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The Hard Right Keeps Pathologizing Its Opponents
“Groomers,” “mutilators,” and other fun labels
I was a teen in the American South during the Bush-era battles over same-sex marriage. Then, the common refrain among Christian conservatives in my community was that homosexuality was a choice. People who lived “gay lifestyles” were competent, morally aware actors who were simply making the wrong choice. They needed to be persuaded, if possible—but, actually, many of these folks would argue that there was nothing particularly prejudicial about barring gay couples from an institution like marriage, or, on the same basis, excluding them from one’s church community. I disagreed with that view, and, to be clear, I do believe opposition to same-sex marriage was and is an exercise in prejudice. But I stress this line of thinking in order to draw a contrast with a different view on the right. Today, in conversations around sexuality, gender, and politics more broadly, the hard right increasingly takes the stance that the groups they organize against are not necessarily self-governing, rational actors with whom they disagree but rather aberrant, even pathological individuals whose sickness renders them both dangerous and less deserving of political dignities and freedoms.
That is not to say this is new. It’s not, and the history of fear-mongering around LGBTQ and other minorities has been richly studied. But I do want to stress the ascendance of this particular approach as a dominant style in American politics in the current moment.
Recently, Vice News compiled a nearly 10-minute clip of various Fox News hosts discussing wokeness as a “mind virus” that infects, destroys, and spreads its way through communities and, in particular, ravages young and vulnerable people. This contagion generates stupid, clownish behavior in adults and liberal activists. In minors, it creates confusion about one’s gender identity and, if they are white, shame about one’s racial background. Gender dysphoria, a persistent sense of mismatch between one’s biological sex and gender identity, is itself an important issue to address. It is not a disease. But according to the hard right, the desire to change one’s social and physical traits to match one’s own gender identity is a mental illness and a form of self-abuse.
Minors and their safety are central here. “Grooming,” “abuse,” and “mutilation” are the watchwords of anti-LGBTQ activism. There is even a catchy diagnosis that continues to ricochet around on the hard right: rapid onset gender dysphoria. This is the belief that exposure to LGBTQ socialization, confusing media, and even “grooming” practices can cause children to quickly develop gender dysphoria and, in the span of mere months, insist on transitioning their identity in ways they will surely regret. It should be noted that rapid onset gender dysphoria is not endorsed by the major medical associations, and research has been conducted that disputes the claims behind it. What I want to note is the way this idea invites a view of being trans as an illness and, by emphasizing it as a social contagion that can rapidly overwhelm a young person, one that is highly communicable. As to the supposed spreaders of this illness? Well, Libs of TikTok’s Chaya Raichik was unequivocal in her condemnation of LGBTQ advocates, calling them “groomers” and concluding “I think they’re evil.”
This concern for minors resembles the tone of a horror film. The enemy is all around, and the enemy is any individual or organization trafficking in the kind of activities symptomatic of the “woke” virus, spreading groomer and racial ideology like a contagion. Nevermind Covid, it is gender ideology and wokeism that are cutting a wide swath through society.
But otherwise, the diagnostic guidelines for what is and isn’t aberrant conduct or material are non-existent—or, rather, conveniently adhere to Justice Potter’s famous claim about obscenity that “I know it when I see it.” Take, for example, a new bill in my state of Arkansas that proposes to make it possible to jail librarians if they provide obscene materials to minors. Senate Bill 81, put forward by State Senator Dan Sullivan of Jonesboro, would ban material that “appeals to the prurient interest, when taken as a whole.” It then defines that quality as follows:
In order for an item when taken as a whole to have an appeal to the prurient interest, it is not be successful in arousing or exciting any particular to be found or intended necessary that the item form of prurient interest either in the hypothetical average person, in a member of its intended and probable recipient group, or in the trier of fact.
One has to wonder whether this gives the state of Arkansas an almost limitless power to determine whether something “appeals to the prurient interest.” But, again, such a totalizing approach is consistent with how the hard right has approached these issues. The germ of social degeneracy can be carried by even the most innocuous-seeming things.
