Thursday, May 23, 2013

Woolwich & The Words of Madness

Warning: Refers briefly to extreme violence. 

Yesterday, we watched a video of a man who, with an accomplice, had just run over, attacked and possibly decapitated another man in the street in Woolwich, South London and was now standing, addressing the crowd while he waited for the police to come and kill him. Perhaps if I was in charge of the world, this video would never have been published; the man wanted a platform and that's what he got. Then again, it does show us something of what kind of person this man is.

The killer comes across as very ordinary. He's talking like a man who has had a bad day, has shunted your car but is explaining his reasons and providing a reluctant apology. His hands are covered in blood and he is holding two blood-stained weapons, but he's not wielding them - his body language is not threatening. He is not processing what he's done because he has no time: he is explaining himself while waiting to die, naively convinced that the Metropolitan police will shoot to kill. 

So Stephen and I spoke about this and once again, despite knowing better, I found myself reaching for the words of madness. On-line and throughout the media, the language of madness is everywhere. I have written before about the difficulty of avoiding this language, far greater difficulty than with other disability terms and slurs. However, just now this seems especially important. 

The idea that violent people are necessarily mentally ill is such a huge problem and not just for those with mental ill health. Of course it does stigmatise people with mental illness, who are no more likely to commit violent offences than the rest of us. It leads to some of the very worse disability discrimination, effecting a person's job prospects, their ability to find housing and their relationships. But there are two further major problems: 

To describe a behaviour as mad is to dismiss it as impossible to understand. It's the easy way out; these guys are lunatics, nothing they do could possibly make sense, so we won't try and work out what happened. It also means, to a slightly lesser extent, that we let the bad guys off the hook; they're mad, so they can't really help it. It removes all meaning from a death with very little meaning, from the pain of the dead man's loved ones, and the trauma of everyone who was standing on that street; it was just a nasty random accident.

The language we use about these events is likely to impact on a great number of people, especially as the two attackers were black (the man in the video has a London accent) and by this morning, it was being described as an Islamic terrorist attack (here are some tweeted responses from British Muslims). Using the correct language to express our outrage is not just about protecting innocent but unconnected people who might feel offended or find life becomes a little tougher for them. It is about how we understand what has happened, whether we respond to events constructively or throw up our hands in despair.

Here's some suggestions of words we can use when we're inclined to use slurs or medical terms that relate to mental illness:

When we mean shocking:
outrageous, incredible, astounding, horrifying, sickening, breath-taking, unimaginable, staggering, impossible.

When we mean difficult to understand:
unfathomable, incomprehensible, baffling, inconceivable, absurd, preposterous, mind-boggling, unthinkable, beyond understanding.

When we mean very bad:
heinous, hideous, evil, abominable, monstrous, odious, detestable, devastating, abysmal, hateful.

When we mean that someone is making profound mistakes in their thinking:
misguided, specious, wrong, misplaced, erroneous, perverse, faulty, illogical.

Illogical or irrational thoughts are by no means the preserve of people with mental ill health.  Just earlier yesterday, Stephen's Dad had been talking about an inspirational maths teacher who would use algebra to convince the class into thinking he had proven that 1 + 1 = 3.  He'd then show them how this was done, turning maths into a kind of magic.  People who believe that extreme violence is morally justified are like students who saw the first proof, but weren't there, or weren't listening, when the trick was explained. 

The word I've seen and heard time and again is psychotic. Psychosis is a state (a symptom of illness rather than an illness itself) where a person may become so overwhelmed by their unreal experiences - hallucinations, paranoia etc. - that folk do, very occasionally, commit violence which they can't be held responsible for. I have experienced psychosis, it is a state of abject terror, but it rarely makes one dangerous to others. 

It's speculation, but the guy in the video doesn't seem psychotic. Someone who commits extreme violence during psychosis will have an extremely strange reason, if they're even cogent enough to explain; they had to slay the lizard king to stop him eating babies, they had to kill the man who had been listening in on their thoughts. This chap's reasons aren't in any way reasonable, but they don't seem grounded in a clinical delusion (Weirdly, the apparently Muslim attackers are quoted elsewhere as saying "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."). He believes that his victim is a killer of Muslims, in the much the same way that British nationalists believe that Islam is an inherently murderous religion. They're all wrong, very wrong, but their mistakes don't make them sick. 

The heartless side of me is glad this man survived, because he doesn't seem unwell. He was only prepared to do what he did because he had no intention of living with it. And now he may have to.

Here is a story some of the heroism that took place in Woolwich yesterday. It's also important to talk about heroism at these times, so we remember what courage and wisdom look like.


Millitoria said...

Thank you! I've been trying to put my thoughts into coherent words since yesterday and I think you've articulated them better I could.

