‘Psyspeak’ on PsyPolitics and ‘therapy-speak’ on The New Yorker (2021)

by Federico Soldani – 31th Mar 2021

In the summer of 2019, I proposed the use of the terms “ideopathological lexicon” – from ‘ideological’ and ‘pathological’ – or in short “psyspeak” to mean psychologized as well as medicalized lexicon used outside of the clinical context especially when applied to the wider societal and political world, during a talk at the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London.

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On the 26th of March this year, just a few days ago, The New Yorker magazine online published the following article, under the heading Cultural Comment: “The rise of therapy-speak. How a language got off the couch and into the world” by Katy Waldman, a magazine staff writer.

Waldman uses the expression “therapy-speak”, a term also used by a senior editor of Slate, Shannon Palus, in “Therapy Speak” Has Invaded All Our Relationships” (20th Nov 2019): “In fact, it’s just the kind of formal language one might pick up from a mental health professional. In 2019, it’s infiltrating our everyday interactions. Let’s call it “therapy speak.” The term was occasionally used in the press previously, but not in relation to the widespread societal use of psychological language, see for instance “Give up on this absurd therapy-speak” (29th Sept 2003).

Using “therapy-speak” from the title, Waldman relates it, in the sub-title, to a rise in the wider world (bold added for emphasis):

“We “just want to name” a dynamic. We joke about our coping mechanisms, codependent relationships, and avoidant attachment styles. We practice self-care and shun “toxic” acquaintances. We project and decathect; we are triggered, we say wryly, adding that we dislike the word; we catastrophize, ruminate, press on the wound, process. We feel seen and we feel heard, or we feel unseen and we feel unheard, or we feel heard but not listened to, not actively. We diagnose and receive diagnoses: O.C.D., A.D.H.D., generalized anxiety disorder, depression. We’re enmeshed, fragile. Our emotional labor is grinding us down.” […]

Waldman adds: “As philosophers from Michel Foucault to Peter Conrad have observed, medical vocabulary lifts up the speaker—claiming that your intrusive neighbor has “borderline personality disorder” cloaks you in authority while pathologizing him. Using these words as bludgeons strips them of complexity; the problem with armchair therapy, or what we now might call “Instagram therapy.” […]

“One concern that I expected to hear was that the mass adoption of psychological speech might disserve people with severe mental illness. Wasn’t it disrespectful to toss around terms—trauma, depression—that can imply so much suffering? Where was the line between unravelling a taboo and draining a word of its value? The psychologists I spoke to surprised me: steeped in a counter-history of silence about and vilification of mental illness, they could not bring themselves, it seemed, to worry about this particular aspect of therapy-speak’s rise.” […]

“It only makes sense, then, that the language of psychology has seeped into the rest of our lives; psychology itself is entwined with the rest of our lives.”

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Just three days after the New Yorker article, on the 29th of March, the Guardian website published an opinion piece by psychologist Lucy Foulkes dealing with the “increased use of psychiatric language”: “What we’re getting wrong in the conversation about mental health. Increased use of psychiatric language means ordinary distress is being medicalised, while the seriously ill are not being heard”:

“We all want language and labels to interpret our experiences, especially difficult ones, and thanks to the public conversation, psychiatric terms such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and social anxiety disorder are readily available. And they have power.

This article appears more in line with an established tradition of writings related to the lines separating normal from pathological and does not explicitly touches on the widespread use of psychological or medical terminology outside the clinical context.

In both the New Yorker and Guardian articles, the political dimension of the spread of psychological, psychotherapeutic or medical languages – called “therapy-speak” and “psychiatric language”, respectively – is not contemplated, instead a purely therapeutic view is taken about such more and more omnipresent technical, scientific and professional languages. Considering the psychologized or medicalized lexicon as simply pertaining to treatment, or to establishing what is clinically normal vs. pathological, or possibly to be evaluated or treated vs. not either through psychotherapy or a more medical approach, also means attributing an exclusively positive connotation to such language, which this way semantically becomes only the language of treatment or of care.

But what about – to quote Dr. Allen Francesthe dangers of “medicalizing politics” or of psychologizing, for that matter, society at large?

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As written on PsyPolitics in an article about “Trump, his worst critics, and diagnosis outside of a clinical context” – the first of a series of three about Trump – originally intended for the blog “Mad in America” and that was in the end posted independently by the author via social media on the 15th of March 2020 and published on the PsyPolitics.org blog on the 27th of June:

“Nowadays, at the beginning of the 2020s decade, the rapidly spreading “contagious” language of psychiatry applied to politics might be referred to as “psyspeak” or “ideopathological lexicon”, as I recently proposed at the beginning of September 2019 during a talk at the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London.

The latest example, among too many to count, is libertarian magazine Reason calling the political proposals of presidential primary candidate Sanders “socialist delusions.”

