Yesterday in the wake of the terrible tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, the media and everyday folks alike erupted in a by now very predictable stream of ableist speech.
People who do terrible things are routinely referred to as “crazy,” “mad,” “craven,” “deranged,” “lunatics,” “unbalanced,” “unstable,” “disturbed,” and plain-old “mentally ill.”
This is problematic for a number of reasons which I will try not to swear too much explaining.
In almost all cases, little or more often nothing is actually known about the mental state of persons who perpetrate terrible crimes.
Not that that stops anyone from extrapolating that people who do terrible things must be “crazy.”
This variety of othering violence does what othering always does: it offers a facile, dismissive pseudo-answer to a complex issue without any nuance (and most of the time, without any facts) that allows people to wash their hands and say, “well, it couldn’t be me.”
Mentally ill people face an enormous stigma in this society. I should know: ten years ago I was diagnosed with a veritable rap sheet of mental illnesses, ranging from bipolar disorder to generalized anxiety with a stopover in obsessive-compulsive disorder.
And it would be a rap sheet in this society, no? I’m mentally ill, ergo I must be a criminal in waiting, right?
And not one of the millions of Americans living with mental illness who are complex and interesting individuals in our own rights, holding degrees, writing books, making art, volunteering our time and money to causes, pushing for a better society for ourselves and everyone else?
I’ll give you a hint: ableist othering of violence doesn’t solve anything.
This othering places people neatly into two categories, leaving no room for the horrifying notion that people who are not mentally ill often do terrible things.
Because if people weren’t blind to violence committed by people who by all appearances have all their screws fastened tightly, society wouldn’t need the ableist othering of violence.
If crazy people do terrible things and you haven’t done anything terrible, why should you seek help? That’s for “crazy” people, and you don’t want to shoot up a school, now do you? Good, here’s your clean bill of mental health.
It’s pseudo-progressive, pseudo-intellectual bullshit that actually exacerbates mental health stigmas.
It is a totally backwards and baseless argument which allows laypeople retroactively to diagnose perpetrators of crimes with mental illness so they don’t actually have to look things like mass murder in the eye.
It would be like knowing only that someone had a heart attack and using that fact alone to diagnose that person as a smoker or someone with unhealthy eating habits without allowing for the possibility of, say, a congenital heart defect.
And it yields the same results: you’d tell this hypothetical cardiac patient to lay off the smokes and the junk food, when what they probably need is a corrective cardiotomy to stop this from happening again.
And most importantly: in neither scenario are you a person qualified to make these judgments.
An easy toss of the “oh, he’s crazy” takes the heat off society to find out why things like mass murder really happen. Call it evil, call it mental illness, call it what you will; this terrible bias parading as an answer stymies efforts for what everyone probably wants – a less violent society.
Don’t be drawn in by easy ableism, and for the love of dog in kennel above, stop perpetuating it.
~Big Mama Schlomo