Once upon a time, the King of the Greek gods, Zeus, was getting ready for yet another episode of cheating on his wife. His latest target was a beautiful mortal girl named Io, whose resistance he had been wearing down by sending her a series of racy dreams of which he was the star. Having finally arrived on her doorstep to make his case in person, Zeus wrapped the two of them and that whole region of the world in a thick black cloud to hide the incipient goings-on.
This was a tactical error. Zeus’s wife Queen Hera noticed the peculiar change in the weather, checked Olympus to see if her husband the Cloudgatherer was on site, and – not finding him there – immediately put two and two together and headed for the area of sudden overcast. She dispersed the clouds and found herself looking at her husband and an extremely lovely (and one must assume, confused-looking) white cow, which Zeus explained had sprung from Mother Earth just that minute. Not even slightly fooled, Hera promptly confiscated the cow, and assigned to guard her – or rather, to make sure her husband didn’t get anywhere near her – one of her security staff, a creature by the name of Argus. Argus was completely covered with eyes that stared in every direction and saw everything for miles around. The eyes even slept in shifts, so that the watcher’s pitiless regard was inescapable by night or day. Hera went off confident that her husband’s case was well handled.
Myths being what they are, of course, such a situation can’t last. Zeus quickly has words with Olympus’s resident thief, trickster and inside-job man, Hermes, who disguises himself as a handsome shepherd boy and shows up in the flowery meadow where Argus is guarding Io. There he proceeds to bore all Argus’s eyes to sleep by telling him serial tales of mortal romance.* Then, when the last of Argus’s eyes fall asleep, Hermes pulls out his sword and kills him, signaling, if not the end of Io’s troubles, at least the beginning of the end. Later on the frustrated Hera winds up putting all of Argus’s eyes in the tail of her favorite bird, the peacock — probably as a reminder to Zeus that at least this once she caught him in near-flagrante — and over the subsequent centuries Argus’s name becomes a metaphor for unsleeping watchfulness.
The world is full of people who appoint themselves to roles like Argus’s, as would-be watchers and guardians. Sometimes they’re even useful in those roles. Their motives aren’t always suspect: sometimes they genuinely mean well. But good intentions aren’t always enough. And sometimes these can lead the would-be guardians into serious mistakes, especially when their intelligence (in the informational sense) is incomplete or poor.
It looks like we’ve just seen an example of this in a recent Wall Street Journal article, which spends a while purporting to analyze the “fitness for purpose” of some modern-day young adult fiction, the kind that deals openly with difficult topics like self-harm. The reactions to the article’s assertions have been widespread and passionate. Readers and writers alike have responded at length, and lots more opinions and links to them, short and long, are to be found on Twitter filed under the #YASaves hashtag. Having read the article, though, I found myself reacting most strongly to two specific passages that jumped out at me: and the reactions came on two different levels. The first passage really annoys me as a former psychiatric professional:
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