I have avoided as much as possible using the word evil throughout this blog because I find, like the word ‘good’, it has been loaded in terms of meaning with so much baggage. I decided early to focus on good because I think the word good despite its own baggage is where we all start, and hopefully where we can end. That said, in my profession I have encountered people and events that bring the word ‘evil’ to mind. I might add not only to mind but to body because certain people and actions evoke a distinct physical response of subtle aversion. Like genuine good can only be experienced through both body and mind in concert, the complete absence of good has an almost commensurate negative mind/body reaction. In my experience, the complete absence of a Sense of Good in the operation of a person produces the phenomenon we call ‘evil’.
Before addressing mental illness or mental health I want to emphasize evil and violence are not companion words. Evil can be expressed through the most banal of terminology and behavior. Once a person has forgotten or perhaps never learned ‘good’ they are ready to go through life almost conflict free in terms of relationships. Consequently they can present amiably, and express themselves with extraordinary reasonableness. These people can be experienced as thoughtful and well met until they aren’t. Life for a person you might call evil is simply someone whose decision process has devolved to a pure, strategy of personal interests. Usually, only when personal interests are frustrated comes the moment when the facade drops, and hurt and violence emerge. The internet and social media often finds themselves sailing perilously close and occasionally over the line as entities absent of conscience or conflict of interest. But that is another discussion
The New York Times brought up the controversial and difficult discussion in an article this week addressing the association of of violence, mental illness, and racial hate crimes. The Deadly Collision of Racism and Mental Illness is written by Eyal Press and published on October 4 2022. One of the questions he addresses is how do we talk about this without reinforcing the negative stereotypes that cling the the term mental illness? I want to expand this discussion launching from another concern brought up in this article. To quote Eyal Press; “Another danger is that mental illness may be invoked to deflect attention from the rhetoric and ideas that inspire acts of violent extremism“.
There seems no argument that much of that rhetoric and many of those ideas find their expression the the darker toxic corners of the cyber universe and we are not talking exclusively about the “dark web”. I would like to talk about the vulnerable mind for a moment here. You can talk about mental health or mental illness, but the mind can become dangerously vulnerable to aggressive influences when the cognitive processes are attacked by illness. Just as we see the internet working on the vulnerable developing minds of pre-adolescents to tragic ends, we are now seeing all ages succumbing to forms of manipulation arising from strategic presentations of information designed specifically for self-promotion. The fact that a stable interdependent democracy such as ours could be on the brink of civil war brings the point home. There is a broad frame of information designed not for the truth but purely for personal gain that has resulted in a frightening trend of discussion anticipating violence and civil war in our country and generation. That some people with mental illness should be caught up in this larger form of manipulation and bias should not be surprising. As the author of the article points out, people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrator of such violence. Watching the storming of the US Capital on January 6, I was struck by the sheer naivety, casual cruelty and utter fecklessness of the invaders. These are not symptoms of mental illness. The actions were for the most part, illegal, poorly thought out, and immoral. The whole event appears to have been the expressed symptoms of an age that has embraced the lie and absence of due diligence of the mind as acceptable preparation for making personal and public decisions.
Mental Illness makes a person vulnerable to some influences that neither they nor anyone else can control. The issue in this discussion is not so much crime and punishment as it is crime and safety; safety for the public and the individual with the illness. Finding suitable punishment for a person whose due diligence in decisions is blocked or seriously altered by neurological issues is an unresolvable moral discussion. The ‘eye for an eye‘ form of justice doesn’t work in the medical context, but from what ever perspective you take it from, justice in the form of retribution cannot work when the eyes are not comparable. Having established the presence of an illness, the matter of punishment has to be set aside in exchange for a discussion of safety for everyone involved. You will be surprised to see how the lines and parameters of the discussion change radically when safety rather than retribution forms the focus of problem solving. The strategic manipulation of facts to create self-serving simulacrums of reality lie at the center of today’s broken world, not mental illness. I propose you consider adding ‘the critical periods of safety’ to your core Sense of Good. Infants, children, elderly and people with disabilities will thank you.