Sunday, January 9, 2011

Discussion of an assassination: ableism & the failure of sociological understanding

I don't have a lot to say about yesterday's assassination (an attempt on Rep. Giffords, but a successful assassination of a federal judge and others) beyond what people are already saying: that violent rhetoric creates a climate of violence, and that our lack of meaningful gun control puts the means of mass violence into the hands of people who are highly susceptible to that rhetoric and its accompanying climate.

As a university instructor who has had some alarming students, I will say I am sympathetic to the administration of Pima Community College for removing a student who disrupted classes and posted frightening videos from the campus, while also recognizing that mental health resources are sorely lacking on almost all campuses, regardless of the size or prestige of the institution.  What resources do exist are often not used, mainly because of a heavy stigma on mental illness.

Much of the discourse about the assassination contributes to that stigma.  First of all, although there seems to be some evidence that PCC, at least, considered one assassin to be "unstable," nobody actually knows anything about his mental health, whether he had a diagnosis and if so, what it was, etc.  So when people throw around terms like "deranged" and "nut," they are making assumptions, and they are also contributing to a discourse that mental illness = danger to others simply by putting this forth as an "explanation" for the violence.  The fact is, however, that most people with mental illness, including such high-profile disorders as schizophrenia, are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators (thanks to @sesmithwrites on Twitter for the link).

I understand the desire to quickly identify a fringe element and make it the cause of a terrible thing that has happened in the world.  This is the same general human desire to claim superhuman agency/self-efficacy that leads to victim-blaming "rape prevention" tips.  "Be a good girl* and nothing bad will happen to you; if something bad happens, you clearly could have been better!"  Like those tips, it is comforting unless and until something bad DOES happen to you, and then it becomes self-flagellation.  The "crazed psycho" is a comforting imaginary other unless you are, or become, part of the group of people who are pathologically mythologized by it.

This is, at its heart, a failure of sociological imagination, a failure of our "ability to recognize the relationship between large-scale social forces and the actions of individuals" (C. Wright Mills).  Mental illness, in fact, is not even associated with an increased propensity toward violence, except insofar as it may contribute to self-medication with alcohol or drugs, as very nicely discussed by Vaughan Bell on Slate (thanks to @sesmithwrites again).  Bell illustrates it with a comparison to our old favorite, death by lightning strike--my husband asked me why people always compare risks to lightning strikes; I said it's because, well, if you had a friend who was terrified of dying from a lightning strike, you would recommend that at the very least, they get some talk therapy for their anxiety, right?  And you are three times as likely to be killed by lightning as by a stranger with schizophrenia (and, of course, vastly more likely to be killed by your own mental illness--suicide caused about twice as many deaths as did homicide in the US in 2007, and most homicides are committed by close others).

Blaming individual mental illness lacks even the dubious support of a correlation between mental illness diagnoses and violence against others.  There is a social system around us that allowed this to happen.  That's fucking scary, because people recognize that social systems are big and difficult to change.  This is why my students in race and ethnicity don't like hearing that personal prejudices are really just a tiny manifestation, and far from the most damaging aspect, of institutional racism.  Social systems allow racism to continue and have harmful effects on individuals; social systems allow us to continue to make ourselves feel "safe" by pretending that mentally ill people are totally distinct from "normal"** people and thereby withhold all kinds of assistance and accommodation from people who would dramatically benefit from it; social systems created an environment in which one young man thought that shooting 20 people was an acceptable way to address his own sense of disenfranchisement and personal injustice.

You can't "fix" that by pronouncing one person "crazy."  It's not a problem of individual biography (C. Wright Mills again); it's a social problem: a problem of history.

We've had problems of history before.  We have them a lot.  You can think about Kennedy here.

RESULTS: Respondents who read the article linking mentally ill persons with violent crime displayed an increased likelihood to describe a mentally ill person as dangerous and violent. Conversely, respondents who read the informative article used terms like 'violent' or 'dangerous' less frequently. The desire for social distance remained virtually unchanged at follow-up in both groups.
CONCLUSION: Two potential approaches to break the unwanted link between negative media reporting and negative attitudes are suggested. First, an appeal to media professionals to report accurate representations of mental illness. And second, an appeal to the adults living and working with adolescents to provide opportunities to discuss and reflect on media contents.

This struck me because I have spent so much time discussing with students media portrayals of Black and Hispanic men as dangerous and criminal, but had never really considered the ways in which mentally ill people are similarly overrepresented in media coverage of crime.  Of course, unlike race,*** media accounts can speculate all kinds of mental health issues regardless of evidence, further contributing to the stigma, and making it even less likely that people who do need help--who, remember, are far more likely to be a danger to themselves than to others--will seek it out.  People look for stories about violence stemming from mental illness; they go so far as to invent mental illness with little or no evidence to "explain" violence, and in turn view their inventions as "proof" that mentally ill people are violent.

Since this has rightfully become a discussion of rhetoric, I just want to urge people to consider the ramifications of ableist rhetoric as well as the rhetoric of treason and "politics as war."  I know it's not easy; I frequently use slurs like "crazy" in speech, although I am trying not to.  Even as a child, I never called anyone or anything "retarded," but I didn't learn to think about the underlying meaning of calling someone "crazy" as an insult, and these things are hard to unlearn.  There are few better times to try, however, than when one is publicly discussing the effects of rhetoric on people's lives.


*I say "girl" because that's how the rhetoric goes, which also contributes to self-blame by male victims.

**I'm using scare quotes here for a reason.

***Except in cases where people invent suspects, and similar; Imaginary Black Men are very popular scapegoats.

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