While issues around sex, gender, and school curriculum have been central to the right’s pathologizing of its opponents, other examples abound. Take Marjorie Taylor Greene’s comments last year that Christian groups working to help and resettle migrants in America was a sign that “Satan’s controlling the church.” In 2017, Tucker Carlson had a Black Lives Matter activist on his show whom he proceeded to call “sick” and “demented” for throwing an all-black Memorial Day party. Evil. Satanic. Demented. Deranged. Sick. This is the language of mental and moral pathology. And we have seen that the diagnosticians of America’s cultural ailments seem content to hold to a standard that what is bad and what is mad is whatever they say.
Frequently, what they say is that it is their critics who are unwell. The last seven years have treated us to the MAGA refrain that the most ardent critics of President Trump are in the throes of “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” In a 2020 op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Joseph Epstein went so far as to elaborate the various stages of this metaphorical ailment. Stage four of five notably included the delusion that Trump would attempt to hold onto power if he lost the election in a manner akin to strongmen of the 20th century.
Occasionally, a more banal version of this widespread diagnosis of others as psychologically unwell emerges, such as the repeated line by hardcore gun-rights advocates that mass shootings are primarily about untreated mental illness (though many have not followed these statements with more robust advocacy for mental healthcare funding).
Labeling one’s enemies as mentally ill and morally insane provides a basis for all manner of coercive and dehumanizing politics. Lately, I’ve been reading Charlie English’s riveting history of insanity and art in Weimar and Nazi Germany. In The Gallery of Miracles and Madness: Insanity, Art, and Hitler’s First Mass-Murder Programme, English details the way Entartung (“degeneracy”) preoccupied social theorists of the early 20th century and how debates over art, the mentally ill, and art produced by the mentally ill came to capture Nazi attention. It is a genuinely masterful work, but what struck me was the way English details how madness was viewed as a danger to the broader population, a threat to the national gene pool. They could not, by their very definition as mentally ill, produce art. The Nazi artist and architect Paul Schulze-Naumberg argued that art by genetically and racially inferior persons was not merely inferior in and of itself, but as English puts it, “degrading [to] the Germans culturally and biologically.” At the core of all of this is a sense of pathology, how it is expressed and identified, and how it corrodes the nation.
Since raising the specter of Nazi Germany inevitably exposes one to accusations of hysteria and unseriousness, let’s look to more contemporary examples. Vladimir Putin’s war on LGBTQ Russians followed a similar playbook, albeit backed by the already considerably less free conditions of Russian society. Notably, one of Putin’s most aggressive laws targeted so-called “gay propaganda.” The law, which first passed in 2013 and was expanded last November, requires LGBTQ sites to have 18+ labels and bans the promotion of anything deemed contrary to “traditional family values” to children, including “drugs, paedophilia, and homosexuality.” Similarly, Orbán’s Hungary has cracked down on its LGBTQ citizens again under the guise of protecting children. Hungary, that darling of the new American right, is a useful example beyond its policies on sex and gender.
In the early 2010s, Viktor Orbán was still initiating his anti-liberal transformation of Hungary. One of the early major battles in the culture war that he and his political allies have waged over the last 13 years concerned the appointment of new directors of Budapest’s New Theatre. Promising to reject “foreign garbage,” Istvan Csurka immediately drew accusations of antisemitism. His co-director, Gyorgy Dorner, proclaimed that it was time to end Hungary’s “degenerate, sick liberal hegemony.” I’ve devoted a lot of words to Hungary’s assaults on migrants, the LGBTQ community, and liberal principles. Jewish Hungarians expressed dismay at these appointments, with the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities calling the changes “an advance for circles with Nazi ideology.” But the context of the New Theatre is a good place to return to where I began because it centers cultural institutions and products. As English observes throughout The Gallery of Miracles and Madness, degeneracy was a kind of genetic contagion for thinkers like Nordau, Wagner, and the fascists they inspired. He writes that
[Hitler] had assured Joseph Goebbles … that once in office he intended to carry through the party provisions of 1920, which called for a struggle against ‘tendencies in the arts and literature which exercise a disintegrating influence on the life of the people.’
The rampant pathologizing of its enemies is at the center of the American hard right’s culture war. What can be said of the manner in which Carlson, Greene, Raichik, Walsh, and others speak about their opposition to wokeness, LGBTQ, and racially sensitive content other than it is framed as a war on Entartung? As ever, the real danger is not the supposedly sick society but in the self-appointed clinicians who have come forth to diagnose and to cure it.