Psychobabble: Extreme racism

By Keir Liddle

A paper found here makes the suggestion that extreme racism should be considered a mental illness for inclusion in the DSM-5 a position I worry is based more on politics than on a sound evidential basis. The reasoning for suggesting it’s inclusion is given below:

“The psychiatric profession’s primary index for diagnosing psychiatric symptoms, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), does not include racism, prejudice, or bigotry in its text or index.1 Therefore, there is currently no support for including extreme racism under any diagnostic category. This leads psychiatrists to think that it cannot and should not be treated in their patients.
To continue perceiving extreme racism as normative and not pathologic is to lend it legitimacy. Clearly, anyone who scapegoats a whole group of people and seeks to eliminate them to resolve his or her internal conflicts meets criteria for a delusional disorder, a major psychiatric illness.
Extreme racists’ violence should be considered in the context of behavior described by Allport in The Nature of Prejudice.2 Allport’s 5-point scale categorizes increasingly dangerous acts. It begins with verbal expression of antagonism, progresses to avoidance of members of disliked groups, then to active discrimination against them, to physical attack, and finally to extermination (lynchings, massacres, genocide). That fifth point on the scale, the acting out of extermination fantasies, is readily classifiable as delusional behavior.”

I’d have to say that depending on what “extreme racism” is meant to entail that firstly it seems vanishingly unlikely that everyone in South Africa (during apartheid (assuming the creation and enforcing of apartheid is a reasonably decent example of “extreme racism”)) was mentally ill and suddenly got better.  Secondly given that evidence suggests that ethnic minorities proportionately hold more “racist” views (about the majority and about other ethnic groups) and ideations this move (which seems largely political) could backfire in sublimly ironic fashion by branding ethnic minorities as even more likely to be mentally ill than they already are.

Furthermore the work of Sherif into in-group and out-group behaviour and the work of Fryer in economics found here, amongst others, would possibly suggest a more elegant and likely explanation for extreme racism (or sectarianism or any other -ism you care to mention) arising “naturally” (I’m wary of incurring the nature fallacy here) from the cognitive mechanisms involved in defining and determining social groups.

I’d be more convinced by a disorder that should marked extreme problems in in-group and out-group identification, as it is if this disorder exists I would suspect that it does in very few individuals and not to any great degree among those most practiced in bigotry and hate crime. For instance I’m not sure it makes sense just to apply it to race – surely you would expect (if this is indeed an actual disorder) that you’d also be able to classify extreme sectarianism as a mental illness?

Or (to be a touch glib for a moment) Rangers fans being classified as mentally ill for hating Celtic fans…

Now I don’t think there are all that many grounds to consider that there is some sort of disorder based around an unhealthy in-group association or perhaps even one based upon overly concrete bounds of what the in-group is. Mainly because in-groups and out-groups can be notoriously fluid in their constitution and construction. That and people can be members of many different in-groups depending on different settings (someone can a member of their workplace or profession in-group, member of a political party or other social grouping and a fan of Man United if they wish – all of which are different in-groups that don’t have mutually exclusive membership criteria.

Basically I think that the calls for Extreme racism to be added to the DSM are based upon a psychiatrist being so shocked by the depths of racism that some people sink too that he has had to create a mental disorder to cope with the dissonance they have experienced by having to accept they are in the wider in-group they belong to.

The in-group of the human race.

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0 Responses to Psychobabble: Extreme racism

  1. The key phrase here is “To continue perceiving extreme racism as normative and not pathologic is to lend it legitimacy”.

    This is an example (sadly not unprecedented) of the discipline of psychology straying way beyond its remit.

    If we are to classify everything socially problematic as pathologic, we shall inevitably end up with a ‘science’ that is either defined by political posturing or is so ubiquitously applied as to be meaningless.

    Psychologists cannot be the professional guardians of legitimacy. What is or is not legitimate (socially? morally?) is a much bigger question in regard to whose constituent parts no one discipline has a monopoly.

  2. Please note that this disorder, which is not to be included (the post is old and I have added it for context as I am blogging the BPS reaction to the DSM-5 currently), was proposed by a psychiatrist NOT a psychologist.

    I would generally agree with your post if it referred to psychiatrists in place of psychologists as I can assure you psychologists rarely seek to be the professional guardians of social and moral legitimacy.

    I present as evidence for this the BPS response to the APA DSM-5 revisions:

    More succintly: we aren’t that bad but that lot over there – absolutely shocking 😉

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