The ‘Lone Killer’ And The Mentally Ill World

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.

The Mind is not a Place or an Object

Last week, I participated in an interdisciplinary panel discussion at the Minding the Body: Dualism and its Discontents Conference (held at the CUNY Graduate Center, and organized by the English Students Association.) The other participants in the panel included:  Patricia Ticineto-Clough (Sociology), Gerhard Joseph (English), and Jason Tougaw (English). As might have been expected, with that group of participants the discussion was pretty wide-ranging; I’m not going to attempt to recapitulate it here. I do however want to (very) informally make note of one remark I made in the question and answer session that followed, which touched upon the frequently mentioned, discussed and puzzled-over relationship between the brain and the mind. This discussion was sparked in part, by Jason Tougaw’s remark that he had ‘noticed a recurrent phenomenon in contemporary literature [especially the so-called ‘neuronovel]: scenes in which brains (or other body parts) are  touched or explored for signs of immaterial elements of self: mind, consciousness, affect, emotion, imagination, desire.’

In response to this perennially entertained scientific, philosophical, and literary possibility of ‘locating’ the mind in the material or ‘identifying’ the mind with it, I said it seemed to me these sorts of prospects traded on a confusion about the mind as a place or an object, rather than as a term used to describe an entity’s capacities. The term ‘mind’ is perhaps best understood as having been coined in order to mark out particular kinds of entities that were able to enter into very distinct sorts of relationships with their environments. This ascription in our own human case goes from the ‘inside’ to the ‘outside’ as it were, beginning with mental states perceived from the first-person perspective, but it is then extended by analogy to other creatures that show patterns of behaviors like ours. These relationships display modes of interaction that stand out, for instance, for their rich adaptiveness and flexibility, and show themselves to be receptive to a particular vocabulary of description, explanation and prediction: we might term them ‘mindful’ interactions. So creatures capable of mindful interactions are said to ‘possess’ a mind or ‘have minds’.  But this does not mean that they need be radically similar to us. A different environment and a different entity could conceivably generate the same kind of interactions, perhaps one arrived at by a slow, imperfect evolutionary process like ours. These entities might have brains like ours or they might not; they might have bodies like ours, or they might not; they might have biologies like ours, or not. And so on.

Understood in this way, the term ‘mind’ has come to represent over the years what those creatures capable of ‘mindful’ interactions with their environs ‘have’. But speaking of it as something we ‘have’ send us off and running, looking for it. And since we have bodies with components that seem distinctly articulable, it became natural to try and identify one of its components or locations with the mind. But this, to repeat, is a confusion.

To say that something has a mind is to describe that entity’s capacities, its relationship with its environment, and our modes of understanding, predicting and responding to its behavior.