Why the Term ‘Psychopath’ is Racist and Ableist

By Lydia Brown

Black Girl Dangerous

I have become used to being told that I do not have feelings, that I am innately incapable of relating to other people as human beings or having any empathy at all, that this is a core component of what it means to be autistic. I have become used to hearing this said constantly by so-called professionals, dramatically by television personalities, clinically by journalists and academics, and casually by friends, acquaintances, family. But I have never become used to the feeling of absolute devastation weighing somewhere deep in my chest each time I find myself on the receiving end of this accusation.

Empathy is what makes us human.

It’s no wonder that the idea of psychopathy is terrifying. If psychopathy means the inability to experience empathy, and empathy is what makes us human, then psychopathy is literally the dehumanizing condition. Psychopaths populate crime dramas, horror films, murder mysteries, and thrillers. It’s the casual diagnosis for mass murderers, serial rapists, and child abusers.

But it is also deeply personal, profoundly ableist and sanist, and rooted in a complex, interlocking web of structural racism, ageism, and sexism.

In 1944, the Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger published a paper describing a condition that he called “autistic psychopathy.”

Theory of mind, in clinical psychology, means the cognitive ability to recognize that other people have different knowledge, experiences, emotions, and beliefs than oneself. Theory of mind is something that autistic people, like me, supposedly lack. Theory of mind is what makes empathy with other people possible.

When I was a sophomore in college, my mom sent me an email that said, “You need to work on your theory of mind.”

Dagger to the gut, I reeled at the words and, with shaky fingers, called home.

“Never say that to me again. Never.”

When I was a sophomore in high school, I was wrongfully accused of planning a school shooting. Another autistic friend who was accused of planting a bomb at her school was detained and interrogated for hours while the entire school went into lockdown. In response to frequent claims in the media and by policymakers that autistic people lack empathy (and are therefore violent psychopaths), many people in the autistic community, including autistic activists, begin the process of disavowal.

“No, autistic people are nothing like psychopaths. We are more likely to be the victims of crime while psychopaths are usually victimizers.”

“No, someone who would shoot dozens of innocent children wasn’t autistic. That’s not autism. That’s mental illness.”

“An autistic person wouldn’t commit such horribly violent crimes. Only a psychopath could do that.”

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If empathy is what makes us human, and autistic people are as human as anyone else, then we must have empathy. It must be some other kind of person who doesn’t experience empathy. It must be someone who is truly psychopathic. This is the logic path that afflicts so many disability communities. Disavowal of one another has become a way of life. Many autistic people routinely decry the use of the slur retarded, yet assert in the same breath that they aren’t crazy or mentally ill. Many physically disabled activists proudly say that their minds work just fine.

When we commit to examining our language and ideas and deconstructing the ableism we find in them, we must make a full, not partial or half-hearted, commitment. When we stop using autistic, crippled, and retarded as insults, when we realize the urgent need to stop scapegoating violence on “mental illness” and “emotional instability or disturbance,” when we learn to stop referring to our political opponents as blind, deaf, or crippled in their ideologies, we must also critically re-examine our use of the psychopathy label.

In radical communities working toward intersectional social justice, the figure of the psychopath is invoked all too often to characterize members of oppressive classes, especially when they are in a position of political power in addition to apolitical structural power.

Empathy is what makes us human. 

In September 2013, a popular blogger responded to a CEO’s appalling statement that criticism of executive bonuses is just as bad as lynching by invoking the specter of psychopathy.

In the alternate reality of wealthy people, criticizing someone’s wealth is just as bad as kidnapping someone, dragging them–by force–to a tree, beating the shit out of them, wrapping a rope around their neck, stringing them up until their neck snaps, setting them on fire, having a barbecue around the charred remains, and taking photographs of the whole thing for postcards and posterity. These are the psychopaths in charge of this corporatocracy we call the United States of America.

