Culture

It's all psychological

Culture | For a culture without a belief in moral reality, all bad behavior is a sign of mental illness

Issue: "High stakes at the Court," Jan. 29, 2000

When Atlanta's ace relief pitcher John Rocker insulted New York baseball fans before the last World Series, it was seen as just more trash talk, currently in vogue among professional athletes. But when he later, in a Sports Illustrated interview, took the occasion to bash immigrants, foreign drivers, non-English speakers, teenagers with blue hair, and homosexuals with AIDS, even his own teammates wanted to put his head on the tomahawk-chopping block.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig responded to the demand that Mr. Rocker be disciplined-as was former Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott when she sounded bigoted-by requiring that he first undergo a psychological evaluation. Apparently, Mr. Selig sees obnoxiousness as a sign of mental illness.

In a culture that, for the most part, has lost the belief in moral reality-the notion that there exists a transcendent and objective moral order to which we are all responsible-the only way people can think of aberrant behavior is in psychological terms.

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Hillary Clinton, in a magazine interview, blamed her husband's infidelities on the stress that he endured as a child. New studies are arguing that children who misbehave in school do so because they lack a hormone that produces the fear of consequences. A new school of "evolutionary psychologists" is arguing that promiscuity and even rape are hardwired into male genes, in their Darwinian need to reproduce at all costs.

When we hear about the latest mass murderer or Columbine-style schoolroom killing, the immediate response is generally, "That person's sick!" Christians do know that the fallen flesh has a proclivity to sin. We cannot simply choose not to sin. Sin inheres in our very genes, going all the way back to Adam. Nevertheless, we are held responsible. The only way out of our bondage to sin is repentance, forgiveness, and the new life in Christ.

Therefore, disease imagery as a way to talk about horrible transgressions is fitting as a metaphor for the "sickness unto death" that is human sin. But often it is a way to explain or evade an even more uncomfortable truth: "That person's evil."

We can't help it if we are sick. We are not responsible for what we have done if some illness made us do it. The proper response to sick people is to feel sorry for them and try to get them cured. Mentally ill people should not be punished for their actions. Nor can they be expected to change their behavior.

As G.K. Chesterton points out in Orthodoxy, while psychological determinism masquerades as being humane, it actually opens the door to cruelty. "If it prevents anything it prevents persuasion....What it is (perhaps) inconsistent with is the generous treatment of criminals; with any appeal to their better feelings or encouragement in their moral struggle. The determinist does not believe in appealing to the will, but he does believe in changing the environment. He must not say to the sinner, 'Go and sin no more,' because the sinner cannot help it. But he can put him in boiling oil, for boiling oil is an environment." Psychological determinism denies the ability of people to change their behavior.

Searching for psychological explanations for John Rocker's tendency to shoot off his mouth to reporters takes this all a step further. If the psychologist finds that there is, indeed, a deep-seated psychological disturbance that impels Mr. Rocker to be obnoxious, Mr. Selig had better prepare for the law of unintended consequences. As psychiatrist Sally Satel points out in The Wall Street Journal, if Mr. Rocker is found to be mentally ill, he would presumably fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which forbids employers from discriminating against the mentally handicapped and requires them to make accommodations for them in the workplace.

Setting aside issues of Mr. Rocker's free speech and the pressures of being politically correct, there is a free-market way of handling the controversy. If the city of Atlanta and his teammates cannot put up with Mr. Rocker's ways, they can get rid of him. One city has a track record of taking in good players who have been cast off from other cities for taking drugs, beating their wives, getting arrested, and other transgressions that are even more serious than what Mr. Rocker did. Atlanta should simply trade him to New York.

There are legitimate mental diseases that affect some people's behavior in ways they really cannot help. The legal system-grounded in a worldview that recognizes moral reality-has traditionally decided questions of the insanity plea by determining whether or not the perpetrator can tell the difference between right and wrong.

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