Home > psychology > I’m not usually political on this blog, but… (thoughts on mental illness and culpability of public figures)

I’m not usually political on this blog, but… (thoughts on mental illness and culpability of public figures)

Oh, look, here we go again.

Public figures, folks in positions of leadership and authority, present their violent fantasies, talking about their political enemies as evil, dangerous, deserving of death, etc.  They often suggest methods that would be way-cool, too, and talk about how great it would be to “take decisive action” or somesuch.  Over and over again.  In loud voices, using all of their charisma.

(I will refrain from calling out specific speakers and specific incidents here, because it is wrong no matter who does it, and because I do not want this blog to degenerate into a pointless debate about the minutiae of precisely who said precisely what and whether that counts.  The specific tragedy that occurred today is just the latest instantiation.)

Lots of folks say, “Oh, that’s awful!  Don’t go around inciting violence!”

The speakers respond, “Oh, come on, can’t you take a joke?  I was only speaking figuratively!  That’s just political rhetoric!  I’m not really telling people to go out and do those things!  And besides, other people are doing it, too!  And I’m not really an authority figure anyhow, because, after all, I’m just an entertainer, or a candidate, or a humble religious leader, or a Citizen Just Like You.”  Right, because we all happen to have hundreds, thousands, or millions of people listening to us on the TV/radio/internet/lectern/pulpit.

Then someone does something awful: blows up a building, shoots a bunch of people, or otherwise takes violent action that looks rather like what that authority figure fantasized about.

And everyone is shocked! shocked, I say!  Everyone, especially including the public figures themselves, decries the violence and does their best to distance themselves from the person who actually did the bad thing.  The good news is that when we learn more about that person, we find out that they were a “crazy” “lone wolf.”  They’ve often posted rambling and incoherent monologues on the internet or left other clear evidence of serious and persistent mental illness.  Everyone titters and points and does their level best to say, “That person is nothing like me,” because thought disorders are scary. (I’m not being sarcastic.  The idea that your own brain might turn on you is legitimately terrifying.  But when we’re scared of something, one of our normal and natural defenses is to try to make it be as separate from us ourselves as possible.)

So hooray!  The public figures are off the hook!  They couldn’t possibly have predicted that some whack-job would have taken them seriously and done that awful thing.  Those people aren’t like us.  They can’t be held responsible for what those not-like-us-people might do, even if it was disturbingly like what they were talking about on the TV/radio/internet/lectern/pulpit.

Folks, the population incidence of schizophrenia is approximately 1%.  One. per. cent. Think about that for a minute.  Think about going into a movie theatre… or a house of worship… or a football game…  Now think about the population of the country (or the world).  Move the decimal place two spots to the left.  That’s a lot of people struggling with serious and persistent mental illness, typically in overburdened systems that rarely manage to provide the kind of help they need.  I’ve worked with folks who are seriously affected by these disorders — I have a great deal of compassion for them.

Let me be crystal clear — not all people with thought disorders are violent.  In fact, the research data is quite clear that the overwhelming majority are not.  (In fact, they are no more likely to be violent than the general public, although most people massively underestimate how violent the general public is).  Even those few who are dangerous are rarely dangerous to people they don’t know.  (That’s true of the general population, too, by the way — the overwhelming majority of victims of violence know their attackers well… they’re often closely related to them.)

But “knowing” someone in this case can include being introduced to them by, say, a public authority figure who talks about them a whole lot and tells you that they know all about this person who is evil and they know that this person should be killed and they create a concrete image of how that could be done and they repeat the message over and over again or have lots of friends who repeat similar messages.  Especially if part of your thought disorder includes the relatively common symptom of believing that the TV/radio/internet/movie/music has a special message just for you.  When you’re having a hard time holding onto reality and making it make sense, then those nice, simple, consistent messages getting repeated over and over can feel comforting.

While I’m on the subject of relatively-common-symptoms of thought disorders, let me also point out that the belief that you are somehow important, special, have a special mission to carry out, have to sacrifice yourself, have to save the world, etc… is also on the list.  Ahem.

Folks like to hide behind the “abstract language” thing.  I can’t agree.  You may speak abstractly, sure, but you’re speaking to lots of people in the population who are not abstract thinkers.  (Think about how frustrating it can be at the DMV, or with the TSA, or on a telephone support line, or any of the other situations that provoke the typical Xtranormal video.)  And when someone has a thought disorder, they often become highly concrete and not-quite-logical in how they process language.  Words don’t quite mean what they usually mean, sounds start meaning more than the words, sentences can start in one place and end someplace very different, language and logic can start to feel like one of those water-snake toys that keeps slipping out of your hands.  Understanding the niceties of figurative language and hyperbole and rhetorical flourish from the public authority figure on the TV/radio/internet/lectern/pulpit, figuring out what they really mean…?  Go ahead and look up the writings of any of these “lone crazies” and tell me if you think a person who has that little control over language and thought can tell when an authority figure’s comments about the nobility of sacrifice and the necessity of violence and all that are really just entertaining and clever words, and when they’re concrete calls to real-world action.  I like to think I’m a good consumer of the subtleties of language, and I am often unsure of what the shouting heads really mean.

