The invocation of mental illness and lamentations over ‘the state of the American mental health system’ are an inevitable accompaniment to news stories about lone white gunmen who carry out massacres. (c.f. Charleston massacre.) With that in mind, the following wise remarks by Helen De Cruz are worth pondering:
People are not just motivated by inner mental states, but also by context. That context is one where violence against a subpopulation of the US is condoned and actively perpetuated by police, and one in which it’s normal to have effective killing machines – things that are meant to kill people by functional design, so no analogies with cars please – lying around in your everyday environment. We are embodied, contextual creatures whose actions are influenced by those things at least as much as our internal mental states.
[N]isbett…demonstrated nicely in several experiments how westerners overemphasize personal, internal mental states to explain actions, at the expense of broader cultural context. That’s how westerners keep on seeing white male shooters as lone, unconnected individuals with mental problems (and all the stigmatizing of people with mental disabilities that follows from that), rather than people who live in a culture that normalizes having killing machines lying around and that accepts violence and racism against Black people on a daily basis. [link added]
One of the worst illusions generated by the language of mental states is that it suggests disembodied minds moving through an external landscape, with a full description of the state conveying enough information to predict and understand the behavior of the agent in question. But as De Cruz points out, we are much more; we are agents in tightly embedded, mutually co-determining relationships with our environments. A state is a static thing but we are dynamic cognizers; we act upon, and are acted upon, by the world around us.
The world that acted upon Dylan Storm Roof has been adequately described above by De Cruz. A mind at variance with our assessments of ‘normal’ might be particularly susceptible to the violence it enabled and facilitated. It is not too hard to imagine that a different world, a kinder world, a less racist world, one not overrun by deadly weapons and racist rhetoric and infected by a systemic prejudice against entire subclasses of Roof’s fellow humans might not have produced the same massacre as it did this week. The fragile, insecure sensibility that was Roof’s might not have been as easily pushed to breaking point in a world whose airwaves were not saturated with the messages of hate he had so clearly internalized.
The world that Dylan Storm Roof leaves behind is one in which nine families have been devastated, their hearts and minds made susceptible to anger and despair; it is also one which lays out a template of action for other killers who might be similarly motivated; and lastly, most dangerously of all perhaps, it is one which could play host to a vengeful mind, determined to seek retribution. This is the new environment, this is the new context through which we–the ‘mentally ill’ included–must move now.
We cannot disown the mentally ill; they are of this world and in this world. They are ours.