Thursday, July 28, 2011

One Man's Crazy is Another Man's Wholesale Cultural Condemnation

I've been indulging in a meditation lately on relativism, vis a vis the world going to hell in a handbasket.  We were doing okay when one man's trash was another man's treasure, but I'm talking about bigger stakes: One man's human rights  (or two men's, as the case may be) are another man's abomination. One man's social responsibility is another man's wasteful spending.  One man's holy war is another man's crime against humanity. You get the idea.  The irony here is that everyone involved is pretty certain of their position.  In the mathematics of social ideology, Perceived Objective Truth + Perceived Objective Truth = No Functional Objective Truth.

It's really not all that noteworthy.  I don't think there's anyone who doesn't have some kind of narrative to explain why they do the things they do, whether they're professors or garbage men or 4-years-old or schizophrenic.  When confronted with the suggestion that they've acted badly, they can offer what is, for them, a perfectly reasonable explanation of why they did it.  The logic may be faulty and/or the moral judgment may not sit well with a segment of the population (or in some cases, community standards), but by and large, people are doing things for a reason, and in their minds, at least, a good one.

Given that militant commitment to subjective morality is the name of the game in the twin cesspools of  politics and public discourse, this headline in today's New York Times gave me pause: Lawyer Says Suspect in Norway Attacks is InsaneGosh, lawyer, you think?

I'm not the first person to point out that the reception of this suspect relative to other terrorism suspects.  I've already read a number of op eds and blog entries and facebook-repost zingers noting that the same mostly conservative, mostly Christian folks eager to define terrorism as the purview of (inherently-evil) Muslims have managed to give Anders Breivik a religious hall pass.  He may be a Christian, but not a good Christian, and isn't their denunciation of his acts proof that real Christians are the standard-bearers of moral righteousness? [Insert tired argument that moderate Muslims "aren't speaking out against terrorism"]

Well, gang, I hate to bust up the xeno-/teleo-phobic party, but no. Just like I don't expect English majors to apologize for the Virginia Tech shooter because they share intellectual interests, I don't expect religious communities, nations, or other cultural subsets held together a tenuous group of shared characteristics to apologize when one of their number loses it.  Whatever identifiers were in play before the attacks, there's really only one that actually defines this guy, and his lawyer hit the nail on the head.  Breivik is insane. In my mind, that doesn't let him off the hook, it just means that pundits on all sides need to stop trying to make any meaningful points about terrorism, causation, religion or any other pet subject based on the actions of one cracked egg. 

This guy probably had a lot of things in common with a lot of very disparate folks.  Those people didn't gun down children.  Let's not pretend we can extrapolate things about Christians, or, say, Norwegians, based on one who did.

Of course in the context of legal proceedings, the definition of insanity is itself a little whacked.  I'm neither a lawyer nor a psychiatrist, but my understanding is that insanity, as determined by court-appointed experts, is a condition in which the perpetrator was unaware that their actions were wrong.

In my mind, this is where things go off the rails a bit:  The question isn't really whether they were aware that their actions were wrong (which suggests an objective, universal standard), but whether they were aware that other people would judge their actions to be wrong.  It's one of the reasons that the insanity defense is so seldom successful:  no matter what deluded logic makes a person feel vindicated in committing a heinous act, most of the time they understand that their convictions are at odds with society at large.

There's a lot a wingnuts with a martyr-complex and optimistic lawyers.  Generally, if someone is caught murdering people, they'll do their level best to convince a jury and the world at large that their motive excuses an act they understand is morally repugnant to pretty much everybody.  It's a tiny, tiny group of people who are a) living independently in society and b) so delusional that they honestly don't understand what the problem is.

The outcome in insanity cases is a bit cockamamie as well.  Pleading insanity means accepting a sentence in a mental institution regardless of the jury's findings.  If you're found not guilty by reason of insanity, you are institutionalized for an indefinite sentence until it's determined that you're no longer a threat.  You might also be found "guilty, but insane" in which case you will receive a sentence of pre-determined length like a regular prison sentence, but serve it in a mental institution.

