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Monday, 18 November 2013

In defence of charlatans

There was an interesting story on the news the other day about Sylvia Mitchell, an American clairvoyant who was sentenced to fifteen years in jail for conning customers out of thousands of dollars. One woman re-mortgaged her house after Mitchell told her that, in order to “break her attachment to money” (which had been developed in a previous life as an Egyptian princess) she should hand over $27,000. Most of the clients had forked out money for the psychic to rid their lives of ‘negative energy’, but Mitchell’s defence team argued that she had not conned them, but had merely charged money for a service that they had agreed to buy.

I am not exactly a believer when it comes to the power of so-called clairvoyants, but I do think Mitchell’s defence team had a point. Let’s leave to one side the question of whether or not the statute book should protect someone stupid enough to believe that she should hand over a bucketload of cash to atone for having been an Egyptian princess in a previous life. Critics argue that psychics prey upon the gullible and vulnerable, but –beyond the purchase of food and shelter- every commercial transaction we undertake exploits our desire for happiness and, in that sense, all consumers are willing victims. Many folk who employ the services of psychics will perceive themselves to have benefited from their consultations, so whose perception is more important here: the people who don't believe or the people who -for whatever reason- choose to suspend disbelief as part of their contract with a clairvoyant?

If a music-loving, middle-aged bloke like myself buys a 're-mastered' box set of albums by an artist I love when I already have everything that artist has ever released, am I being preyed upon for my gullibility? And, even if I concede that I am somehow being exploited, what if I choose to do it anyway because, on some level, it makes me feel better to own that box set? The record company and the psychic are both selling stuff that, strictly speaking, their clients don’t really need. It can be argued that my arrangement with the record company is no different from the arrangement between a clairvoyant and a lonely old woman who hopes that she might make contact with her deceased husband. In both cases, the consumer believes that their emotional or intellectual well-being will be improved by the exchange.

I’m worried that the Mitchell case might set a precedent; if we accept that ‘exploitative’ clairvoyants should be prosecuted for their practices, who will the law go after next? How about shrinks, counsellors, chiropractors and all holistic practitioners? What if I worked in a beauty salon and persuaded an ugly woman to pay for an expensive makeover, then told her that she looked sensational once it was done? If some bad-mannered person later pointed out that she was still ugly, could I be prosecuted for fraud?

I suspect that most clairvoyants are charlatans, but we should defend their right to practice their charlatanry, because interventionist approaches are invariably based on subjective judgements and are usually illiberal and authoritarian. When we grant the state the power to outlaw ‘harmful’ stuff on behalf of those perceived to be unenlightened or likely to be exploited, it not only makes huge assumptions about those people, it leads inexorably to more things being deemed ‘harmful’ and more things being banned. Look around and you’ll see plenty of examples of how this process works.

If someone uses a psychic to 'communicate' with a dead relative and that 'communication' gives them solace, who are we to deny them that? Isn’t it better to live in a society that allows folk to get at least some comfort from mumbo-jumbo than a society in which the authorities decide, on our behalf, whether or not something is ‘good’ for us?

I suspect that many of the folk who use psychics probably know, in their heart of hearts, that it is phoney-baloney. They just choose, for reasons we have no right to disdain, to suspend their disbelief.

And if that helps them make it through the night, why should the law take an interest?

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