I was down in the Outer Banks, North Carolina, with my fiancé attending the OBX Wedding Expo when news reached us about the recent shooting in Arizona. I rolled out of my hotel bed on Sunday morning to find him already up, bent over his computer checking his RSS feeds the way people used to scan the paper during their morning cup of coffee. “A Democratic Congresswoman got shot in Arizona yesterday,” he said. “They think the incident may have been incited by the violent rhetoric of the Right and folks like Sarah Palin, but it’s also likely that the guy who did it is unhinged. His political philosophies are all over the chart. Some of it seems clearly influenced by the Tea Party, but then there’s stuff about the Gold Standard and even Marxist Communism in there.”
I sighed, grabbed our reusable eco-mugs and a few plates and headed out the door to scavenge the continental breakfast in the hotel lobby downstairs. “Since when is inconsistent political philosophy a sign of insanity in this country?”
Downstairs, the news was on all the TVs, and a few older people gathered at one of the tables in the corner by the display of breakfast food. I got one or two funny looks when I passed over the disposable styrofoam plates and began piling up fruit on the ceramic plates I’d brought along, dropping a few instant oatmeal packets in my pocket to take back upstairs to our hotel room. If it had been any other day, someone might have said I was kinda crazy. Instead, the news reporters on the televisions went over again the developing details of the shooting. Not only the politician, but a dozen or so others had also been shot, and police were still looking for a witness/accomplice identified only as a fuzzy blur on some security footage. “That’s really something,” a kind-looking elderly man said to me, but I couldn’t tell if he was referring to the news, or my plate of fruit and hunks of waffle. I smiled mutely, shrugged and turned to leave.
That was how I heard of the shooting. We had limited internet access over the next few days, and things on our mind other than bloodshed, violence and hate — things like the symbolic meaning of flowers and the price of organic catering, and just how hard it would be to convince my parents to hire “Barryoke Karaoke ” for the rehearsal dinner. Not that the shooting of a Congressperson wasn’t big news — but in the grand scheme of things, given the political climate in this country and the escalating insanity we seem to be dealing with on a regular basis, it didn’t exactly come as a surprise. It was a tragedy of dramatic irony, one that you could have seen coming a mile away, which made it painful but not urgently so.
When we finally arrived back in Pittsburgh, stocked up with more pamphlets and brochures and business cards and free pens then we knew what to do with, the reactions from Right and Left were still rolling in. The debate had already curdled into two main clumps: either the guy was crazy, or the Right was to blame. Every once in a while, you found some subtlety in there somewhere, something like, “Even if the guy was crazy, the Right fueled his craziness and gave it a purpose and a target.” But mostly, it was a debate about who was to blame, and why. As usual, our country had been running bickering circles around each other almost continuously since the shooting, flinging mud and vitriol and sometimes the occasional plea for peace or pity.
These days, I find myself growing less interested in who’s to blame for all of these tragedies we keep experiencing, and more interested in how we respond to them. My initial reaction to the shooting — the cynical rejection of our naive expectation that politics in this country be grounded in sanity or stability, let alone compassion and nonviolence — says a lot about me, I know. I’ve become jaded by the drama, or wise to the farce, depending on who you ask. But I couldn’t help thinking, over this past week, about that quote I read recently in The Voice of the Earth, when Theodore Roszak quotes Freud in his later work wondering, “May we not be justified in reaching the diagnosis that, under the influence of cultural urges, some civilizations or some epochs of civilization — possibly the whole of mankind — have become ‘neurotic’?”