Aside from the penalties, insanity has some galling semantic implications for victims' families.  When someone is not guilty due to insanity, they are "not responsible" for their actions.  I'm just speculating, but I bet that tidbit makes for some salty wounds.

Maybe there's a good reason to keep the definition of insanity as stringent as it is.  I guess it means that if if you're willing to fess to it and receive treatment regardless of the outcome, some worthwhile goal is achieved.  But, and maybe I'm crazy myself, but it seems to me that if you kill someone and believe that you were right to do it something in your brain is not okay.  The DSM-IV is a wonderful, nuanced volume.  Here are some of the ways the DSM-IV describes sociopathy: "failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviours as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest," "Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another."

At the end of the day, this is just another weird cultural judgment call: One man's dangerous criminal is another man's dangerous mental patient.  And maybe my lefty bias is showing, but if the purpose of the penal system is rehabilitation (and despite all evidence, ostensibly it is.  I'm speaking now of the U.S.), then warehousing people who are, from a clinical perspective very obviously damaged in an environment where they will receive little or no treatment from overworked and under-trained staff is an embarrassment to the social ideals we purport to have. I'm not saying that we should fill psychiatric centers with violent criminals, but I absolutely believe we should be providing a whole lot of psychiatric treatment to violent criminals.  Particularly in cases where there is a likelihood that the prisoner in question will re-enter society, we have an obligation to them and to the public at large to address the issues that caused them to offend in the first place.  I can almost guarantee that those issues will not be that they are of a particular faith, race, gender, political party or sexual orientation.  So what say we stop sniping at each other and think about how we identify actual risks, prevent actual casualties and deal with the actual, individual perpetrators instead of strawmen.

Here's where the sprawly expanses of this post comes together: In order for a society to function, there has to be some common ground.  And there is but we've become increasingly fractious and fractured, so focused on the things that define us separately,  and so intolerant of perceived and actual differences that we're in danger of losing our identity.  It shouldn't be hard for us to agree that people who commit mass murder are sick, sick individuals.  It shouldn't be hard for us to refrain from using national and international tragedy to frame pot shots at ideological opposites or to hop on a soap box on those occasions except to express solidarity with victims and their families or seek partners in working toward an end to these kinds of atrocities.  Instead of chasing down metaphorical escaped horses and blaming each other for leaving the door open, we ought to agree that we all want to keep the horses in the barn and work together to make it happen.


  1. So much good stuff here and so many things I could say, but two that I can't NOT say.

    1. That was exactly my reaction to his lawyer's statement. It was like, "Oh fucking really? Insane, huh? I never would have guessed."

    2. While I don't think his actions have anything to do with him being specifically christian, I think that they do have something to do with him being a man of faith. Faith makes it acceptable to believe things without any check-in with reality. Most of the time, these beliefs are (somewhat) harmless, like the belief that you will come back from the dead, but I think those more innocuous beliefs can end up functioning as the beginning of a creep into insanity for those who are already inclined that way. Faith doesn't make people insane, but it certainly doesn't slow down the process, and it often accelerates it. It isn't a coincidence that an overwhelming percentage of schizophrenic delusions are of a religious nature. The two go hand in hand like peanut butter and jelly. And historically, of course, almost all religious revelation is precisely that, schizophrenic ravings about voices one heard in the night.

  2. Aw crap. I started to respond to this and realized that I was essentially writing a whole other blog post in the comments section, so I'm just going to hold onto it for now.

    In the mean time, suffice to say that I think you're right, and that's exactly my point (or one of several): The cognitive dissonance of faith-based pundits when it comes to comparing loons of one religious stripe to loons of another is astounding. For all the condemnation of Islamic theocracies and various judgments of the Zionist movement, the vague reaction to Breivik and the still prevalent emphasis on America as a Christian nation makes me feel like I'm living in a Twilight Zone episode.