Thursday, February 10, 2005

Monsters or Madness?:

As long ago as 1966, Philip Rieff’s book The Triumph of the Therapeutic predicted that the psychological mode of understanding human behavior would triumph over traditional moral modes that emphasize personal responsibility.

Nearly 40 years later, it’s hard to deny Rieff’s prescience. Oprah, Dr. Phil, and even Dr. James Dobson of the conservative Christian Focus on the Family have become household names in large part because of their ability to “feel our pain.” But how many ethicists, moral philosophers, and theologians can you name?

Jonah Goldberg has an excellent column tying these changes to the recent spate of gruesome child abuse cases:

For decades, a therapeutic culture of "understanding" was on the rise. Except for acts of racism and so-called homophobia, there was a mad rush to "understand" evil people. Were they victims of a racist culture? Were they abused themselves? Were they expressing their natural frustration with the patriarchal capitalist system? Blah, blah, blah.

The tragedy of the imagination was that we couldn't appreciate that evil is real and it exists. In a society where everyone is a victim and it's not right to "judge" others, there's just not much room left for real monsters, while society itself becomes monstrous. Hannibal Lecter became a charming rogue, the Grinch who Stole Christmas became the victim of the judgmental Whovilleans in the Jim Carrey movie, the ersatz Mayberry of Andy Griffith became a nest of fascists in "Pleasantville."

Goldberg makes excellent points. Still, we mustn’t be like the drunk who, having once fallen off the left side of the horse, climbs back up only to fall off the right side. In other words, mental illness is no less real than evil, and to deny this would do a great disservice to those who desperately need psychiatric intervention and treatment.

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