relatively few people believe in demons, and decrying someone who disagrees with you politically or theologically as “demon-possessed” will gain little traction in most circles. It’s more effective to suggest that your opponent is sick. That he or she, essentially for the sheer act of failing to hold your views, is deranged. Thus, those who — rightly or wrongly, for reasons good or bad — oppose one or more elements of the contemporary homosexualist agenda don’t, can’t, legitimately disagree with it. No, they’re sick. “Homophobic.” (The word homophobia was coined on the analogy of such genuine psychological debilities as agoraphobia and acrophobia.)
American conservatives have been the targets of such reductionist dismissals for a long time now. Richard Hofstadter’s famous 1965 book The Paranoid Style in American Politics purported to analyze them; its central essay’s original publication in Harper’s Magazine in November 1964 (the very month of the Goldwater/Johnson presidential election) may have been coincidental, but then, so might the shooting of Abraham Lincoln have been, too. Conceivably. In some alternate universe. One in which I have some swamp land here in Florida to sell to you.
Even earlier, the famous 1950 study by Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford, The Authoritarian Personality, purported to demonstrate the psychological disorders characteristic of political conservatives (and, as critics very soon noticed, only of political conservatives).
One can hardly fail to be reminded of Sigmund Freud’s famous description of compulsive neurosis as “an individual religiosity,” which sets things up perfectly for his notorious dismissal of religious belief as a “universal obsessional neurosis.”
Seen in the cold light of day, such phenomena clearly represent attempts to win by rhetoric — even by “poisoning the well” and by textbook examples of fallacious ad hominem — what hasn’t been accomplished, and maybe not even attempted, by evidence and argument. In many cases, of course, those who use such techniques do so because they hold their opponents, and their opponents’ views, in such complete contempt that they think evidence and argument unnecessary, not worth the time to marshal or the effort to deploy.
Carried to its extreme, the view that those who hold different views do so because of mental or emotional dysfunction leads to Vietnam-style reeducation camps. And, perhaps, to the conclusion of George Orwell’s 1984, in which Winston finally returns from his torture sessions with O’Brien, the government official assigned to his case: “Everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
The other obvious problem with reductionist dismissals of the views of others is that the sword of reductionism cuts both ways. If the views of your opponents are held because of their age, ethnicity, and/or socio-economic status rather than on account of actual evidence and logic that have to be seriously addressed, might the same thing not be said about the views of those dismissing them? Or have the latter somehow transcended the human condition?
Posted from Orlando, Florida.