03 October 2011

Misdirection by euphemism

As I watched the news a few weeks ago waiting to see if, and then when, the state of Georgia would execute Troy Davis—a man wrongly convicted at worst, or unjustly sentenced at best—something about the images from outside the prison struck me: The innocuous and anodyne name of the prison, the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison.

Naming the prison this way asserts that the public should know that this facility is where diagnosing and classifying occur. While it's undeniably true that those terms do accurately convey some of the actions that the Georgia Department of Corrections carries out there, it begs the question: Why are these functions of this prison so vital as to claim space in its very name?

George Orwell, in his famous 1946 essay Politics and the English Language said, "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible." It is a coincidence of history that only a year later the United States would consolidate the belligerently named Departments of War and Navy into the comparatively docile Department of Defense.

The labels a culture applies to its institutions serve a purpose beyond mere identification: they signal the purpose and expectations by which we should judge them. This is why those two superfluous words in the Georgia prison's name are so important. They were not chosen lightly, nor were they included in the prison's title carelessly.

Let's examine the word diagnostic closely (classification's particulars ought to be self evident afterward). Beyond its definition, the verb diagnose is notable because it is overwhelmingly used to indicates a label applied by an authority. To wit: the OED's first usage example for diagnose is, "doctors diagnosed a rare and fatal liver disease." One can easily construct other common usages, e.g., "the mechanic diagnosed the problem with the car."

No matter the usage example, they all refer to situations where higher-information individuals (or professions, or institutions) apply a label to something. To put it more simply, diagnosis is an act of profound authoritarianism. While the authoritarian implications of both diagnosis and classification are important, the more subtle endorsement is toward the medical usage. It is no accident that diagnose's usage example invokes the medical profession.

This is just one particular example of the way language has come to serve the state in obfuscating its abrogation of social responsibility. At the same time that the state systematically offloads responsibility to the medical establishment, it imitates the language of medicine to blur the distinction. Whoa, that wasn't where you thought this essay was going eh? Let me explain.

Heather Kovich recently wrote about her time as a Social Security disability examiner. There are two parallel federal programs that provide disability payments to people, Kovich explains:
[Social Security Disability Income] SSDI, which allow[s] workers to collect their Social Security prior to age sixty-five if they became disabled. In 1974 the program added Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, which provided minimal payments to the disabled, including children, who had not contributed enough to Social Security to qualify for SSDI.
How does the system determine who qualifies for this money? Kovich again:
On the basis of a forty-minute interview and examination, I was supposed to determine how disabled an applicant or “claimant” was.
One of the crucial distinctions between SSDI and SSI is its funding. SSDI is nothing more than the extension of Social Security benefits to people who are not yet sixty-five, but have accumulated 20 Social Security credits in the past ten years. Since SSI was specifically designed for people who were disabled but had not paid a "sufficient" amount in Social Security taxes it is funded through income taxes. Keep that in mind for later.

The Last Psychiatrist summed up the situation this way:
The rise of psychiatry [ed: medicine] parallels the rise of poverty in industrialized societies. The reason you see psychiatry in the U.S. but not in Sudan isn't because there's no money for it in Sudan, but because there is not enough money in the US to make some people feel like they're not in Sudan. It is the government's last resort to a social problem it may or may not have created, but has absolutely no other way of dealing with.
To paraphrase: The government is no longer responsible for deciding who gets "disability" or not, instead doctors "decide". Moreover the system cloaks its caprice, whimsy, and financial limitations with medicine. Kovich explains (emphasis mine):
With the arbitrary nature of the medical determination, getting approved for disability probably depends on persistence as much as anything. Most disability applications are initially denied, but many decisions get overturned later.
Keep in mind Kovich is an insider here. She's seeing it from the other side of the curtain, and she still thinks that the system's arbitrariness is a flaw. This is because she has fallen prey to the same mistruth as Marcia Angell in the NYRB (a former editor of the NEJM who makes an astounding number of errors in the piece, but that's for another time). As Angell tells us right up front:
The tally of those who are so disabled by mental disorders that they qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) increased nearly two and a half times between 1987 and 2007—from one in 184 Americans to one in seventy-six. For children, the rise is even more startling—a thirty-five-fold increase in the same two decades.
Angell wants this to be evidence that psychiatry has run amok and must be reigned in. Let me explain why she is wrong, very clearly.

Aid to Families with Dependent Children + Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Enrollees

The point here is not that many people who used to be on welfare are now on SSI (though it is true). The point is that the system was designed in such a way that precisely this displacement happened. The electorate became intolerant of "welfare", which is a very different thing than being intolerant of, say, "just enough monetary redistribution to keep the poor from burning things down". When the state realized that it was no longer able to fulfill its anti-riot mandate under the guise of alleviating poverty it added a layer of abstraction and went back to work. In this newer, better construction the state would not be responsible for deciding who gets its anti-riot dollars, doctors would. If you don't believe me, recall that SSI is paid for with income tax dollars; bonus question, what tax streams fund other more conventional welfare programs?

This is problematic because idiomatic associations like this (i.e. ones that invoke one referent as misdirection away from another) have effects on our behavior that we aren't even aware of. For instance (emphasis mine):
When people go through marriage registries, they find that people are more likely to marry other people whose first name begins with the first letter of their own first name, so Alex and Amy, Joel and Jenny, Donny and Daisy, these kind of things. And if your name is Dennis or Denise you’re statistically more likely to become a dentist. This can be verified by looking in the dentist professional registries.

Also, people whose birthday is Feb. 2, are disproportionately more likely to move to cities with the number two in their name, like Twin Lakes, Wisconsin. And people born on 3/3 are statistically overrepresented in places like Three Forks, Montana, and so on.

Anyway, the point of all this is that it’s a crazy reason to choose a life mate or a city to live in or a profession, and if you ask people about why they made these choices, that probably would not be included in their conscious narrative.
Eagleman soft pedals it a bit by including "probably" in his statement, but the point is clear: We cannot help but be influenced by these unconscious associations. While Eagleman's examples of the influence these random associations have on our lives are innocuous, it is much less benign when state institutions purposefully manipulate and contort the language to misdirect the public's interpretation of it.

To bring this back around, what the state is doing when it labels its prisons as "Diagnostic and Classification" prisons or even "Correctional Institutions" is this same thing, on a more subtle scale. By appealing to actions and authorities other than "imprisonment" or "execution" the system is able to imply its own blamelessness. After all, a man executed at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison must have been diagnosed and classified as worthy of death, right?

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