Category Archives: Anomie

To Combat Terrorism, Tackle Mental Illness

By Liah Greenfeld

First published in the New York Times, July 15, 2016

The comment of the French prime minister [“The times have changed, and France is going to have to live with terrorism”] can be interpreted as recognition that terrible events such as the mass killing in Nice Thursday night are a sign of a very long-term problem, which is unlikely to be speedily resolved. In this sense, France, like the United States, will indeed “have to learn to live with terrorism.”

Paradoxically, this is so precisely because “terrorism” is not an adequate diagnosis of such acts in the United States and Western Europe. Yes, they are acts of terror, and may even be inspired by Islamic militants. But they are also acts of mentally disturbed individuals.

The great majority of “homegrown” or “lone-wolf” terror acts are committed by people with a known history of mental illness, most often depression, which counts social maladjustment and problematic sense of self among its core symptoms. Severely depressed people are often suicidal, they find life unlivable. As a rule, they cannot explain their acute existential discomfort to themselves and may find ideologies hostile to their social environment – the society in which they experience their misery – appealing: such ideologies allow them to rationalize, make sense of the way they feel. Any available ideology justifying their maladjustment would do: Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel might have been inspired by radical Islam, but Micah Johnson, who killed five police officers in Dallas, had a different inspiration.

In a way, such ideologies serve for the mentally ill perpetrators as ready-made delusions, which, as we know also can inspire mass murders. Characteristically, the majority of mass murders, including lone-wolf terrorist acts, in Western countries are committed by people who are willing, in fact plan, to die while carrying them out. These acts offer them a spectacular, memorable, way out – a way of self-affirmation and suicide at once. An association with a great cause – and any ideology presents its cause as great – makes it all the more meaningful for them.

The rates of mental illness, especially depression, in the West are very high and, according to the most authoritative statistics, steadily rising. Unless we resolve this problem, we’ll have to learn to live with terrorism.

 

The Making of a Lone Wolf Terrorist

By Liah Greenfeld

A beheading in a workplace, a hatchet attack on a busy street, a shooting in a public high school – events following so closely one upon another and amid others, in a way very much like them, just across the border, in Canada – seemingly irrational, shocking, and yet already quite expected, they make one’s head spin. What’s going on around us – in the best, most prosperous, most open, liberal, societies on earth, most dedicated to the values of freedom and equality, most vigilant about safeguarding human rights? It cannot escape one’s attention that these hair-raising events, which happen with oppressive regularity, happen precisely in such societies – our own United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain.

Is it a coincidence that the frequency of random shootings, without a clear ideological motivation (such as yesterday’s tragedy near Seattle, the Newton massacre, or the one in a Colorado movie theater) increases together with that of targeted ideologically motivated attacks? No, it is not. These tendencies are related. To begin with, both kinds of violence are irrational in the sense of not being able to benefit the individual committing it in any objective way and often implying a great cost to this individual. At the same time, random violence without a clear ideological motivation is a phenomenon different from ideologically motivated violence.

These phenomena are related but different. They are related through a common social cause which leads to different psychological effects. These effects then, under certain conditions, may result in these two different kinds of violent behavior. Such enabling conditions, in the case of ideologically motivated violence, obviously include the specific motivating ideology. But it is important to understand that the elimination of the specific ideology, won’t eliminate the primary cause of such violence (the social cause), or its secondary cause (the psychological effects of the social cause), and that any other ideology can take the place of the one that is eliminated.

The primary – social – cause responsible for the frequency of irrational violence in the United States and other open, prosperous and liberal, societies is the systemic inability of such societies to offer individuals within them consistent guidance in the construction of their own individual identities. (In social science such systemic inability is called anomie). The very values of our societies – equality and liberty in the sense of freedom of choice for how to define oneself and live one’s life – forces our societies to leave the construction of their own identities to the individuals themselves. In less open societies (for example, in religious societies, in societies with strong secular norms, or rigid systems of stratification) one learns who one is from the environment, depending on the social position to which one is born. In our societies, given the fundamental equality, and interchangeability, of all their members, one is left free to choose who to be. A personal identity is our cognitive map, everyone must have it to know what one’s rights and duties, expectations, relationships with other, and behavior in general are and should be. An identity, this cognitive map, tells us how to live our lives. In our open societies, we have no help from the outside in construction such a map. For many of us this is a great boon: we love the freedom and the control of our destinies this gives us. But for many others this is a heavy psychological burden, a task they cannot accomplish.