I really hate the way this story has been broadcast by the media, and how it's been responded to even amongst my own friends. Most of the focus has been about the horrendous racism that's resulted from this. It is awful, I've de-friended people already for talking about retaliation or used this to support their racist views.

But I haven't seen anyone yet talking about the various status updates and comments calling this attack 'crazy' or assuming that the two men must have been 'mad'. I've been trying to figure out how to address that and your words have really helped me figure out how to do so.

Lisa said...

The language of madness in relation to the murder wasn't the only disablist language that came out in response to yesterday's events.

As the racists mounted their attacks later in the day I saw many, many liberals referring to the EDL and those who attacked mosques as "retarded". When, of course, they're not. They simply evil and using a traumatic incident to further their own agenda.

Liz said...

Goldfish - okay. I understand what you mean, and where you are coming from, and I do agree that lumping people with mental illness into one boat is as bad as lumping people with physical disability into one boat or asian people or... ad infinitum. Language, and choice of language, is an important part of that, that I absolutely agree with and it is important to think about what language you use when you are referring to someone. Note Nick Robinson's description of the two attackers as being of "Muslim" apperance, for example.

However, there's one big problem with this whole thing. and that's that language doesn't have just one meaning, and it evolves over time. take the word "dumb", for example. It originally meant someone who could not talk, pure and simple, often used with the word "deaf". there was no original correlation with intelligence levels, it just meant someone who could not talk, for whatever reason.

Over time, the correlation was made: someone who could not speak, who could not self-advocate, was stupid. Deaf people (some of whom most certainly are not stupid, as you know) started to get quite upset - quite reasonably so - about the use of "deaf and dumb", especially as even deaf people who cannot speak through their mouths, can usually do so through their hands, so the original meaning of the term, as someone who could not self-advocate, could not communicate, is wrong.

the term began to go out of common use, and instead the term "dumb" - perhaps encouraged by our American brethren where this meaning is common - it came to signify something or someone stupid. just that, nothing to do with communication or self-advocacy, just stupidity. E.g. the films dumb and dumber.

Does that mean that I should be outraged every time someone uses the term "dumb", especially where its not correlated to the deaf issue, purely on the basis of its historical use? of course not - I'd have a massive chip on my shoulder if i attempted that, and I am (I like to think), reasonable.

A similar process can be applied to much of what you've said about language. "crazy" - there are so many meanings to that word, not all associated with people who have mental difficulties. Crazy paving, for example. "madness" - again, this is a word in common use, not always related to people with mental illness.

(part 1 of 2)

Liz said...

(part 2 of 2)

You argue that the two men don't appear to you to be psychotic. perhaps not - as you argued, psychosis is a very specific term for a very specific event, and one that people without a certain level of knowledge of psychology often get confused (can we say paedophile and paedatrician?). But I don't think that we can safely argue, on the basis of what we have seen in the media, that the two men were not suffering from some kind of mental illness, simply because they were able to calmly detail their reasoning to passers by and remain at the scene for the police to catch them. One security expert at the BBC pointed out that if they were terrorists, trying to instil terror into the hearts of people, then they would have run in order to strike again elsewhere - there is nothing so terrifying as the faceless, nameless killer (which is why Jack the Ripper still exterts such fascination upon people). That they did not do that indicates that their motive was not to cause terror, but another motive. I don't claim to be a psychological expert but it seems to me that to say that the psychological framework that causes someone to act out in ways that is wrong to society, has to be wrong as well, is a fallacy.

Finally, returning to the tweet that started this: while, as i said earlier, I do agree that discussions about language are generally a good thing, I do think the timing of that particular tweet smacked of distasteful self-interest. If a politician had tried to use that death to further his own cause then he would be hung out to dry by the media, and rightly so. Why should be hold ourselves to different standards? Very simply, we shouldn't, and she was wrong to say what she said, the morning after.

Thanks for a thought provoking post that has done a superb job of providing me with distraction from horrible Latin revision... (trying to learn declensions and conjugations - Stephen will empathise with that, I'm sure!) I'm absolutely dreading the exam tomorrow, I just hope I pass!!


(p.s. that's a first, doing a comment too long for the HTML to accept...!)

Liz said...

Lisa -

While you are absolutely right in that calling the attacks on mosques "retarded" is not good, and that alternative language should be used, I would also hesitate to refer to the EDL as "evil". they're not - misguided, extremely wrong in what they are doing, yes, granted, but to refer to them as evil is to dismiss the EDL and the concerns that those people hold (which they have a right to hold). and that, I believe, is wrong.


The Goldfish said...

Thank you all. :-)

Liz, thanks for taking the time to write such a thorough comment!

I agree with you about the evolution of lanaguage - in the older post I linked to, I particularly talk about the way the word crazy is now commonly used in many contexts - crazy paving, crazy in love, crazy price cuts and so forth.

