Category Archives: Anomie

Cherryleaf Library for Children

CK1

For those of my friends, who have children in the pre-school – elementary school ages:

In Mind, Modernity, Madness I have written that, to arrest the ever-rising rates of functional mental illness in the United States, we would need to revamp our system of education, beginning from kindergarten. (As I am writing to my friends, I presume that you have read Mind, Modernity, Madness.) Onset is occurring earlier and earlier, so that mental disorder is common in middle school and in high school already rampant, and this means that the work of prevention, making children resistant to mental illness, has to begin at an age before the assault starts.

Since the agent of the disease in this case is cultural: the inability of modern – secular, egalitarian, and open – culture to provide large swaths of people with sufficient guidance for the formation of clear identity, the preparation and prevention must also be cultural: the intentional provision of such guidance to young children. To do so through the channels of the educational establishment would require the message of Mind, Modernity, Madness to achieve the status of self-evident truth – something that is evidently not happening right now and unlikely to happen in the near future, and for an entire generation of educators to be educated in its light and know how to help a child to form a clear identity.

The understanding of identity in our society is grossly underdeveloped and the vague ideas regarding it that exist are based precisely on the presuppositions that make the formation of identity in our society so problematic. The chief of these presuppositions, perhaps, is that each individual is born with an unchangeable identity – an essential self, which will, and must be allowed to, have an expression, for its repression condemns one to unhappiness and leads to mental disease. This presupposition encourages people to “discover” themselves, to do which they must focus on themselves, i.e., they are effectively educated to be self-centered. Alongside this presupposition of the essential individual self exists the contradictory idea of identity as the essential self of one’s biologically-defined group, racial (which, upon analysis, includes ethnicity) or sexual (which includes sexual orientation). This presupposition encourages the individual to discover in oneself the identity of one’s presumed group (which, of course, does in no way help one to develop a functioning identity, because it does not locate one in a clear position on the socio-cultural terrain) and to focus on the political defense of this group’s rights, specifically demanding that the group be treated in every respect equally with other groups. Paradoxically, the two presuppositions (of the essential individual self and of the essential biological group self) are combined in the popular consciousness and educational curricula reflecting this consciousness.

To combat this on the level of the educational establishment is beyond the powers of any individual or a small group of individuals. A revolution, a complete breakdown of the social order and the construction of a new one in its place, would be needed to effect the required change of thinking. The only way to help children to form functional identities (and identities are formed, not innate, reflecting some inner essence) and prevent their developing functional mental illness is to do so from the outside of the educational establishment. Children are raised in and by culture, a process consisting of numerous specific processes, interrelated in numerous distinctive ways: the family process, the educational establishment (institutional) process, religion, media, literature, and so on. Our culture, in general, does not offer us sufficient guidance in forming our identities, but some of its constituent processes do help. Formal educational institutions, that is, institutions specifically entrusted with the transmission of the dominant cultural messages, as might be expected, reinforce this cultural insufficiency and the family, which is all-important in the child’s early years, is quite likely to reflect it, because the parents are products of the culture themselves. But literature, for instance, the books we read to our children, when they are little, and books they start to read themselves, is far more heterogeneous. While most books in our bookstores would transmit dominant cultural messages (for instance, the two presuppositions inimical to the formation of a clear stable identity, mentioned above), there are some that can provide a counterweight to them. If organized into a systematic program and read at home from a very early age through kindergarten and elementary school (and, perhaps, in some kindergartens and elementary schools, where individual teachers would appreciate their benefits) such books could help children to form firm identities, which would in turn enable them to withstand the assault of contradictory messages of our secular, egalitarian, open (anomic) society and protect them from mental disease.

Books that can help in the process of identity formation in an anomic society do so in a way very different from societies that simply impose identities on people in them by limiting individual experience to a particular, very limited area on the cognitive map of the socio-cultural terrain. They do this, instead, by presenting one with the picture of human behaviors, probable in open societies, distinguishing (in the manner of presentation) between right and wrong, good and evil actions, and provoking sympathy with the suffering of others and antipathy towards those who cause this suffering. The confusing reality of contemporary society is simplified, presented, underneath apparent heterogeneity of observable behaviors, as the confrontation of good and evil, defined basically as kindness vs. cruelty (intentional causing of suffering), with other behaviors and attitudes ranged in between.