Our sense of self and, therefore, our mental comfort (sense of ease or dis-ease) depend on having a clear and stable identity. People with malformed identities go through life confused and insecure, they are uncomfortable with themselves and maladjusted socially, because they never know who they are and where they belong. They lack an inner compass. A minority of them develops a functional mental disease as a result, which can be diagnosed as schizophrenia, manic depression, or major unipolar depression. Such disease is called “functional,” because, while the organic bases of it are uncertain and in many cases no organic irregularity may exist at all, the people who suffer from it lose the ability to function in society. They may be unable to distinguish between what happens in their mind and outside, taking one for the other, their maladjustment becomes an acute distress, and they cannot control themselves. This impairment of will – the immediate cause of their inability to function – most commonly expresses itself in a complete lack of motivation, but can also be expressed in uncontrollable actions which the individual feels are either willed by some force beyond him/herself, which must be obeyed, or are actually committed by someone else populating his/her body. The phrases “I was not myself,” “I was out of my mind” in retrospective accounts of such actions reflect these feelings. Given this impairment of will in clinically mentally ill individuals, it is extremely unlikely for such individuals to be acting under the influence of any shared ideology, though they may develop an elaborate delusion (an ideology entirely their own), which would include some common cultural elements.

In common parlance such truly sick individuals are called “crazy,” “insane.” These terms may convey certain insensitivity, but the understanding behind them, in case of violent crime that comes to trial, justifies insanity defense, because such people cannot be held responsible for their actions. This is not so in regard to ideologically motivated acts of irrational violence. The very fact that the individuals committing such acts shape their behavior (i.e., control their actions) in accordance with an ideology testifies to their fundamental sanity.

The great majority of people who are unable to develop a clear, stable identity in the conditions of anomic, open society, and, as a result, lacking an inner compass, are not mentally ill in this clinical sense. They are confused, insecure, and maladjusted, to be sure, but they can very well distinguish between what is happening in their mind and outside, and, though they can often be unmotivated and moody, their will is not impaired to the point of making them unable to function in society. Their discomfort, the general mental malaise from which they suffer takes many forms: some turn to drugs and alcohol, some become extremely conformist to whatever social circles they frequent (that is, give up their individuality and unreflectively imitate what the others around them are doing and saying), some become envious, and some become very angry. Such disturbed but not insane individuals, in general, become attracted to all kinds of ideologies which justify their feeling uncomfortable in their society, and thus politically available. Those whose psychological discomfort takes mainly the form of envy and anger are likely to be particularly attracted to ideologies which specifically encourage the expression of these feelings, legitimating violence against those the maladjusted individual resents. At this point in the causal chain leading to violence, ideology becomes the enabling condition, and the specific character of the ideology chosen can explain the nature of violence and its targets.

[Originally published on Psychologytoday.com]

Home-Grown Terrorists: Actually Terrorists or Mentally Ill?

By Liah Greenfeld

We shall probably never forget the terrifying images on our TV screens in the past six weeks or so. First, there were the two explosions at the finish line of Boston Marathon: screams, the wounded–shocked and bleeding–wheeled away from the scene in chairs that were waiting for exhausted but triumphant runners by running first responders with harassed faces. Then reports from the hospitals, heard with baited breath–so many killed (a child! a young woman!), so many people crippled for life. I was one of the three and a half million residents of the greater Boston area ordered to stay at home and keep away from the windows, but everyone, I imagine, found chilling the sight of a ghost city, with not a soul on the streets for hours–the beautiful, vibrant, famous city of Boston brought to a deathly still. And just several weeks later, not yet recovered, we were treated to the image–caught on live TV–of a young man in broad daylight in London with a meat cleaving knife in his hands, red to his elbows and dripping with blood of another young man, whom he had moments ago beheaded (!) and whose corpse could be seen in some distance, lying abandoned in the middle of the street.