But alas, evolution is never complete and very often at a precarious stage. There are certainly some words which were once terms relating to impairment which simply don't have those meanings any more - words like idiot for example, which once carried clinical criteria.

However, there are lots of words relating to disability, race, sexuality, gender - many kinds of words - which hold two meanings at the same time and one of them is problematic.

My sister has a great prejudice against new style BMW minis - she calls them gay minis, gay being meant in a derogatory way, like crap or rubbish (she doesn't mean they're effeminate). I pointed out that this might be a particular problem in front of my young nephew, especially given that their friend who drove such a mini was also a gay man. How was Alex supposed to understand that their friend was gay (neutral concept) but drove a gay (negative concept) car? Let alone how the poor friend felt about it!

My sister used this same word with completely different intentions, none of them born out of personal homophobia, but her intentions aren't the issue. Folks who use psychotic to mean murderous don't have to have negative feelings towards people who experience psychosis in order to reinforce fear and hatred.

You're quite right that none of us can know much about the mental health of these men, but I do think that there's considerable evidence that their actions were not the result of mental illness. Just as autism was not the cause of the Sandy Brook massacre.

No terrorist behaviour is rational, because they've got their sums all wrong. The BBC security expert may have forgotten about the self-aggrandising videos of the 7th July bombers and the later failed bombers; these folk have a thing for martyrdom, the idea of going out in a blaze of glory is a romantic concept, and one common in all kinds of terorrist movements throughout the world (it's certainly not exclusive to Islamic extremists). Meanwhile, I can think of load of things that would scare more people more effectively without actually killing anybody. But they'd involve much less personal fame for me, no videos, no photos and profiles in the newspapers.

I'm sorry that the tweet struck you as it did - I don't feel that way, but I do think that we all need to be very careful what we say on social media when these terrible things happen. I think it is very easy indeed to strike the wrong note with the best intentions, especially when everyone's rather shaken and upset.

Bona fortuna with the Latin! ;-)

Matthew Smith said...

Phony lay mental health diagnoses are a means people have of explaining the problem of evil: they assume that someone who does an inexplicably awful thing to someone must be "sick" (this term is often used nowadays to mean "evil"), mentally ill or something, rather than acting on the basis of misguided political convictions or a perverted desire. Neither of these things mean someone is actually insane, that is, incapable of acting rationally or distinguishing imagination from reality because of an illness.

This rationalisation appears every time a major crime happens, and often their mental health history is picked over even if it is totally irrelevant (for example, a child murderer's obsessive-compulsive behaviours) -- anything to make them look more freakish and more unlike anyone else. Simon Baron-Cohen, one of the most egregious popular neuro-trash writers, said that in the case of a particular mother who killed her two children, "her empathy had gone", a phenomenon he puts almost everything like this down to.

However, people also use terms like mad, crazy and nutter/nutcase to mean irrational or extremist. This doesn't mean they think they are seriously mentally ill, just unreasonable. That shouldn't be confused with amateur psychiatry.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely moving and insightful piece of writing. As usual, you get right to the heart of the matter.

Just for the record: I'm an ex-Serviceman who served in Northern Ireland during the 1970's. Several years ago I was diagnosed with full blown PTSD.

I still suffer from mental health issues over my experiences. But you know something? I've never felt inclined to climb a church tower with a high velocity rifle or hack someone to death.

Thanks goldie...

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I also wanted to say that despite all the above I am most definidtely not mad and I hate it when the word is so misused.

birds sing artblog said...

Wow! Excellent post, I'm really impressed with your calm analysis and discernment skills.I start getting hot under the collar with the abuse of 'psychotic', my husband had regular psychotic breaks during bi-polar episodes and also cannabis paranoia/psychosis (brought on by self medication for trauma) and yet was never inclined to deliberately harm others. I have met plenty of people who are SOCIOPATHS, who lack connection to others and can harm them for their own pleasure/addictive high and feel no remorse. That is ultimately an illness, an aberration beyond their control unless addressed by bucketloads of therapy and cognitive reasoning and other remedial treatment.
The thing is, many people are genuinely upset by the genuine abuse and injustice of the World Bank/IMF/NWO all profit, no conscience style of doing business but without education in reasoning, creativity and positive strategizing, with very limited opportunities and in communities of great despair (eg Gaza strip/ Afghanistan/dead end council estates of Europe) they are vulnerable to people offering 'simple' solutions, whether that be EDL or Hezbollah. Because a suicide attacker is GUARANTEED a place in heaven with 60 virgins (ffs) they can be in an altered state while committing atrocities, but it is not through mental illness, it is through social illness, sick societies with sick values...sick in the sense of stomach turning..

does anyone else hate it when disability threads say Camoron? I left a sharp comment on the Disablity Arts Online thread when people were using it..