1. Breivik, mental illness, language, and ethics

    It is becoming clear that Breivik’s lawyers are likely to make a case for insanity. This has inevitably brought about a re-discussion and construction of the mad/bad debate - the ethical debate of whether or not someone with the mindset capable of putting together bombs and opening fire on teenagers can ever be understood as mentally “healthy”, or alternatively, whether the label of mental illness is deliberately manipulated to excuse crimes which have nothing in common with the difficult life experiences of the vast majority of individuals who would also be grouped under this label. I think the two most important elements to consider when trying to negotiate this difficult topic are this:

    • Firstly, that mental illness is a slippery “best-fit” term which is used culturally to group together a huge variety of experiences for the purpose of socio-cognitive order: majority-understood mental classification of society and its variations and nuances.
    • Secondly, that the language of mental illness is used to support the liberal soft-determinist argument that psychological dysfunction and the analysis of biological and cultural origins for brutal violence is more useful both in terms of gaining understanding and attempting what limited prevention is possible that resorting to more simplistic concepts of good and evil.  

    Looking first at mental illness in itself as a concept and classification system, there are big issues, but no clear alternative linguistic tools. Mental illness is a “catch all” term for many many different and distinct variations in perception of reality.

    There are traditionally two broad sub-divisions in the way mental illness is classified. Firstly, psychotic illnesses, in which perceptions of reality are severely impaired, and which includes conditions such as paranoid Schizophrenia, where individuals generally experience auditory hallucinations and delusions - hearing voices and developing bizarre beliefs which commonly include the belief that suicide is a necessary step in achieving some long term goal such as rising up as a king of hell. In general these types of condition don’t tend to attract much debate legally when looking at responsibility as they have strong marker signs, and can be physically detected and tracked so the suspicion of “faking it” is not really raised. There are genetic links to many of these conditions, although generally not a determinist gene, which means that some people are born more vulnerable to them but they are still culturally activated, and also means poverty, poor housing, stress and ethnicity are all risk factors in Schizophrenia. There is of course a necessity to look at who does the diagnosis and how they are primed to interpret the beliefs and behaviours of those they diagnose before considering a diagnosis to be an objective and scientific process rather than a form of labeling, but this does not mean biology should be discounted. It is also very important to note that whilst paranoid schizophrenics are assigned the role culturally of monsters by the right wing press, they are far more likely to hurt themselves than anyone else, and it could probably also be argued have received a bigger helping of institutionalised abuse in the form of harmful treatments and representations over the years than the sum of any violent outbreaks on the part of the schizophrenics themselves. Of course, this type of condition has got nothing to do with Breivik’s acts, but it will probably be a dominant form of (mis)understanding when the general public think of the insanity plea.

    Also falling under the umbrella term of mental illness we have neurotic conditions such as anxiety disorders and depression. These types of disorder are characterised by a more subtle nuanced difference in the perception of reality. In simple terms, neurotic conditions involve an experience of reality which differs in terms of how new information is interpreted (e.g. someone with depression will generally focus on negative aspects of new information, whilst someone with an anxiety disorder will have a very physical stress response to various situations which then impacts on thought) without direct disturbances in how the world is experienced such as hallucinations. There is a lot of variation and many mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder cross both categories in terms of symptoms. It doesn’t help matters that these types of disorder have historically been the battle ground for a power struggle in terms of classification and language - because depression falls on one end of a spectrum of “normal” mindsets and interpretations there have years worth of ignorant allegation which have led to a muddy common cultural interpretation that depression is a result of “not pulling yourself together” which has in turn led to a strong assertion for a biological interpretation of the condition. Certainly depression has genetic links and is linked in particular to problems in the uptake of the neurochemical serotonin, but I think it is most useful to think of is as a symptom which is classified as a disorder for the purpose of treatment - it is a “normal” strand on the spectrum of human experience which in some cases is activated more easily in one individual than another depending on triggers being in place (genetic to some degree then) and in some cases is a response to the individual experiencing life events way above the “mean” threshold.

    As previously discussed, it would be reductionist to discount the role of biological factors in mental illness, but to see mental illness as a “thing” existing in a vacuum of cultural interpretation is also limited. Mental illness reflects the stratification of class, gender and ethnicity in society, which is probably partly down to labeling but also empowerment and the effects this has on resilience factors such as self esteem (e.g. you could argue that some mental illnesses are a normal human reaction that any human could experience if placed in a particularly impoverished or oppressed section of society). Types of disorder also reflect the “niche” of experience and strategy available to the individual - e.g. eating disorders most common in young women where social pressures surrounding appearance are highest, and addiction highest in working class men where there is a lack of available social space and learned strategies to discuss emotional problems.

