Sunday, March 8, 2015

Virtual Politics

Life is not a video game

As you may have read, a student government group at the University of California, Irvine, voted to ban the American flag from being displayed in the lobby of the student government office, and then a higher-raking student government group vetoed the ban. Personally I have no problem with the American flag being displayed. As long as there are nation-states (and they do not seem to be going anywhere) there will be flags and other symbols that connote nationalism. That’s humanity, that’s the world.

Also, since this is a state university, at least much of its funding is coming from that big bad government some students hate so much. And if the school is making a profit, the tuition money these students pay goes right back to the same government. Just like taxpayers pay for many policies and salaries they may personally wish would go away. Perhaps as these anti-flag students get older, they will realize these kinds of connections that zealous young people often miss.

Yet I bring up this incident not to take sides but rather to take no side. Because what bothers me more than whether someone is pro- or anti-U.S. policy is the increasingly trivial way they go about expressing it. Yes, there are many injustices in our history up to this present moment. But in my opinion taking away a flag from a lobby is the wimpiest of symbolic gestures. In concrete terms, it changes nothing that these anti-flag people wish to change.

Part of my training as a college professor in the social sciences was learning the importance of symbolic acts. But increasingly I get the impression that the younger generation in particular thinks that symbolic gestures are more than what they are. Getting rid of a flag in a lobby is seen as interchangeable with accomplishing something of merit to make the U.S. or the world a better place.

It isn’t just about the flag, either. I have no problem with refraining from using certain words that offend a group of people. It costs me nothing not to use these words. But again, I think that some (not all, but some) words one is not supposed to ever use is like some collective form of obsessive compulsive disorder. Some folks may not know this, but if you want to be up to date you never call, say, a female teenager a girl. She is a young woman. In fact, “male” and “female” should not be used, and a woman should never be called a “lady.” I understand the ideology behind these sorts of things, having first been exposed to it many moons ago when I was a teenager myself—and yes, in California. But when we’re done busting people for referring to members of a particular gender by this word and not that word, has anything been accomplished? Are we living our lives with mutual regard for other people? Are we making personal choices that reflect self-respect or self-loathing?

There has been concern expressed for the current generation of young people. Some older folks worry that kids anymore spend too much time in virtual reality via the Internet, video games, smart phones, texting, and so forth. I am on the Internet a lot myself, and I believe the good it offers outweighs the bad. But I wonder if some people (mostly young but not always) have come to believe that virtual activism—don’t say this, don’t think that, don’t display this other thing—is the same thing as actual, lived activism. Who are you giving your money and time to? Do you dialogue only with people who agree with you? Do you have a sense of history? That change takes time and is often difficult and requires patience? That fighting for freedom comes at a cost, up to and including people losing their lives? That you may have to deal with unpleasantness from people who disagree with you?  You may even, yes, be called a name. 

I recently read a critique of a book written thirty or more years ago. The young critic was quite smug in noting that the book did not mention certain terminologies or concepts that had not yet been coined. But obviously this young person had no sense of history or perspective—and perhaps no interest in correcting this. I once heard a student say he did not vote because the only thing he cared about was being able to afford college. Hello, anyone home?

While some people obsess over their mental masturbation, literally billions of others are starving to death or dying of incurable diseases. Last time I checked, people keep killing each other, too. Sometimes they are gunned down in their youth, or left to rot in prisons for expressing an opinion. But I guess that’s too icky and gross to talk about. Let’s stick to what’s safe and abstract.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Insanity of Insanity

No wonder there are so many law books

The verdict in the Chris Kyle/Chad Littlefield murders did not surprise me, and I feel no sympathy for the perpetrator, Eddie Ray Routh. Murdering people trying to help you and shooting your unaware victims in the back are among the least likely behaviors to win public favor. Chris Kyle of course was a hero in the minds of millions. (He lives on in people’s minds as a tragic hero or as someone whose karma caught up with him, depending on your point of view. I’m not here to get into all of that.)

If I understand correctly, Routh lied about the war traumas he witnessed. Before he shot and killed his friends, he already claimed to have PTSD, though his actual service record casts doubt on this. Among other things, Routh apparently wanted to have PTSD, just as he apparently wished he could have participated in more bloodshed while in the service. And for no apparent reason, he shot two friends in the back. I do not have a problem with him being found guilty. But I have long been intrigued by how, in a legal context, we define sanity vs. insanity. Having described Routh thus far, how sane does he sound to you?