When one’s cognitive map of the socio-cultural terrain is drawn in these simple terms, being a good person becomes the core of one’s ideal identity – what one strives to be, the goal of one’s self-realization. One is encouraged to take advantage of the freedom and equality offered by the open society not to “discover,” but to “make” oneself, to cultivate one’s empathy (which presupposes focusing on others), to be actively kind, useful to those who are weaker, in need of help, and must be protected from suffering. Competitiveness, constant self-comparison to others, self-measurement against them in quantitative terms of relative achievement and virtue (do I have more or less money, accolades, professional success, intelligence, beauty, and so on, than x, y, z, to whom I should be equal) which are encouraged by the egalitarianism and freedom of the open anomic society, in turn encouraging envy, self-doubt, insecurity, sense of inferiority which contribute to social maladjustment and in so many cases ultimately lead to mental illness, fade into near-irrelevance. One’s identity-map is no longer the map of an endless race-track with oneself as one of the racers, constantly in danger of being left behind or overturned. It is no longer one’s comparison to others, but the calls for one’s help that determine one’s position on the map; wherever they come from on one’s socio-cultural terrain, there one gravitates, one’s conduct is oriented by these calls, by thinking about the needs of others.

This must appear too simplistic a characterization of the complex masterpieces of the 18th and especially 19th centuries, be it Dickens’s Great Expectations, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, or Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, and, of course, the message is more or less explicit even in different books by the same author. Such, nevertheless, is the common basic message of the great modern – psychological — novel, called into being by the need to make sense (for the authors, in the first place) of the secular, egalitarian, anomic society. All these novels treat of the provocations with which anomie of the open society presents to the individual, unanchored by a clear identity, all see mental illness as a constantly lurking danger. Depictions in black and white contrasts as in the “sensationalist” best-sellers of Wilkie Collins are not to be met among greater artists, whose novels are likely to focus on the behaviors of the middle range, eschewing absolute good and absolute evil. Still, they all advise: be guided by the understanding of fundamental right and wrong, focus on the world, not yourself, be kind, above all, and things may turn all right – at the very least, they won’t go horribly wrong: you won’t go mad.

Psychological novels of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, from Moll Flanders to An American Tragedy are a great antidote to the disorientation of the open egalitarian society and a very powerful educational tool. Whether encouraged at home or integrated into school curricula, this literature can be very helpful for young people trying to come to grips – and form their identity – in the baffling anomic world. This literature is rich and may provide emotional support for years. Unfortunately, it is not a preventative therapy, because it cannot be administered to pre-teenage children. Yet, it is among the pre-teens that defenses against anomie must be built.

Identity-formation-facilitating literature for young children, ages 3 to 12, where it is especially needed, is very sparse. In English, even if one includes translations, there is nothing of this nature for children under 6 or 7 years of age. Taking whatever exists into consideration, I set myself the goal of creating an English-language corpus of such identity-formation-supporting children’s literature, organized as a continuous stream of age-appropriate reading from stories to toddlers through older preschoolers, kindergarten, and to older elementary school children. Readings for 3-5-year-olds would have to be created, and I intend to use the work of the exceptional Russian writer Korney Chukovsky, who wrote for very young children, as the foundation for this segment. Chukovsky’s goal in writing was to cultivate in the child kindness (humane disposition) and empathy, “this marvelous ability to worry about other people’s misfortunes, to rejoice at other people’s joys, and to experience another person’s destiny as one’s own.”  He did not think that Russian children of the early 20th century needed aid in identity-formation, but his “tales” provided this aid nonetheless, while teaching the child to focus on others, not on oneself, and to consider being good, actively kind, to the defenseless and helpless as the most important quality of a person. In fact, Chukovsky’s tales are the only equivalent of modern psychological novel for very young children – at least, the only one which is relatively well-known. Even in Russian, which can boast of a very distinguished tradition of children’s literature, there is nothing else of the kind.

Having for over a century contributed to the upbringing of Russian, Soviet, and post-Soviet children (and served as a counterweight for literature faithfully expressing the social values and cultural presuppositions, dominant in each of these periods), Chukovsky’s tales have been translated into many languages. Even in English there are some translations. The problem is that in the original these tales are poems. While in the original text, reflecting the creative process in the mind of the author, prosody and content develop organically, mutually inspiring and reinforcing each other, in translation, the very desire to keep the rhymed form obscures the meaning of the tale and interferes with the delivery of its message. Therefore, instead of attempting another rhymed translation, I decided to re-tell Chukovsky’s tales in prose. I selected five of them that appeared to me most directly relevant to the project of assisting very young children in identity formation – preparing them to meet the challenges, while resisting the pressures, of our society, and immunizing them to some extent against mental disease. I hope to publish them as individual picture books, which would allow parents to read and re-read them to their children and children to leaf through them and let illustrations remind them of the story told for months. But securing a publisher may take a long time, and I would like to make the identity-formation-supporting literature for the very young available immediately. So, please, watch for Cherryleaf Library for Children on YouTube: I’ll read the tales on video as soon as I figure out how to do so.