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In another article on PsyPolitics, “Trump, mass hallucinogens, and the cyber-psychedelic transformation of capitalism” (13th Oct 2020) it was noted:

“As an example, in October 2019 in one of the oldest and most prominent U.S. magazines, the Atlantic, formerly Atlantic Monthly, citizens were encouraged to read DSM-5, the “bible” of mental and behavioral disorders by the American Psychiatric Association, and become as a result political diagnosticians:

“Understanding how people behave and think is not the sole province of professionals; we all do it every day, with family members, co-workers, and others.

Nevertheless, how the mental-health community goes about categorizing those characteristics and traits can provide helpful guidance to laypeople by structuring our thinking about them […]

One scholarly paper has suggested that accounts of a person’s behavior from laypeople who observe him [ed. Trump] might be more accurate than information from a clinical interview, and that this is especially true when considering two personality disorders in particular—what the DSM calls narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder.” 

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In another article in such series of three about Trump, (“Trump, spectacle, and psyspeak” 27th Sept 2020) it was noted about the phenomenon of mass psyspeak learning:

Trump has been “diagnosed” with an unspecified number of mental labels, from formal, to metaphorical, to informal ones on the media, including so-called social media, over the years, probably too many to count.  Among those: narcissist, pathological narcissist, sociopath, anxious, obsessive, compulsive, paranoid, conspiracy theorist, angry, autistic, etc.

Such unprecedented spread of psyspeak has surely helped the public becoming more versed to attribute diagnostic labels and to use psyspeak as a new cool language for politics and beyond.  

The same is happening to other public figures.  What is the diagnosis of Trump?  Malignant narcissism?  Paranoid personality? Autism? And what is the diagnosis of Greta, the climate change enfant prodige?  Asperger’s? Again, autism

President Trump has even proclaimed annually a World Autism Awareness Day in line with the United Nations.

The above questions are nowadays common among citizens worldwide, citizens who are largely viewing such public spectacle via mass media and new digital media such as Twitter, which has practically become a new institutional presidential communication channel.

The phenomenon of mass psyspeak learning includes citizens usually uninterested in politics; indeed such spectacle looks like entertainment, a so-called reality TV show, increasingly taking place on the Web” (bold added in this paragraph for emphasis).

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In another article on PsyPolitics “About the psychologization of constitutional law via ’25th Amendment’ or ‘Articolo 3’” (10th Jan 2021) a double standard about stigmatization related to psyspeak in the public discourse was noted:

“If Bided is going to use Sec. 3 [of the 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, ed.] for instance and to let his Vice-President Kamala Harris become President, he will submit (and with him, symbolically, the political office he represents) to the technical-scientific medical discourse and will be seen as a good example of, or role model for, the new citizen who is increasingly represented as a patient.

We have observed a similar representation on the media already with Greta Thunberg, the young climate change activist who did not refuse the psychiatric label of autism or Asperger’s and indeed some of her positive characteristics were attributed on the media to such condition.

Instead, Trump by being considered via Sec. 4 of the 25th Amendment, hence refusing in the public image to submit to the medical, indeed psychiatric, discourse could be represented as a bad example for all citizens or as an example of the old citizen who is not fit for the new politics increasingly transformed into medicine and psychology. An old type of citizen who, against scientific reason, refuses to submit, symbolically as well as practically, political and legal prerogatives to the technical-scientific discourse instead of voluntarily accepting the new prevailing status of patient.

double standard is affirmed: psychiatric terms and labels (including pseudo or quasi technical or metaphorical ones, or psychological insults) are used in the most stigmatizing way in the political arena, and those who do not voluntarily submit to such discourse are stigmatized badly, while at the same time global campaigns are promoting de-stigmatization of mental health conditions in the clinical context, and those who submit voluntarily are protected from stigmatization and presented as role models.

Such spectacle on mass and digital media, as previously highlighted in these pages, has also caused an unprecedented spread of ‘psyspeak’ surely helping the public becoming more versed in attributing diagnostic labels and in using psyspeak as a new language for politics and beyond.  

Not only this, disclosing in public medical and psychological diagnoses is increasingly presented as a civic virtue, instead of emphasizing as in the past the importance of privacy of health-related confidential information; for years now, celebrities have publicly disclosed medical diagnoses and conditions on the media.

Also, the clinical context is being increasingly, and more and more explicitly, extended to the whole of society. A global psychiatrization of politics and society at large is taking place under our eyes. The legal discourse is not spared.

The public discourse is currently inundated on the media by a “surrounded by idiots” rhetorichuman idiocy vs. artificial intelligence? Ordinary citizens are presented as full of cognitive biases (systematic errors of thought), hundreds of such biases according to the new rhetoric (an unscientific claim, given the time it takes to study even one or a few of these systematic errors and to understand their implications, see Tversky and Kahneman).

