Is it just me, or is everyone going crazy?
I’ve often entertained myself by thinking of the chaos that could be brought upon mankind if mental illnesses were, like physical ones, contagious . Imagine, a man who goes to bed one night with a slight headache and a runny nose, wakes up the next morning in a psychotic hallucination, covered in a mixture of his own sweat and the blood of strangers, charging up and down the high street, head thrown back, laughing maniacally, waving a chainsaw. As the psychosis virus infects more and more of the population, the uninfected are forced underground, moving stealthily through the post apocalyptic wilderness. Essentially it’s replacing zombies with mental illness. Today zombies are more politically correct, society is more comfortable with the idea of your dead relatives trying to kill you than your mentally ill living ones. Although that hasn’t stopped Hollywood producing many movies exploiting mental illness for the sake of box office revenue: The Silence of the Lambs, Black Swan, American Psycho, Shutter Island, Secret Window, and Misery, to name but a few.
Still I’m left wondering, what if mental illnesses were contagious?
We can all relate to sitting in a doctor’s surgery, waiting our turn. I suspect fewer of us would admit knowing what it’s like to wait for an appointment to see the psychiatrist. From personal experience I can say that initially both waiting rooms look very similar, there’s more people talking in the waiting room at the psychiatrist, random people break out into erratic and impassioned conversations with people that don’t exist. In essence, performing convincing monologues with greater conviction than even the most accomplished Shakespearean actor could dream of. Meanwhile, at the doctor’s surgery there are only whispered, fragmented conversations, punctuated by nasal ejaculations, snuffles, and of course an abundance of coughing and throat clearing. In short you can enter a doctor’s surgery with a mild case of hemorrhoids, but leave incubating a new, exotic virus, or disease. The patients waiting at the psychiatrist’s are unable to play the game of pass the psychotic/neurotic parcel, because thankfully, psychiatric conditions aren’t contagious. Are they?
Are Mental Illnesses Contagious?
In his book “The Quantity Theory of Insanity“, British author, Will Self, tells a story that proposes the idea that within any given population, at any given time, the level of insanity is a constant. You might think that contradicts what I just said about people getting crazier, let me explain. The state of being mentally ill is tacitly defined through a person’s conformity to the social norms of their society, and diagnosis can only be achieved through the observation of a person’s behaviour. Take the picture below:
The majority of cultures around the world would regard a person displaying this behaviour as being mentally unwell. However, when performed in Phuket, Thailand, on the eve of the ninth lunar month, such a person becomes the life and soul of the party. His actions display his devotion to the nine emperor gods and his commitment not to eat meat throughout the ninth lunar month. Perhaps I’ was just fortunate to have grown up in a society that didn’t feel it necessary to measure my determination to achieve something by the amount of sharp metal I was willing to stick through my face.
Most of us would think of cannibalism as the ultimate, universal taboo, well not if you’re from the Yanomami tribe. The Yanomami are horrified by the idea of burying their dead, they believe that eating the dead ensures that the spirit goes on living in those who have consumed them, especially in those who helped themselves to seconds. With a population at any one time of over thirty thousand, it’s reasonable to assume that the Yanomami have a steady supply of protein.
There are scores of examples of behaviour from around the world where what is normal in one area, would be considered quite insane in another. QED, insanity is a classification largely determined by the context of society. Unlike physical ailments, a broken arm is a broken arm, whether you’re an Inuit living in Greenland, or a member of the Tuareg traipsing around the Sahara. Likewise cancer is cancer irrespective of what culture you’re from, religion you might practise, or language you speak. Mental illness however isn’t a constant, rather it is determined through the context of social norms.
Let’s reconsider our chainsaw wielding psychotic. Place him on the high street covered in other peoples blood, and he’s regarded a lunatic, who must be locked away for the safety of the society. Put him on a battlefield in a foreign country, wearing army fatigues covered in other people’s blood, and he comes home a hero and gets a medal, probably going on to appear on a variety of day time television shows.
Generally any behaviour, or cognitive deficiency that falls outside of societal norms will be classified a mental illness. The problem is that after removing the person least conforming to the norm, inevitably leads to another person replacing them, taking on the mantle of now being the group’s “craziest” member. This is a phenomenon that I have first hand experience of.
Having worked in classrooms for over fifteen years I have seen this dynamic conformed to without exception. Every class has its clown, or trouble maker, and some days the teacher is lucky because they will be sick and not come to school. The teacher naturally believes, that with the instigator of most of the classroom trouble away, they’re in for an easier day. WRONG! Because what happens is the role of classroom clown simply gets passed on to someone else. It’s like there’s been an understudy who’s almost equally as proficient, waiting in the wings for their opportunity. It’s like they’ve been the understudy waiting for the role the whole time. Every group dynamic requires roles to be fulfilled, the classroom being no different. Remove the “crazy” person from society and the title simply gets passed on to the next, least conforming, “craziest” person that remains. Just like Self implies, the quantity of sanity is static, but dynamic on account of it being passed from one person to another. The role of classroom joker can’t be removed, only transferred to someone else.
This suggests that society plays a significant part in determining the our role within it. This also implies that society influences our behaviour, and asks the question, how free is free will?
