If I don’t like you or what you stand for, you must be

  1. Evil
  2. Ignorant
  3. In the minority (and therefore irrelevant)
  4. “Crazy”

While there is certainly evil, ignorance, minority points of view, and mental illness in the world, the way the intolerant shut down opposition and delegitimize people they disagree with is not to debate, but to name-call or label. “You’re (fill in the blank) therefore your argument is wrong.”

By claiming something is wrong with the person one disagrees with, rather than argue constructively about ideas, you just shut down the possibility of rapport, compromise or even the possibility of persuading the person that your ideas are better. In other words, you shut down progress.

This divisive tactic can take a toll on reasoned discourse and the essential art of constructive criticism as well as professional and personal relationships and society in general.*

Number 4 Is A Big Problem 

Calling someone mentally ill or labeling them with a diagnosis to win a victory over them, like all ad hominem attacks, is problematical, but for PsychCentral contributors and readers, it is the most flagrantly offensive of ad hominem attacks. Calling someone one disagrees with “crazy”, mentally ill, insane, or even diagnosing them without proper evaluation does harm in more than one way.

  1. First it reinforces the stigma of mental illness. We can’t have it both ways–either we’ve come far enough that mental health problems including personality disorders, don’t deserve to be stigmatized, or they do. Cherry picking when they are allowed to be considered to be stigmatizing, in the service of condemning someone we dislike or disagree with, is seriously problematical.
  2. Calling someone mentally ill who we disagree with also may contribute to the “Crying Wolf” effect. (See Wolf! Wolf!) Declaring someone mentally ill because we dislike their religion, politics or personality makes it more difficult when mental health is a serious issue and does in fact need to be addressed.
  3. Mental health professionals have to be very clear on what they’re doing: They might believe that the path someone is on may lead them and/or others into trouble, but labeling this as “crazy” may delegitimize their own professionalism. It makes professionals seem unprofessional. Mental health professionals in general agree that “we could never truly claim to psychoanalyze someone through secondary sources alone, particularly someone in the public eye who has no doubt already gone to great lengths to paint their public image in a very specific way.” (See PsychCentral’s Stefan Walters’, MFT, brilliant book review, Obama On The Couch.)
  4. To me the most obvious and the most important reason not to call people mentally ill when we disagree with them is that it hurts people, including those with mental illness. Simple.

Have a great week,

C.R. (filling in for Richard)

*To be clear, we’re not talking arm-chair quarterbacks, professional or otherwise, who analyse and discuss the behavior and mental faculties of criminals dead or alive, such as Harvey Weinstein, Anthony Weiner, O.J. Simpson, or those on a larger scale such as genocidal maniac Pol Pot, mass murderer Stalin, and so on.  We’re also not talking about the analysis of political figures’ approaches and even the characterization of them as seriously problematical, as people have done and will continue to do, generally with very good cause.