Why Cherryleaf? In honor of my mother, Victoria Kirshenblat (Kirschenblatt = Cherryleaf), who was an exceptionally good person, actively kind under all circumstances, daily diminishing suffering wherever she found it – among people and animals alike. She was a pediatrician by the grace of God, an extraordinary children’s doctor. For decades she had patients whose parents were her patients; by the end of her working life, she had patients whose grandparents were her patients. While in medical school, she thought of becoming a psychiatrist. So she was acutely aware of the realities of mental disease. She would certainly support this new undertaking of mine, and I prefer it to be associated with her name, rather than with mine: “Professor Greenfeld” would mean nothing to children and nothing but an imposition of academic authority to their parents.

I also intend to start reading books for the slightly older, 6-year-old+ children, beginning with “Nobody’s Boy” by Hector Malot. This is one of the tiny identity-formation-assisting corpus of literature for this age-group that I mentioned. It is available in English, but is quite unknown, and reading it aloud online, I believe, would attract more attention to it than simply recommending it. So please watch for the Cherryleaf Library podcast.

Liah Greenfeld

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.)  

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

“What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?”

Shane Koyczan, in his March 2013 TED Talk (HT Farnam Street Blog):

I hid my heart under the bed because my mother said if your not careful someday someone’s gonna break it. Take it from me, under the bed is not a good hiding spot. I know because I’ve been shot down so many times I get altitude sickness just from standing up for myself. But that’s what we were told, stand up for yourself. That’s hard to do if you don’t know who you are. We are expected to define ourselves at such an early age, and if we didn’t do it, others did it for us. Geek. Fatty. Slut. Fag.

And at the same time we were being told what we were, we were being asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always thought that was an unfair question. It presupposes that we can’t be what we already are. We were kids. … They asked me what I wanted to be then told me what not to be. … I was being told to accept the identity that others will give me.

Liah Greenfeld in Mind, Modernity, Madness:

Why do the secular focus of nationalism and the two principles embodied in the society constructed on its basis lead to madness–or schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness? All three of these features place the individual in control of his or her destiny, eliminating the expectation of putting things right in the afterlife, making one the ultimate authority in deciding on one’s priorities, encouraging one to strive for a higher social status (since one is presumed to be equal to everyone, but one wants to be equal only to those who are superior) and giving one the right to choose one’s social position (since the presumption of fundamental equality makes everyone interchangeable) and therefore identity. But this very liberty, implied in nationalism, both empowering and encouraging the individual to choose what to be–in contrast to all the religious pre-national societies, in which no one was asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?” since one was whatever one was born–makes the formation of the individual identity problematic, and the more so the more choices for the definition of one’s identity a society offers and the more insistent it is on equality. A clear sense of identity being a condition sine qua non for adequate mental functioning, malformation of identity leads to mental disease, but modern culture cannot help the individual to acquire such clear sense, it is inherently confusing. This cultural insufficiency–the inability of a culture to provide individuals within it with consistent guidance–was named anomie by Durkheim.

Though realized in vastly different ways (depending on the manner in which this form of consciousness developed in a particular society), the three principles of nationalism–secularism, egalitarianism, and popular sovereignty–affect the formation of the individual identity in nations necessarily. A member of a nation can no longer 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. Schizophrenia and depressive (bipolar and unipolar) illnesses, I argue, are caused specifically by the values of equality and self-realization, which make every individual one’s own maker–and the rates of such mental disease increase in accordance with the extent to which a particular society is devoted to these values, inherent in the nationalist image of reality, i.e., in the national consciousness, and the scope allowed to the freedom of choice in it. This turns the prevailing view of the mental diseases in question upside down.

Shakespeare and Mental Illness

Alan A. Stone, Touroff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry in the faculty of law and the faculty of medicine at Harvard University, in Psychiatric Times, March 12, 2013:

The ancient Greek dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides gave Western civilization its foundational myths: Prometheus, Oedipus, Antigone, and the Oresteia. Two thousand years passed until Shakespeare arrived and, according to literary critics, achieved something perhaps more important: he “invented the human!”1 I think of this invention as the secular conception of the human condition. Yes secular! it is a vision of the moral adventure of life constrained by no religious orthodoxy.

Scholars debate whether Shakespeare was Catholic or Protestant. He often draws on both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, but God is missing from his greatest plays. Nonetheless, to paraphrase Simon Russell Beale, the great British actor, to perform in those plays is to experience “redemption and transcendence.” Shakespeare’s understanding of the human condition miraculously transcends his culture, time, and place…     Continue reading