What follows is a snippet from an article which is itself just a snippet Rebecca Solnit’s just released book Men Explain Things to Me. If this is indicative, it must be a really good book!
Our Words Are Our Weapons
The Feminist Battle of the Story in the Wake of the Isla Vista Massacre
By Rebecca Solnit
It was a key match in the World Cup of Ideas. The teams vied furiously for the ball. The all-star feminist team tried repeatedly to kick it through the goalposts marked Widespread Social Problems, while the opposing team, staffed by the mainstream media and mainstream dudes, was intent on getting it into the usual net called Isolated Event. To keep the ball out of his net, the mainstream’s goalie shouted “mental illness” again and again. That “ball,” of course, was the meaning of the massacre of students in Isla Vista, California, by one of their peers.
All weekend the struggle to define his acts raged. Voices in the mainstream insisted he was mentally ill, as though that settled it, as though the world were divided into two countries called Sane and Crazy that share neither border crossings nor a culture. Mental illness is, however, more often a matter of degree, not kind, and a great many people who suffer it are gentle and compassionate. And by many measures, including injustice, insatiable greed, and ecological destruction, madness, like meanness, is central to our society, not simply at its edges.
In a fascinating op-ed piece last year, T.M. Luhrmann noted that when schizophrenics hear voices in India, they’re more likely to be told to clean the house, while Americans are more likely to be told to become violent. Culture matters. Or as my friend, the criminal-defense investigator who knows insanity and violence intimately, put it, “When one begins to lose touch with reality, the ill brain latches obsessively and delusionally onto whatever it’s immersed in — the surrounding culture’s illness.”
The murderer at Isla Vista was also repeatedly called “aberrant,” as if to emphasize that he was nothing like the rest of us. But other versions of such violence are all around us, most notably in the pandemic of hate toward and violence against women.
I remember reading an article decades ago that spoke directly to this issue. Unfortunately, I can’t find it now. That means I can’t document this, and — after maybe 40 years of destroying brain cells — I’ve probably forgotten or misremembered most of it. So, with those stipulations…
The author was a shrink, either psychiatrist or clinical psychologist. His subject was the bombing of black churches by racist whites during the civil rights struggle in the 1960s. The question he raises is this:
Most of us would consider a person who bombed a church, especially while people were there worshiping, a psychopath, defined as follows by my computer’s dictionary:
a person suffering from chronic mental disorder with abnormal or violent social behavior.
The operative word there is abnormal – that is, differing from what’s normal. But suppose such attitudes and behavior are in fact normal in the place where the bomber was born and reared. Then the bomber is not abnormal but typical. Does that mean the entire community or state or region is psychopathic?
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