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EXPLAINING BLACKSBURG
Sunday, April 24, 2007

Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday,
April 22, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” and excerpts from
“The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on PBS.

Salit: On “The Chris Matthews Show,” the panelists put forward four basic comments about or explanations for the Blacksburg, Virginia shootings. One was that there was insufficient “parenting” by the university, insufficient supervision of the young man. Two, that he had access to firearms without a sufficient background check. Third, David Brooks observed the existential absurdity of the situation, that there was little or nothing that could be done to prevent this and it is simply a characteristic of human existence. The fourth was that what was primarily operative here was the extreme alienation and anger of the young man, who felt that everyone around him was succeeding in fitting in and making their way in life and that he wasn’t. Let me begin by asking you what your reactions are to these four different explanations, and to what happened there.

Newman: I’m not sure I know what my reactions are. I know what some of my views are. Our reactions are, at least as far as I see, multiple and self-contradictory. We all probably have a whole set of emotions, whatever emotions are. Not to be unduly philosophical, but I was struck by the fact that while those four categories of explanations are raised, the whole concept of “explanation” is not raised. What makes those categories – each of them, or all of them taken together – explanatory? Are our standard notions of explanation applicable to where the world is at now, in Blacksburg and everywhere else? At a minimum, those meta-questions should be included in what’s being examined now. Frankly, I have little confidence in what the studies are going to come up with because they’re fundamentally limited in what they’re willing to explore, even though the people conducting the studies all claim otherwise. Amongst other things, they’re not going to explore how we explore. They’re not going to explore how we explain. And there are a whole host of other issues that the various task forces appointed to study the Blacksburg events are not able or willing to touch. They go in with a set of assumptions, for example, about mental illness which I think are highly questionable, if not straight-out mistaken. And, there are contradictions within their system of understanding. For example, on the one hand, they want to protect the rights of people, including the rights of people who are mentally ill. On the other hand, they want to protect society. That dichotomy is the accepted framing. But, I don’t know that that’s the way to think about it at all. They talk about how many people are mentally ill, and then they introduce the notion of “severely mentally ill.” But “severely mentally ill” is only introduced, functionally speaking, after the fact. Then, the notion that mental illness, somehow or another, precludes moral responsibility is accepted and then, rejected. It’s pragmatic criteria that we’re using. We use whatever we have to use in order to account for such and such. This system of thought – the premises of psychology and psychiatry, in particular – as a framework for accounting for these kinds of things is, by and large, dysfunctional. But I don’t think that that’s going to be explored. I don’t think that I’m going to be called as a witness, though I’ve spoken and written extensively on these matters. But I’m not the right person to call, from their point of view. Many views are not included in what we examine when we try to explore these issues.

Salit: One specific issue that you raised is this question of whether a mentally ill person can be held morally responsible for their actions. On the one hand, they say they can’t be. In effect, they are putting that forward as the definition of mental illness, that you don’t have a moral compass. You can’t tell reality from non-reality. And you also point out that, in other things that are said, that premise is contradicted. How do you view the issue of mental illness and moral responsibility?

Newman: What I lean towards is the position that mental illness (whatever it turns out to be), has little or nothing to do with moral responsibility, in other words, that people are morally responsible for their actions, no matter what their mental state. But that, in turn, has to be considered in the context of considering who is responsible for certain individual acts. What’s meant by “moral responsibility” within a society which is not, some might say, indeed, I might say (in some contexts) morally responsible. People want to single out mental illness as somehow causative of certain horrendous crimes, but are not willing to consider whether governments which murder countless numbers of people in warfare are mentally ill, or whether the scientists and arms manufacturers responsible for creating weapons of mass destruction are mentally ill, and whether any of that is indicative of a society being mentally ill. If the society is being self-destructive, is that an example of mental illness and, if it is an example of mental illness, then what’s the impact of that on the people who are identified as mentally ill? It’s a huge societal issue. But the whole notion of mental illness, and the history of mental illness in this century, is an effort to account for something by introducing certain conceptions as a way of avoiding larger social questions. And then science is used to back that up, as if everybody who had a brain virus at birth is going to go out and shoot 32 people in Blacksburg. Well, there are probably hundreds of people within that community itself who have similar brain cell patterns. Does everybody who has them do these kinds of things? No, of course not. But, nonetheless, that’s counted as explanatory. I don’t think it explains the kinds of things that have happened in our society. We want to have explanations. But we’re limited in our culture, and so are others in their cultures, to exploring what we consider to be explorable.