This musing, too frightening for Freud to accept (apologizing for his lack of courage, he declares he would rather acquiesce to a diseased government than face the risk of anarchy), eventually led to the modern-day Radical Therapy movement, which embraces the premise that “neurosis is defined within a political context; it is therefore intimately related to the social health and harmony that surrounds the individual.” The Radical Therapists of today reject the notion that any social deviance can be neatly labeled a neurosis without considering the political and cultural implications of its form and causes; they seek to advocate for those who are suffering from mental disorders, and defend them from forces that would “adjust” them to a sick society. But while this radical movement, like many, does better at tearing down old structures than it does at building new ones, Roszak goes on to argue that the foundation for a transcultural understanding of sanity might just be found in our dawning grasp of ecology. Our place in the natural, more-than-human world might give us insight into the inner life of the mind, and offer us a check on the neurotic impulses towards fear and violence (as well as over-consumption and environmental suicide) that lead to the repression, frustration, rebellion and ever-escalating wars that Freud feared were the fated lot of “civilization and its discontents.” As a Pagan, the grounding of individual sanity in the more-than-human life of the Earth makes a kind of visceral sense to me.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The idea that bears repeating, here, is the relationship between insanity and political context. It’s no surprise to me that Jared Loughner might be suffering from a severe mental disorder, but more important is the willingness of some to attribute his violent actions to his insanity. The accusation of insanity has almost always been used in this country to rob violent actors of their agency and free will. Sometimes, this is to mitigate blame, to appeal to a sense of compassion that would provide help to the sufferer of mental illness. At other times, it is a label we too easily attribute to our enemies, so that we can avoid confronting any hard truths about ourselves that their actions might reveal. Islamic extremists are shrugged off as “crazy” terrorists, without legitimate complaint against the West and its behaviors, who have no rhyme or reason for their hatred. Because they are “just crazy,” they have no free will or agency of their own, they cannot choose not to be violent, they cannot be reasoned with, they are beyond redemption — and so, we are justified in whatever actions are necessary to put them down or take them out. They cease to be fully human; they are merely “insane.” The same accusations are often enough made about politicians and pundits in this country — Obama is accused of socialism and “hating America”; Sarah Palin is mocked for her stupidity and kookiness; Glenn Beck earns ridicule for his conspiracy theories. Those on the Left who find the political platforms of the Tea Party and the Right repugnant much too eagerly denounce such figures as “just crazy,” and reject the very real fear and uncertainty that drives their political base. As a pacifist myself, I admit to my share of mockery and dismissal — to me, anyone who would seek to justify an act of unmitigated or large-scale violence has to be a little bit insane.
Yet we all hold the potential for violence and fear within us. For each of us, there is a seed of that insanity, a wildness that balks against civilization, its structures and expectations. I do not intend to excuse or downplay Jared Loughner’s act or the suffering it has caused, but to complicate our assumptions about sanity in an often troubling world. In my personal experience, it is precisely those who argue most fervently for their own uncompromised sanity in a quickly degenerating society who show the least compassion for and understanding towards others. Our relationship with insanity mirrors our relationship with violence in this way. The more certain we are that there could be no room in our hearts or minds for “what those people do,” the more likely we are to be in denial and out of touch with our own selves as whole and complex human animals. But the fact is that none of us are governed solely by reason or kept entirely safe within the bounds of social normalcy. Violence will happen, and insanity will surface — sometimes as acts of nature or accident, and sometimes as the result of massive-scale systemic patterns over which no one seems to have any control. And with these will come the frantic, angry urge to place blame and explain such events away.
But if insanity has been used in our political rhetoric to reject free agency and deny choice, then we might benefit from learning to define sanity as the ability to choose, freely and with integrity, how we handle our own anger, fear, hatred and violent urges. With this definition, we might find ourselves a little bit more suspicious of political philosophies or parties that would seek to excuse violence as “inevitable” or without alternatives. A socio-political worldview that rejects our capacity for change or choice in these matters would clearly be “insane.” Accepting ourselves as an intimate part of the natural world — with our own untamed wildness and unexplored wilderness, in which not only violence and fear, but also (r)evolution and inspiration begin — we can seek the kind of transcultural perspective that Roszak speaks of when he talks about “ecopsychology.” Our understanding of sanity might then be grounded in an acute awareness of just how diverse and ever-changing the world actually is, and how many options lay before us.
Ever on the look out for amusing bits of news, just the other day my fiancé sent me a link to this interesting article about our ape relatives, the bonobos, notorious for their laid-back, free-love kind of lifestyle:
Bonobos like apples. They like them a lot. As a matter of fact, it’s difficult to do bonobo research without a supply of green apples to motivate them to do the experiments.
But they like group harmony most of all. And the sudden appearance of the apples in their midst [tossed in by a researcher] immediately raises the threat of discord. Who will get to eat the apples?
If these were chimpanzees, the strongest males would immediately claim the fruit. There would be a fair amount of shoving, and possibly some bloodshed.
But bonobos are so communal that the tension produced by something so precious as an apple in their midst must be dispelled by a gesture of community. In this case, everyone gets to cool off with a little sexual comfort from their neighbor. Then, self-interest replaced by a certain yummy group feeling, they settle down to share the apple.
How different would our society be if we chose to follow the example of the bonobo? If we chose to respond to scarcity and uncertainty with playfulness and generosity? If we chose to respond to loss and pain with compassion and comfort for the grieving?
What insanity denies our capacity to live this way, to make that choice?