COMMENT: Is There An Objectification Double Standard?

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In recent months I have heard two anecdotes that share a common theme, a theme that I find shocking and disturbing. The theme runs something like the following:

Increasingly mothers are being pressured by the system (which I will define in a moment) to place their children on behavioral drugs—drugs more powerful than cocaine in many cases according to researchers such as Ernest Keen and Finn Bowring—for an indefinite period of time and with long-term consequences still ill-defined.

Here “system” collectively refers to the following professionals: teachers; school administrators; school counselors, social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists; and pediatricians. It gets worse. Mothers (and I’m sure more than a few fathers) are receiving pressure from two sides:

1) On one side, the system is sending the not-so-subtle message that if mothers do not comply and put their children (some as young as three and four years old) on behavioral drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, the system may begin viewing these “oppositional mothers” as being unfit. Yeow! Are we looking at ODMD—oppositional defiant mother disorder?

2) On the other, children are putting pressure on their mothers. In both anecdotal stories mentioned above, the form this pressure takes is the same. Children apparently are telling their mothers that most of their classmates are taking behavioral drugs as a form of “study enhancement.” Children are giving their mothers the following “bottom line”: If we (children) do not take behavioral drugs to enhance study, we will be potentially marginalized with respect to those classmates who are taking study enhancing drugs. Again, yeow!

All of the above got me to thinking about what appears to be an objectification double standard:

We call foul (no pun intended) when our professional athletes are publicly accused (and not necessarily convicted) of taking performance enhancing drugs, but yet we remain silent when the system pressures mothers to put their children on study enhancing drugs. We demand that our professional athletes play clean while at the same time we demand that our children study dirty. Am I the only one who views this as a disturbing societal double standard? And kids are smart (especially teenagers, who I have worked with). I’m sure at some level teenagers are thinking something along the lines of, “Society tells us that we should look up to professional athletes who play clean, but it’s that same society that’s forcing us to study dirty.”

Now, why am I using the term objectification double standard? Using system theory as a backdrop, here’s a simple definition of objectification: reducing a system to one of its parts, and then making that part act as if it were the entire system from whence the part came. Engaging in sloganism here, objectification takes part for whole. When professional athletes take performance enhancing drugs, they send the following objectification message: being an athlete is all about physical performance. When students take study enhancing drugs, they send the following objectification message: being a student is all about study performance. Thus the following objectification double standard: athletic objectification bad; academic objectification good. Can you imagine the pressure on a school athlete: stay clean on the field but get dirty in the classroom. The term has fallen out of favor with psychology types in recent years but double bind comes to mind, effectively, damn if I do, damn if I don’t.

OK, above I implied that society is conspicuously silent on the topic of using behavioral drugs to objectify students. There are exceptions. Back in 2004 Mary Eberstadt wrote a book provocatively entitled Home-alone America—The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes. Eberstadt, to her credit, does sound the alarm: we are using behavioral drugs to essentially objectify care, in specific, parental care. Using Eberstadt’s work as a background, it appears that the system (still defined as above) is sending the not-so-subtle message: “We (the system) are objectifying care—that is to say, chemically reducing it to performance—so, you mothers (specifically) and parents (generally) better also toe the line.”

Here’s an interesting side note. Here’s the title to the paperback version of Ebertsadt’s book: Home-alone America: Why Today’s Kids Are Overmedicated, Overweight, and More Troubled Than Ever Before. Notice that in the subtitle to the paperback version the following connection has been effectively erased: behavioral drugs are being used as a substitute for parenting, and, as a result, parenting care is objectified, that is to say, reduced. I can only imagine that the hardcover subtitle hit too close to home, too close to the truth, too close to the objectification double standard I am trying to illuminate here in this post.

Let me end with a recent example of where popular voices have not been silent on the topic of using behavioral drugs to objectify care, especially parental care.

Consider the following article published in the November 20th, 2011, online issue of the New York Times by Benedict Carey: Drugs Used for Psychotics Go to Youths in Foster Care. Here’s a quote from the article:

In recent years, doctors and policy makers have grown concerned about high rates of overall psychiatric drug use in the foster care system, the government-financed program that provides temporary living arrangements for 400,000 to 500,000 children and adolescents. Previous studies have found that children in foster care receive psychiatric medications at about twice the rate among children outside the system.

In my post of December 14th, 2011, I mentioned an article by Judith Warner that appeared in the online version of  Time entitled Overmedicating Foster Kids: The Cost of Skimping on Care. As Warner’s title implies, as we reduce (e.g., skimp on) care, we increasingly turn to chemical forms of objectification to take up the slack. Carey ends his article by quoting Dr. Ramesh Raghavan, a mental health services researcher at Washington University in St. Louis: “There’s enormous anguish because everyone knows that this is not what we should be doing for these kids. We as a society simply haven’t made the investment in psychosocial treatments, and so we are forced to rely on psychotropic drugs to carry the burden [my emphasis].”

I applaud efforts to bring attention to how psychotropic drugs are increasingly being used to “carry the burden” in a foster care system where care has been reduced, but why aren’t we calling foul as psychotropic drugs are increasingly being used to “carry the burden” in our school system? What’s the saying: “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.” Maybe we protest professional (and even school) athletes using performance enhancing drugs loudly as a way of covering over our unconscious recognition that we are also using performance enhancing drugs in reduced (e.g., objectified) arenas like foster care and school. If you cry out for clean athletes, you may wish to think about crying out for clean students too.

Further reading—For more on how our society is increasingly using behavioral drugs to reduce what it means to be fully human to mere mechanical performance, see the following books:

1) Ronald W. Dworkin’s 2007 book Artificial Happiness: The Dark Side of the New Happy Class

2) Finn Bowring’s 2003 book Science, Seeds and Cyborgs—Biotechnology and the Appropriation of Life

3) Ernest Keen’s 2000 book Chemicals for the Mind—Psychopharmacology and Human Consciousness