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Lockdown supporters are using psychology pseudoscience to label anti-maskers as irrational, stupid sociopaths

Frank Furedi
Frank Furedi

is an author and social commentator. He is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Author of How Fear Works: The Culture of Fear in the 21st Century. Follow him on Twitter @Furedibyte

is an author and social commentator. He is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Author of How Fear Works: The Culture of Fear in the 21st Century. Follow him on Twitter @Furedibyte

Lockdown supporters are using psychology pseudoscience to label anti-maskers as irrational, stupid sociopaths
Why are people who refuse to conform to Covid-19 rules being condemned as having personality disorders & of being morally inferior? Because their attackers see these terms as carrying the weight of science – but it’s poppycock.

These days psychology is often applied as an ideological weapon to be wielded against political opponents. So I was not surprised to read a study that claimed that people who refuse to wear masks or comply with social distancing rules are likely to have sociopathic symptoms. In other words, they are sick people.

According to the Brazilian researchers who conducted the study, antisocial traits, such as low levels of empathy and high levels of callousness, deceitfulness and risk-taking characterize those people who refuse to wear masks.

Once upon a time these antisocial traits were associated with people who were called bad or malevolent. Today, psychological terms such as sociopath are used to pathologize people who you don’t like. Why? Because psychology enjoys the authority of science and gives legitimacy to a point of view. Consequently, the diagnosis that someone is a sociopath is seen by many as not just an opinion but a statement of scientific fact.

It is not only opponents of mask wearing or the policing of Covid-19 who stand condemned by the science of psychology. In recent times, the authority of science has been used to call into question the motives and behavior of people supporting Brexit and other populist causes.  

According to Time Magazine, “psychology made the Brexit vote inevitable!” It claims that psychologists “haven’t been the slightest bit surprised” by the outcome of the referendum, which was “primarily a function of the irrational ways of the human mind.”

The statement that psychology made Brexit inevitable, allows supporters of this outlook to support the claim that anyone who voted to leave the EU was likely to be irrational and stupid. In this way, the very real aspiration for democratic control that inspired a significant section of the Brexit-supporting electorate is recast as an outcome of psychological confusion.

People who are not happy wearing masks or who vote for Brexit or demonstrate habits that are labeled as “populist” are not simply criticized but are psychologically devalued as morally inferior people. Almost seamlessly a psychological diagnosis interweaves with moral condemnation. As the political commentator Ivan Krastev noted:

“The rise of populist parties as a rule invites psychological or even psychoanalytical interpretations. Commentators consciously or unconsciously are tempted to analyze populism in terms of ‘the return of the repressed,’ ‘traumas,’ ‘frustrations’  and ‘status anxieties’”

Psychological explanations of the motives and behavior of people supporting Brexit and other populist causes, invariably insist that whatever drove them to adopt this conclusion, it was not rational calculation.

Statements like, “Brexit was fueled by irrational xenophobia, not economic grievances” draw attention to the primitive impulses that dominate the populist mindset. Numerous commentators claimed that it is rage and not reason that motivates citizens whose voting behavior they despise.

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The simplistic use of psychology as a pseudoscientific form of polemic even disturbs some psychologists who take their profession seriously. Though by no means sympathetic to Brexit, Michael Smith, author of ‘The Psychology of Brexit’, is concerned that “remain-leaning pundits attribute Brexit to psychopathology – a kind of madness – because they simply cannot imagine how a rational Leave-voting person might feel.” In fact, it is not simply an absence of imagination but an intense sensibility of insecurity and hatred toward those who embrace a different set of cultural values that explains the cynical use of psychology to delegitimize the opinion of political opponents.

It is entirely legitimate to criticize people who refuse to wear masks or who voted for Brexit or for popular parties for their opinions and actions. But to reduce such people to the status of morally inferior and mentally sick individuals is to convey the message that they are not only wrong but ill. From this standpoint, what defines these ‘sociopaths’ are not their political ideals but their confused and irrational mental state. Therefore there is little point in taking their views seriously. They need to be treated as patients in a clinic rather than as responsible citizens.

It is sad when the science of psychology is perverted and turned into an ideological weapon. It is bad when people become medicalized and dehumanized because of their views. It is bad for democracy and insofar as it damages the authority of science, it is bad for serious psychology.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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