5 years ago: Tony Perkins in ‘Psycho’

March 4, 2008, on this blog: Tony Perkins in ‘Psycho’

Part of Perkins’ problem here — or at least part of the problem he’s pandering to — is the popular evangelical notion that there’s really no such thing as mental illness, only sin. (The secular parallel to this in conservative ideology is that there’s no such thing as mental illness, only irresponsible personal choices.) In many evangelical circles, the word “therapeutic” is used only as a sneering pejorative. This arises from several of the more troublesome aspects of the American evangelical subculture: from its instinctive anti-intellectual/anti-science bias; from its neo-Neo-platonic belief in a body/mind, flesh/soul duality; from its illiteralist misreading of scripture (“they’re not mentally ill, they’re demon possessed“).

What that all adds up to, in many branches of American evangelicalism, is an attitude toward mental illness that is indistinguishable from that of the Christian Scientists.

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  • Eexactly this misunderstanding of mental illness is a big problem that can hinder getting proper treatment for people. If a person believes that they are getting signals from God or Satan and does not realize that actually they’re not experiencing any such thing, it may only be after they have spent years fruitlessly trying to deal with it via their faith that a medical professional ends up spotting the problem for what it is.

  • ohiolibrarian

    Also a handy way to avoid any obligation to show compassion or even try to understand someone’s pov.

  • MaryKaye

    This attitude can do long-lasting harm even to those who eventually reject it.  I knew a Pagan who was raised by Scientologists and had, everyone thought, put aside that aspect of her upbringing.  But when she developed acute schizophrenia late in life, the childhood hatred and distrust of mental health professionals came back and made it impossible for her to be treated.

    When you are  ill  (physically or mentally) you are not at your best.  Societal influences that healthy people can resist are much more dangerous to sick people.  This is, to my mind, one of the most awful aspects of the conservative movement:  its greatest victims are those least able to fight back.

  • Carstonio

    Here’s Carl Sagan in his Cosmos book: “Plato and Aristotle were comfortable in a slave society. They offered justifications for oppression. They served tyrants. They taught the alienation of the body from the mind (a natural enough ideal in a slave society); they separated matter from thought; they divorced the Earth from the heavens – divisions that were to dominate Western thinking for
    more than twenty centuries.”

    I admit I don’t understand why the dualities of body/mind and flesh/soul would be inherently wrong or harmful. Sagan appears to suggests that these provide a rationalization for tyranny and slavery, but that’s not the same thing. And it’s not clear to me what “separate matter from thought” means.

  • P J Evans

    what “separate matter from thought” means

    My (incomplete) understanding of their philosophy is that there’s an ideal form of everything Somewhere Else, and then there’s reality, which is always flawed. So, for example there’s a Chair that’s the epitome of Chairness, and there’s chairs in reality.

  • Carstonio

    Maybe I’m not wired to appreciate philosophy that way, because Ideal Forms Somewhere Else sounds to me like the musings of stoners. 

  • Mmhmm. Sagan was probably trying to make the point that for people who can divorce abstract ideals from actual things (as opposed to making things closer to an ideal) it’s possible to set up, and even believe in, one’s idealized conceptions of how society works and completely ignore the actual operation of said society.

    You see it in the way right-wingers claim that there is no racism and that everybody really totally gets treated equally and minorities saying otherwise are just pulling the “race card”.

    They honestly believe the American-dream ideal of a 100% meritocratic society exists and refuse to see the plain facts before them.

  • All the above being said, Sagan originally probably wrote in the 1970s, when in that era the people who held up idealized abstractions as reality were largely Communists, who loudly proclaimed their “Real and existing socialism” complete with wonderful human and civil rights protections (on paper).

    Of course, the reality of their society was somewhat different.

  • kellandros

     To me, matter from thought gets to the idea of the soul as the real you and your body is just a puppet/shell for it. This idea fails badly once science and medicine started investigating traumatic brain injuries and observed that damage to regions of the brain could impair reasoning, alter personality, and ‘change’ who someone was.

    If we treat consciousness as something residing beyond the human body, that leads to what our host mentioned- that ‘you’ should be superior and in charge of your body and with proper willpower can overcome any problems. That any shortcomings you have including rage issues, addiction, depression, lack of ‘correct’ faith, are automatically your fault.

    Then you get to the ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ duality, or torturing a heretic to near death to try to save their soul, or the ‘think of the unborn, ignore those kids who are alive but suffering’ thinking of the pro-life movement.

    This also is what leads to the idea of ESP and telepathy, both of which are fairly cool ideas, but would violate our understanding of physics and biology.

