The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting Trial and the Gordian Knot of a Social Psychopathology

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The medicalization of anti-Semitism: a possibility?

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PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE DAILY NEWS

As the sentencing stage of the Pittsburgh trial winds down, which focused on the possibility of serious mental illness in the perpetrator, attention has shifted somewhat to anti-Semitism. For example, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and author Ron Kampeas asked yesterday in an article title: “Is antisemitism always delusional? The Pittsburgh Synagogue shooter’s penalty could hinge on the answer.”1

If the answer is yes, the defense might persuade the jury that the perpetrator is delusional and therefore was not capable of meeting the definition of intent in committing his crime. However, that then begs the question of whether all anti-Semites are delusional to some extent.

There has been historical discussion about whether there are mass delusions, so to speak, drawing much attention with the study of crowd psychology by journalist Charles Mackey in 1841. The subjects included alchemy, economic bubbles, haunted houses, and the influence of religion on the shape of beards. For a time, up to DSM-5, folie à deux, a delusional belief shared by 2, was an official psychiatric diagnostic category. However, most modern psychological viewpoints consider online conspiracy theories about anti-Semitism and other matters more like “partisan motivated reasoning,” sometimes called groupthink.

Using anti-Semitism as an example, part of the underlying challenge is defining it. The most commonly accepted definition is from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which states2:

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred . . .”

The use of the words “perception” and “hatred” puts it in the psychological and mental realm, but how? How much hatred is necessary and when, if anytime, is hatred appropriate?

Anti-Semitism, like racism, has never been in the DSM. No wonder that psychiatry and psychology were left out of the national plan to address anti-Semitism in May by President Biden’s administration. Rather, the usual focus is on education, awareness, and safety, just expanded and crucially supported by our federal government.

As I wrote in a column right before the trial started, “A Social Psychopathology Classification: Social Psychiatry Prediction #5,” there is another way to potentially classify and address anti-Semitism, as one of the social psychopathologies, defined like individual psychopathology, but writ to large groups. There are large social tendencies to scapegoat and harm others, as we see in the social antis, isms, social phobias, cults, and system burnout. Both the perpetrators and victims can suffer, though differently. The potential value of viewing anti-Semitism this way would be in medicalizing it, which inevitably would lead to new research and possible interventions.

When I recently made a presentation about the trial and anti-Semitism, a medical colleague astutely brought up the relevance of the legendary Gordian knot. The story goes that Alexander the Great solved the test of unraveling an elaborate knot that belonged to Gordium. Whoever could do so was said to be bound to become the ruler of Asia. After trying unsuccessfully to unravel the knot like others, he stared at the knot and suddenly realized that there was another way to do so right in front of his eyes, so he took out his sword and sliced the knot in half, implying that there might be a simple new way to slice through thousands of years of our anti-Semitism knot. Could that not be the medicalization of anti-Semitism? Psychedelics, for example, have sometimes been thought to be that psychological sword.

That innovation might even have legal repercussions for cases like this one. If it is a social psychopathology, then aren’t there accessories to the crime in some way, like the influential commentators, social media companies, and funding by other countries? Or do I sound delusional to even suggest this perspective?

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.

References

1. Kampeas R. Is antisemitism always delusional? Pittsburgh synagogue shooter’s penalty could hinge on answer. The Jerusalem Post. July 13, 2023. Accessed July 13, 2023. https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/antisemitism/article-749846

2. What is antisemitism? International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Accessed July 13, 2023. https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/resources/working-definitions-charters/working-definition-antisemitism

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