The title of this piece is a quotation from a professor under whose tutelage I worked about 37 years ago. I was working on a master’s degree in counseling and many of us thought we should be allowed to give diagnoses for our clients thus opening the door to insurance reimbursement for our services. The professor didn’t see it our way and was opposed to counselors being able to assign diagnoses. In some ways he was anticipating the current life-coaching approach to helping people. I thought about him a few weeks ago when a news report crossed my desk. This was a report of the findings of study conducted at the University of Liverpool. It states, in part: “A new study . . . has concluded that psychiatric diagnoses are scientifically worthless as tools to identify discrete mental health disorders.” Professor John Read, University of East London, said: “Perhaps it is time we stopped pretending that medical-sounding labels contribute anything to our understanding of the complex causes of human distress or of what kind of help we need when distressed.” The report also notes that these labels “. . . can create stigma and prejudice.”
The effort to assume the mantle of scientific respectability results in turning people into objects. There is even a challenge in this report to the concept that human suffering is the result of a disorder. It seems to me that the effort to seek a cause and effect dynamic for emotional problems shifts our attention from the individual and her/his situation and can invite us to become psychic archeologists looking back farther and deeper for explanations. Insofar as we ignore the individual who is suffering in our attempt to explicate the etiology of the difficulties, we objectify the individual.
Martin Buber, the Jewish existentialist philosopher, wrote a book in 1923 called I and Thou. In this work, he took note of the temptations we all have to turn the I-Thou relationship into an I-It relationship. Currently we are seeing an avalanche of I-It thinking as we witness a cascade of name-calling, pejorative descriptions of minority persons of color and victims of poverty. When the other becomes an “it,” then we are also on the way to turning ourselves into “its.” Buber’s philosophy can be summarized thusly: In the I-Thou relationship, two beings encounter each other and engage in dialog, but in the I-It relationship the beings do not actually meet but rather confront each other as objects. Such objects are projections of the individual’s mind and this would mean that the I-It encounter is a relationship with the self, which Buber described as a monologue.
Civic discourse has become a process of haranguing and ignoring and there is not much quality to our common life. While the history of psychiatric diagnosis may seem distant from the current mélange, I am concerned that the total inadequacy of the current diagnostic system contributes to turning people into objects by emphasizing our victimhood. If there is indeed something called the human condition, then I don’t think we are victims of it. We are participants in it and the dialog Buber promoted in the I-Thou relationship opens the door to mutual healing and growth.