In our last entry, the embedded and inter-dependent, if not actually co-dependent, relationship between conspiracy theories and authoritarianism was our focus. It seems that each of these issues, often treated as separate and independent and mutually exclusive, have to be considered at least as overlapping, if not dangerous through the manipulation of information by those seeking to govern illicitly, if not actually illegally.
On the other hand, it is incumbent on each of us to see where our language, and the principles and definitions and implications it embodies, requires our taking time to pause and reflect on what our conventional language considers aberrant behaviour as opposed to normal behaviour. We are hearing more and more about the incidence of mental health issues and drug and alcohol dependence issues being linked to poverty, hopelessness and the spike in violent crime in many U.S. cities.
And yet, some of the glaring underlying reasons/causes/seeds of not only poverty but also alcohol and drug dependence as well as undiagnosed or even misdiagnosed mental health issues are too often considered as normal business and/or political activity.
Parsing root causes, just as we discovered in our brief exploration of the “causation” issue around whether trump’s delinquent deportment in his handling of COVID-19 rises to the level of criminal negligence, is frequently, if not always, left to the academics who research the potential/real/theoretical/statistical relationship between two variables. For decades, deconstruction, the process of separating variables, causes, investigations, health diagnoses and legal arrests, charges and convictions in a manner that has embedded within itself, the seeds of its own limitations, if not actual demise.
When we use words like “disability” in normal discourse, we are implicitly signing on to a concept of “inferiority” and attaching that inferiority to those with some physical or mental difference when compared (usually silently and likely unconsciously) with others who do not demonstrate similar differences. Even an apparently innocent comment like, “We think there are mental problems there!” a comment I recently heard about a prominent, enthusiastic and highly creative member of a community, exposes a deeply seeded perception of “difference” without even pretending to question the validity of the lay assessment, or the context of that individual’s life. This kind of “applied disability” continues out from a private social conversation into how we think of social and political needs, needs assessments and the appropriate manner and methods to address those deficiencies. The speaker of the above statement, along with others who have the same attitude, might, for example, “take a wide birth” of either or both detachment/acquiescence when encountering this person.
Conventional culture, it seems, clings to what it considers the white line in the middle of the road, when observing, assessing and then reacting to the behaviour, attitudes, language and especially the beliefs and ideology of those who appear different. And the intensity of that clinging rises and falls in part as a variable of the background of the observer/perceiver/assessor/interactor. If one is raised in a home where “law-and-order” tend to overshadow a laissez-faire attitude of relative relaxed expectations and rules, one’s early attitudes, perceptions and assessments of others who exhibit similar/different attitudes will likely reflect this early childhood development. Differences not only tolerated but celebrated inside families are more likely to generate tolerance and celebration of originality, creativity, spontaneity and surprise when members of such families enter the wider world. The inverse seems also valid.
So, a narrow, strict, attitude especially one founded on a black-white dichotomy or either/or will accompany, perhaps even inconspicuously and unconsciously, the child morphing into an adult. Feeding this kind of black-white, either/or dichotomy every hour of every day is the mass media. Issues are described as “good” or “bad” and people too fall into the same linguistic (if not intellectual, cultural, political and even ethical) dichotomy. Life is good, death, bad. Rich is good, poor is bad. Educated is good, illiterate is bad. Degrees are good, their absence is bad. Trophies are good, losers are bad. Doctors are good, quacks are bad. “Nice” is good, angry (sad, dour, hopeless, despondent, despairing, frightened and frightening) are bad. Smile is good, frown is bad. Good news is good, bad news is bad….Except that bad news is feeding an obviously insatiable appetite for the tragedies of others not to mention seeding the journalism’s training and the corporate appetite for advertising revenue dependent on ratings. The German language even has a word for it:
SHADENFREUDE: pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune. (According to worldwidewords.org, the English equivalent word is: epicaricacy.) Incidentally, the emotion is displayed more in children than in adults.
And here is where the intersection of what is considered normal behaviour can easily and quickly cross a line into something the conventional culture considers ‘disturbed.’ A normal degree of shadenfreude is acceptable while an abnormal degree is verging on mental illness and a display of it could and likely would cause others to shy away from such an attitude.
Consider this scenario:
If you, dear reader, were attending a social gathering in which a tale was being told of the “fall” of an individual, (financial, moral, ethical, political, firing) depending on the manner of the narrator’s enriched delivery and detail, would you remain to listen and then join in the ‘tut’ tut’ ‘shame’ ‘shame’ conversation that ensued?
Would you inquire into the narrator’s knowledge of the context?
Would you withhold judgement on the ‘victim’ until you had opportunity to learn more details of the background, context and source of the “allegations”?
Would you join in echoing the common epithet, “You can’t trust anyone these days!”?
Would you pause to reflect on why it is that you and so many others are so wrapped up in stories like this?
Would you even ask questions to the narrator about the story?
Would you walk away thinking, “I do not want to engage in this story, but I also do not want anyone here to think that I consider myself “better” than them!”?
Notice also the frequency of these stories, as well as the frequency of words of derision, even words depicting a disorder, especially when compared with the public discussion and acknowledgement of our shared shadenfreude. In seven decades, I have not a single memory of hearing that word used even once in a public or private discussion.
