Psych jargon as media hype

To be heard over today’s cacophony of voices, one needs a hook: a meme, a viral photo, a catchy phrase, a juicy zinger, a sound bite.  Speakers soon learn that overstimulated, desensitized attention spans require more and more goosing.  Some call this the attention economy feeding our dopamine addiction.  To others it has a simpler name: hype.

Jessica Bennett presents the problem very cogently in a recent New York Times guest essay.  She focuses on a particular strategy: hyping all setbacks or frustrations as “trauma,” and hyping every offense as “abuse” or “gaslighting.”

It’s an excellent essay and certainly worth reading.  But the phenomenon goes well beyond Bennett’s many examples of clinical terms that pathologize the actions of others.

Poisoning the well

Pathologizing the others themselves has an even longer history.  For one thing, it led to the 1973 Goldwater Rule, which (still) forbids members of the American Psychiatric Association from offering psychiatric opinions about public figures.  The APA created this rule because in 1964 a provocateur magazine publisher persuaded nearly 1200 American psychiatrists to wield psychiatric concepts as weapons to attack presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

According to these doctors, Senator Goldwater didn’t merely hold offensive political views.  He was “schizophrenic,” a “megalomaniac,” and plenty of other bad names casually borrowed from the professional literature.  Since this flood of pseudoscience reflected more poorly on the psychiatrists than on Goldwater himself — Goldwater won a defamation lawsuit against the publisher — the APA established the rule to save its members from further embarrassing themselves and their profession.

A tool (that seemed) too handy to set aside

Few challenged this prohibition in the 42 years before Donald Trump’s presidential run.  Then it suddenly became important among certain mental health professionals not merely to slam Trump’s politics, values, and attitudes, but to declare them the product of a sick mind.

Alleging psychopathology, especially by credentialed experts, often proves a more powerful weapon than simple disagreement.  In this case, however, it wasn’t powerful at all.  Preaching to the choir about Trump’s mental ills merely invited counter-pathologizing of Trump’s opponents — clearly not what these authors had in mind.

Of course, amplifying disapproval by adding psych jargon doesn’t require a mental health professional.  (Nor is such jargon always, or mainly, critical.  Therapy-speak is rampant for all kinds of reasons.)  Historically, evildoers have been “monsters” — the word originally meant an infant born with birth defects, believe it or not — or “madmen.”  Now reprehensible people are “narcissists” or “sociopaths,” especially on social media.  They “gaslight,” “abuse,” and “love-bomb” the innocent.  As Bennett writes, it’s a lot more powerful to call someone an abuser than to admit they hurt your feelings.

Winning by losing

A few years ago I wrote about “onedownmanship” — oneupmanship in reverse — as a method to win arguments by positioning oneself as the more victimized party.  Just as social media algorithms guide users to more and more extreme content, our victimization “race to the bottom” rewards greater hurt with greater attention and legitimacy.

Saying this risks blaming the victim.  Indeed, many commenters assailed my post where I held that “psychopath” often serves as a vague epithet of disapproval.  They said my view was “gaslighting,” and at least one suggested I might be a psychopath myself.  (Psychology Today has since removed comments from all posts.)  In other words, unhappy commenters employed popular pathologizing terms to discredit me for failing to honor the terms of their victimhood.

I do not mean to blame victims.  Nor do I believe rhetorical misuse of psych jargon is premeditated or intentionally manipulative.  I’m sure it feels self-justifying.  And it simply works as a way to get one’s point across, to be heard above the din.  That’s why people use it.

Why not use psych jargon as hype?

Nonetheless, drawbacks abound.  Pathologizing others in public discourse is essentially an ad hominem argument, a logical fallacy.  Popular terms such as “abuser” (and “racist” and “snowflake”) are personal putdowns, not valid arguments.

Psychiatric labels compound the problem by linking destructive stereotypes to named disorders.  Whether Donald Trump is a malignant narcissist matters less than continual cultural reminders that narcissists are dangerous, “toxic” people we need to beware and avoid.

