Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Murdering 9 People Doesn't Make You Crazy

I began writing this after Charleston. After Chattanooga, I feel like it is relevant.

As predictably as clockwork, people began talking about 'mental health' immediately after the massacre at Mother Emmanuel. Before the coroner's reports on the 9 victims were complete, before the murderer was captured, people were talking about 'mentally unstable' people and their penchant for mass shootings. This assumption is telling - without knowing anything, many people had decided that a mentally ill person had killed those people.

Now we have the murderer in custody. He has confessed. But there is a catch - he has never been diagnosed with a mental illness. What we do know about him is that he dropped out of the 9th grade, may have been abusing opioids (he was caught with one). He had become reclusive and made people nervous. But this is not the same thing as him being ill.

And yet, I still see people mention 'mental health issues' and describe him as 'mentally unstable'. Most tellingly, I have heard it asserted that the simple fact that he murdered 9 people means that the killer was 'mentally unstable.' And I think that is the rub. In our discourse, it has been decided that the simple act of mass murder is itself evidence of mental illness. This is a problem.

It is a problem for a variety of reasons. First, mental illness is already a vague enough concept. It is defined by a complicated and subjective set of diagnostic criteria. But as flawed as they are, these criteria are what we have. They are defined by sets of symptoms and behaviors. While there are variety of illnesses in the DSM that include violent behavior, there is no entry in the manual that simply says 'murder 9 people' as a diagnostic criteria. Because mental illness is not defined by a single act but by -patterns- of behavior over time. Throwing that out the window in our popular discourse just makes a vague concept vaguer.

I think at it's root this imprecise pathologizing and medicalizing of evil (and that is what it is, evil) serves mostly to condemn, not to describe. When we say he is crazy we are saying the the murderer is bad and wrong and twisted. What would once have been called evil. Perhaps a lot of people today have become so uncomfortable with the word 'evil' and so search for a substitute - so we replace morality with bad medicine.

Moreover, this casual conflation of mental illness an murder only serves to further stigmatize the mentally ill. Because the conflation is aimed at -condemning- someone as broken and twisted, it reinforces the idea that all mentally ill people are broken and twisted and perhaps, dangerous. I am friends with many people with serious mental illness. And I won't sit idly by while they are lumped with murderers because my fellow citizens lack the guts to say the word 'evil'.

So call the murderer's actions evil. Call him evil. Just don't call any of it crazy.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Appreciation is Interpretation

I have often thought of beauty as something that simply -was-. It was something out there, waiting to be experienced, that would strike my mind and my sense fully formed. This is implicit in how we speak about beauty - when we talk about something being 'striking' or 'breathtaking' we imply an immediate assault on our minds by overwhelming grandeur.

The Corollary of this is that the appreciation of beauty is antithetical to knowledge. It is not that one must be ignorant to admire beauty, but that interpretation and understanding are separate from appreciation. We can be in awe, or we can understand. We cannot do both.

I think this is wrong. Our minds do not passively receive sensory input - they process it based on what we know. If we do not know what we are looking at, we cannot distinguish one thing from another - in a very real sense, we cannot see it. In the absence of knowledge, everything we see is 'that thing there' or 'that other thing' - if we stop to examine, we may notice slight differences between two things, but we will not differentiate the objects as we take in the whole.

I was thinking about this while I was hiking on top of the Allegheny Front a bit more than a week ago. It was a beautiful hike. As I looked around I knew what those bushes were, covered in flowers, on each side of the trail - mountain laurel. And I knew that those larger shrubs, barely coming into bloom, were Rhododendrons or 'Great Laurel'. I knew which trees were birches, and could pick out the pines from the spruce. And because I knew most of what I saw, the plants I didn't know stuck out to me, and I could ask and learn that was a 'mountain ash' and the particular type of pine there was a Table Mountain Pine. Those little points of ignorance were as noticeable as all the plants I knew, because they were an exception.

If I did not know a birch from a beech, if I did not know a spruce from a pine, I do not know what I would see. I suppose I wouldn't see the trees for the forest. And I wonder if there are cases where someone 'doesn't really care for nature' where the cause is not an aesthetic insensitivity, but simply ignorance. Putting an ignorant hiker in the middle of the forest is like sitting down a music novice at the opera, or taking someone who knows nothing of painting to an art museum. If they feel nothing, perhaps it is because they can't feel without first knowing.