(The following essay is in large part drawn from and inspired by conversations I have had recently with my friend Dr. Mark Foster on these subjects. The opinions expressed, however, are my own. You can find Mark’s blog, “Healthy Living in Colorado,” at

I’ve previously discussed various aspects of the creative tension between the individual and the society, how it implies a more subtle and complex conceptualization of “liberty” than is currently in vogue, and how it reaches to the heart of how we define ourselves as individuals and how we organize ourselves as societies. These essays most explicitly include Liberty & InterdependenceLiberty & SocietyRights v. Security, Freedom & CoherenceInclusivity & Exclusivity, E Pluribus Unum, The Meaning of “Representation”, Free Will, Determinism, Quantum Mechanics, & Personal & Social Responsibility, Social Coherence and DisintegrationCollective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems, The Genius of the Many, and The Inherent Contradiction of Extreme Individualism, to name a few, but really include most of the essays on Colorado Confluence to some degree or another, because the creative tension between the individual and the society is at the heart of so many issues, on so many levels, through so many disciplines.

One aspect of this creative tension involves a set of interrelated issues on both the individual and social levels, touching upon our notions of mental illness, deviance, human variation, professionalism, and tolerance or accommodation, and how all of these things integrate into our social systemic reality.

Mental Health has traditionally been conceptualized as a duality: Those that are mentally ill, and those that are not. Some things that used to be considered mental illnesses (such as homosexuality, until 1974 according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association) no longer are, but it involved the moving of an item from one category to another, not a reconceptualization of the categories themselves. I addressed this somewhat in Sound Mind, Sound Body, Sound Society; Sound Good?

The similar duality involving deviance v. social conformity has experienced some parallel developments. It could be argued that homosexuality, removed from the rolls of mental illnesses in the 1970s, has remained until recently, in many or most minds, within the broader category of “social deviance” (and remains there in the minds of too many). At both the individual level of what we define as “mentally ill,” and at the societal level of what we define as “socially deviant,” we are addressing the issue of where we draw the line between that degree of deviation from the norm that is tolerable, and that degree which exceeds the limits of our tolerance.

To be fair, it is not a one-sided affair, merely a matter of how much diversity society will tolerate, but also a matter of how much deviation from the norm is functionally possible. A person must be able to integrate him- or herself into a society to a degree adequate to thrive within it. A person who deviates from the norm in a way which makes engaging in any productive contribution impossible, for instance, regardless of how accommodating the society strives to be (such as, for instance, by simply refusing to work under any and all conditions), will have a hard time paying the bills. (On the other hand, someone who disengages equally in terms of contribution and in terms of benefits is more easily tolerated.)

Generally, a deviation which involves drawing upon our collective production of wealth and welfare without contributing anything to it is deemed to be parasitic. It makes sense, on some level, not to tolerate such deviance, even if we might want to look beyond it and figure out what is motivating it and what might be done to address it. At that point, considering it either a mental health issue, or a character flaw, and how to encourage or facilitate a change of heart, becomes a functional necessity.

More emphatically, we clearly don’t and can’t tolerate forms of deviance that involve acts of violence or predation against others. This is an important point, because I believe that one of the reasons for relatively low tolerance of less threatening forms of deviance is that they challenge our faith that more threatening forms might not be implicated. For instance, if someone walks toward us acting in extremely odd ways, even if not in any explicit way threatening violence, most of us feel some apprehension that the norms which most of us follow, including those which protect us from one another, are not well enough in evidense to feel secure that they will be adhered to. In other words, when someone is acting oddly in a non-violent way, we generally have raised apprehension that he or she has above-average likelihood of acting oddly in a violent way as well.

But there is a dialectic between, on the one hand, how accommodating and flexible and tolerant a society is, and, on the other, how well that society incorporates and benefits from the true diversity within it. A police state is, by definition, a state in which there is an authoritarian stifling of all officially intolerated deviance, which is usually that deviance which is most threatening to those in power. But it tends to include almost all forms of ordinary minor deviance as well, since authoritarian states tend toward “overcontrol,” considering all variability generally threatening to the status quo from which they benefit.

In America today, those who are the most inclined to support more rather than less stringent enforcement and punishment of laws, and who are least tolerant of human variation (e.g., homosexuality, bilingualism, etc.) are also those who come “wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Ironically, many who most readily invoke the word “liberty” in America are least tolerant of human variation (i.e., the liberty to deviate from social norms). “Liberty” to them means only the opposite of “collectivism,” which leads to the perverse conclusion that it is better for our social systems to be coopted by powerful individuals and groups than for the polity as a whole to exercise, through its elected agents, some public oversight in the public interest.

In other words, the modern right-wing concept of “liberty” has become co-opted by an authoritarian world view. A true commitment to liberty would involve recognizing the dialectic between the individual and the society, the legitimate demands by society for some degree of conformity or “articulation” by the individual, and the legitimate countervailing force of individuals testing and stretching those limits by deviating from the norm and advocating for a social systemic evolution which ever more organically accommodates such deviations.

There is a dynamic and creative tension between the individual and the society. The society is, and must be, coherent, able to maintain its coherence, to function with the greatest possible efficiency in producing and distributing wealth (and other forms of human welfare), and in doing so in a sustainable manner. But societies benefit from individual initiative and diversity. The division of labor is a more robust creator of wealth than all people doing identical work (e.g., farming). The markets that emerge from a substantial degree of individual liberty in finding one’s niche is more robust than a command economy. But a failure to enforce the laws within which such markets function would result in a disappearance of that robustness; in other words, some centralized conforming forces are necessary and useful. The trick is to figure out how and where to draw the line.

Though we fancy ourselves a society defined by the utmost respect for individual liberty, we may in fact be a more conformity-demanding society than most other developed nations. In any case, we are a more conformity-demanding society than is optimal. This is most apparent in our prevalent standards of “professionalism,” and the impact they have on the vibrancy of our professions.

“Professionalism” has come to mean, to too great an extent, being sufficiently bland and conformist within the professional institutional setting. A doctor who blogs about the over-prescription of drugs in the treatment of mental illnesses may lose his job as a result (as one I know did), or a particularly outstanding teacher who rocks the boat by having too much personality may be driven from the profession, as many are. We are, to some extent, prisoner’s of Max Weber’s “Iron Cage of Rationality,” sterilizing our environment and ourselves in the interests of conformity and the smooth operations that it facilitates.

This does not mean that any and all behaviors should be blithely tolerated, but rather that we need to work at loosening up our social institutional framework, making it flexible enough to accommodate more rather than less human variation, tapping into that variation as a resource whenever and however possible, and demoting it to the status of a self-imposed burden as reluctantly as possible. We have to recognize that our differences, even some of our more dramatic ones, aren’t threats to our collective welfare unless we refuse to accept them and adapt to them, that we don’t have to cure ever deviation from the norm, nor dismiss every person who isn’t enough like every other person.

Liberty requires tolerance. Prosperity requires utilizing rather than ostracizing our diverse human resources. Mental health requires accepting and accommodating our differences more and seeking to eradicate them less.

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