Monday, October 2, 2017
Don't Let Them Change the Story: The Narrative of the Mentally Ill "Lone Wolf"
My suspicion is we're going to hear a lot about mental illness in the next few days. A lot. And my prediction is that it's going to be used to sidestep conversations about guns, about misogyny, about toxic masculinity, about all kinds of things. Just another one of thousands of one-off events by yet another "lone wolf." The price of doing business here in the U.S.A.
When an atrocity is committed (and "atrocity" is the right word, not "tragedy"), our culture ramps into "othering" mode. As we grab for the answer of what was no doubt a complex web of factors, if we find something strange and different like a religion or an ethnicity that doesn't belong, then we blame that. When the offender is white though, these ways of slipping them quietly into other groups that explain their penchant for committing terrible actions breaks down.
In a strange sort of "excuse" we rarely give to any other group, suddenly any white person who commits unspeakable violence is "crazy." A lone wolf. No need to dig any further. They were just mentally ill.
"Mental illness," or whatever euphemism for mental illness is being used ("deeply troubled," "crazy," "insane") does not erase the glaring problem that such diagnoses are far from universal, and even when they happen to be true, they are still irrelevant and focusing on them both harms others and pulls the scrutiny from where it belongs.
It is actually a good and wonderful thing to lament the deplorable state of mental health treatment in this country and culture. The lack of easy access to affordable care is revolting, and the stigma that mental illness is not actually illness and people can just will themselves to be well is huge. Most people are still trying to tell folks with mental illness to eat right and exercise and just try NOT having that chronic disease. And those are the ones not simply recoiling in fear.
However, when people tell the story of mental health ONLY after someone has committed an atrocity, or care about the mental health failings of our culture ONLY after someone has committed an atrocity they're actually making things a lot worse, not better. They are only being harmful, not empathetic.
First of all, they are usually using "mental health" as a code word for "people who do terrible things." The suggestion is that no one who does something like this COULD be sane. And even though this "excuse" is rarely extended to folks who aren't white, let me be absolutely clear about this, and I'll even use bold to make the point:
That is, by every psychological bellwether, completely inaccurate.
People who commit atrocities are then diagnosed and found to have no mental illnesses ALL THE TIME. And the vast majority of people with mental illness are the victims of violence not perpetrators. By a huge margin. Most are more likely to hurt themselves than anyone around them. Doing something terrible isn't an automatic sign of mental illness.
I know it hurts to think that humans are capable of violence without something being fundamentally wrong with their mental processes, and that we desperately want the capacity to do violence to multiple people indiscriminately to indicate that something MUST be deeply and profoundly faulty in the wiring itself, but that simply isn't true. (Or maybe it is true but what we should be looking at is a culture which "paints the target" with bigotry and excuses the entitled and angry behavior leading up to such an atrocity, not the functionality of specific brains.) We can all be monsters under the right circumstances. Some of us are. And I'm sorry if that's scary, but many who take a gun and do a terrible thing with it are completely sound of mind.
The things that make us monsters are not always bits working incorrectly. Sometimes it's the culture that tells us the "other" isn't worth living. Sometimes it's an expression of the hate we are taught every day. Sometimes it is the enculturation of an indoctrinating force. And for an overwhelming number of men (who are 98% of mass shooters), it is an inability express any emotion other than to metabolize it into suppressed anger. [Edit: Oh look.]
Sometimes the things that make us monsters are the bits working exactly as intended.
When people DO this–when they say that "of course he had mental illness because no one who didn't could have done such a thing"–it's not only sloppy and uncritical thinking, devoid of logic and the slightest psychological accuracy (the actual number is around 60% and race–that is to say being WHITE–is a more statistically predictable factor), but it also perpetuates the stigma that the mentally ill are dangerous merely by virtue of their mental illness. They equate the two in a way that is not only inaccurate, but also causes a lot of splash damage to those who suffer from mental illness.
Am I saying no one who is mentally ill has ever been violent or done something violent? Or am I saying that no mental health diagnosis should ever preclude anyone from owning a firearm? That's ridiculous. Of course some mentally ill people are violent. Some vegetarians are violent. Some mathematicians are violent. But we know better than to blame vegetarianism or mathematics when the latter to cases are true. And even mentally ill folks who do show a proclivity to be violently antisocial–in the rare cases when there is a link between the violence and their diagnosis–it is almost never on a mass scale or bereft of other context.
None of these things is the determining factor in someone's mass shooting. Even if this weren't a post hoc ergo proctor hoc fallacy right out of a Freshman textbook, the correlation is so low as to make the comparison actually disingenuous and not simply fallacious. By significant margins, mentally ill people are more likely to harm themselves or BE harmed by others than when compared to the general population. And certainly compared to groups like young white men. When we go digging for it, like it's the cause, and nothing more need be said, that's the problem. That's called (with bitter irony) a sharpshooter fallacy.
And maybe they'll even find this guy had a host of DSM diagnoses. It still doesn't mean that was the only X factor that matters.
As we untangle this latest mass shooting and the second "worst in history" in less than a year and a half, the red herring of mental illness will be ubiquitous. We might as well turn up proof of athlete's foot or tooth decay for as much as such thinking is lazy and sloppy.
Because here's the other problem: folks are using "crazy" to circumvent a lot of relevant social analysis that could and should go into the calculus of such an event. Everything from the absurdly simplistic and unregulated access to instantly-lethal, multi-lethal, ranged weaponry to the effect of toxic masculinity, to a sense of white, male entitlement.....all swept under the rug because the person was "obviously just crazy." We dismiss dozens (hundreds?) of conversations about the culture these minds were marinating in to simply write it all off as being about mental illness. "Oh well, what can we do. Just another disturbed mind. Hope it doesn't happen again...or again...or again..."
Mental illness affects a certain percentage of people all across the Earth–why do these atrocities so often happen in the U.S.? And why are they so often done BY white males? These are the things we should be digging into–not saying "Aha!" when we find any moment in a shooter's past where someone said they were troubled.
Mental illness is not homologous to "evil." And people really should either bang that drum all the time or think hard before they give it a whack after a highly visible event.
I don't know what they're going to find about this guy. But I do know what they're going to look for. Because the stories we tell that aren't complicated and nuanced and intricate webs of motive and means make things worse for a group that is already erased, marginalized, and stigmatized.