The saving grace is that most of us, most of the time, have an observing ego.  We think about what we’re going to do at least a little bit before we do it, and we judge our planned actions in light of whether they conform to the usual rules of the culture, what the likely outcomes would be, and so forth.  And most of us, most of the time, have enough executive functioning to inhibit the acting out of the planned actions we judge to be poor choices.  When I hear about something despicable, when I’m angry or scared, I might think, “Gee, I wish I could just… <fill in some random violent fantasy>.”  But I don’t then actually do it… at least not most of the time (grin).  But serious mental illness can wreak havoc with those self-controls.

What really concerns me is when the same authority figures who claim that they couldn’t possibly have known that they were sooo powerful… seem to feed their own sense of power by watching other people (who have less in the way of observing ego and executive function) carry out their own violent fantasies.  I have known a few individuals who seemed to thrive on the chaos they caused within a community.  Metaphorically, they would throw bricks high up in the air.  When the “brick” came down and hurt someone or caused some other form of contention, they’d be as shocked as everyone else — perhaps more so.  But there was also the sly smile, the subtle recognition of their own power to have caused that. Heh.  I wonder if some of these folks who seem so often to step over the lines of appropriate authority-figure behavior are being repeatedly reinforced by how much crisis, both actual and feared, that they cause.  That’s a problem, because even telling them how powerful they are and reminding them that with power comes responsibility feeds the narcissism.

I’m not sure how we as a civil community can address that effectively, not when the ranting is what makes money.  To a great extent, I think we all have to get serious with ourselves about how our own fantasies are being fed by the violent talk.  Personally, I’ve noticed a few shows that I enjoy and typically agree with politically, but I start to feel that I am getting too much pleasure out of the implied combat.  When I stop liking who I become when I listen to them, I vote with my ears and whatever ratings statistics I might happen to be contributing to.  I have stopped listening to them.

So all this is why I can’t accept that “no one could have predicted.”  No one could have predicted precisely which person would react to precisely which turn of violent-fantasy speech or imagery in precisely which way at precisely which time and kill precisely which people.  The population is too large to be keeping tabs on every person to the level that would permit experts to make such predictions, and I personally would not want to live in a country that kept tabs on its citizens in such a fashion.  But the idea that someone would react in some violent way at some point was extremely predictable.  And in fact, in most of these cases, as in the tragedy this morning, the prediction was in fact made and ignored, made and pooh-poohed, made and shouted down.  And in most of these cases, there was that little “heh” coming from the background as those who agreed with the violent fantasy got the pleasure of having their fantasy gratified by someone else.

Those who have the attention of the public, on the TV, shouting on the radio, posting on the internet, ranting from the secular lectern or preaching from the religious pulpit, all have a responsibility.  The more people who listen to you, the more you tell them what to do, the more responsibility you have when they act on what you tell them.  Some of the blood spatters on you, too.

Enough.

About these ads
  1. Pam
    January 9, 2011 at 9:56 pm

    Thanks, Aimee.

  2. Sarah
    January 9, 2011 at 11:29 pm

    Thanks, Aimee. This is either great or brilliant, I’m not
    sure which. I hope everyone retweets it or something and it ends up
    on YahooNews as a feature blog.

  3. ljconrad
    January 9, 2011 at 11:52 pm

    As soon as you mentioned that you were going to write a few
    words concerning the tragic event that occurred yesterday, the
    clock started ticking for me. ((tapping fingers)). Of course, it
    was worth the wait. Of course, I couldn’t agree with you more. And
    of course, I appreciated the new-to-me perspectives you put forth
    in this post. One major thought really struck me <— the
    nuances of figurative language. Thankfully, I didn’t develop a
    headache when these “thoughts struck me” … considering how forceful
    they were! Politicians and talking-heads on America’s airwaves have
    understood for a very long time that their influence could be
    strengthened if their followers were sheep. And the easiest way to
    create a society of sheep was through fear and education. (Because
    they went to school when history was actually still being taught,
    they learned from it.) Terrorists conveniently provided the fear
    factor; educating a citizenry who could no longer think for
    themselves started long before. What do you get when you cross a
    curriculum of test preparation with an emphasis on the elimination
    of teaching critical thinking skills? Answer: a nation of sheep.
    Throw in a religious philosophy that honors followers as sheep and
    you have the perfect storm that is engulfing America
    today.

  4. LizPf
    January 10, 2011 at 4:20 am

    Aimee, this deserves as wide a circulation as we blog-readers can give it. Thanks for putting into concrete terms how many of us feel.

  5. Pam
    January 10, 2011 at 5:20 am

    I just put a link to this on my facebook page. I hope many people read it. Thanks again, Aimee.

  6. January 10, 2011 at 6:54 am

    thanks, everyone.

  7. Wandering
    January 10, 2011 at 10:22 am

    This is wonderful! Thank you! :)

  8. January 11, 2011 at 12:23 am

    Nicely said, Aimee. And nice to run into you online after all these years since MIT, thanks to someone forwarding to me a link to this blog posting. :-)

    • January 13, 2011 at 9:55 pm

      Hello, Jonathan! Yes, it’s nice to hear from you, too, and thanks…

  9. July 14, 2012 at 1:17 am

    Just stumbled on this post!This is a nice post you have here, you nailed it!. I strongly agree Aimee of your point of view here. Keep Up Blogging girl :)

  1. January 10, 2011 at 5:15 am
  2. January 17, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 122 other followers