Does ‘crazy’ equal ‘wrong’?
I know we are supposed to have a science of ‘mental illness’ and all that. But any anthropologist can tell you: the semantic domain of ‘crazy,’ in any society, including ours, is largely—perhaps not completely, but largely—a sociocultural moral construct without a rigorous, objective, psychiatric substance.
If you took Anthro 101 you know this already because the most famous thing that anthropology has taught the world, and the first thing you learn, is that, in a great many domains, what is considered crazy (and wrong) in culture A can be considered normal and even normative in culture B.
Such fundamental differences of opinion can have profound consequences.
It happens in my country, Mexico, as it does in other parts of Latin America, that we are still playing out the aftershocks from the collision of two cultures that considered each other crazy, and which, after much bloody fighting, sat finally down to live together and also partly to fuse and weave with each other in an unequal embrace that still looks more like a struggle, full of that confused and awful pain that comes from feeling both hatred and love, and full of yearning, somehow, and also hope, for true brotherhood at last.
The kind of mutual existential shock that Amerindians and Spaniards first felt when Cortés landed on the Veracruz shore—the telltale ‘these guys are crazy’ reaction—is an experience that we are still having today. Many practices that local populations around the world find not only normal but valued and even obligatory can and do shock the middle and upper classes in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (or WEIRD) societies, populated by Politers, as I call them (members of university-educated ‘polite society’).
This very fact should remind us that the idea of ‘crazy’ is strong on relativity and subjectivity, not so much on objectivity.
An illustrative example
For illustration, I am here reminded of the faces Politers make when I share the details of an important game among the Torguud herders of rural Western Mongolia, whom I have studied.
In this society, adults of both sexes will fondle, kiss, and loudly smell a male infant’s penis. They also pretend to detach the penis and to ‘smoke’ it. Sometimes the handling and kissing gives the infant an erection (I witnessed two entirely unambiguous cases when this outcome was pointed out for me with special glee). The game tapers off at different ages in different households; the oldest I saw, probably atypical, was a 6-year-old boy.
This normative and universal game (I saw it performed in household after household) brings excitement and joy to participants and witnesses, who love to join the mildly raucous, good-natured play. And it brings excitement and joy to the boy, who shrieks with embarrassed and delighted laughter (especially if the height of embarrassment—an erection—should happen). If old enough to be aware, the boy is fully expected to make every effort, always squirming and struggling, to protect his penis.
Babies, of course, are not aware of the game as such nor can they resist attentions showered on their penises, which at this stage are humorous expressions of affection and appreciation by adults. Many a time I was offered a defenseless baby’s penis for kissing and playing. Honored though I was, I couldn’t bring myself to do it, and so risked offending my Torguud friends. I think I know what they were thinking: He doesn’t want to kiss, touch, and smell the little penis? How weird! Yet, living as they do in a multi-ethnic region, I think they silently understood that, coming as I do from a profoundly foreign society, I am paralyzed by my own strange taboos.
My visceral reaction, when first encountering this game, was: They ALL do this? This is crazy. Because, in my own Western polite society, when a rare adult is found kissing and fondling little boy’s penises, that person is diagnosed as psychologically deviant: crazy. And for indulging rather than repressing such crazy urges, the label ‘criminal’ may be additionally tagged. Yet my ethnocentric reaction does not amount to a scientific demonstration about anything.
I am not saying—mind you—that children should not be protected from practicing pedophiles, or that practicing pedophiles should not offend you, or that practicing pedophiles should not have to face legal consequences. Neither am I saying that pedophilia should be considered normal. What I am saying is that, from an ethnocentric point of view, it may seem like all Torguud herders are crazy pedophiles. They are not. In fact, there appears to be no sexual gratification for the adults—it’s just an innocent game. But if anyone tries this innocent game in the West there will be zero cultural approbation—just the opposite.
Cultural difference and ethnocentrism
To see my own ethnocentrism is a good thing, I believe, but it does not suffice to make it suddenly vanish. For ethnocentric reactions are quite natural. Herodotus, our first anthropologist, long ago pointed this out: each culture reacts ethnocentrically to the ‘other,’ almost irresistibly imposing a morally negative judgment on what, ‘to us,’ are eccentric behaviors.
“ … if one were to offer men to choose out of all the customs in the world such as seemed to them the best, they would examine the whole number, and end by preferring their own; so convinced are they that their own usages far surpass those of all others.” (Histories 3.38)
Herodotus followed this with the anecdote of a Persian emperor who entertained himself watching his Greek subjects become outraged upon hearing that, following a man’s death, some of his Indian subjects would eat their forebear. And then this emperor had even more fun watching these Indian subjects get outraged to hear that the Greeks burned their own dead. As far as these Greeks and Indians were concerned, the other was completely crazy (and wrong).
It is worth pointing out that even cultures descended from the same root and considered strongly similar—perhaps even bound by a ‘special relationship’—can have rather strong differences in what they consider ‘crazy.’ For example, British psychiatrists do not use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of American psychiatrists (which they have severely criticized). The Brits have their own book!
Is ‘crazy’ a scientific concept?