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Is Depression A Real Disease?

By Liah Greenfeld

Last month’s issue of The British Journal of General Practice contains an editorial “Depression as a culture-bound syndrome: implications for primary care” by Dr. Christopher Dowrick, Professor of Primary Medical Care at the Institute of Psychology, Health, and Society of the University of Liverpool. Dr. Dowrick claims that depression “fulfills the criteria for a culture-bound syndrome,” i.e. , one of the “’illnesses’, limited to specific societies or culture areas, composed of localized diagnostic categories,” like, for instance ataque de nervios in Latin America. In the case of depression the culture area affected is “westernized societies.” Putting the word “illness,” when applied to culture-bound syndromes into quotation marks indicates that Dr. Dowrick does not consider such syndromes real illnesses; it follows that depression–a culture-bound syndrome of westernized societies–is also not a real illness. Dr. Dowrick further argues that depression as a diagnostic category cannot be seen as “a universal, transcultural concept,” because it has no validity and utility, and it does not have validity and utility, because “there is no sound evidence for a discrete pathophysiological basis” for depression. I find myself in absolute agreement with Dr. Dowrick’s two specific statements above (that depression is a culture-bound syndrome of westernized societies, and that there is no discrete pathophysiological basis for this diagnostic category), and yet completely disagree with the implication that depression is not a real disease.

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The Modern Mental Disease

By Liah Greenfeld

Modern humans—that is, people who live in societies such as ours, democratic, prosperous, relatively secure, and offering its members numerous life-choices, people like you and me, in other words—are different from humans who lived or live in other types of societies. We experience life differently from them: perceive reality differently and feel emotions that other humans did not have.

Human experience was revolutionized in the 16th century England. In the previous posts we have already discussed such new emotions as ambition, love, happiness, and their connection to the new form of consciousness, which came to be called “nationalism” and formed the cultural framework of modernity. Nationalism implied a special image of society as a sovereign community of equal members (a “nation”) and of reality in general. In its original, English, form it was essentially democratic. As it spread, it carried the seeds of democracy everywhere. Considering a living community sovereign (the source of all laws), it implicitly but drastically reduced the relevance of God and, even when combined with religion and presented in a religious idiom, which happened often, was to all intents and purposes secular. It was dramatically different, in other words, from the fundamentally religious, hierarchical consciousness which it replaced, and it shaped the way we live today. Among other things, the new consciousness made the human individual one’s own maker: it implied we had the choice to decide what we want to be; it dramatically increased the value of human life, encouraging us to realize it to the fullest extent—in other words, it gave us dignity and freedom. The society built on its premises of equality and popular sovereignty was an open society, in which the individual had the right to define one’s own identity, a society which made one’s identity one’s own business.  It is not coincidental that the new emotions discussed in previous posts, which emerged when the English society was redefined as a “nation,” were in some way connected to the individual’s ability to define oneself and that the two great modern passions—ambition and love—in fact answered a new need which this ability created: the need for help in identity-formation.

Unfortunately all these benefits of nationalism—the dignity, freedom, and equality, both empowering and encouraging the individual to choose what to be – did not come unaccompanied by costs, and for all the enrichment of our life experience contributed by love and happiness, these costs would be impossible to disregard.  The liberty to define oneself has made the formation of the individual identity problematic. A member of a nation cannot learn who or what s/he is from the environment, as would an individual growing up in an essentially religious and rigidly stratified, non-egalitarian order, where everyone’s position and behavior are defined by birth and divine providence. Beyond the very general category of nationality, a modern individual must decide what s/he is and should do, and thus construct one’s identity oneself.  Modern culture cannot provide individuals within it with consistent guidance, with which other cultures provide its members. By providing inconsistent guidance (for we are inevitably guided by our cultural environment), it in fact actively disorients us. Such cultural insufficiency is called anomie. Already over a century ago, it was recognized as the most dangerous problem of modernity. For many people, the necessity to construct one’s identity, to choose what to make of oneself, became an unbearable burden.

