Thomas S. Szasz, Pre-eminent Scholarly Critic of Psychiatric Excess, Defender of Civil Rights: R.I.P.
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I wrote the following tribute to Dr. Szasz on his 80th birthday:
Tom, you have served a long and distinguished career as a Professor of Psychiatry at the SUNY Health Science Center in Syracuse, N.Y. In your lengthy career you have pointed out — and led to the correction of — abuses of psychiatric practices, corrections that Dr. Tom Detre, the head of Western Psychiatric Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pa., has called “critical to the ethical functioning of our profession.” You are a major figure in American and international debates on freedom, cited by friends and foes alike. Your intrepid support of the values of human autonomy and authenticity coupled with the emphasis on individual responsibility have made you a symbol of free expression in the United States.
Your seemingly inexhaustible list of honors have well reflected your talents as well as the values you have supported in your 26 books and over 700 articles and reviews. These awards have included, but are not limited to: the Stella Feiss Hofheimmer Award for ranking first in the entire medical curriculum at the College of Medicine at the University of Cincinnati, the Meyer Memorial Lecturer from the University of Queensland Medical School in Brisbane, Queensland, the Mencken Award from the Free Press Association, the Alfred R Lindesmith Award for Achievement in the Field of Scholarship and Writing from the Drug Policy Foundation, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Institute for Public Service, and the Rollo May Award from the American Psychological Association. The establishment of the award named after you, “The Thomas Szasz Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Cause of Civil Liberties,” also speaks eloquently to your values.
Your focus on the persuasive uses of language distinguishes your writing and lectures. Your emphasis on the importance of what philosopher and rhetorician Richard Weaver called the “true,” as opposed to the “base,” rhetorician has influenced those in many disciplines, including my own, Rhetorical Theory. Base rhetoric ends with exploitation. Weaver defined rhetoric as at its truest that which “seeks to perfect men [and women] by showing them better versions of themselves,” and your works point out that rhetoric at its finest leaves it to people to reach that pinnacle on their own through individual effort.
You have argued that because some conventional notions of “mental illness” combine a mistaken conceptualization of non-disease as disease with an immoral justification of coercion as cure, its effect is two-pronged: it corrupts language and curtails freedom and responsibility.
Tom, as you accomplish the completion of your eighth decade of life, a life representative of the values of hard work, dedication to freedom and responsibility, and exemplifying decency and courage in facing those who disagree with you, I just want to say what an honor it is to be your friend.
The richness of Thomas Szasz lives on in his multiplicity of works and the love of his friends and family.
Professor Vatz teaches Persuasion at Towson University and is a winner of the Thomas S. Szasz Civil Liberties Award