The cultural relativity of ‘crazy’ was one of Michel Foucault’s famous points in Madness and Civilization.1 But if you don’t like Foucault (many don’t) then consider the famous hard-nosed psychiatrist and philosopher of science Thomas Szasz, who argued in The Myth of Mental Illness essentially the same point (though with an entirely different style).
I think one of Szasz’s illustrative examples is rather potent: if ‘crazy’ were not culturally relative, and the past were not a foreign country, he wondered, then how could homosexuality, just because Freud said so, be ‘crazy,’ and then, one generation later, following a cultural change that made Freud’s prejudice embarrassing, and again entirely by fiat, ‘not crazy’?2
Or consider Allen Frances, once called “the most powerful psychiatrist in America,” who chaired the edition of the DSM IV and has now revolted against the process, accusing that psychiatry, corrupted by Big Pharma, has been expanding arbitrarily the frontiers of ‘crazy,’ including in it more and more normal variation so that more people can be diagnosed with a ‘pathology’ that will get them to consume, as a ‘fix,’ more pills.3
The point is made. ‘Crazy’ is (largely) not an objective, scientific concept. Whatever the consensus definition of ‘crazy’ becomes, it will be strongly dependent on our cultural, academic, and political biases, and may even be shaped, as Allen Frances points out, by powerful economic interests.
‘Crazy’ is how I subjectively assess anything too far outside of my own paradigm. But my own paradigm—the acceptance of which may have been involuntary and largely outside of awareness—is not necessarily Truth or Sanity.
This insight—that your present paradigm may not be Truth—matters in science. As physicist Freeman Dyson once explained:
“new concepts in any branch of science are hard to grasp … [because] contemporary scientists try to picture the new concept in terms of ideas which existed before.”4
This can make the new concept often feel crazy and wrong. But the new concept isn’t always wrong. Sometimes it is just crazy.
Sometimes a new theory is crazy—non-computable within the ‘common sense’ of the discipline’s current paradigm—yet it resolves the contradictions in our present body of evidence, and so calls forth, on the strength of that success, an entirely new paradigm, which it wraps around itself. Once the new paradigm has been fully internalized by practitioners, the theory that spawned it is no longer crazy.
The change from the geocentric to the heliocentric model was like that, I believe. We switched completely. It now sounds crazy to us that anybody would want to put the Earth at the center of the Universe. But not because the heliocentric model is obvious to any given layperson. We just learn the heliocentric model from an early age, and it becomes a paradigm.
But sometimes something else happens—something truly uncomfortable: the new theory stays crazy even after the paradigm change, because the new paradigm itself feels crazy no matter how much time goes by or how well it predicts—and accounts for—new observations.
I think the theory of Darwinian evolution, for a lot of people, has gotten permanently stuck in this latter category.
But an even clearer case is particle physics, for here even the professional practitioners—the people who really buy the Standard Model—feel that their way of talking about the world is crazy.
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Indeed, already by the 1950s, physicists had given up hope that the feeling of ‘crazy’ would ever leave them, because their quantum theories, and the results of the experiments which those theories nicely predicted, all still felt completely crazy, no matter how often the new paradigm succeeded. And so, because the feeling of ‘crazy’ apparently could not be shaken, they flipped the moral valence of the word! Physicists now expected any successful theory to be not just crazy, but very crazy.
Freeman Dyson illustrated this new culture with the following (now famous) anecdote:
“[The physicist Wolfgang] Pauli happened to be passing through New York, and was prevailed upon to give a lecture explaining the new ideas [on elementary particles] to an audience which included Neils Bohr. Pauli spoke for an hour, and then there was a general discussion during which he was criticized rather sharply by the younger generation. Finally Bohr was called upon to make a speech summing up the argument. ‘We are all agreed,’ he said, ‘that your theory is crazy. The question that divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct. My own feeling is that it is not crazy enough.’ ”5
The state of theoretical physics was summed up by Dyson as follows: “For any speculation which does not at first glance look crazy, there is no hope.” It wouldn’t be published!
Generally speaking, genius in science requires a taste for crazy because major progress must always shatter an existing paradigm.
If we want to make progress in science, therefore, we must be careful not to label ideas too liberally as ‘crazy.’ Or, if we can’t avoid that, then we must remember that ‘crazy’ does not equal ‘wrong.’ A crazy idea may be wrong, of course, but that is not always the case. And we must remember, also, to work a bit harder to examine why something seems crazy to us—especially when the ‘crazier’ theory can account much better for the evidence.
This latter practice is a form of higher consciousness: it amounts to a skeptical examination of your own paradigms. You gaze into the structure of your mind, looking to see if it needs any bricolage. And then you make changes.
And that, my friend, is the most profound definition of freedom!
Foucault, M. (1967). Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. United Kingdom: Routledge.
Szasz, T. S. (1974). The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct. United Kingdom: Harper & Row.
Frances, A. (2013). Saving Normal: An Insider's Revolt against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma, and the Medicalization of Ordinary Life. Harper Collins.
Dyson, F. J. (1958), “Innovation in Physics,” Scientific American, vol. 199, No. 3 (September), pp. 74-82. (Freeman Dyson reflected on his own essay in 1998 when it was republished in an edited volume.)
“Innovation in Physics…” (op. cit.) pp.74-82.