Outside the New York Times building in Manhattan (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
As we abandon moral language for clinical language, we run into technical difficulties. Writing in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman describes the 2020 presidential election as one that may be a contest between “a self-proclaimed socialist and an undiagnosed sociopath.”
There is no such thing as an “undiagnosed sociopath” because there is no such thing as a “diagnosed sociopath”—“sociopath” is not a clinical diagnosis. It is, like much of the psychological jargon that infests our journalism and our public discourse, less a medical term than a pop-culture trope, something that people pick up from watching too many police procedurals and reading too much self-help literature. (Any self-help literature is too much.) Like “empathy,” “sociopath” is really a literary conceit. The same holds broadly true for “psychopath.” Some terms, such as “narcissist,” straddle the line between medicine and pop culture. We love to engage in amateur diagnosis and to pathologize our rivals, family members, romantic disappointments, etc.
As the pop-fiction psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter puts it, we have “given up good and evil for behaviorism.” We cannot stand to call evil evil, and so resort to the sterile language of psychiatry.
I am sure that I am guilty of using that kind of language myself, though I repent of it.
But what would we do without pseudo-medical language to replace the moral language we have abandoned? For a half a century or more, all the best people nodded sagely when some imbecile would say, “You can’t legislate morality!” as though legislation had any other basis, as though we outlaw murder because it is bad for the GDP. We are still saying that even as college students are given twenty-page contracts to fill out before a kiss goodnight. Of course you need a contract—What if he’s a sociopath? A psychopath? A narcissist? It is a myth that Victorians draped the legs of pianos so as not to encourage impure thoughts about legs not attached to keyboard instruments, but it certainly is the case that earlier generations had more evolved and demanding etiquettes relating to interactions between the sexes. We are, in the halting and stupid way of our times, creating a new version of that etiquette, one that is generally silly but is nonetheless attuned, if imperfectly, to the same social needs and concerns as the other, older etiquette. Megan McArdle touches on this when she observes that ‘we no longer have any moral language for talking about sex except consent.”
Moral language makes us uncomfortable, because we abandoned the notion of judgment when we abandoned responsible adulthood and began to insist that hierarchical social relations were necessarily unjust and oppressive — Who are you to tell me what’s right and what’s wrong? Who are you to judge? Moral language forces us to face our moral illiteracy, to admit that we have not engaged in the necessary moral education to cultivate ourselves and our children for some generations now. This surrender was very much abetted by the schools and the churches and other institutions, but the abandonment was, by and large, organic and self-organizing. What we rejected was authority.
But of course we must and will have authority, and so such wisdom as we had inherited was supplanted by the pseudo-scientific authority of psychoanalysis, rooted in the hokum and scientific fraud of Sigmund Freud and his imitators, who were even more splendidly successful than L. Ron Hubbard in foisting a preposterous new mythology on the gullible and the vulnerable.
And so we are left with Thomas Friedman’s wan amateurism, and his substitution “sociopathy” for something more ancient and enduring, about which we studiously avoid speaking too directly or thinking too seriously.