Schizophrenia, Homophobia, and Political Disagreement
Several days ago, I wrote about the viral video of Jane Svoboda, a mentally ill woman testifying against an anti-discrimination ordinance in Lincoln, Nebraska. I thought it was clear, the moment I saw the video, that the woman was mentally ill and not simply someone who was railing against homosexuality. And a lot of the bloggers who passed along the video focused on how crazy her screed seemed and how funny it was that she seemed so crazy.
In short, the video went viral because people thought it was funny, not because they were disturbed by the woman’s homophobia. Lots of people say homophobic things on video and those don’t go viral, but very few people say these sorts of things and in this manner.
And so I quoted the woman’s brother, who commented on how this incident said a lot about our society’s understanding of mental illness.
Of course, a number of people wrote comments that pointed out their disagreements with my assessment of the situation and, in doing so, they highlighted a crucial misunderstanding about mental illness and about how we talk about politics.
Here are a selection of those comments:
I get that if they’re mentally ill they can’t be held accountable for some of the things they say and do, but that doesn’t mean we should allow them to willy-nilly say and do things that hurt other people.
I don’t know how I was supposed to “recognize” that she has a mental illness. She sounded exactly like Glenn Beck, Rand Paul and Pat Buchanan do all the time. Ever read World Net Daily or listen to a speech from James Dobson or Pat Robertson? They’re just like this! The line between paranoid schizophrenia and conspiracy theory right-wing bigotry is literally so blurred now, I can’t tell the difference.
And also this:
What viewers see as a hate speech? It is a hate speech. She might not be culpable due to her illness but it was a hate speech.
And this one:
Even so, this does not excuse this woman’s hateful, ignorant, and inaccurate comments.
All of this mirrors the conclusion of Oliver Burkeman’s Guardian blog post on the matter:
[S]urely, we’re all complex bundles of psychological motivations, formed to different degrees by fear and guilt and insecurity. That certainly doesn’t mean that “we’re all a bit mentally ill,” or that being conservative is somehow a bit like being schizophrenic …. But it does mean that we’re all somewhere on the continuum. And that it will always be impossible to determine, in any objective way, where “crazy” political viewpoints stop and viewpoints that are evidence of illness begin.
Burkeman and the Tumblr bloggers are trying to find a way to excuse themselves and others after having had a good laugh at the woman’s expense, but they’re clearly wrong about their central point. It isn’t impossible to determine that the schizophrenic woman is schizophrenic and it is clear that her views are not the same as, say, a conservative pundit or politician.
I agree that a lot of people have said and will continue to say hateful and foolish things about lgbtq individuals. When those people say things that I find to be misguided or odious, I try to point it out. But that isn’t the same as this.
We might dislike the politics of people like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck (or those who make a habit of agreeing with them), but I think we all know that they don’t say things like, ”P-E-N-I-S goes into the anus to rupture intestines. The more a man does this the more he’ll be a fatality or a homicider.” That’s a direct quote from Svoboda’s utterly incomprehensible anti-gay screed.
You see, Rand Paul or Ron Brown know exactly what they’re saying and they believe it. We can and we should hold them accountable for the things they say. But they don’t say the sorts of things that this woman said. And why?
Because they aren’t schizophrenic.
When those who seem to be my political opponents voice sentiments with which I disagree, they are not evincing clear signs of mental illness. I’ll think that I’m obviously right and they’re obviously wrong … but that doesn’t mean they are mentally ill. Even on issues that I think are critically important and patently obvious, perfectly rational people can (and do) disagree. Precisely because they’re perfectly rational, I will try to convince them to change their minds.
When those who seem to be my political opponents speak without pause for five full minutes about the connections between homosexuals, Whitney Houston, the United Nations, Hillary Clinton, and homicide, they’re not voicing their political disagreements with me; they’re evincing clear signs of mental illness.
When we laugh at our political opponents — and we do — we’re attempting to denigrate their views. We’d probably do better to make a strong argument against them, but sometimes we can’t be bothered and sometimes we think we’ll get more bang for our buck by encouraging laughter.
But when we laugh at the mentally ill, it’s not at all clear what we’re trying to accomplish. Rather than then trying to find a way to excuse ourselves by saying that everyone who disagrees with us seems mentally ill, we’d do better to just apologize.