Saturday, July 30, 2011


Time to Change, a campaign which aims to raise public awareness about mental health problems, has had much success in changing attitudes. But the events in Norway show why the campaign can only go so far in combating stigma about mental illness.

We do not equate mental illness with violence because we inherently fear mental illness (though clearly we do), but because we fear violence and therefore have to dissociate ourselves from it, to turn the perpetrator into an other by calling him a madman, insane, schizophrenic, paranoid etc. If he is not caught, we become scared that this madman is out there trying to kill us; if and when he is caught, we feel immense relief and eventually forget about him.

This is somewhat ironic for, as Darian Leader writes in today’s Guardian, our attitude is one of classic paranoia:

“Paranoia has three classical components. The paranoiac has located a fault or malignancy in the world, he has named it, and has a message to deliver about it. For Breivik, the conviction is that Europe is rotten, that the name of this rottenness is Islam and that it is his mission to expose and excise it.”

As we know, paranoia doesn’t only happen when that conviction is wrong. We can be paranoid about something that we correctly believe is happening. And therefore, paranoia – and its consequences – have nothing to do with knowing the difference between right and wrong, “since the central feature of paranoia is precisely that the person does know the difference.”

This is what disturbs us most – that the Norwegian attacks have nothing to do with morality – and that is why we must assign Breivik to an alterior space in which right and wrong do not exist. We must banish him to madness.

What is most interesting about this is is that these arguments only arose when we discovered the killer’s identity – i.e. when we discovered he was Norwegian, white, an apparently average Joe. In terror attacks committed by Muslims, I have never heard anybody diagnose the responsible person(s) as mad, schizophrenic, mentally ill etc. It is enough that they are Muslim. That is why they have committed such an evil, not because they are mad. We cannot say this of Breivik because he is one of us, and we (we Western citizens) secretly harbour many of the paranoias and desires that drove him to kill. So we call him mad.


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