    Moving on from looking at the slippery nature of “mental illness” as a classification system, the main problem is that whilst the grouping together of all dysfunctional psychological processing is useful in trying to move beyond an account which simply addresses criminal behaviour in terms of good and evil, by doing this we inadvertently link criminal deviance with the vast majority of those individuals who fall under the umbrella term without any other link or commonality. This is dangerous in that it has real consequences in terms of how people with mental illnesses are perceived and treated in their day-to-day lives. Terms like “lunatic fringe” (which I used myself in the last post) can usefully guide a reader to the idea that my perspective of “inhumanity” comes from the viewpoint of psychology and culture, but it also serves to reinforce the dominant discourse linking mental illness and danger. There are no real solutions for this. There is a strong argument to be made that we need to develop new linguistic systems to represent criminality in terms of biological and social origins rather than evil without linking to any other psychological disorder, but the practicalities of feeding this into public language are huge, in that there is already the resistant “political correctness” classification system which picks up and neutralises this kind of strategy. On top of this, attempts to examine the biological and cultural roots to criminal behaviour are commonly dismissed as appeasement, disrespectful, and that term I’m starting to get used to, “Marxist filth”. I don’t deny free will in that I experience a conscious choice process and can assume that (most) also do but I don’t believe in evil or monstrosity, which is beyond controversial in terms of how my ideas would be interpreted in any mainstream arena. There is also the possibility that unless the new linguistic system was very robust it would not be meaningful at the level of general public understanding, in that it would be too complex. For the moment, all I can do is look carefully at the terminology I use to try to explain behaviour and try to work on moving this forward.

    So, it is possible that you have come this far and not really come to a conclusion as to whether I believe Breivik was mentally ill. I think my thinking here can be summarised as follows.

    1) He was not driven by the type of mental illness which definitely divorces the individual from reality such as paranoid Schizophrenia (as discussed earlier).

    2) His beliefs seem to reflect a worrying normalisation of (previously) extremist right wing thinking, and from this perspective the “illness” to focus on is much a social disease as a particular problem with the individual.

    3) The examination of biological, developmental, social and cultural factors traditionally undertaken by those trained in studying mental illness and social psychology is more meaningful than a simple description of an evil monster. This does not mean that I don’t believe he should be imprisoned for life, but my perspective is that this is necessary for the protection of society rather than the punishment of evil fulfilling any useful social purpose - beyond perhaps deterrence, which is a whole other debate in itself.

  2. Norway and an analysis of cultural racism

    Keep thinking about those aerial shots of that little wooded island, almost the same shape as a heart, and the reporter explaining that the sea was being searched as it was likely that the children were shot at as they tried to swim for safety.

    Much like any other big event these days, there is information overload. Thousands of different tweets, blogs, newspaper articles, television and radio, mainly all trying to respond in the way we all do when senseless acts of violence take place, by crafting some sort of sense from it, trying to decide what exactly the lesson is that we will assert “must be learnt”. We don’t seem to have got to the stage of a complex psychological examination of motives (although I have seen a statement that a deviance from morality was evident rather than mental health issues - the classic mad/bad debate ready to be examined again). So, while it is difficult to speculate with any certainty about the killer himself, it is still possible to look at the psychology and social realities of the wider world he inhabited and the world which reacted to his terrible acts.

    I have found myself following two main strands of thought. Firstly, wondering what the initial responses tell us about how post 9/11 the social media primes us to interpret these events, which is being explored at length in many interesting ways elsewhere. There was the shambolic initial coverage in which it was assumed it had to be the hand of Islamic fundamentalists (ironically) - an initial clarion call which is now only echoing in scattered far right conspiracy theories. It has been diluted, in places, to the claim that Anders Behring Breivik’s actions were actually somehow brought about by the state - he was a desperate man, driven to lashing out blindly by socialists who would not listen to his grave concerns about immigration. Tasteless thoughts to be springing up so freshly after the bloodshed of so many socialist young people but the speed reflects the digital age and the thoughts dominant strands of thinking in the current culture of the right wing press. Taken at a surface level, it is a startlingly liberal account of how terrorism evolves (liberal if you ignore the meta-politics) for writers who would not normally reflect on, for example, the role of Western aggression in the formation of Islamic terrorists. Of course, Norway is not a mirror image of the world of fundamentalist Islam - walking around your town seeing people of a different colour to you apparently living in comfort is hardly an equivalent formative experience to watching your whole village being bombed out of their homes, although on both sides a singular account (either that the West makes Islamic terrorists or that immigration makes far-right terrorists) would be simplistic.

