Breivik, mental illness, language, and ethics

It is becoming clear that Breivik’s lawyers are likely to make a case for insanity. This has inevitably brought about a re-discussion and construction of the mad/bad debate – the ethical debate of whether or not someone with the mindset capable of putting together bombs and opening fire on teenagers can ever be understood as mentally “healthy”, or alternatively, whether the label of mental illness is deliberately manipulated to excuse crimes which have nothing in common with the difficult life experiences of the vast majority of individuals who would also be grouped under this label. I think the two most important elements to consider when trying to negotiate this difficult topic are this:

  • Firstly, that mental illness is a slippery “best-fit” term which is used culturally to group together a huge variety of experiences for the purpose of socio-cognitive order: majority-understood mental classification of society and its variations and nuances.
  • Secondly, that the language of mental illness is used to support the liberal soft-determinist argument that psychological dysfunction and the analysis of biological and cultural origins for brutal violence is more useful both in terms of gaining understanding and attempting what limited prevention is possible that resorting to more simplistic concepts of good and evil.  

Looking first at mental illness in itself as a concept and classification system, there are big issues, but no clear alternative linguistic tools. Mental illness is a “catch all” term for many many different and distinct variations in perception of reality.

There are traditionally two broad sub-divisions in the way mental illness is classified. Firstly, psychotic illnesses, in which perceptions of reality are severely impaired, and which includes conditions such as paranoid Schizophrenia, where individuals generally experience auditory hallucinations and delusions – hearing voices and developing bizarre beliefs which commonly include the belief that suicide is a necessary step in achieving some long term goal such as rising up as a king of hell. In general these types of condition don’t tend to attract much debate legally when looking at responsibility as they have strong marker signs, and can be physically detected and tracked so the suspicion of “faking it” is not really raised. There are genetic links to many of these conditions, although generally not a determinist gene, which means that some people are born more vulnerable to them but they are still culturally activated, and also means poverty, poor housing, stress and ethnicity are all risk factors in Schizophrenia. There is of course a necessity to look at who does the diagnosis and how they are primed to interpret the beliefs and behaviours of those they diagnose before considering a diagnosis to be an objective and scientific process rather than a form of labeling, but this does not mean biology should be discounted. It is also very important to note that whilst paranoid schizophrenics are assigned the role culturally of monsters by the right wing press, they are far more likely to hurt themselves than anyone else, and it could probably also be argued have received a bigger helping of institutionalised abuse in the form of harmful treatments and representations over the years than the sum of any violent outbreaks on the part of the schizophrenics themselves. Of course, this type of condition has got nothing to do with Breivik’s acts, but it will probably be a dominant form of (mis)understanding when the general public think of the insanity plea.

Also falling under the umbrella term of mental illness we have neurotic conditions such as anxiety disorders and depression. These types of disorder are characterised by a more subtle nuanced difference in the perception of reality. In simple terms, neurotic conditions involve an experience of reality which differs in terms of how new information is interpreted (e.g. someone with depression will generally focus on negative aspects of new information, whilst someone with an anxiety disorder will have a very physical stress response to various situations which then impacts on thought) without direct disturbances in how the world is experienced such as hallucinations. There is a lot of variation and many mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder cross both categories in terms of symptoms. It doesn’t help matters that these types of disorder have historically been the battle ground for a power struggle in terms of classification and language – because depression falls on one end of a spectrum of “normal” mindsets and interpretations there have years worth of ignorant allegation which have led to a muddy common cultural interpretation that depression is a result of “not pulling yourself together” which has in turn led to a strong assertion for a biological interpretation of the condition. Certainly depression has genetic links and is linked in particular to problems in the uptake of the neurochemical serotonin, but I think it is most useful to think of is as a symptom which is classified as a disorder for the purpose of treatment – it is a “normal” strand on the spectrum of human experience which in some cases is activated more easily in one individual than another depending on triggers being in place (genetic to some degree then) and in some cases is a response to the individual experiencing life events way above the “mean” threshold.

As previously discussed, it would be reductionist to discount the role of biological factors in mental illness, but to see mental illness as a “thing” existing in a vacuum of cultural interpretation is also limited. Mental illness reflects the stratification of class, gender and ethnicity in society, which is probably partly down to labeling but also empowerment and the effects this has on resilience factors such as self esteem (e.g. you could argue that some mental illnesses are a normal human reaction that any human could experience if placed in a particularly impoverished or oppressed section of society). Types of disorder also reflect the “niche” of experience and strategy available to the individual – e.g. eating disorders most common in young women where social pressures surrounding appearance are highest, and addiction highest in working class men where there is a lack of available social space and learned strategies to discuss emotional problems.

Moving on from looking at the slippery nature of “mental illness” as a classification system, the main problem is that whilst the grouping together of all dysfunctional psychological processing is useful in trying to move beyond an account which simply addresses criminal behaviour in terms of good and evil, by doing this we inadvertently link criminal deviance with the vast majority of those individuals who fall under the umbrella term without any other link or commonality. This is dangerous in that it has real consequences in terms of how people with mental illnesses are perceived and treated in their day-to-day lives. Terms like “lunatic fringe” (which I used myself in the last post) can usefully guide a reader to the idea that my perspective of “inhumanity” comes from the viewpoint of psychology and culture, but it also serves to reinforce the dominant discourse linking mental illness and danger. There are no real solutions for this. There is a strong argument to be made that we need to develop new linguistic systems to represent criminality in terms of biological and social origins rather than evil without linking to any other psychological disorder, but the practicalities of feeding this into public language are huge, in that there is already the resistant “political correctness” classification system which picks up and neutralises this kind of strategy. On top of this, attempts to examine the biological and cultural roots to criminal behaviour are commonly dismissed as appeasement, disrespectful, and that term I’m starting to get used to, “Marxist filth”. I don’t deny free will in that I experience a conscious choice process and can assume that (most) also do but I don’t believe in evil or monstrosity, which is beyond controversial in terms of how my ideas would be interpreted in any mainstream arena. There is also the possibility that unless the new linguistic system was very robust it would not be meaningful at the level of general public understanding, in that it would be too complex. For the moment, all I can do is look carefully at the terminology I use to try to explain behaviour and try to work on moving this forward.

So, it is possible that you have come this far and not really come to a conclusion as to whether I believe Breivik was mentally ill. I think my thinking here can be summarised as follows.

1) He was not driven by the type of mental illness which definitely divorces the individual from reality such as paranoid Schizophrenia (as discussed earlier).

2) His beliefs seem to reflect a worrying normalisation of (previously) extremist right wing thinking, and from this perspective the “illness” to focus on is much a social disease as a particular problem with the individual.

3) The examination of biological, developmental, social and cultural factors traditionally undertaken by those trained in studying mental illness and social psychology is more meaningful than a simple description of an evil monster. This does not mean that I don’t believe he should be imprisoned for life, but my perspective is that this is necessary for the protection of society rather than the punishment of evil fulfilling any useful social purpose – beyond perhaps deterrence, which is a whole other debate in itself.


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