The term psychopath is as common in the vocabulary of the average radical social justice organizer as it is in that of the average mainstream political commentator. Yet psychopathy isn’t even a medical or psychiatric diagnosis. It doesn’t exist in the DSM-IV or the DSM-5, and as much as I hate lending any further credence to the medical-industrial complex’s state-sanctioned and socially-approved authority, this is important. Even the medical-industrial complex does not recognize psychopathy as a diagnosis. 

However, most people who point out that psychopathy is not considered a diagnosis typically follow up by explaining that antisocial personality disorder (APD), conduct disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) are the closest medically accepted diagnoses to what is meant by psychopathy. These labels are recognized and codified as psychiatric conditions by the medical establishment. And who are the people typically diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder, Conduct Disorder, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder? They are overwhelmingly poor students of color (especially dark-skinned people of color) who frequently have other disabilities.

Antisocial Personality Disorder, the diagnostic category that comes closest to approximating the lay definition of psychopathy, is most often a tool for criminalizing poverty, blackness and brownness, and disability. It is the diagnostic label that legitimizes non-compliance as a mental health problem.

Refusal to take medications? Non-compliant. Failing math class? Non-compliant. Stimming in public? Non-compliant.

If you are non-compliant, you are anti-social. You are mentally ill. You are a psychopath.

In August 2013, Anthony Stokes was denied a life-saving heart transplant because he was Black and labeled non-compliant.

A physician’s form for students in a study abroad program asks the doctor whether the student has a history of emotional disturbance.  It asks whether they have displayed “difficulties in relations with parents, authority figures, peers” with reckless, chilling disregard for whether the student is the victim of parental abuse (financial, physical, emotional, sexual), bullying or other violence by peers, or violence by authority figures (including teachers and police). “Difficulties” in those relations are automatically rendered non-normative, deviant, and thus, suspect and pathological, symptomatic of some supposed larger psychiatric crisis or disturbed personality.

A billboard in Washington DC buses asked parents to volunteer their children for a study on conduct disorder. Symptoms? Failure to conform to social norms (that could mean anyone queer, trans*, mad, autistic, or politically radical), trouble with the law (hell, that could mean anyone who uses weed or attends protests), consistent irresponsibility (that could be anyone for various poverty, disability, or abuse related reasons), impulsivity (as if this is pathological?), manipulative behavior (as a catch-all for anything non-normative or potentially subversive), and lack of empathy.

The language of pathology, mental illness, madness, disease, and disability, has long been used to reinforce other existing structural oppressions like racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, binarism, cissexism, and ableism. And it is most disheartening when those who purport to work toward dismantling those systems still use ableism as metaphor. Ableist metaphor is all-pervasive in public discourse, academia, grassroots organizing, and left-leaning movements as well as in conservative, neoliberal, and nationalist movements. It draws on the language of disability to characterize, denigrate, attack, rhetoricize, and politicize—and it does so based on the presumption that deviation from typical thought, movement, emotional processing, communication, bodily/mental functioning, learning, remembering, sensing is evidence of defect, deficiency, disorder, and ultimately, moral failure.

To use psychopathy as the lens through which one views either systemic or individual violence is to reinforce the structural power of the medical-industrial complex at the expense of disabled people, poor people, and people of color.

My advice: Be precise in your language and say that oppressive structures are violent and manipulative. Say that those who abuse their structural positions of power act with reckless disregard for other human beings. Say that they are callous and unabashedly wielding the power that comes with their privilege.

But don’t call them psychopaths.

I’ve experienced enough ableism in my life to last me several lifetimes. I don’t need fellow radicals feeding into ableism.

We talk about intersectionality in our identities, in our organizing, and in our writing so often. It is past time to move from talk to accountability.  We must hold ourselves accountable for examining and deconstructing ableism in all its forms in our work, our communities, our personal lives, and our relationships with each other. Because our lives, our dignity, our very ability to be recognized as human, depend on it.

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LydiaLydia Brown is a multiply-marginalized disabled activist who focuses on a number of issues related to violence against disabled people. She blogs at Autistic Hoya.




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