During my last visit to LA, I visited the Psychiatry: An Industry of Death Museum.  Though I knew the Church of Scientology was heavily involved, I was still favorably predisposed.  I reject the philosophy of mind that underlies modern psychiatry, and I’m very skeptical about the net long-run benefits of psychiatric treatment.  I’m not just an explicit Szaszian; I won the 2005 Szasz Prize.  If I wouldn’t appreciate this aggressively-named museum, who would?

Unfortunately, Psychiatry: An Industry of Death was a big disappointment.  I was pleased to see multiple video clips of the great Thomas Szasz.  I was fascinated by the gruesome tools of early psychiatry.  But I can’t imagine any normal American finding the museum remotely persuasive.

Why not?  First and foremost, because the museum defends a radical position without admitting that it’s radical!  This is a bad strategy even when your audience is a blank slate; if you manage to pique their curiosity, they’ll still quickly discover that you were misrepresenting controversy as consensus.   But if your audience is already familiar with the standard story, defending a radical position without admitting it’s radical is rhetorically disastrous.  You instantly sound like a brainwashed cultist, too caught up in your own weirdness to even comprehend the standard view.  And that’s precisely how Psychiatry: An Industry of Death sounds.  Since almost every American adult takes the disease model of mental illness for granted, you can’t credibly start with the flat-out denial of that premise.

Instead, the reasonable radical must take a circuitous path. 

Step 1: Fairly describe the conventional view – and grant that it is the conventional view. 

Step 2: Make many common-sense observations inconsistent with the conventional view. 

Step 3: Show that your radical view explains these anomalous observations.

Step 4: Now, double back and start pointing out deeper flaws in the conventional view.

Step 5: Consider and address counter-arguments.

Step 6: Tirelessly but calmly return to Step 2.

Take my writings on mental illness. 

Step 1: I unambiguously acknowledge that I’m criticizing the standard view that most people take for granted. 

Step 2: I make common-sense observations such as (a) alleged symptoms of mental illness are usually responsive to incentives, (b) delusions and even hallucinations aren’t generally considered symptoms of mental illness as long as they’re part of an established religion, (c) many strange lifestyles (e.g. extreme mountain climbing) aren’t classified as mental illnesses, even when they’re more self-destructive than other strange lifestyles (e.g. heroin addiction) that are classified as mental illnesses.

Step 3: Present my alternative view that mental illness largely (though perhaps not exclusively) amounts to extreme, socially stigmatized preferences; in other words, that the label is a moral judgment masquerading as a medical judgment.

Step 4: Cover topics like how psychiatrists “discovered” that homosexuality wasn’t really a mental illness.

Step 5: Consider hard cases like visual hallucinations.

Step 6: Keep arguing – and keep listening.

You could object that I fail to live up to my own standards; I’m not the “reasonable radical” I claim to be.  But either way, my larger point holds.  If you want to sell a radical position to normal people, you have to meet them where they stand.  You have to admit that their incredulity is understandable.  And you, the radical, must assume the burden of proof.  Otherwise, you just sound crazy.