At the same time as the English society was redefined as a nation, and ambition, happiness, and love made their first appearances among our emotions, a special variety of mental illness, different from a multitude of mental illnesses known since antiquity, was first observed. It expressed itself in degrees of mental impairment, derangement, and dysfunction, the common symptoms of which were social maladjustment (chronic discomfort in one’s environment) and chronic discomfort (dis-ease) with one’s self, the sense of self oscillating between self-loathing and megalomania and in rare cases deteriorating into the terrifying experience of a complete loss of self. Some of the signs of the new disorder were similar to the symptoms of familiar mental abnormalities. In particular, the new illness, like some previously known conditions, would express itself in abnormal affect—extreme excitement and paralyzing sadness. But, in distinction to the known conditions in which these symptoms were temporary, in the new ailment they were chronic and recurrent. The essence of the new disorder, however, was its delusionary quality, that is the inability to distinguish between the inner world and the outside, which specifically disturbed the experience of self, confusing one regarding one’s identity, making one dissatisfied with, and/or insecure it, it, splitting one’s self in an inner conflict, even dissolving it altogether into the environment. Sixteenth-century English phrases such as “losing one’s mind,” “going out of one’s mind,” and “not being oneself” captured this disturbed experience, which expressed itself in out-of-control behaviors (that is, behaviors out of one’s control, out of the control of the self), and, as a result, in maladjustment and functional incapacitation.

None of the terms in the extensive medical vocabulary of the time (which included numerous categories of mental diseases) applied to the new mental illness; neither could it be treated with the means with which the previously known mental illnesses were treated. It required a new term—and was called “madness.” It also called into being the first hospital in the sense in which we understand the word (the famous Bedlam), the first medical specialization, eventually named “psychiatry,” and special legislation regarding the “mad.”  It is this clearly bipolar and delusional disease which would be three centuries later classified as distinct syndromes of schizophrenia and affective (depressive and manic-depressive) disorders.

We shall follow the history of this modern disease and analyze it in the following posts.

[Originally published on Psychology Today]

Modern Emotions: Aspiration and Ambition

By Liah Greenfeld

The claim of this post is that such characteristic emotions as ambition, happiness, and love as we understand it today, which form the very core and define the emotional experience of so many of us, are not universal, but specifically modern in the sense of being a creation of the modern culture; that members of pre-modern societies were unfamiliar with them, i.e., did not experience ambition, happiness, and love; and that even at present these emotions play only a minor role in the emotional life of billions of people living outside modern Western civilization.  The sources of these three emotions, in other words, are to be sought not in human nature, but in modern culture.

The focus of this post is ambition, while the following two posts will be devoted, respectively, to happiness and love. Still later posts will explain what in modern culture called these emotions into being.  (I’d like to remind the reader that this blog is continuous, i.e., it follows the agenda set in the first post, with each new post continuing the arguments of the preceding ones.)  

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Love, Madness, Terrorism: Connected?

By Liah Greenfeld

In the 16th century, in England, several remarkable things happened:

Social mobility, inconceivable before, became legitimate and common;

The ideal of Romantic love between a man and a woman emerged and “true love,” as we understand it today, was added to the human emotional range;

The word “people,” which earlier referred to the lower classes, became synonymous with “nation,” which at the time had the meaning of “an elite”;

Numerous new words appeared, among them “aspiration,” “happiness,” and “madness”;

The English society, previously a society of hierarchically arranged orders of nobility, clergy, and laborers under the sovereignty of God and his Vicar in Rome, was redefined as a sovereign community of equals;

The nature of violent crime, personal and political, changed, with crime that was not rational in the sense of self-interested becoming much more common;

The attitude to pets, especially dogs and cats, changed, transforming these animals in many cases from living multi-purpose tools to our friends and soul-mates;

The pursuit of growth — rather than survival, as was the case before – became the goal of the economy;

Mental diseases which were later to be named “schizophrenia,” “manic-depressive illness,” and “depression” were first observed, shifting the interest of the medical profession, in particular, from other, numerous, mental diseases that were known since the times of antiquity.

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