Jan 142011

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?

  4 Responses to “Violence and Insanity in Politics”

  1. The insanity of not wanting to get an std? At least as far as the free love thing goes.

    You words strike with truth, but raises many questions.

    The reason I became Asatruar is because I found a place in that path that accepted the violence I find within myself. Gandhi himself council-ed that one should be violent, if violence was in one’s heart, rather than to wear the cloak of a passifist to hide impotence. Violence has always been a part of humanity, and the further we turn our backs on it, the harder it will be for us to control and guide it when the time comes.

    Who is to say that the insane are not the sane? You have a very good point about calling the other side crazy, and I fear that is given in too far to much these days. What if the Islamic terrorists are sane? Well then we do have to face the questions about our society that they ask and grow angry over. Issues like how we treat our women, for instance, or how we treat those that do not believe as we do, or why we do not follow their prophet. We don’t want to ask these questions of ourselves, perhaps, but there is a far more terrifying thing about if they were sane. The idea that sane, rational people could kill themselves and hundreds of others for reasons we cannot understand, because we give our women rights or allow the worship of any god or goddess that a man or woman chooses.

    I think we as a society, no, an entire world label the other side crazy and/or insane because it in a strange way makes us feel better. The Left, The Right, The Nazis, The Islamic Extremists, The Hardliner Christians, etc, must be insane, because that is the only way to “rationalize” the horrible things the others feel they commit (or actually do commit), to make ourselves feel safe. “They must be monsters,” people say, because if they are not monsters, than we are just as terrible as they are. People can’t live like that, It has to be something wrong with the “other” because if it’s not, then as the Joker said, “We’re all just one…bad…day…away” from being that very thing we find so scary.

    Because if those “other” are right…if they are sane….then maybe we are the ones that are wrong and insane.

    Me, I don’t know if I’m sane or insane. I don’t really care. I’m alive, I have my gods and goddesses. Whatever exists beyond that…well, life is never clear cut.

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Yssel & Son's, Pagan + Politics. Pagan + Politics said: Violence and Insanity in Politics I was down in the Outer Banks, http://bit.ly/g7V5NE http://bit.ly/g7V5NE [...]

  3. Thanks for your reply, Norse Alchemist. I think you’re absolutely right that we tend to label the “Other” insane in order to find some sort of comfort for ourselves, and to avoid facing aspects of ourselves that we might rather ignore or distance ourselves from.

    When it comes to our understanding of sanity, however, I think I’m in agreement with Roszak – that though our culture(s) alone may not be able to give us an adequate guide, the physical and biological laws that govern the natural world can help us ground our definition of sanity in a transcultural context. (At least, I’m pretty sure this is his argument – I’m only halfway through his book at the moment.) In other words, his understanding of sanity is not wholly relativistic (he’s not saying that, for all we know, we very well could be insane and there’s no way to be sure). Rather, it is guided primarily by the premise that “sane” people and cultures are those that function to enhance the quality of life in harmony with the ecological systems of the planet, while the “insane” are those who are inadequately adjusted to or in balance with those ecological systems, and so undermine both the systems themselves and their own ability to live well, or even survive, within them. A culture that burns through its resources and produces huge amounts of waste will eventually poison its own habitat and destroy its own chances of survival (while also jeopardizing the cohesive functioning of the system as a whole) – according to Roszak’s transcultural definition, this type of cultural behavior is therefore “insane.” An individual within such a culture who finds himself at odds with this ecologically “insane” behavior might then exhibit traditional symptoms of insanity, such as anxiety, depression, alienation from others or even extreme views that might be seen as “crazy conspiracy theories” by the wider culture. This is why Roszak supports the idea that insanity has a politico-cultural component, that it arises in part from the relationship between individual and society. Yet I think he would also say that it is possible to determine whether it is the individual who is insane, or the culture which is unhealthy – and that he would suggest we look to the insights of ecopsychology to do so.

    In some ways, I think Paganism is a response to our growing understanding of the importance that this ecological perspective can play in grounding society in healthy, sustainable patterns of behavior and belief. The modern Pagan movement may in some ways be an attempt to bring this “transcultural” perspective to bear on Western culture and reintegrate the insights it offers into our particular cultural context.

    The relationship between sanity and choice is not something Roszak talks about (at least from what I’ve read so far), but an idea that occurred to me while writing, when I asked myself what might be revealed if we reversed our usual tendency to attribute the label of “insanity” to those we view as incapable of choosing freely or acting otherwise. I’m intrigued by the idea – but still feeling somewhat ambivalent about it. I want to give more thought to its implications and how it might fit with more traditional definitions of sanity. I’m hoping you, and others, might have some more insights and experiences to share on this.

    (One last thing – that I hesitate to bring up, because I’m sure it will be a hot-button issue. Still….

    When it comes to the terrorists of Islamic (and other religious) extremism, we have to remember that they too give us, as their enemies, the label of “insane” in order to justify what they see as violent or abusive behavior on our part. By and large (based on the primary source material I was able to study in college, such as ideological treatises published by leaders of these extremist groups), it seems to me that the violent behavior that Islamic extremists in particular seek to justify and attribute to our “insanity” is the occupation of Middle Eastern lands by Western armed forces, and the exploitation of those lands’ resources (such as oil). Our attitudes towards religious tolerance and gender equality are used as evidence of and contributing causes to our Western “insanity,” but are not in themselves the behaviors that the extremists most virulently rave against. (This can be seen also in their usual choice of targets when attacking the West – the terrorists responsible for 9/11, for instance, did not choose to attack an interfaith center or women’s rights convention, but instead targeted the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, symbols of Western militaristic and capitalist power.) To give another example, their kind of rhetoric is similar to that used in this country by some in the 1980s (and even still to some extent today) to justify the AIDS epidemic disproportionately affecting the gay community. Rather than looking to the actual, physical causes of the disease and how it spreads, some declared that it was the “perversion” and “sexual deviance” of homosexuals that brought this suffering on themselves, and then took the disease as evidence itself that homosexuality was unhealthy. Such justifications obviously rely on circular logic: “homosexuality must be the cause of the disease because it is a perversion, while the disease itself is evidence that homosexuality is perverted.” It is similarly twisted logic that blames Hurricane Katrina on “abortionists” and feminists, and the earthquake and subsequent suffering in Haiti on Voudon. In the same way, Isalmic extremists tend to explain that it is our cultural perversion and deviance (like our fair, equal treatment of women and minorities) that has led Western society down a path of greed and disorder, then turn these attributes into a sign of disorder and perversion themselves.

    Truthfully, we are often unwilling to acknowledge those aspects of our society such as greed and consumerism that really do lead to violent or abusive foreign policies and unjust wars. Meanwhile, critiques of the “real” causes of Western insanity from Islamic extremists are turned inward against the moderates of their own societies, heightening the repression of women and minorities and stamping out diversity, partly as a way to reject and avoid confronting the same urges towards imperialism and hegemony that they see echoed in the shadow-self that we as their enemies reveal to them. It’s a convoluted logic that can be difficult to grasp – but it is far beyond the simplistic “they hate us for our freedoms” rhetoric common in political discourse in this country.)

  4. [...] Alison recently wrote a post on this over at Pagan+Politics, with some thoughts on the recent shooti… I’m not going to repeat everything she said there, but to summarize, some recent thinking suggests that aggregates of people can indeed collectively suffer from mental illness. In such a situation, the sane person is one who experiences mental or emotional distress. [...]