Last week the vice president of the NRA, Wayne Lapierre, gave a speech designed to elicit a state of perpetual militaristic panic against violent people with mental illness. He stated; “our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters–people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them.” Lapierre finds the source of gun violence in these “monsters,” and proposes we protect our children through a national database that keeps track of the mentally ill. I believe this is a terrible idea.
“Mental illness” is not a well defined concept. Looking in retrospect at someone who goes on a shooting spree, it is easy to say they are ill in the mind. But can we really predict the potential violence of a person, and is “mental illness”–a very broad and nebulous term, really the predictor we want to use? Does it make me appreciably more likely to kill people if I talk to myself, lay in bed for months with depression, struggle to empathize, experience unexplainable amounts of anxiety, or other fairly common behaviors we like to link to “mental illness?” Could mental illness actually at times be a source of strength, like having communication challenges that come from focusing on things others do not or having depression that comes from increased sensitivity to the struggles of the world?
“Mentally ill” is a label we use to marginalize people, and I know this because I have spent a lot of time worrying about my own sanity. As a wee boy I learned, as all children do, the language and logic of my parents. This language and logic outlined a spectrum of thought and behavior that was considered “crazy” which was contrasted with a spectrum of thought and behavior that was considered “normal.”
The man who went to work everyday to provide for his children was “normal.” The man who waded into water carrying a baby over his head and declaring himself to be Jesus was “crazy” (this was a news story I vaguely remember from childhood). All good boys and girls were supposed to be “normal.” Those who were within the spectrum of “crazy” were dangerous, unpredictable, liable to make bad romances, wallow in endless sorrow, and go on violent rampages. To me, the actual behavioral confines of “normal” seemed to involve wearing middle class clothing, enjoying sports (for boys) and makeup (for girls), rooting for the home team, not feeling a great need to question authority or critique society, and tending to be uncomfortable with displays of emotion (which were often associated with “imbalance”). But I had a problem because, although I did not know if I was “crazy,” I also was not “normal.”
I was a bizarrely spiritual boy. I meditated. I had mystical experiences (a sense of oneness with the universe). I did this before I knew what meditation and mystical experiences were. I came to think of myself as “talking to god,” and I heard quotes like this from Thomas Szasz; “if you talk to god, you are praying; if god talks to you, you have schizophrenia.” But the thing was… in my mind, this talking to god was a two way street. While I was engaged in mystical experience, I had many moments of clarity where I felt the wisdom of an all-connected higher mind come to me. I also had a vision when I was three where I saw an illusionary inferno that was premonitionary of a house fire that happened moments later. Now, in truth I don’t know the significance of these experiences and, increasingly over time, I don’t care. I have met many people who I know find my story very bizarre, even inconceivable. Others relate to my story. Others try to use my story, against my permission, to validate their own religious perspective. But the point here is that I grew up feeling like a damn weird kid.
I was terrified of being crazy. It haunted my dreams. I saw the word “crazy” wielded like a club that bludgeoned all the people the bludgeoner thought deserved to be dismissed. Here are some examples of what this looks like:
- “Don’t listen to John, he’s just crazy,”
- “if you say you take that position, people will think you are crazy,”
- “[insert political or religious group you don’t like] are just a bunch of crazies”
This deep-seated fear of insanity gained deeper perspective for me when I went to a very small college with a very politically radical population, Antioch. Prior to Antioch I learned that Anarchists, Communists, and other radicals belonged in that “crazy” range of thinking. Although in retrospect I think I had a lot of leftist inclinations, I was politically what I now call a “militant moderate”–to me the middle ground was always best. I think I felt that way, in large part, because few people accuse moderates of being crazy, and I was so scared of being diminished for who I was in my head. Because of this fear I tried to embrace “normality” and, at Antioch, I thought of people as crazy because I was internalizing my own oppression.
It took me a long time to learn this but I have figured out that actually, like the Anarchists and Communists I once marginalized, I was a radical too. Now, when I embrace my radical identity, I feel the spiritual liberation of simply being present with who I have always been. It is healing. And yet I also know that, by calling myself a radical, I open myself up to the same marginalization I have always feared–the marginalization bound within the words “crazy” and “normal.”
I realize I am somewhat conflating mental illness with abnormality but this is because they are conflated. As I said earlier, mental illness is an ill-defined term. Should you study psychiatric diagnoses you will find that “mental illness” actually is defined and diagnosed by abnormal behavior. In fact, the DSM (manual for diagnosing mental illness) keeps getting updated as society renegotiates what we consider normal and abnormal. Homosexuality, for example, used to be called a mental illness (and just spend a moment contemplating what this fact would signify for a mental illness database). And the thing is, there are many abnormal people in the world. I suspect there are far more people who exhibit abnormal behavior than those who do not. This points out that abnormality is not really about how often a behavior occurs but how shunned a behavior is in mainstream society. Many shunned behaviors are problematic (going on a killing spree, at least within one’s country, is one of them). Many shunned behaviors might actually be beneficial (like having an unusual ability to empathize or think critically). But, of all the people we might decide to label as mentally ill or abnormal, only a very small minority actually commit physical violence.
We do not live in the nightmarish world outlined by Wayne Lapierre. If we did, mass shootings and attempted mass shootings would be much more common. But thinking that our safety is constantly besieged by mad individuals causes real problems. When mental struggles and abnormal behavior are seen as excuses for marginalization people are actually disincentivized to seek and find help, which makes them more likely to act on destructive impulses. Further disenfranchisement by stamping crazy on peoples’ permanent records is an ill-informed attempt to make the world better which will actually make it worse.
So you may wonder, what do I propose to prevent violent people from acquiring weapons. Dismantle the military industrial complex! While we’re at it we can also dismantle the small-arms industrial complex (which involves the NRA). These groups benefit from guns, the use of guns, and from the mindset that guns represent legitimate ways to solve problems. In general I think we need a more serious analysis of violence in society, but unfortunately massive amounts of propaganda make it hard for us to really look at ourselves. Still, it is immoral to avoid difficult tasks just because they are difficult when peoples’ lives are on the line. And, in the spirit of seriously examining violence in our society, I ask you to ponder the following:
We are upset by the mass shootings committed by a “crazy” person in Connecticut. It is tragic, horrible, angering, and saddening. Most disgustingly, it is only a ripple in the overall waves of violence that are produced by frightened people with destructive technology. Consider how many children have been killed by “normal” people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Pakistan? Cruise missiles and drone strikes do not have an avoid children switch. Could it be that there are people with power who have an interest in dismissing and destroying human life? Could it be that this is what is done in any war, every mass shooting, and even in the label of “crazy” itself? And, if you want to further explore the expendability of human life by people with power I suggest viewing the video on this page. I will warn, it is extremely violent, disturbing, and potentially triggering.