Guest post by Maureen on the comic book definition of madness


Originally a comment on Venn explains.

We may be edging towards something useful here.

We have already dismissed those who just want to say that Rodger was mentally ill therefore we need think about it no more.

What we need to do – and it is going to be difficult with the subject of the discussion dead – is pick apart the important question of whether Elliot Rodger was both mentally ill and also mentally ill in a way which rendered him insane and thus not in control of his actions or with any insight into their effect. This, I understand, is what M’naghten was about but I don’t know enough to say more than that.

There are vast numbers of people who have made the odd visit with a psychiatrist, who have had the odd couple of weeks on diazepam and could sometimes have used the support of a mental health worker – who are more often social workers than medical people. We are the people all around you who have manageable levels of SAD or bi-polar, who have the odd panic attack , who don’t and never will present a threat.

No way are we insane. Part of the problem with mental health stigma is that we are actively discouraged from making that distinction, from acknowledging that mentally and emotionally we all have bad days, better days and good days. Just like everyone else does with their wonky knee or their digestive system. Oh, no. To suit the simplistic worldview we must each be entirely normal – not a useful concept – or totally and permanently dangerous like something in an early Victorian novel. Either or. That is why Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde scared the wits out of its first readers, though in the longer term it simply cemented the comic book definition of madness.

There is also the whole question of the etiology of mental illness. I know that Maudsley in London has been doing a lot of work on this, especially on the links between drug dependency, symptoms of what we used to call schizophrenia and the stresses and strains of poverty and detachment from social and geographic roots. It seems to be a very complex chicken and egg puzzle so that the old “born with a brain prone to …” and “it was the drugs wot caused it” explanations no longer work.

The finer points of this are way above my pay grade but is there someone here who could explain better than I have?

The good bit about researching that conundrum is that in inner city South London there is no shortage of live subjects. Mass killers tend to come one or two at a time and in many cases they are delivered to us dead. Not an ideal situation if we are trying work out the interface between political motivation, anger at some section of the population and the tip over from violent fantasy into violent action.

When Anders Behring Breivik was safely in custody the cries from the US to kill him pronto could be heard on this side of the Atlantic. Never mind the guns for a minute but is there something in the American psyche which would rather risk it happening again than understand why it happened this time? With Breivik we may eventually know why. With Rodger we never can but we should not be dissuaded from asking political questions – by the NRA or the Santa Barbara police or by anyone else.

 

Comments

  1. says

    Never mind the guns for a minute but is there something in the American psyche which would rather risk it happening again than understand why it happened this time?

    No, Americans are just a pretty bloodthirsty lot; the desire to kill him has nothing really to do with not wanting to understand, I don’t think. It’s just good old vengeance masquerading as justice.

  2. Claire Ramsey says

    We Americans are also burdened with models that teach that a thirst for revenge is simply necessary when confronted with bad guys. Stories of the Old West and Frontier Justice generally include bad guys with guns who do bad things. And a hero – a Sheriff or Marshall or mysterious handsome guy w/a gun or a Superhero – who boldly rids the good people of the Frontier of the bad guys by shooting them dead. Lots and lots of Americans, LOTS OF THEM, really believe that it is better to shoot first and ask questions later. Only weenies think it’s a good idea to take a more nuanced approach.

    I’d say we are a bunch of suckers for a vengeful historical myth.

  3. Anthony K says

    No, Americans are just a pretty bloodthirsty lot; the desire to kill him has nothing really to do with not wanting to understand, I don’t think. It’s just good old vengeance masquerading as justice.

    While it’s certainly true that American culture is pretty bloodthirsty, it’s hard to deny the undercurrents of anti-knowledge as well. Abstinence-only sex education, the idea that “if you teach children they are animals [via evolution]; they’ll act like animals!”, and the conflation of the science of criminology with excusing criminal behaviour are all examples: a lot of Americans believe that learning about something makes you likely to become that something. That and the fact that studying things good people don’t like is what godless liberal coastal elites do.

    If conservative, red meat Americans suggest an opportunity to learn from a criminal, it’s often as an extra form of torture: “if they must, let the scientists thin-slice his brain while he’s forced to watch, so he knows what his victims felt!” Or some variant thereof.

    There are some who definitely would rather risk it happening again than understand why it happened this time, but there are also who believe that trying to understand why is risking it happening again. Good people don’t do those sorts of things, and for God’s sake they don’t study such filth, therefore don’t encourage that sort of study and you’ll create a society where such things don’t happen.

    Consider the attitudes to researchers studying, for example, HIV transmission among at-risk populations. Parts of the American psyche are openly hostile to attempts at understanding.

  4. Kevin Kehres says

    Frankly, I think it’s an abject failure of the mental health system to identify people with anxiety and/or depressive disorders as “mentally ill” but people like Rodgers — despite his/their bug-fuck nutty ideas about women and sexual relationships — are considered “normal”.

    If that’s “normal”, I’m the Queen of England. No matter how “typical” Rodger’s attitudes toward women might be or how much Rodger’s behavior might only be considered the far right side of a very long and violent bell-shaped curve. Yes, violence against women is common. That doesn’t make it “normal” behavior. Yes, misogyny is rampant. That’s not “normal”, either.

    If we accept that as “normal”, we as a society are completely and totally fucked.