As has been pointed out by sources far wiser than me, we often call someone “crazy” when we can’t think of any other reason for why the person did what she/he did. And when crazy doesn’t work, we shrug and say the person then must be “evil,” because what other explanation can there be? If you’re a fancy talker, you may say the person is a “psychopath” or “sociopath,” though neither terminology is listed in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible of psychiatry in the U.S. However, there is something called Antisocial Personality Disorder that includes in its list of symptoms a lack of remorse for one’s actions. 

The DSM does not fall from the sky. In the final analysis, it is a book composed and periodically updated by a group of people who, one may assume, go through the same haggles any group of people go through when trying to write something together. Word choices and definitions change from one edition to the next. But in any case, the DSM does not contain a definition for simple insanity vs. sanity. 

According to expert testimony, Routh was sane at the time he shot his friends in the back for no reason. So why did he do it? Because he’s “evil,” which according to the dictionary means things like “morally bad, harmful, causing misfortune, malicious and devilish.” Well, if he’s morally bad, how is it assumed he knew right from wrong, since his worldview is off to begin with? How is causing harm and misfortune for no reason a mark of sanity? The only reason for malice existed in his mind. And if the devil made him do it, then maybe he needs an exorcism?

I am not trying to be flippant over a serious crime that has caused friends and family of the victims immeasurable grief. Frankly, this murder case, like so many others, seems inexplicable to me. The only thing that comes to mind about Routh is that he must have had some mighty deep hangups about being a man. But then, so do other people who do not murder anyone. 

However, I am saying that our legal system seems odd (to use a polite word) when I stop to think about it. In a legal context, you can be sane while you do all sorts of heinous things. Sanity does not require sound moral judgment. The most horrific and torturous murders are committed by people deemed legally sane. 

I am not saying these people should not be held accountable for their actions, or that murderers should all just be declared insane. Still, how can someone possibly be sane if these are the things they do? And, extending the argument, we are saying that a sane person may intentionally choose to commit evil. In the dictionary, “sanity” means “a state of good mental balance, good sense.”  Think of some awful murder you read about, and then think if the perpetrator of it possessed “good mental balance.”

In a legal context, insanity is a mental illness so severe that one cannot discern fantasy from reality, and is dominated by psychosis or uncontrollable impulse. I am not a psychiatrist, but it seems to me that most murders could be explained in ways that fit these criteria (though only about one per cent of murder cases pursue the insanity plea). You may ask: what about hit men or people who murder their spouse for money? Well, are these people mentally fit? Do they not have issues with reality and impulse? 

Some say that in the final analysis, sanity is only a matter of being able to conform to society’s dictates. John Doe stabbed his victim over one hundred times, but when disposing of the body he obeyed the traffic lights, so he was and is sane. 

Many people think the insanity defence is a new, liberal invention, but it dates back to ancient times. And contrary to what often is assumed, the expert witness cannot decide the defendant’s legal responsibility, or whether the person is wholly insane. The scope is limited to the action in question, and in legal terms the opinions of doctors are just that—mere opinions that can be disregarded by the jury. And if found not guilty by reason of insanity or guilty but insane, the person likely is committed to a mental facility for life. If prisons are not nice places, neither are state mental hospitals. 

Also, a defendant cannot be forced to plead insanity. There have been instances in which defendants find the label of insanity more of a burden than receiving a life sentence or the death penalty. But while expert testimony may be permitted, the psychiatrist’s conceptualization of mental illness need not match the legal context.  Which seems to me problematic. 

The parameters of this defence, and the burden of proof required, varies across states, and some states do not permit the insanity defence it at all. (Though diminished capacity may still be allowed.) But those that do usually put the burden of proof for insanity on the defence. Things like mere temporary insanity, diminished capacity, intoxication, ability to control impulse at the time of the action, may or may not apply in a given state. But the Supreme Court has ruled that when the death penalty is on the table, jurors must consider diminished capacity and responsibility and the time of the incident. So I guess you can be sane enough to commit murder but at the same time have committed it with diminished capacity. And whatever is decided, the judge bangs the gavel and officially anyway justice has been served. 

I know it’s always easier to criticize than to offer solutions. But, speaking as a fellow shmuck, it seems to me that our approach to the insanity plea is neither fish nor fowl. And its moral implications—or should I say lack of moral implications?—are troubling. In legal terms, the possession of what is called sanity does not account for much as to who you are as a person, and can even work against you. All that obedient behaviour was your worst mistake.