  • smrnda

    I can’t imagine how bad charismatic or pentecostal churches can be to mentally ill people, given the strong belief in demonic possession, visions, speaking in tongues and any other sort of *event* that could just be the symptom of mental illness. 

  • MaryKaye

    At its best, a religious tradition *could* give a valuable interpretive context to mental illness.

    I once met someone who was periodically possessed by a spirit.  (I saw it happen; it was certainly striking.)  I asked him afterwards how he dealt with the obvious possibility that this was physical or mental illness–epilepsy came to mind, as the onset of the possession looked a lot like a seizure.   He said that of course had considered that, but the intepretive lens of spirit possession allowed him to live a much more functional life than the interpretive lens of illness.  Looking at his life I saw no particular reason to disbelieve him.

    I have read speculations that shamanism is a playing out of the same genetics and mental states that lead to schizophrenia, but in a context that allows them to be handled better.  I don’t know if this is true–it would be very hard to tell. 

    If you have a mind that is very different from those around you, and you get lucky with your spiritual tradition, it can offer you a niche where you are valued and your abilities are nurtured–I think the contemplative religious orders in traditional Christianity did this for some people.  This helps keep your mental differences from becoming mental illness in the sense of suffering and dysfunction.

  • Worthless Beast

    You know, I like to think I wouldn’t wish my bipolar disorder on even my worst enemy, buuuuuuuuutttttt…. it can get mighty tempting with some people. 

  • Lector El

    The somewhat more benign version of Dualism is the matrix’s ‘there is no spoon’. That is, there is the idea, and there are implementations of the idea, and models of the idea, and depictions of the idea, and discussions of the idea. Inside the matrix, there is no spoon. There is only the idea of a spoon, which can be changed by thinking it changed.

    It’s a useful concept, because it allows you to realize and adapt for the fact that what you’re presented with is perceived through the idea of what it is, and thus what you see may not be what others see, because their idea may be different from your own.

    Dualism has its drawbacks, major ones. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and all that, plus it’s not universally applicable – It’s rather unhelpful to separate the idea of who someone is from the reality of who they are, to cite the obvious example. I think dualism does have value as one tool among many for understanding the universe, though.

  • Nick Gotts

    Really? I was alive and politically conscious in the 1970s, and the number of people taking the claims of Communist regimes at face value was tiny (in “the west” – what people living under such regimes as that in China thought is far more difficult to say). Far more in “the west” believed in an indealized abstraction of “democracy”, which made it impossible for them to understand, for example, the American invasion of Vietnam for what it was.

  • I grant your point about western democracy.

    However I was pointing out that Communists in Communist countries sometimes managed to lose themselves in the notion that their societies actually worked the way their government claimed it did.

  • arcseconds

    I’m supposing ‘matter from thought’ means the same thing as ‘body from mind’.

    Plato certainly did separate bodies from minds, but Aristotle? His psuche is the motive principle in creatures, and it’s not clear that it is separable from bodies.  Plants, Animals and humans all have vegetable souls, which are responsible for absorbing nutrients, growth, healing and that sort of thing; animals and humans have animal souls which provide movement and emotions and flight/fight responses etc. and humans have rational souls.    Rather than thinking of these things in neoplatonic, Christian, or cartesian terms, it’s probably better to think of them functionally.

    While we’re used to supposing ratiocination can go on without a body, it’s much harder to see what sense it makes for a tree’s motive principle to exist separate from the tree itself.

    I’m not really sure about this charge of separating the heavens from the earth, either.   I think Sagan’s just being plain anachronistic here.   While the early natural philosophers did have some vague inkling that a small number of principles should account for everything we see, the notion of universal natural laws wasn’t to develop until the Renaissance.   Until then, why not think that the heavens are governed by different principles than the earth?  Prima facie,  glowing entities that spin endlessly in circles far above the surface of the Earth really don’t look like they have much in common with rocks, trees and horses.

    I’m also not sure that this division ‘dominated’ Western thinking.  I don’t think people really gave it a huge amount of consideration.   In Copernicus’s day, many people assumed Ptolemy’s system was a mere calculating device, which suggests to me a fairly sceptical stance towards the account given of the heavens.  

  • arcseconds

     Communism was officially materialistic (in terms of metaphysics), though, so we can see that dualism isn’t necessary for people to mix up ideas and reality :]

  • Then there’s the way the Evangelical mind shrinks from self-awareness the way a vampire avoids sunlight. Very little of what they profess to believe can stand up to examination, so they, with great determination, don’t look at it.

    So they disparage feelings and ethics, psychology and the life of the mind; because it is dangerous. To them.