    Secondly, I have been thinking about what (if at all) this does to illuminate the reality of the far right these days -again something which is being given a lot of consideration, although in a lot of places, at least in the mainstream press, this has been mainly in terms of whether or not there really is a secret international far-right organisation of “knights”. Hopefully it is sensible to discount the sleeper cell theory (as much as it has occasionally played on my mind, ridiculously, possibly as a consequence of the culture of fear, combined with a few surprisingly hateful comments I have experienced in the past year as a consequence of being more politically vocal - I suppose it has at least given me a taste of what life must be like for your more paranoid EDL member).

    There do seem to be a handful of more disturbed people in the far right posting things about heroism and/or conspiracy theories regarding a white muslim carrying out the violence and then framing the racists - and really, when you read what some of the extremists say it is terrifying, in part because we seem to live in a time where fascists have learnt all the rules in tastefully covering up rampant hatred, where you get website rationalisations of the very “secular” EDL juxtaposed seemingly without any ironic intent alongside photographs of young members consumed with animalistic rage roaring at the camera. What, I have found myself wondering, does this mean - is the country covered with hotspots of hidden brutal planning, where only the odd socially inept outcast leaks out the real beliefs (Griffin telling BNP members that it is necessary to campaign for voluntary repatriation to get public sympathy springs to mind)? Or is it the case that most of the far right are actually right wingers with a love of militant displays and deeply prejudiced beliefs but no real thirst for wide scale combat? Probably there are as many different interpretations of what the various far right groups stand for as there are members.

    So, while there were definitely international links with various far-right organisations, and certainly groups like the EDL will be pumping out statements of condolence to reflect the genuine horror of many members whilst playing down any hint of support in their lunatic fringes (exclamations about why anyone would think the EDL are involved when the children were white spring to mind), it would be naive to think that watered down versions of far right thinking are not everywhere. Times of international tension and economic crisis are inevitably catalysts for extremism. Racism has mutated to fit with the times, and seems to have become acceptable across swathes of polite society (if it ever wasn’t?) so long as it is linked to culture and religion without (generally) the biological claims of the past. Traditional racism still exists but these days there seems to be a widespread attitude where a baby of muslim heritage would be considered innocent and equal at birth, only to be corrupted by being raised in a culture of terrorism and fundamentalism. Traditionally the mainstream right have scooped up support by playing on prejudice and fears of this nature (along with scapegoating of various other social “threats” such as the unemployed and the unions) but there is really only so long tired rants about the excesses of Blair and Brown can be wheeled out before they become dated, and the credibility of the current government stands massively undermined by the News International scandal. Right wing working class tories have little interest in sustaining the elites they prop up, and I believe there is a genuine danger that the growing critique of the wealth of bankers and the super-rich combined with neo-liberal attacks on the welfare state may make voters look right to organisations which superficially oppose these whilst retaining the scapegoating element that allows a coherent self without complex re-examination of views in a world where the culture of individualism is stronger than ever and ego is supreme. These organisations almost certainly lack either the robust infrastructure or the intellectual horse-power to massively reorganise society, but this does not make them impotent and utterly discountable.

    The main issue is that there is no obvious solution. The media has been dominated for years by the right wing meaning beliefs about the self in opposition to the other are a normalised pattern of thinking for many, seemingly as organic to the individual as any other long held socialised belief. The new cultural racism is a part of this but it stretches much wider - since becoming more active post-Cameron I have found that in spite of being a very moderate thinker, speaking out about social issues involves crashing into walled up beliefs with little if any impact on anyone who wasn’t already listening. It doesn’t reflect everyone but in huge numbers of cases people don’t want to be challenged or ask questions, they want their beliefs to be available in a simple to understand tabloid form with just enough indignation to convince themselves that they are somehow challenging a status quo or rocking the very establishment they actually form the foundations for. Ironically, whilst the far right accuse education of being some sort of liberal power base where young minds are spoon-fed dirty socialist politics, the reality is that the (laudable) goal of mass achievement has led to a situation in which young people are actually being taught in very singular content-focused ways without the kind of wider understanding necessary for liberal thought to have chance to take root.

    I suppose it is inevitable that there are more questions than answers.