So, individuals are easy and available targets for our bullets of attack, whether they come from some scripture, or from an appropriated sense of “decorum” and decency, and even unnamed anxiety or suspicion.
It is such an easy and available slide from targeting others, in a valiant if vain attempt to achieve some modicum of what we mistakenly consider self-respect (never really attained at the expense of another), to turn our psychic weapons on public figures. Their (and our) imperfections are not only legion, but magnified through the multiple lenses of various mass and social media. And the “license” we apparently grant to totally unreliable “witnesses” or critics, now that everyone is one, has contributed to the considerable devaluation of those voices whose seasoning, learning, experience and integrity has been demonstrated for decades. This dynamic is one upon which people like trump and his sycophants have seized.
Mary Trump’s recent expose of her uncle’s background and character defects, given its rocketing sales figures, has generated considerable interest in what many would call an ‘insider’s’ perspective. At the same time, her uncle’s triumphal championing of his own “exceptionality” in everything he says and does, and his refusal even to notice and certainly not make mention of the many “defects” in both character and performance of the corporate world’s leaders, illustrates a blind-spot of denial, deception and distortion that refuses to become a “belled-cat” similar to those “mental defects” noted in many of our colleagues.
If and when a behemoth like Amazon, that facilitator of legions of entrepreneurs, start—up’s and the accompanying new designs, new programs, new innovations becomes the focus of many of those same previous “clients” for having watched their intellectual property be replicated by other corporate actors, without their knowledge or permission, and the new and “fake” replicas generate a flush of customer complaints for faulty workmanship, missing parts, it is only to be expected that original sales success is followed by serious and rapid decline.
While law suits are currently underway against companies like Amazon, and once again the little entrepreneur is having to take action to protect what is legitimately and legally his/her private intellectual property, the conventional conversation runs along lines like, “This is just the norm for business!” We watch this happen every day when the big guys gobble the little guys “because they can” and do. We have normalized behaviour that would not be tolerated in our neighbourhoods, by those who legislate and who execute many of our corporate institutions. And yet, we continue to speak and write about the “income gap” between the have’s and the have-not’s.
It is not only an income gap, but a language, a value a perception and an integrity gap. And we are all complicit in its creation, and perpetuation. This is not an argument to begin to assign monikers of mental illness to corporations or to political leaders. This is not an argument to dissuade reporters and analysts from their digging into the files and the phone calls and the emails of prominent people. However, it is an argument to shine light on what amounts to an unsustainable differential in the power of choice, the opportunity to self-regulate and to take responsibility for one’s life, without the needed levers of health, education, work with dignity, adequate food and primarily the possibility of seeing a horizon in which those necessities are not “over the mountain’ but immediately attainable.
Statistics recently released about the proportions of primarily men encountering law enforcement in both Canada and the U.S. show a high proportion of those individuals of black or brown or indigenous ethnicity, many of them also showing signs of mental illness and/or alcohol and/or drug dependency. It does not take a rocket scientist to deduce that much of this “pain” from an individual and a family perspective is the direct result of conditions extant in a culture in which those with power and wealth have already turned a blind eye to those they simply choose not to see. Arguments advocating for an enlightened agenda of social assistance, and better access to both physical and mental health professionals, as well as improved school buildings and lower teacher-student ratios will clearly call on deaf ears, to those already blind by their own decisions to invoke blindness, denial and the kind of political plausibility of innocence and purity that they believe, falsely, accompanies their chosen blindness.
Is their condition capable of fitting into a schadenfreude file? Hardly.
Is their condition capable of fitting into a “criminal negligence” accusation, charge and trial? Hardly.
Is their condition capable of fitting into a folder of “too costly” and thereby not included in recent, current and foreseeable budgetary considerations? Hardly.
Is their condition capable of fitting into an ideological strait-jacket that adheres religiously to the “nanny state” definition of political, social and ethical evil? Hardly.
Is their condition capable of fitting into a mental health diagnosis that would render it and them eligible for health care? Hardly.
Is their condition appropriate to require spiritual guidance, clergy assessment and counselling? Hardly.
Is their condition one needing additional formal training and education in order to enlighten them on their own chosen blindness? Hardly.
Is their condition one that can be assigned to the trash-bin of gender politics, in order to maintain male dominance of the culture and the governing of that culture? Hardly.
Is their condition one that might benefit from an appointment with an ophthalmologist in the desired hope that vision might be restored? Hardly.
Well, then, what do we do with those in power whose eyes are turned, or blind, whose ears are deaf and whose minds are closed to the urgent, potentially existential threat, not only to millions of individual lives and families, but also to the very structure and stability of the state?
You ask, “Is this a uniquely American problem and issue? Or does it apply to other so-called developed countries?
And my answer rests on the obvious attitudes to care and compassion, as compared with and in competition with attitudes of profit, and disregard for the welfare of the whole, the welfare of the body politic. And each country holds its own spot on the continuum between care at one end and insouciance at the other. And while these diagnoses apply to individuals’ lives, illustrating one’s capacity and choice to care, the attitude of the body politic can only be evaluated in the light of the summation and the culmination of the whole of these individual/family attitudes.
So, when you hear, “We are all in this together!” the words are for more than political or medical rhetoric. They have an existential relevance!