Citizens’ perceptions of the external world are presented as well as being highly distorted and unreliable (see for instance Perils of Perception | Ipsos).

The D.S.M. is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the so-called Bible of U.S. psychiatry, with the full list of mental and behavioral diagnoses. Former chief of D.S.M.-IV (4th edition, 1994, text revision 2000) Dr. Allen Frances wrote in his 2017 book “Twilight of American Sanity: a Psychiatrist Analyzes the Age of Trump”: “Trump isn’t crazy. We are.”

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As mentioned at the beginning of this article, almost two years ago, on the 15th of May 2019 an abstract was submitted for a presentation in London, at the Philosophy special interest group biannual meeting, which was about “Madness, the mind, and politics.” It took place on the 3rd of September in the summer of 2019, the talk was entitled “Are we witnessing the emergence of a new global psychiatric power?”

The title was making explicit reference to Michel Foucault‘s “Psychiatric Power” series of lectures at the College de France (1973-1974).

Here is the original abstract from 2019 (bold added for emphasis), which was published in the Royal College conference booklet in 2019 as well as on PsyPolitics in 2020:

In recent years we have observed an increasing focus on language and concepts related to mental health in the broader societal and political world.

For instance, political language related to “phobias” has rapidly surged to commonplace.

Similar lexicon derived largely from psychiatry, psychology, and psychoanalysis might lead to a progressive internalization and de-politicization of civic concepts, without most citizens realizing it.

More recently, prominent groups of intellectuals including psychiatrists from global academic institutions argued explicitly for a new necessity of the psychiatrization of old political concepts and institutions.

Among others, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, in a volume written by 37 contributors titled “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump” (2nd Edition, 2019), asserted explicitly: “Those who pretend that we are in the realm of politics when we are really in the realm of psychopathology make the situation even more dangerous, because they will not be prepared while the future of the planet and the human race are at stake.”

Former DSM-IV chief Allen Frances, in his essay “Twilight of American Sanity: A Psychiatrist Analyzes the Age of Trump” (2017) argued: “Trump isn’t crazy. We are.”

Michel Foucault, in his 1973-74 lecture series on “Psychiatric Power” at the Collège de France, pointed to the madness of King George III of England, monarch of a global British empire, as reported by Philippe Pinel in the seminal “Traité médico-philosophique sur l’aliénation mentale; ou la manie,” published in 1800 in Paris. According to Foucault, such emblematic scene of madness marked the birth of psychiatry as well as the passage from sovereign to disciplinary power in the modern world.

In this light, the current public psychiatrization of “the most powerful man in the world,” as the media often describe the President of the United States of America, could be seen as a new paradigm shift in contemporary power.

Such a public spectacle is broadcasted around the world via TV and digital social media (e.g, Twitter) in real time. In addition to the increasing use of a psychologized lexicon in everyday speech, a role might be played by such spectacle communicating symbolically, and contributing to, a global cultural shift towards a subjectivist worldview and a progressive de-politicization of citizenship.”

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During the presentation a great emphasis was placed on the psychologization of political language – by this meaning the language of the polis, a much broader concept than what in the U.S. is usually meant by political, hence not limited to the world of politicians for instance – quoting authors such as historians Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Lasch as well as intellectuals such as Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, and his essay “Politics and the English language”. This is an essay which preceded Orwell’s last and most famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and its concepts of newspeak as well as doublethink.

The Foucauldian concept of biopolitics was mentioned in relation to the functions of psyspeak.

Significant emphasis was attributed to the role and functions of the emerging “phobic” political language and the functions of what I called “psyspeak” were explained in some detail, including in relation to “psychological name calling” or insults – an expression used just a few days earlier by Dr. Allen Frances on the media. Psyspeak included what I called “pseudo or quasi technical name calling or ‘diagnosis’” or, following Arthur Schopenhauer‘s reasoning about the types of arguments in a discussion, what I named ‘argumentum ad psychēn’.

During such talk, it was noted how the public discourse – and especially the political one – is presently shifting “from discussing to labelling (weaponized political parlance)” by “citizens assuming the expert psychopathological gaze”, who are transforming everyone as a net consequence “from active citizen to passive patient.”

It was highlighted how, by anyone becoming a diagnostician, the political exchange or discussion, as evident from the comparison of “anti” vs. “phobic” political lexicon – a graphic representation, in a slide below, that was seen by many colleagues as an instant classic – was not anymore happening on the same, democratic level. Instead it was moving from above to below or form top to bottom – see the arrows in the slides – in an undemocratic move away from civic dialogue and democratic discussion. Contrasts demarcating such transformation away form political and democratic language towards psychologized and pseudo / quasi / technical language were listed.