    None of that should be construed to mean I think Rodger can be absolved of his actions by virtue of his deranged thinking. He has to “own” both. And his MRA/PUA fellow-travelers also have to own that their ongoing support of Rodger’s type of thinking enables murder. That makes them immoral monsters. And that’s not “normal” either.

  5. says

    Kevin Kehres:

    Yes, violence against women is common. That doesn’t make it “normal” behavior. Yes, misogyny is rampant. That’s not “normal”, either.

    You’re wrong. Humans are violent, and violence is an oft seen action and reaction. Children grow up, every day, hearing and seeing violence. There’s violence in the home, the workplace, places of recreation, and schools. A lot of people work hard to not be violent, and to control emotions such as anger and frustration. Violent behaviour is a normal one. We wouldn’t have to strive so hard to overcome it if it weren’t normal.

    Misogyny has been considered to be normal for a very long time. Centuries worth of time. It’s one of the major foundations of societies. It goes hand in hand with toxic concepts of masculinity. The backlashes seen against feminism are often based in fear of losing a misogynistic foundation, which allows for power, control, and privilege.

    It’s uncomfortable as hell to be introspective, to be honestly aware of all the ways in which humans are capable of being ugly, in thought and deed. This is why people are so desperate to other, to remove someone who commits terrible acts, to label them as other, as not normal, so they can be comfortable and not have to examine all the ways in which we are fucked up. This is why the same facile rationalizations are trotted out each time something like this happens. This is why so many people dodge having those uncomfortable discussions about the root causes of such attitudes, ideas, behaviours, and actions.

  6. screechymonkey says

    Kevin Kehres @4:

    Frankly, I think it’s an abject failure of the mental health system to identify people with anxiety and/or depressive disorders as “mentally ill” but people like Rodgers — despite his/their bug-fuck nutty ideas about women and sexual relationships — are considered “normal”.

    Be careful here. This is what PZ has been posting about at Pharyngula. If you’re going to define repugnant ideas about gender relations as “mental illness” then what stops you from defining “repugnant” ideas about God (i.e. that he doesn’t exist) as mental illness? It’s not like we have a great track record as a society of only punishing those minority beliefs that are harmful.

    I think we need to think more about what it means to call something “mental illness.” The original (guest) post alludes to the M’Naughten test, which is the standard the criminal justice system generally employs to determine whether someone is criminally responsible for their actions. But that’s not even the only definition the legal system uses — there’s a different standard for determining whether someone is capable of standing trial in a criminal matter, and of course there’s a whole other standard when it comes to evaluating whether a parent is fit to have custody of a child.

    I admit that my first reaction to Rodgers’ actions were to think that he was mentally ill. But what was that based on? Obviously not a considered opinion — even a lay opinion — of his particular mental state. No, it basically amounted to “this was a disgusting act. I won’t just call it evil, because even an evil person would see that this isn’t a rational response.” But there’s a lot of assumptions there. I don’t usually assume that people act rationally — hell, that’s half the reason I hang out here — so why should I assume that evil people act rationally?

    I think this is how most of us decide these things: if it’s a crime that we could imagine ourselves committing, we chalk it up to evil, lack of morality, poor decisions, etc.

    If it’s a crime we couldn’t imagine ourselves committing: it’s mental illness.

    I think that distinction — if I’m right about its existence, and I admit I’m thinking out loud here — is in some sense a coping mechanism. We know how to deal with people who do the bad things we can imagine ourselves doing, because we imagine what would deter us from doing it, or what punishment we thing we would deserve. But for people who do things that we can’t even imagine wanting to do, we’re at a loss.

    But just because that distinction makes us more comfortable, doesn’t mean it makes any sense.

  7. says

    Frankly, I think it’s an abject failure of the mental health system to identify people with anxiety and/or depressive disorders as “mentally ill” but people like Rodgers — despite his/their bug-fuck nutty ideas about women and sexual relationships — are considered “normal”.

    If that’s “normal”, I’m the Queen of England.

    Well, Your Majesty, I think your problem is coming from where you conflate “normal” with “okay.”

  8. johnthedrunkard says

    Well sure, intense racism and anti-Semitism have been and still are ‘normal’ in large populations. The beliefs are often absolutely incoherent and self-contradictory. In other words ‘crazy.’

    Is Rodger more crazy than an anonymous member of Boko Haram?

    Inaji@5
    Taking contemporary behaviors and declaring them ‘innate’ is exactly the same technique that built up the PUA orthodoxy. Would anyone claim ‘deep evolutionary significance’ to high-heeled shoes, just because they seem to have crept into to sexual landscape to such an absurd degree?

    Yes, we may still be carrying Bronze Age cultural tropes around with us. With feudal and laissez faire capitalist frosting on them, but they are STILL artifacts of culture and can be brought to an end as surely as slavery. Even in the US, homophobia is losing its grip, for example.

  9. says

    The beliefs are often absolutely incoherent and self-contradictory. In other words ‘crazy.’

    So everyone is crazy. That’s helpful.

  10. Pen says

    You might be interested in a book called Mind of a Madman by Richard Orange. Its essentially about the Norwegian psychiatrists difficulties in deciding whether Breivik could be considered sane or not. It says many very interesting and relevant things about the difficulty of reaching a decision, the interaction between sanity and culture, etc. It’s level is a bit journalistic, that’s my only criticism of it.

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