The other day my eight-year-old asked, "Daddy, what does 'integrity' mean?" My heart warmed--it was a Norman Rockwell moment, my chance to impart one of the primary virtues. I tried to explain it in an age-appropriate way, and asked why he inquired? "Oh, it's also a brand of alarm system." (After having moved on from a great enthusiasm for natural disasters, his current preoccupation is with smoke and fire alarms and other indicators of incendiary mayhem and transgression). More Jackson Pollock than Normal Rockwell. Hopefully he'll remember that it's not just a brand name.
This came to mind when I read Anne Applebaum's Slate post on ADHD in literature, specifically embodied by Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. It has been many years since I first read of their adventures in oppositional defiance, but she seems about right that while Mark Twain doubtless romanticized their naughtiness, they lived in a time far more tolerant of disobedience, distraction, and disregard for academic achievement. Or maybe "tolerant" is the wrong word: it was an age that left more space, both physically and psychologically, for such things.
In Madness and Civilization and other works, Michel Foucault argued that around the middle of the last millenium, when the first glimmers of the Enlightenment appeared, Western civilization began to become distinctly less hospitable toward mental disorder. The mad, who for centuries had wandered more or less unmolested along the margins of society, came to be seen as a greater threat to new priorities for the order and management of populations. Previously seen as harmless or perhaps even as alternative sources of vision, the mad were increasingly perceived as a menace.
I wonder if the escalating pathologizing of ADHD features could represent a second great phase of this "civilizing" process, if unfocused energies and scattered cognition present challenges to a logocentric society that are more subtle than those of mania or psychosis, but ultimately intolerable nonetheless. As Hanna Rosin straightforwardly argued in The Atlantic, the culture and the economy increasingly valorize and reward calm, structured, meticulous, and persistent verbal order, all of which may be more commonly found in women, on average, than in men.
It is not only the case that expectations for order are higher, that there are far more moving pieces, so to speak, in a post-industrial information society. Technology also amplifies any specific potential source for disorder, via means such as automobiles, firearms, the Internet, or in the case of rogue terrorists, nuclear or biological weapons. It is like not only building a bridge far longer than has ever been attempted before, but also in unprecedented water and weather conditions. The cognitive inefficiencies of ADHD, which often of course entail great creativity, may come to be a cultural luxury for which we have to fight to maintain space (the playgrounds and natural parks of human cognition perhaps).