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A Machine Would Never Be Bitter

I sometimes wonder if the flipside of the AI campaign to make machines more humanlike is a pharmacological campaign to make humans as quiescent as machines. As global competition increases the value of productivity, an underground world of neuro-enhancing drugs is a growing part of campus life. But what about “emotional enhancements?” Christopher Lane, whose work I’ve discussed before, foresees a new market, and new perils:

[T]he American Psychiatric Association . . . has generated untold amounts of publicity and incredulity . . . by debating at its convention whether bitterness should become a bona fide mental disorder. Bitterness is “so common and so deeply destructive,” writes Shari Roan at the Los Angeles Times, “that some psychiatrists are urging it be identified as a mental illness under the name post-traumatic embitterment disorder.” “The disorder is modeled after post-traumatic stress disorder,” she continues, “because it too is a response to a trauma that endures. People with PTSD are left fearful and anxious. Embittered people are left seething for revenge.”

Now I grant that there’s a lot of anger and bitterness out there. How much of it should be attributed to the last Republican administration? The question straddles psychology and politics, I concede, but in the eyes of many Americans that administration managed in eight years to bring a largely healthy economy to its knees. . . . Heaven knows, there are reasons enough to be bitter about the untold number of opportunities squandered, the problems that have escalated in their place, and the crises now with us that were once entirely avoidable.

But when justified anger at such incompetence is discussed as a sign of mental illness, it is borderline insulting, especially because half the reason for the discussion is to ensure that drug companies—anxious to prod their faltering revenues—can promise relief from the alleged disorder with yet more pharmaceuticals.

Drew Westen’s and Stephen Duncombe’s work on the intersection of politics and psychology has long interested me, but it mainly treats emotions instrumentally, as aspects of personality that must be addressed if a given policy is to be accepted. Lane treats bitterness as a valid datum, disclosing objectively bad conditions in the world. Perhaps Barack Obama would have done well to insist that his characterization of working class Pennsylvanians as “bitter” was more a compliment to their capacity to see and judge the truth of their situation, rather than a jibe at their mental hygiene. Unfortunately, a press largely devoted to “infotainment” is not the best medium for such a message. Nor is the FDA as presently constituted capable of taking into account the social implications of the conditions it treats as diseases.