Salit: You commented earlier on the dichotomy that is introduced to try to engage the “larger questions,” namely the dichotomy between privacy and security, or individual rights versus the responsibility of the society. You’ve said that you think that framework is limited, insofar as you raised the issue of how we understand explanation and what’s explanatory. Are there particular things about that dichotomy that you think are, not just limited, but unhelpful in looking at this?

Newman: I think we’re at a serious impasse. Now, the world’s been at impasses before and new things have been created, different things have happened and it’s gotten us through those impasses. Science is one of those things. Religion is another. And there are some people – I include myself amongst them – who think that there has to be a more thorough understanding of the limits of modernism in favor of something which is, for lack of a better word, post-modernism. But, that’s not true of most of the world and certainly not true of most of the world leaders. And so, as a society, we’re looking to discover what’s wrong without examining the whole complex of how we approach things. Is that going to yield helpful answers? I’m afraid not. I think it’s going to yield more and more studies without providing any answers.

Salit: As a mental health person, as a psychotherapist, how do you react to the stories of all of the so-called “red flags” that were being raised about this young man, by faculty, by fellow students, by the courts? He was diagnosed as having severe mental and emotional problems, but this never resulted in his removal from campus. One could also say that it didn’t result in any kind of treatment that was helpful to him. How do you react to hearing those kinds of stories of one alarm after another being raised about this person and yet there seeming to be no ability to respond to that?

Newman: I don’t think that the studies should focus on this young man. Obviously, he was unhappy. But he could have been unhappy and never bought a gun. I think the studies should focus on the totality, including the society of Blacksburg, the society of the college campus, and go up from there, to the study of the whole culture, the whole society. As a psychotherapist, I see a lot of people in what some would call a “mental health facility.” I don’t call it that. I don’t see any reason to give it a label of that kind. What we work on, if you will, what we try to engage is much closer to the question “what’s wrong with us?” rather than “what’s wrong with him or her?” I think it’s a helpful approach. I don’t think it’s the answer. I don’t know if there is an answer. I think it is helpful to de-personalize. But that’s a critical part of our post-Enlightenment culture.

Salit: Personalization is.

Newman: Yes. And much good has come of it, in terms of personal freedoms, etc. But those are all individuating views of the world. A more social view of the world treats these things, even before they happen, as our collective problem, as something that we have to engage. And, by and large, there’s not a whole lot of interest in engaging it, in some serious and thorough way. If we’re going to have guns, if we’re going to have warfare, if we’re going to have all these different things that are central parts of our culture, then why wouldn’t it simply be assumed that we will have killings of several dozen people in some places and, at this moment, it’s called Blacksburg, Virginia? Why are we so incredulous about that? Why is the culture, at least as reflected on the television shows, so incredulous? Why wouldn’t we simply accept it in the same way that we accept severe thunderstorms? Yes, I think it’s tragic that all these young people were killed. But is it surprising? I’m not sure it’s surprising. What’s surprising about it? That doesn’t mean it’s right. No, it’s wrong. But surprising? No. My work in this field would suggest that treating it as surprising, whether it’s on a large scale like what happened in Blacksburg or whether it’s with a family where someone is doing something weird, in my experience, is contributory to the problem. It makes people more mentally ill, it allows people to not engage seriously the question of their moral responsibility. So, I think these are very important questions. Is there anything resembling a context, here on this earth, for dealing with them? I’m not so sure there is.

Salit: One final question. In talking about the gun issue, PBS’ Mark Shields said of America ‘Are we a pitiable, helpless giant because we can’t, as a society, muster the will to regulate the proliferation of firearms?’

Newman: All giants are pitiable and helpless. That’s why they’re such popular characters in universal fiction. The consequences of what we do – and this is exactly what appears in the Bible – derive from what we do. So, I think there has to be a serious reconsideration, not of the consequences of what we do, but of what we do. Serious consideration of that. But who’s going to do that? I don’t think the powers-that-be are interested in doing that because, to some extent, the way they became powerful was to do the things that they’re doing. So, who is going to consider the issue of abandoning all of that? Beats me.

Salit: Thanks, Fred.