Monday, March 22, 2010

Spare the Rod (Really)

I have been meaning to post on an amazing This American Life story as it relates to one of my favorite intellectual intersections: rhetoric and science, which means it is also about everything. As W.H. reminds us:
Science, like Art, is fun, a playing with truths, and no game
should ever pretend to slay the heavy-lidded riddle,
What is the Good Life?
Looking back forty years at the struggle to change the DSM entry for homosexuality (it's very presence in the manual - and thus its status as a mental illness - was itself debated) reveals much about the relationship between politics and science (and much about what we want from that relationship and what we don't).

Introduction: Stigma
The report begins with a necessary discounting (which is not a defense) of the presence of homosexuality in the DSM. While it's definition and categorization later proved just as harmful, several of the psychiatrist who defended its place in the DSM argued that it was a defense from harmful stigmas, namely religious stigmas that made homosexuality a sin. Better an illness, they assumed, than a sin. What is unusual is that some of those who wanted to keep "homosexuality" in the DSM did so for ostensibly "progressive" reasons, which we can no doubt question now. Even at this stage, the story is a complex one.

Part One: Science "Becomes" Politics
What is immediately clear from the story ("81 Words") is that labels are never passive nor innocent. Language, Kenneth Burke reminds us, is symbolic action; it is not about labeling but about projecting, about doing something in and to the world. Thus, labeling homosexuality a "mental illness" is an action that will have results (it will cause effects), and claiming that one is merely labeling something is no defense against liability for what that label does. So here we have our first intersection of science and politics (I am assuming the intersection itself is rhetoric): to label something never happens in a vacuum away from politics. The label itself works politically (even if it is not "politically motivated" -- although in this case all the motives can be seen as political, which makes this story a good case study for all such stories).

Part Two: Politics Motivates Science
Moving in the other direction, we can see not only how the labels of science work politically, but how any scientific endeavor to label, to discover, to know, is necessarily (a priori) motivated. At the most basic level, the argument goes, a scientist chooses (has to choose) the question she wants to ask after choosing the phenomenon she wants to investigate. In this case, investigating homosexuality in the terms of "mental illness" is already a political act, just as not investigating it in terms of mental illness is a political act.

This is not to argue that all motivations are equal, that just because we can understand both as motivated that both are equally "good" or equally "true." What I am building to (in terms of rhetoric) is that neither are outside of having to make arguments for themselves. Rather than moving away from prejudice (i.e., to deny prejudice), we must make arguments for our prejudices above and beyond other prejudices and do so not just on the basis of accuracy but on the basis of effects -- not whether "true" but rather conducive to "desired effects."

Conclusion: "The Earth is Round"

Problematically (even while I agree with the sentiment of celebration), when the DSM was changed -- when homosexuality ceased to be a disease -- one headline read "The Earth is Round." This is problematic because it assumes some "Truth" had been discovered rather than that an argument had been successful. To wrap both of these threads up, then, I move to the end of the "81 Words" report, which includes an interview with an historian. This historian points out that both sides of the debate (inclusion/exclusion of homosexuality from the DSM) claimed that the other side was politicizing science, and that both insisted that other side was being unscientific. This should come as no surprise: the oldest trick in the book of rhetoric is to claim it is the other side that uses rhetoric while you are simply telling it as it is. The historian argues that this is the nature of such controversies. And I would argue that it is such behavior that plagues such controversies, as both sides move to belie rather than confront questions of value and politics in science.

The historian thus argues that these are not simply questions of science but are also and always moral questions as well. I would sum this up by arguing that the question is not simply/only "Is homosexuality a mental illness?" The questions is/should be "What are the consequences of asking whether homosexuality is or is not a mental illness?" "Should we ask such a question at all?" That is (what) the debate (should be) about because the rest, the science, is entelechy, so to speak. We should not use, in the words of the interviewed historian, "the rod of science to beat back those we don't agree with." Because it is about agreement, an admission few seem willing to make, we have to be able to confront sources of disagreement and do so "honestly." Science alone cannot claim to settle questions of the good life because science itself already takes place in context made possible by previous decisions, previous values. If we stop at the "scientific" we miss the complexity of any and all other debates.

Spare the rod: save the argument.

Update: I would apply Wayne Booth's label (get it) of motivism here. Booth understood motivism to be an inability to reason about values. I hope this label moves readers accordingly.


  1. But then, even the flatness or roundness of the earth is rhetorical, isn't it? That's no more "true" than anything else. So that headline isn't problematic at all. It's precise.

  2. Sarcasm duly noted. We cannot argue the sun away (I guess we could build a very big bomb if we wanted to). However, pointing to things like the roundness of the earth is not the same as deciding whether a behavior is a mental illness. And, additionally, pointing to the roundness of the earth still begs the question of how that should impact (if at all) how I see the world or live in it. My problem here is how people use such claims (the earth is round) to settle matters that should be argued. As I have written elsewhere (in the context of news and objectivity):

    "We can by all (available) means (of persuasion), disagree about the content and perspective of a news story or of a newspaper, but our disagreement is another argument rather than the blunt, conversation-ending force of “objective” reality. And objectivity is precisely this: the strongest form of “shut-up” yet devised by human beings."

    Saying the "Earth is Round" is another way of telling someone to "shut up." Just as calling someone "prejudiced" is. I think this later point is one you might appreciate (as matters of "political correctness" are often designed to shut down meaningful conversations about "controversial subjects").