PROFESSOR THOMAS S. SZASZ, MD
Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus
Health Science Center
State University of New York
Syracuse, New York USA
1995 Conference for Treaty 6 First Nations of Alberta
entitled "Alternative Approaches to Addictions & Destructive
Habits," Edmonton, Alberta, November 7, 1995
Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.
Adjunct Professor of Justice, Law and Society
School of Public Affairs, American University
Washington, D.C. USA
Distinguished Community Leaders, Elders, Ladies and Gentlemen, Colleagues, Friends--
I asked Doris Greyeyes for this opportunity to introduce Professor Thomas Szasz to you because I want to pay tribute to him as a friend, colleague and mentor. He is my elder, as well as elder to many of us in the academic fields of psychiatry, psychology, sociology and law, and it is a special occasion that we are here together at this very important gathering.
Thomas Szasz is one of this century's great thinkers.
There are outstanding thinkers who have revolutionized the way we think about psychiatry and the federal government and there are outstanding thinkers who have revolutionized the way we think about the "therapeutic state." Thomas Szasz is the master swordsmith in that regard. The rest of us make sharp blades, blades that cut through political and scientific nonsense--but Szasz's blade is different. Here's a Japanese legend to illustrate that point:
"As far as the edge of the blade is concerned, Masamune, a master swordsmith of the Kamakura era in Japan, may not exceed Muramasa, one of his ablest disciples, but Masamune is said to have something morally inspiring that comes from his personality: When someone was trying to test the sharpness of a Muramasa, he placed it in a current of water and watched how it acted against the dead leaves flowing down stream. He saw that every leaf that met the blade was cut in twain. He then placed a Masamune, and he was surprised to find that the leaves avoided the blade." (1)
To me, Thomas Szasz is Masamune.
Many people throughout the world have heard of Thomas Szasz. Few people have actually read his many works carefully. Fewer still understand what they read.
If they actually did read and listen to and understand Szasz's message they would know that he has always differentiated between coerced psychiatry (which is really assault and battery) and voluntary or consensual psychiatry. Thomas Szasz is not opposed to psychiatry. He is opposed to what is done to people in the name of psychiatry. Moreover, he has always differentiated between crazy persons and those labeled by psychiatrists and politicians as "mentally ill." He does not deny that people do very strange things for even stranger reasons: He refutes that people do strange things because they are sick. He denies they lack free will.
If Szasz's critics really understood what Thomas Szasz has been saying all these years they'd know the point of his work is not whether "mental illness" has or is or will be proven to be a legitimate brain disease. The point is that it cannot be proven as such because brain diseases are brain diseases and behaviors are behaviors. He demands that we call things by their accurate names. If mental illness refers to a behavior then it cannot be a brain disease. And if it refers to a brain disease it cannot be a behavior. As Szasz wrote:
"A screwdriver may be a tool or a drink: no amount of empirical research on orange juice-and- vodka can establish that it is in reality, an unrecognized manifestation of a carpenter's tool.
With the simple but uncompromising idea that mental illness is a metaphor I hoped to inflict a fatal blow, philosophically speaking, on the conceptual foundations of psychiatry. Perhaps I succeeded." (2)
Dead leaves avoid that blade.
Yet many young persons embrace that teaching.
I've been "teaching Szasz" (as my students refer to it) at several universities in the Washington, D.C. area for years now. I find the effect of "teaching Szasz" is always the same: Students get excited and administrators want to fire me. The disdain of some university administrators for a professor who "teaches Szasz" is directly proportional to the amount of excitement students feel and express.
Oh yes, and there's one other thing I hear regularly from my students when I "teach Szasz": Why weren't we ever told about any of this before?
Well, why weren't they?
I'll conclude my remarks now by telling you why I think they were not "taught Szasz" and in fact I think it is also why we are gathered here today.
The power of one group of people to control and persecute another resides in language: "In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was God."
People act like God in relation to one another through the misuse of language. And I think that is why Thomas Szasz has always focused his message on the power of language, influential speaking--what we call rhetoric. People use the wrong names for people and things as a way of controlling and persecuting them. We must pay attention to our language and the language used by others in relation to us.
Perhaps Szasz was influenced by Karl Kraus, a ferocious social critic in Austria during the early part of this century. Kraus was a wordsmith in the tradition of a samurai swordsman and called psychoanalysis an illness masquerading as a cure. In response to his critics Kraus wrote:
"I have done nothing more than show there is a distinction between an urn and a chamber pot and that it is this distinction above all that provides cultures with elbow room. [By "elbow room" he is referring to freedom.] The others, those who fail to make this distinction, are divided into those who use the urn as a chamber pot and those who use the chamber pot as an urn." (3)
If language is indeed the key to power then those in power will seek to avoid that sharp blade of speech that divides them.
And I think that is what has occurred with Thomas Szasz. And that is also what is unique about our gathering here at this conference. We do not fear that blade, for it is ultimately a blade of compassion, a blade that cuts through those chains of medical and scientific rhetoric used to enslave people in the name of setting them free.
Perhaps First Nations peoples know the confusing nature of that final point all too well: Beware the hand that feeds you if it keeps you from feeding yourselves.
In the words of Chief Dan George, from the movie "Little Big Man," my heart soars like a hawk to introduce to you this morning, a white human being, one of the greatest friends of liberty and freedom this world has known: Professor Thomas Szasz.
(1) Suzuki, D.T. (1973). Zen and Japanese culture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. (p. 92)
(2) Szasz, T.S. (1989). Law, liberty and psychiatry. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press. (pp. xi-x)
(3) Szasz, T.S. (1976). Karl Kraus and the soul doctors: A pioneer critic and his criticism of psychiatry and psychoanalysis. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press. (p. 102)
© Copyright Jeffrey A. Schaler, 1997-2002 unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved.