Individuality vs. Illness: Are We “Diagnosing” Ourselves Into a Bland Monoculture?

Posted on December 7, 2012


This week we looked at a few of the controversial changes coming up in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  I’d like to close out the week by asking the general question:  just what is a disorder?  On the great, multi-dimensional continuum of infinite human variation, just where does one decide to draw that arbitrary line between “normal” and “disordered?”  And if we could draw that infinite human variation as a bell curve, has the “normal” zone been steadily shrinking, becoming narrower and narrower, until mere restlessness, nerdiness, or tantrums have become pathologized rather than being seen as normal personality variation, or minor issues of socialization or discipline?

We live in a society where the slightest physical variations are swiftly “corrected” with cosmetic surgery.  Once upon a time, braces to correct crooked teeth was about as far as most people went in the cosmetic alterations realm.  But today, it is normal – even expected – that protruding ears will be pinned back, and that crooked, hooked, wide or bumpy noses will be trimmed.  Small breasts will be enlarged, “love handles” will be liposuctioned, thin lips will be plumped and small chins will get plates inserted.  One might note that these features are not exactly defects, but many have come to see them that way:  those who ridicule the people who have them, and those who suffer the mocking.  In the end, many of us are driven to extreme measures to look like everyone else.  Almost exactly like everyone else.  It’s true; if this were not the case, this ad by Jockey would not have resonated with its youthful audience:

Jockey – OUT OF LINE from Flicker Films on Vimeo.

Here’s something to think on:  what is the ideal of beauty?  It is, believe it or not, averageness.  When the features of many facial images are averaged into one composite image, that image is considered more beautiful than any of the individuals that make it up.  And the faces of real people whose features are mathematically, measurably closest to the average in a given population, are considered to be the most beautiful people.  Nipping, tucking, and sculpting away our “defects” may make us feel prettier, but it is also making us factually more average.

So is the same basic thing happening in the social, personality, and disciplinary arenas?  Have we become so intolerant of variation, of challenge, of “different,” that we are overpowered by our desires to label, categorize, and “correct” everything… and in the process of “correcting” certain traits, do we possibly destroy the very essence of some people?  Are we creating a human monoculture?  What makes an individual… what makes the self?  Surely not pills, therapy, and whatever other people dictate.

Albert Einstein was so slow to learn to speak that his parents consulted doctors about it, and he later had a rebellious streak that got him expelled from school.  I have little doubt that today, he would be in grave danger of a “diagnosis” and “therapy.”  What might have happened as a result?  Would his curiosity have been dulled?  Would he have just kept plugging away as a patent examiner like the good citizen he was supposed to be, rather than producing a bunch of upstart papers that turned the world of physics on its head?

Thomas Edison was another child who did not learn to talk until nearly age four, and afterward was so actively curious and outspoken that one of his schoolmasters labeled him “addled.”  Some modern observers believe that had Edison been a schoolboy today, he would likely have been labeled “ADHD.”  What would a childhood of ADHD medications have done to a young Edison?  By chemically beating his roving brain into submission, would we have deprived ourselves of his lifetime of invention?

In the past, we might speak of a “difficult child,” and every generation has had its nerds, klutzes and oddballs.  They were not seen as “mentally ill,” but they also have never been celebrated… at least, not until they go on to become an Einstein or an Edison.  The question is, how many Einsteins and Edisons are out there right now, bearing some kind of diagnostic label, pigeonholed, categorized, and “corrected” into that bland average right in the center of the bell curve?  And what are we losing as a result?

Of course there are real mental illnesses out there that need treatment; but I suspect that there are an awful lot of people out there today who have been told they are somehow “abnormal” and must be “corrected,” when we all might do better to lighten up on all the diagnoses and medications, and let more people be themselves.  There is richness and strength in diversity.