No, that’s not Stockholm Syndrome. Now, stop saying that it is!

“Americans–you all have Stockholm Syndrome!”

“Fundamentalist women actually have Stockholm Syndrome and that’s why they oppose abortion! It’s all because of MEN!”

“Liberals just have Stockholm Syndrome because they believe they’re dependent on the government!”

OK. Just stop. Just top abusing the language of psychology because it shows the rest of us how ignorant you actually are and the more you use the term, the dumber you look with every passing second. You obviously don’t know what Stockholm Syndrome is and you need to get educated about it. So, listen up, kids….

What is Stockholm Syndrome?

In 1973, a group of bank robbers held several bank customers prisoner in Stockholm, Sweden during a prolonged standoff with the police. During this time, the police appeared to be unconcerned with the welfare of the captives; the captives became entirely dependent on their captors for food, water, and the basic necessities of life. Afterwards, the captives refused to testify against the robbers and the term Stockholm Syndrome was born.

Loosely, Stockholm Syndrome can be considered a survival strategy for people who actually have no other choice than to obey, love, and protect those who pose an imminent physical threat to their well-being.

Other famous cases of Stockholm Syndrome include the Patty Hearst kidnapping and some of the hostages taken at the US Embassy in Iran during the 1970s. In both cases, the captives began to side with their captors and even started embracing the ideologies expressed by the people who posed imminent threat to them. Patty Hearst, for example, became a gun-carrying, crime-committing member of the Symbionese Liberation Army as a result of her Stockholm Syndrome.

In all of these cases, several things were apparent:

  1. There was an immediate threat of death.
  2. There was no escape for the captives.
  3. Captives were in captivity for several days or longer.
  4. Captives described their mindset in the early days of captivity as being focused on basic survival (the bottom rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs).
  5. Captors recognized and supplied the basic needs of their captives but were not overtly kind.

There are doubtless other dimensions involved in the development and diagnosis of Stockholm Syndrome but those are a mystery to us at present. Quite simply, there aren’t enough cases to fully develop a comprehensive literature for Stockholm Syndrome. It’s not listed in the DSM because we simply don’t know enough about it and, ethically, we can’t find out through experiment. We know it’s real, we know the conditions that cause it, but we don’t know as much as we’d like to about Stockholm Syndrome.

What isn’t Stockholm Syndrome?

Women who vote pro-life/anti-abortion based on their religious beliefs do not have Stockholm Syndrome.

Gay men who don’t vote Democrat or Labour, take issue with Pride parades, or generally don’t embrace assimilationist rhetoric do not have Stockholm Syndrome.

Anyone who can change their mind freely, walk away from a bad situation, or otherwise opt out of a particular worldview does not have Stockholm Syndrome.

Unless a person is actually being held prisoner with a threat of imminent death looming over them, there is no Stockholm Syndrome–just personal choice.

Evoking Stockholm Syndrome Harms People

Consider the argument that women who oppose abortion somehow have Stockholm Syndrome. This is very popular on social media at present and it’s a standard argument used to deflect blame for anti-abortion laws that many Christian women actually support. It’s also terribly short-sighted and abusive towards women.

Women, like other people, possess agency. That is, they are capable of acting on their own, without help or guidance from others. Arguing that a woman whose weltanschauung doesn’t agree with your own must somehow be a helpless captive under imminent threat of death is to deny that woman agency and accept that she makes her own choices; it’s infantilizing. That is, arguing that the only reason a woman would oppose abortion laws is because she’s somehow being controlled or threatened by men denies women their right to disagree and have their own ideas about the world.

Consider Kay Ivey, the governor of Alabama who signed into law (later struck down by the SCOTUS) one of the most Draconian anti-abortion laws ever devised. She is the governor of a State within the USA and, as such, holds incredible power. She is her own person and makes her own decisions. Signing the bill into law wasn’t a desperate act to appease someone who posed an immediate threat of death to her–it was her decision based on her chosen belief system. She signed the law not because of some nebulous, evil man but because she actually believes that abortion is wrong. I disagree with her, but I’m not going to say she is mentally disturbed just because I hold a different opinion. That would be to let her off the hook, to ignore her actions, and to deny her agency in the world.

To pathologize an ideology is a terrible idea. Being a liberal or socialist is not a mental disorder. Being a conservative is not a mental disorder. Being a BLM activist is not a mental disorder. Being a racist is not a mental disorder. Being an atheist is not a mental disorder. Being a Christian is not a mental disorder. These are all world-views and we can change our world-views if we try.

The Consequences of Pathologizing Evil

Remember when Trump got elected? Remember how the alt-right went around clucking and people started “punching Nazis?” If we pathologize evil, then what good does punching a Nazi do? Despite how clever that episode of The Simpsons was, I don’t think someone could or should beat a mental disorder out of anyone.

If evil is pathology, and if “punching Nazis” did any good–if it was a legitimate remedy–then couldn’t it also be used on other pathologies? If so, then can I slap the autism out of a child? Can I punch someone with Down syndrome so hard the extra chromosomes fly out of their bodies? Can I beat the schizophrenia out of someone? (Hint: The answers are “No, no, no, and no.”)

So, let’s just stop with calling differences of political, religious, and economic opinion “The Stockholm Syndrome.” It doesn’t help and it does greater harm than good.

Shriek into the Void...

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