Stop Making too Much Sense

Earlier this month, in quick succession, two older men in the Boston area shot strangers with whom they had been involved in traffic related incidents. In one a 60 year old man shot and killed a father who was holding his infant daughter. In another, a 55 year old man shot a 17 year old boy and his mother.

The circumstances of the shootings were utterly different but of course they fueled a resurgence of media play about a supposed epidemic of road rage. As Michael Fumento pointed out in a 1998 Atlantic Monthly, article it was the invention of the alliterative term “road rage”, rather than a precipitant increase in traffic related homicides, that contributed to the elevation of this phenomenon to epidemic status. According to Fumento, the term first appeared in 1988 and its use increased incrementally in subsequent years despite a significant downturn in aggressive altercations on the nations roads. Like baseball fields, if you build a term that captures a socially dynamic concept, even if it is totally specious, they will come.

Similarly, a recent Harvard Medical School study determined that most Americans will suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lives. Of course this may be related to the fact that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders when first published in 1958 specified 60 mental illness; the newest edition, DSM-IV-TR, describes subtle variations in more than 175. DSM-V, due out in 2010, may break the 200 mark. Of course, many newfound mental illnesses present apparently systematic and “scientific” classifications of age-old, commonly understood behavioral patterns. Thus, a bratty kid suffers from Conduct Disorder, an inattentive boy who never finishes his homework from Attention Deficit Disorder, a cautious, fearful person from Anxiety Disorder, and a melancholic whining Irishman, such as myself, from Dysthymia or Depressive Disorder.

As sports fans flock to the new Gillette Stadium (will its name change now that Gillette is being bought out by Proctor & Gamble? Proctor & Gamble Stadium? Will they have betting windows at Proctor and Gamble Stadium?), newly clinically christened patients race to fill the diagnostic categories, and drug companies devise plans to match maladies to medications. The Boston Globe ran a recent story on Intermittent Explosive Disorder, a recently invented mental illness that may fit at least one of the road ragers mentioned above. IED describes a group of individuals who engage in repeated “but intermittent” acts of aggression that result in assaults to others or destruction of property. The intermittent part reveals the fact that it would be difficult and exhausting to explode continuously, though DSM-VI may unveil CED, or Continual Explosive Disorder, and dedicate it to former Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight.

The emergence of road rage as a familiar, if inaccurate, concept and the newly minted plethora of diagnostic categories highlight how market-driven forces interface with our need to impose conceptual structure on human experience. Bottom line, in a capital economy legions of advertisers and manufacturers strive to make money off our need to make sense. An orderly market abhors confusion and engages mystery only when it comes in a form, typically sexual, that can be vitalized through administration of a pill ‘s like Viagra. Thus, if, in your senescence, you cannot perform in the sack like a 23 year old super-athlete, you must have a problem that can be rectified only through the administration of a mass-produced agent. Of course, this is nonsense. But America’s current preoccupation with formulaic modes of sexual performance is a topic for another, not too distant, day.

As we were taught in advanced statistics, of which I recall little, simultaneity does not equal causality, and the apparent magic of coincidence may say more about nature of random events than any deep underlying, or overarching, connectedness. Excessive interpretation or meaning-making may interfere with our ability to see what is happening now; as the man said, “Don’t just do something, stand there.”