Bures is the author of The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes. His book examines conditions that the DSM-V, a manual used to diagnose and classify mental disorders, terms “culture-bound syndromes.”
These conditions are generally observed in non-Western cultures. As the book’s subtitle suggests, they include penis theft, which Bures describes as a condition in which “people feel like their genitals are being sucked into their body.”
In his interview with the Atlantic’s Julie Beck, Bures complains that American psychiatry’s classification of these conditions as “culture-bound” suggests that they aren’t real. He believes that our science-based understanding of nature is no more correct and no less culturally bound than that of non-Western cultures.
To prove his point, Bures tells Beck that “premenstrual syndrome doesn’t exist in a lot of places” and suggests that it may be “related to American culture.” Beck, who throughout the interview was generally supportive of Bures’s point of view, characterized that as “a very treacherous thing to say.”
“People might feel like you’re stigmatizing or delegitimizing their experiences,” she said.
“What a person in our culture would feel if you said PMS is a cultural syndrome,” Bures replied, “is the same thing that people in Nigeria would feel, who’ve had their penises stolen.”
And for Bures that reveals cultural bias rooted in Western science.
“That’s kind of the larger narrative of Westernization,” Bures says. “That once we get the correct science and the correct view of things that these old, primitive beliefs will all go away…If that was correct, it would imply that we don’t have a culture, or that our diseases are culture-free and that’s obviously not the case.”
He ticks off a list of conditions that he reckons are American culture-bound syndromes: anorexia, bigorexia (excessive exercise), pet hoarding, wind turbine syndrome (headaches, sleeplessness and other problems that people attribute to windmills), chronic fatigue syndrome and gluten intolerance.
“You feel something’s wrong and you believe it’s caused by these things,” he says, “like gluten or wind turbines or hormones or magical spells or something like that. Depending on your conception of those things, you could have certain symptoms that you’re, in a way, kind of generating by believing in them.”
My daughter has celiac disease. Ingesting gluten triggers an autoimmune reaction that damages her small intestine. Her condition was verified by a battery of scientifically valid tests that resulted in a diagnosis. When she adheres to a gluten-free diet, the symptoms subside. When she eats food with gluten, the symptoms recur.
For a cultural imperialist like me, this is scientific evidence that celiac disease is, forgive the expression, “real,” unlike the belief that “there was a fox spirit wandering around villages stealing people’s genitals at night.”
Not so for Bures, who said, “You could imagine that gluten intolerance is a way of saying something is wrong with our diet, our food, disapproval of the Western diet or something like that.”
Bures’ point of view, though scarcely more profound than the musings of a stoner, discloses some of the deepest contradictions of the modern Left.
On the one hand, many on the Left regard science as an assertion of Western cultural supremacy. Discomfort with Western science is evident in antipathy among factions on the Left toward vaccines, infant formula and foods containing genetically modified organisms. It has recently become an article of progressive dogma that a person’s sex is not determined by the XX and XY chromosomes and, paradoxically, that a “gay gene” will one day be identified.
On the other hand, the Left embraces science when it can be used as a bludgeon against Western values and living standards. It smears those who reject the ruinous economic policies advocated by global warming enthusiasts as science “deniers,” morally and intellectually akin to those who claim the Holocaust never occurred.
Though we all are guilty of such inconsistencies, this contradictory attitude toward science is especially problematic for the Left, which views Western civilization as the source of “white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism, and all other oppressive systems,” as the Stanford [University] Daily recently asserted in an editorial opposing a Western civilization course requirement.
Modern science and its attendant technological advances arose largely from that wretched civilization. It has, together with such notions as liberty, private property and the rule of law, helped make Western societies prosperous and free.
Science rests on the premise that we can observe, measure and analyze the world around us; that theories about nature must be subjected to rigorous experimentation to determine their validity. It asserts the ability to study the observable universe and distinguish what is true from what we imagine to be true. It has throughout history challenged the most cherished assumptions of Western elites, enduring Stalinist show trials and papal inquisitions. It doesn’t view “this whole distinction between real and not real” as a problem, but as central to its mission.
It constrains us to say that celiac disease is real and penis thieves are not .