on scientific knowledge, mental health and politics

A study of male testosterone levels during election night 2008 suggests male supporters of McCain-Palin were “amped up” on testosterone.

As technology advances, we’ll have many more insights into the ways that biology reflects and, perhaps, impacts culture. But the temptation to “medicalize” our political differences must be rejected.

If, someday, it turns out that manic depressive men are five times more likely to become political extremists, or that women who suffer from anxiety attacks are four times more likely to support authoritarian policies, that does not mean that either political inclination is, simply, symptomatic of a treatable illness.

When we address each other politically, when we exhort each other to accept an argument, we agree to respect one another as rational, autonomous beings, no matter our motives or capabilities. There is no difference, really, between accusing your political adversary of having a “false consciousness” and accusing them of being “driven by biology.” We either extend the franchise to every human being or to none, based not on any scientific criteria but on faith: “that all men are created equal.”

Politics is how we humans transcend the human condition – we have always been animals, nature-bound, striving for the ideal of a more perfect union. We may come to understand our natural selves – our genes and neural pathways – better than ever imagined. But that won’t get us any closer to understanding our political selves. Political knowledge is produced solely by participating in politics. If anything, advances in the political sciences are those that mitigate the influence of our irrational motivations – rather than attempt to rout them out altogether.

We can and should promote the solace of being at peace with our bodies – of understanding and controlling paranoia, aggression, mania, psychosis, depression, etc. It is even a political value to advocate mental health as a right rather than a privilege. But “treatment” will never be an appropriate political response.

The Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, the Soviet Psikhushkas, Nazi eugenics – in each of these cases the scientific methods of the powerful were used to justify oppression. It’s not that their sciences were wrong – though they certainly were – it’s that their politics were wrong.