Unless an individual has a particularly strong character, the rigidness of societal norms often forces its members to conform, whether consciously or not, and regardless of whether conformity has negative implications. Indeed, any negative implications are disregarded because they fall outside of those defined by the society’s norms. And that’s how it becomes acceptable for a group of people to eat the dead in South America, for people to practice self mutilation on the streets of Thailand, and how a nation of people can be convinced into pursuing genocide. The desire to conform to others’ expectations, particularly if their expectations are regarded by the majority as being unquestionably right, can lead to a strong urge for conformity, irrespective of what the consequences of conformity might be.
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
This six minute video is an example of how our desire to fit in overrides common sense. The participants may only be standing up or sitting down, but the compulsion to follow others is clear enough for us to ask the question, what lengths will people go to, to fit in?
Group dynamics and environmental factors are immensely powerful determinants of behaviour. The Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted psychologist, Philip Zimbardo in 1971, to this day it remains one of psychology’s most infamous and divisive pieces of research. Initially scheduled to last fourteen days, the experiment was abandoned after only six. Zimbardo wanted to simulate prison conditions using participants arbitrarily assigned the roles of prisoner or guard. Zimbardo expected to see some degree of participants conforming to their roles, but what unprepared for the complete collapse of basic human behaviour. Despite the experiment rapidly spiraling out of control Zimbardo failed to notice and act accordingly. It wasn’t until someone, not involved in the experiment, witnessed what was happening and told Zimbardo to abandon the research immediately. All the participants had embodied their roles far quicker, and more completely than Zimbardo had anticipated. Perhaps even more worrying is that Zimbardo himself admits to playing a role within the experiment, that of prison warden, and losing all impartial objectivity. The environment and the circumstances of the experiment overpowered everyone’s objectivity. The prisoners, despite having done nothing wrong, assumed their roles as prisoners and accepted the guards authority. The guards were quickly corrupted and showed the most disturbing behaviour. They devised degrading, non-physical means of punishment, much of it in elaborate, creative, disturbing ways. The Stanford prison experiment has received enormous criticism, ranging from its ethics to its results. I believe that there are reasons to believe that there is some truth in what Zimbardo discovered. One of the most compelling reasons was demonstrated by American reservists at the Abu Ghraib prison, Iraq.
What happens when you ask inexperienced, untrained people to do a stressful job in dangerous conditions, in a foreign environment, supported by no clear chain of command?
The events that took place during August and September, 2003 at the prison complex at Abu Grahib is one the more shameful stories to have come out of American involvement in Iraq. The American Army, desperate for intelligence on the whereabouts of Iraqi weapons that were falling into the hands of Iraqi citizens determined to resist the American invasion. The Abu Grahib detention centre was put under the control of American reservists, with no experience of working in prisons or detaining people, they received no training that might in any way have prepared them for being given such a task. Like the Stanford Prison Experiment, things got out of hand quickly.
In a Lord of the Flies type of scenario, untrained, inexperienced guards, with no chain of command taking responsibility, established a societal norm of barbarity and humiliation. When interviewed today, each of the participants confesses to knowing what they were doing was “stupid”. Their need for conformity was greater than their need to uphold moral integrity, but then isn’t this an essential requirement of any soldier in combat?
History provides us with too many examples of what happens when environmental circumstances, the need for conformity, and a morally bankrupt ideology conspire to lead a large group of people to behave in uncharacteristically cruel, barbaric ways.
Perhaps the most striking example of the evil that can occur when people are motivated to conform to a society with corrupted norms id the Nazis. And within the Nazis the case of Adolf Eichmann stands out. Eichmann, was responsible for overseeing the logistics of the holocaust. Eichmann was responsible for the efficiency of a process that led to the deaths of over six million Jews, as well as many more Romani Gypsies, gay people, the mentally ill and priests.
After the war Eichmann fled to Argentina and was in hiding there until Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, captured him and took him back to Israel to stand trial for war crimes. From a combination of Eichmann’s court testimony and historical documents, Hannah Arendt concluded that Eichmann wasn’t a monster, or a sociopath. In fact Eichmann appeared mundanely normal. Eichmann recounted how he was responsible for arranging the transportation of Jews to the death-camps. He saw it as a logistical, theoretical task that he wished to make as efficient as possible. During his trial, Eichmann chillingly stated on several occasions, “I was just doing my job”. In short, Eichmann was conforming with the abhorent societal norms of a society that respected abhorrent behaviour. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
Whether madness, evil, or just bad behaviour, none of these are values set in stone. Instead our interpretation of these they are dynamic, subject to being defined by our society’s changing morality. Was Nazism an epidemic of madness and evil? It’s not unreasonable how it might be viewed this way. Humans are social creatures with a predisposition to fit in with others, throughout our evolution conformity has been necessary for survival. What society expects of us has a great bearing on how we act. As the saying goes “evil will prevail when good men do nothing”, but understanding what is evil and what is good, in a society that is changing rapidly, is far from easy, but must never be used as an excuse to forget our fundamental responsibilities as humans.
Next time I will continue from here and look at memes, mind viruses, and why bad ideas spread quicker than good ones:
Memes Religion and Nazis