Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Oh No! Not Cognitive Rigidity Syndrome!

Cognitive Rigidity Got You Plugged Up? Take two BLASTO! pills and stop worrying.

from a Washington Post article, March or February 2004:

"Nor do those two positions represent the whole spectrum of opinion. There are also those who view any rational suicide as a failure of a medical system that should have identified a patient calling for help. "Most suicidal persons desperately want to live," states the Web site of the American Association of Suicidology, a group devoted to the understanding and prevention of suicide.

This concern is what makes Heilbrun's decision such a disturbing one, says suicide expert John L. McIntosh, chairman of the psychology department at Indiana University South Bend. Even someone making what appears to be a thoroughly rational case for suicide, McIntosh says, can be suffering from depression or cognitive rigidity, an unwillingness to consider other options. Health professionals, he stresses, should be diagnosing and then treating such individuals.

And always lurking in the shadows of the debate is one other concern: the so-called slippery slope. That is, once a society condones suicide, for whatever reason, what's to stop it from one day promoting the act? An individual's right to die, then, might become his duty to do so."

This sentence jumped out at me, and not like a jolly clown; it was an evil, twisted clown:

"Even someone making what appears to be a thoroughly rational case for suicide, McIntosh says, can be suffering from depression or cognitive rigidity, an unwillingness to consider other options."

Let us stipulate that our subject is making a thoroughly rational case for something - suicide, or a change in government policy of some kind, or a change in the common morality, or a new point of view regarding humanity and its place in the cosmos, or its relationship to the biosphere. Such advocacy could be dangerous to the status quo, and that is no small thing; and the more rationally the case is stated, the more dangerous it is. It is also quite rational, although in a restricted or provincial way, for the threatened entity to respond to the challenge in whatever manner that will neutralize the threat; and to do this we use the tools, not of actual rationality, but of a virtual or symbolic rationality. We first assert our authority and prior claim to reason: we are Experts and represent the People in some way. Then we create a label that fits into a pseudo-rational world view or schema covering the threatened topic, and we paste the label over the rational case that the dissenter had advanced, and we neatly tie it up with a few technical references and footnotes, and the challenging argument is discredited; it disappears as if it had never existed. This method is only a temporary fix, really, as it does not erase the dangerous ideas as they persist and spread among the people (small p this time).

This particular example is classic: as suicide is a very negative value, and psychiatry exists in part to prevent it altogether, just as medicine exists to prevent death altogether, the intellectual disciplines staking claim to 'expert', 'professional' knowledge of the psyche cannot admit that any truly rational person could be justified in committing suicide. Therefore that "thoroughly rational case" that Mr. McIntosh stipulated must be invalid, not because of flaws in reasoning, but rather because the individual suffers from a damaged and malfunctioning psyche: perhaps clinical depression, a useful and commonly accepted label, or, if that is insufficiently specific to satisfy the more skeptical, perhaps... cognitive rigidity. A syndrome or condition in which the subject is simply unwilling to consider other options. The subject is not just hard-headed, or stubborn, or foolishly convinced of a wrong idea, or plain cantankerous; the fact that the subject persistently disagrees with the opinions of experts proves that he or she is sick and out of touch with reality to some degree, and nothing the person may say, however reasonable, is untainted with this defect.

Hey - psychologists! Psychiatrists! Yoo-hoo! Over Here! I'm suffering from so much cognitive rigidity on this issue that you'll need a psychic A-bomb to unblock me! And my opinion is that you have completely lost touch with the reality of individual human experience; you have subverted your own intelligence into an infinitely reflecting maze of mirrors; you call it Science, and you bow down to it, and you build a wonderfully clean mental temple with a shiny 1000-watt rationalism glaring from every window. But, to extend the metaphor, a few floors down the horses have filled all the stables with your fragrant fertilizer. I think you're full of cognitive rigidity yourself, and you need some kind of supreme, industrial-strength cognitive emetic; if I were a little too rational I'd kill myself rather than put up with your analysis any longer. Luckily, for me personally, life is sweet, and stuff like this is just fuel for a good rant.

What is individuality, anyway? We rank it very high in our official value system; yet circumstances and the cancerous growth of group entities and mass media are currently eroding it. Taking a longer historical view, the phenomenon of individuality has continued to gain strength over the millennia; and some think it benefits from unrest, war and catastrophe, which destroys and prunes back the growth of agglomerations and ideologies, letting the quirky, the obstinate, the foolish and the creative individuals emerge and flourish in messy, unplanned cross-fertilization, like the chaotic carpet that grows from the floor of a burned forest. Suicide is by definition the ultimate act of individuality, no matter how misguided; it is unique to the self-conscious animals on this earth. If we excise, through medicine, therapy or physical force, the ability to kill one's self, the sacred sphere of individuality itself will be significantly damaged, and further power will accrue to the collective. Is that so bad, you ask? Consider: without individual, self-aware consciousness, human society is no different than ant society, or any other such complex system. Each of us, alone, is the world. The rest is just blind, dead matter and energy.

Here is the truly slippery slope: if we condone the invalidation of an argument that appears thoroughly rational, because we dislike the argument's conclusions, then we've rejected reason itself, our most powerful tool, and we're all right down the crapper of history. Mark my words with a yellow highlighter, and then burn them in a sacred and mystical circle, or whatever you please. Just don't call me late for my hemlock nightcap.

No comments: