I remember as a child my mum explaining what the national census was. She said, in hushed tones, that it was very important that we filled it in properly or we would all go to prison. “Why are we whispering?” I asked. “Shhh,” she murmered, “it’s the census” - as though no more needed to be said.
For years after, in my mind the word “census” belonged with words like “politburo”and “dalek”. And my wife wonders why I turned out the way I did.
Such a respectful approach to the census is long past. In the last one in 2001, 40,000 people responded to a question about their faith by claiming to be “Jedi” and a further 7,000 said they were witches. Some people simply colour it in. Others refuse to be questioned about their lives by a snooping government.
The census apparently costs £500m. Goodness knows how. But the next one may be the last because it is estimated that only my mum plans to fill it in properly. It would be nice to think this disregard for collecting an organised snapshot of Britain was some sort of collective stance against bureaucracy or that we didn’t want to waste resources categorising citizens to generate lots of statistics but do nothing to inform public policy. But it is more likely that people mess with them to be sarcastic or petulant or make a stance about their “rights”. Like their right to be petulant or sarcastic.
‘Newly invented disorders, such as “hypersexuality” - a desire for multiple partners once called “blokeishness” – fuel the pharmaceutical industry’
In other ways, though, we seem to like being categorised or given labels; often we are reassured to know which demographic people are in. Tall, short, blonde, bald, black, Jew - the categories we ascribe seem to offer comfort, which may be why the psychiatrist’s bible The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) grows with diagnoses of newly invented disorders every year.
New disorders include “hypersexuality” – a desire for multiple partners once called “blokeishness” – and “absexuality” or the “Mary Whitehouse Syndrome”, which refers to the thrill of being appalled by pornography or obscenity. But my favourites are “sluggish cognitive tempo disorder”, which used to be called laziness (I think I’ve got that) and “relational disorder” which is when two people - often a separating couple - struggle to get on (I think I’ve had that).
These are simple descriptors but they are lent power and consequence by becoming “diagnoses”. Arguably a diagnosis can offer comfort: “I’m not lazy I’ve got this sluggish cognitive thing. Fetch me more crisps!” But it also offers the chance to prescribe because where there is illness there are drugs and where there are drugs there is profit.
The pharmaceutical industry is recession proof. Businesses may shut, public services will be cut but drug companies are safe. The rush to label behaviour and experiences as mental disorder has always struck me as crass. I have been naive; it may have less to do with medical ideology and more to do with simple economics.