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Is Bigotry a Mental Illness?

Is Bigotry a Mental Illness?

The Second Temple was destroyed because of causeless hatred. Perhaps the Third will be rebuilt because of causeless love."
—Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

There were only 3 Jewish students in my high school, and I was one of them. In the small, western New York town where I grew up, most people were tolerant. But a small clique of anti-Semites made life tough for us Jewish kids. Most of the time, we just shrugged off the jokes and insults or came right back at these louts with a snappy retort. Sometimes, the bigotry grew more menacing. I still remember Robin Hicks (not his real name) walking up to me in the hallway, looking me square in the eyes, and very calmly saying, "Jews don't live long, you know."

This brief autobiographical vignette is simply to show that bigotry is of more than mere academic interest to me. I am therefore quite invested in the outcome of a controversy that has arisen recently in our profession; namely, whether or not "pathological bigotry" should be considered a psychiatric disorder. I use the term "pathological bigotry" to encompass a variety of related terms, including "pathological hatred," "racial paranoia," "extreme racial bias," and "pathological bias."

Psychiatric Times Poll


A piece in the Washington Post1 provided an excellent snapshot of how opinion on this issue has divided members of the psychiatric and academic communities—including several esteemed colleagues whom I greatly respect. As the Post reporter noted, the stakes are high. "Advocates have circulated draft guidelines [for making pathological bias an official DSM diagnosis] and have begun to conduct systematic studies. . . . If [the proposal] succeeds, it could have huge ramifications on clinical practice, employment disputes, and the criminal justice system. Perpetrators of hate crimes could become candidates for treatment, and physicians would become arbiters of how to distinguish 'ordinary prejudice' from pathological bias."1

Those who advocate making pathological bigotry a formal psychiatric diagnosis argue: Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals regularly confront extreme forms of racism, homophobia, and other forms of irrational hatred. Many patients holding these views are troubled and sometimes even disabled by them. Some individuals with pathological bigotry are frankly delusional, perceive themselves as "under attack," and become overtly dangerous to themselves or others. We should provide diagnosis and treatment for these individuals because we may be able to help them, just as we can help other troubled patients. For example, some extremely hateful patients may be helped with psychotherapy or antipsychotic medication. Psychiatric diagnosis cannot avoid the social context of mental illness, and the mere fact that our diagnoses may be misused in the criminal justice system should not deter us from applying them.

Those who oppose medicalizing these forms of bigotry argue: It is a mistake to pathologize a widespread form of human stupidity. Psychiatrists have enough trouble now, justifying the reality of ADHD and "conduct disorder"—do we really need the added woes attendant to our declaring bigotry a mental disorder? How would we differentiate mere dislike of some minority groups from pathological bigotry? Would we want this diagnosis to be a mitigating factor in, say, a violent crime against a member of a minority group? Most people who hold these bigoted attitudes are not psychotic; most probably learned their attitudes from their parents. Moreover, these individuals are rarely troubled by their beliefs. What motivation would they have for seeking or accepting "treatment"? When faced with such hateful individuals, psychiatrists should focus on diagnosing and treating well-validated, comorbid conditions, such as paranoid schizophrenia.

Both sides make good points. In order to resolve these seemingly irreconcilable views, I believe we first need to build a conceptual framework for determining what counts as disease in psychiatry; second, we can compare pathological bigotry to our paradigm and try to determine to what degree it coincides; third, we must consider how the general construct of disease relates to the further determination of whether a particular set of signs and symptoms constitutes a specific disease; and finally, we need to examine the preliminary empirical data that have emerged from some recent studies of pathological bias.

I have argued for more than 25 years that our concept of disease grew out of an ancient tradition based on the recognition of suffering and incapacity.2 In the first place, medical specialists do not diagnose disease by using high-tech imaging devices or laboratory tests, although these may help determine the specific disease entity. In psychiatry, as in general medicine, it is often a family member or soon-to-be patient who first recognizes that something is terribly wrong. This is based on our ordinary perception of suffering and incapacity in the absence of an obvious external cause, such as a knife wound. A mother who observes that her son has been tormented for months by "voices telling him to kill himself," has stopped eating and bathing, and has barricaded himself in his room for 2 weeks does not need a specialist to tell her that her son is "sick" or "diseased." Indeed, the term "disease" arose from our everyday awareness that certain pathological states leave us without ease or comfort—hence, the now obsolete word "diseasy," to describe such persons. While there is no written-in-stone, "essential" definitionof the term "disease"—that is, no list of necessary and sufficient conditions that invariably applies—I believe that the presence of marked suffering and incapacity is a good starting point for defining what philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein might have called the "family traits" of disease entities.3


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