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About such undemocratic mechanism of de-politicization and related de-sovreignization, individual as well as collective, via psyspeak, it is interesting to note how along the very same lines in January 2020, and to my knowledge not at any point earlier in the public debate, this reasoning was brought up in the media mainly by the prominent legal and constitutional scholar Alan M. Dershowitz in a heated exchange with a Yale psychiatrist Dr. Bandy X. Lee. As noted in a previous article “‘CyPsy’ mind? Cyber super-ego and psychedelic id. Or digital surveillance, mass hallucinogens, and the new ‘black gold’ of the unconscious” (17th Oct 2020):

“Dershowitz has recently received public attention on TV and digital media as a legal consultant to the 45th U.S. President Donald J. Trump during the 2019-2020 impeachment trial. He has been involved in public exchanges this year with psychiatrists claiming that he and the President presented a contagious “shared psychosis,” among other psychological insults directed toward the President and himself. Dershowitz, one of U.S. most prominent legal scholars, complained in 2020 that such language was indicative of American citizens having become unable to discuss democratically about political divergences and complained about such “psychiatrization” of politics.”

The jurist and the psychiatrist in question mentioned at the beginning of January 2020, to my knowledge for the first time, concepts such as “language analysis”, “contagion” and “diagnosis rather than dialogue”. New developments very much along the lines already discussed in the summer of 2019 about psyspeak and its functions and effects. 

Dershowitz noted in an article “Yale Psychiatrist Issues Diagnosis of “Psychotic” for Defending Constitutional Rights” (11th Jan 2020, bold added for emphasis):

“Indeed, Dr. Lee went even further, diagnosing “the severity and spread of ‘shared psychosis’ among just about all of Donald Trump’s followers.”

Nor does she seem to be using these psychiatric terms as political metaphors, dangerous as that would be. She is literally claiming that we are mentally ill and our views should be considered symptoms of our illness, rather than as legitimate ideas.”

Dershowitz concluded: “Her resort to diagnosis rather than dialogue is a symptom of a much larger problem that faces our divided nation — too many Americans are refusing to engage in reasoned dialogue with people with whom they disagree.

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Such combination of factors, as presented in the summer of 2019 in London, is original and was not present in authors of the past, for instance in Foucault who focused on the birth of the clinic and of the clinical gaze, among other topics, or in other authors who focused on the medicalization of society.

Indeed such a combination has never been present before, for instance as there was not, historically, the massive spread of psyspeak we are witnessing today via mass and digital media – discussed in some detail in these pages on PsyPolitics over the past year – as well as the concomitant attempt to substitute even political language and everyday language with psy-words and related lexicon, which is not just a natural phenomenon but it is constructed.

On PsyPolitics, since its opening at the beginning of the summer of 2020, an entire category of articlesmore than twenty – has included the topic of psyspeak and has been tagged accordingly.

Furthermore, such concept related to the transformation “from citizens to patients” (see in the link an online seminar offered in May 2020 on this topic) was developed before the 2020 CoViD-19 pandemic and its consequences, including population policies adopted as a response. In such respect, it was developed and presented not as a-posteriori explanation or narrative rationalization but as a prefiguration of a constructed discourse a-priori. This is in my view where tools developed by authors such as Foucault can help to understand contemporary phenomena.

Interestingly, about Foucault, Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in his “Between Two Ages. America’s Role in the Technetronic Era” (1969-1970):

Foucault‘s views, associated with a school of thought called “structuralism,” have been characterized by a critic as the ideology of contemporary technocracy, for Foucault sees man as the object of a process which deprives him of any autonomy and rules him impersonally, according to a structural dynamic.”

For Brzezinski, Foucault’s views could be used to understand at some level contemporary technocratic views.

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This is an original concept – the expert gaze assumed by citizens via psyspeak and its deep de-politicizing effects – that I had the opportunity to re-iterate in a TV interview in Italian (“psicolingua” for “psyspeak”), also published on the international blog Foucault NewsFederico Soldani: intervista TV su politica, linguaggio medico-psicologico e tecnocrazia (2020), 9 Oct (“TV interview on politics, medico-psychological language, and technocracy“), as well as in a second “TV interview on the psychiatrization of language and comment on U.S. vote” (13th Nov 2020).

Below, the slides from the 2019 talk in London are shown in which the use of the term “psyspeak” was explicitly proposed as delineated above and the functions of the relevant lexicon were analyzed and presented publicly for the first time.

The video of the talk, to this day watched about two-thousand times on Google’s YouTube only, is linked right after the slides for the interested viewer.

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Cite this article as: Federico Soldani, "‘Psyspeak’ on PsyPolitics and ‘therapy-speak’ on The New Yorker (2021)," in PsyPolitics, March 31, 2021, https://psypolitics.org/2021/03/31/psyspeak-on-psypolitics-and-therapy-speak-on-the-new-yorker-2021/.

Last Updated on April 10, 2021 by Federico Soldani

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