As skeptics who are active on the internet, mocking silly ideas about creationism, anti-vaxxers and general woo are par for the course. Many of us are ruthless in this mocking, often stemming from a feeling of indignation that people could try to promote ignorance and impede others from educating themselves on the facts. We like to tell ourselves that we’re mocking ideas, and not people but let’s face it, we also mock the people who promote these silly ideas. We have all, at some point, thrown around words like “stupid”, “ignorant” or “idiot” when describing people like B.o.B and his flat-earther tweets, or Ray Comfort and his banana video.
On the other hand, armchair diagnosing is generally accepted as something one should never do. There is, of course, very good reason for this. It often comes from a place of malice, trying to marginalize another person. Even those who do not do it out of malice are usually being condescending, arrogant in thinking that they can diagnose someone just because they watched a psych TV show, or attributing pathology to perfectly normal behavior and reactions. Generally speaking no one benefits when lay people throw around terms like “schizophrenic”, “bi-polar” or even, simply, “I think that person has a mental issue”. So, let’s not speculate about people’s mental health status through the interwebs, right?
However, as much as I would like to deny it, I also find myself doing this, on occasion. What follows is not an attempt to justify or make excuses for armchair diagnosing, but rather to discuss one reason why some people do it that is often ignored.
The first time I was ever publicly guilty of armchair diagnosing was with the man at the very beginning of this video, whom I found while watching the (now infamous around FtB) Thunderf00t series “Why do People Laugh at Creationists“.
While I had no problem with Tf00t’s mocking of VenomFangX, I didn’t like the inclusion of this man in the series. Guys, I said, this man clearly has some mental issues. There’s something about him, I really don’t think he’s in his right mind. Let’s not make fun of his ideas, I don’t like it.
What followed was intense push-back. I got everything from “Just because he disagrees with you doesn’t mean he’s crazy!” to “That’s irritatingly condescending of you, don’t speculate on his mental health”. The fact that this man went on to murder another youtuber notwithstanding, I understand why people reacted that way to my comments. However, I want to bring up that the problems with mocking ideas and armchair diagnosing are not as black-and-white as they may first appear.
The fact of the matter is, mocking someone with a mental illness is also really, really not cool.
When conspiracy theorists tell us that Bush and Obama and the Queen of England are all reptilians part of the New World Order, we roll our eyes at them and laugh. If a schizophrenic person in the middle of a full-blown psychotic episode tells us that they saw Obama transform into a reptile with their own eyes we don’t laugh, we try to help that person. It’s just not OK to laugh at sick people. We ridicule backwards people who make misogynistic or racist remarks and tell them how wrong they are, but if someone has a violent personality change due to a brain injury, or tumor, or early-onset dementia, that’s not funny. Our scorn turns to concern, because we have new information about that person that puts everything else into context.
This is not to say that we should stop mocking every silly idea we come across on the off chance that the person saying it has a mental illness. This is also not a defense of armchair diagnosing. I am simply trying to point out that, sometimes, people speculate on the mental health status of others on the internet because they genuinely think that maybe we should stop before mocking this person. Maybe there is a different explanation for their odd behavior.
The more I think about it, the more murky and fuzzy I find the whole thing. I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.