Using psych jargon as hype also cheapens these otherwise useful terms (see “trauma creep”).  If everyone who feels down or disappointed is “depressed,” how do we describe those who ponder suicide all day and haven’t showered in weeks?  If a bad date is “traumatic,” what term do we use when someone is critically injured in a terrorist attack?

Don’t hate the player, hate the game

In a noisy restaurant (remember those?) everyone speaks louder to be heard.  Yet this adds to the noise that all must speak over — a vicious cycle.  The cacophony is no one’s fault, but everyone’s doing.  Likewise, if it takes psych jargon and similar hype to attract an empathic public, can we blame those who use it?  We can’t.  The hype is no one’s fault, but everyone’s doing.

Fortunately, both situations eventually self-correct.  Diners learn that a noisy restaurant is not a good place for serious conversation.  They go elsewhere for earnest talk, and as a side-effect they stop feeding the vicious cycle.  In like fashion, eventually we’ll realize that overstated language conveys less information, not more.

Hype, of the psych-speak variety and otherwise, will one day strike us as florid, perhaps foppish, and in any case less compelling.  It will self-correct.  We can hasten that day by noting when rhetoric is inflated for effect.  Is frustration or disappointment really “trauma?”  Is an isolated act of disrespect “abuse?” Does all misbehavior reflect a psychiatric condition?  Only if we say so.

Photo by Verena Yunita Yapi on Unsplash

3 comments to Psych jargon as media hype

  • Dinah

    In addition to being heard above the din (or the roar), I think people like to have a framework to explain their worlds. Part of it is the act that was inflicted on you, another aspect is how you processed it. Is an isolated act of disrespect “abuse”? If the person who experienced it is struggling with their emotions around it and can’t move on, maybe it’s a helpful paradigm to cast the act as abuse. No one has to listen, it might still be helpful to have a paradigm. What if the single act was a vicious and public humiliation that everyone agreed was abusive? Certainly there are people who are abused who downplay it and don’t want to be seen as victims. Ah, it’s all hard. Sometimes it matters (for example, if you call it child abuse and take the child aware from their parents, then it’s good to have a precise definition, the word here is not benign), other times it may not matter.

    So are you a psychopath?

    • Hi Dinah,

      My post was about public media, not how people see themselves in the privacy of their own thoughts (or in therapy). While line-drawing is inevitable — perhaps we’d all agree that some single heinous episode qualifies as abuse — and while some victims deny their abuse instead of highlighting it, I was remarking on a general media drift toward using such language, which has been recognized by others.

      Part of the problem, which I didn’t tackle here, are current claims that words like “abuse” and “trauma” mean whatever the speaker says they mean, and that if one feels “abused,” then, by definition, abuse happened. That’s not how we once used words. The dubious freedom to call any perceived slight abuse (or racism, socialism, or any other word of blanket condemnation) fuels our society’s divisive tribalism and dumbs down public discourse.

      I’m not a psychopath. But, as you know, that’s how all psychopaths answer.

  • Eliza

    I am trying to remember what life was like before the explosion of social media – when the news (in print or on screen) was the primary method in which people received news and often, new information. Can you imagine how different the COVID-19 pandemic would have been had it pre-dated many of the go-to media platforms? Sheep might then be seen only as the furry animal from whom warm sweaters are made, as a farmer’s source of income, or as the 4-legged animals so necessarily herded by certain breeds of dogs. Public health might still be regarded as something to actually help the health of the public. Then again, without pre-print pubs, would data have been disseminated as fast? Would genomic sequences have been shared at all, much less with any semblance of timeliness? I can remember when breaking a story was a worthy goal – one that often reflected painstaking research and effort. Now, there is less emphasis on being the first to make an announcement and more on a catchy character-limited declaration worthy of “citation” via electronic repeats. Cancel culture, “Karen,” #metoo, and even memes all have indexical meanings – and the more they are used, the more they are accepted in mainstream lingo. If only I knew what would replace the iphone – I would use that as a way to justify forgoing periodic upgrades. Alas, I do not want to abuse the valuable space here by adding to the value of inflated rhetoric.

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