Refugees from Individuality                                                                                                                    5th June  2013

IATROGENIC: The dictionary says: ‘1.Med. (of an illness or symptoms) induced in a patient as the result of a physician’s words or action.  2. Social Welfare. (of a problem) induced by the means of treating a problem but ascribed to the continuing natural development of the problem being treated.’

I think I can see this word staring back at me in many aspects of how we live now.  If you’re given Rauwolfia for high blood pressure, for example, it can cause depression.  So you have the attempted control of one problem creating another problem altogether.  And what often happens is that the secondary problem can be confused with the first.  It can be seen as just a natural development of the first problem.  It’s travelling incognito.  It’s very hard to spot.  So the more treatment you give, the worse it gets.  There are all kinds of modern ways to have yourself treated into illness.  Even antibiotics can create a more virulent strain of the thing they’re trying to combat.

Isn’t that a possible metaphor for the nature of our society?  Aren’t many of the problems of our society a kind of iatrogenic illness?  We run in search of so many cures we make ourselves ill with them.  This goes beyond the physical into the sociological and psychological.  Could the self-consciousness of having something wrong with you be contagious, like a germ?  Does a society that lives as closely packed as we do in terms of information constitute a particularly septic environment psychologically, so that what one person perceives as a problem swiftly becomes one for a lot of other people?  Can the conviction that a social illness exists help to create it?

The ability to activate debilitating autosuggestion in people is likely to be particularly powerful in a culture so awash with half-formed information and the pontifical pronouncements of experts whose chief expertise lies in acting as if they were experts.  I remember reading years ago of an Australian aborigine on whom a kind of witch-doctor put the curse of death.  For no physiological reason that mainstream medicine could find, the aborigine gradually pined and died.  I sometimes wonder if social theorists and behavioural analysts don’t sometimes stand in much the same relationship to the suggestibility of our society as the witch-doctor did to the aborigine.

The modern passion for naming and categorising everything can be dangerous.  It isolates a fluid condition into a static and definitive entity – like, for example, ‘dysfunctional family.’ What exactly does this mean?  I would have thought all families are dysfunctional to a lesser or greater degree.  After all, all human beings are dysfunctional.  That’s why we die.  To have decided you come from a dysfunctional family, far from being liberating, is more likely to freeze any possibly dynamic relationship with your own past.  You’ve oversimplified the complexity of experience.  Such a term doesn’t help you to personalise what’s happened but to depersonalise it.  You’ve made it generic.  You’ve given yourself not an identity but a label.

One of the troubles with such labels is that they’re too easily appropriated by people to whom they don’t properly apply like the same pill prescribed for a variety of seriously different conditions.  They could cause more problems than they solve.

For one thing they create fashions, as labels tend to do.  Even something as horrific as child abuse can find its name stuck on to a variety of experiences which don’t merit the term.  People who have had a rough childhood or had parents who didn’t give them the love to which they felt they were entitled can decide that’s the style they want to give their experience.

Another difficulty with external labels is that they can disempower the person you hang them on.  People’s natures can be reduced to being suitcases for carrying the luggage of their past. They become refugees from their own individuality.  Nearly all responsibility for what happens to them is delegated to someone or to something else.

There is a tendency these days to confuse society with life.  While it makes sense to demand that a society should not inflict unnecessary suffering on any of its individual members, there is a degree of personal suffering which is an inevitable part of being alive.  The present spurious belief that there should be social and financial palliatives to meet all exigencies is not an enlargement of the individual’s status but a diminishing of it.

Social support-systems there must be, as many as can effectively mediate between the individual and social injustice, but there must also be enough room for individuals to grow as individuals.  Otherwise, society becomes like a lifelong course of antibiotics, which in the process of apparently protecting the individual will effectively leave him or her without antibodies against the experiences they must confront for themselves.