The ‘madness’ of terrorism and other offensive terms


1:40 pm - July 26th 2011

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contribution by Nicky Clark

Without the slightest medical evidence to back up the claims the medical status of the Norwegian killer has been firmly established in all of our minds. He is depending or you choice of national newspaper, rolling news channel or twitter feed either a “Lunatic”, “nutter”, “psychopath”. “madman”, “deranged” or “unhinged”.

For the moment these terms are as wrong as they are offensive. If it transpires that Anders Breivik does in fact have a diagnosis then they will simply be offensive terms.

In the battle to reduce stigma and ignorance of mental health and disability, semantics are everything.

It may seem a small and pointless exercise but actually in terms of sexism, racism, Islamaphobia and homophobia, language and the abuses of it, is recognised as vitally important in reducing bigoted attitudes.

However the preponderance of many to routinely disenfranchise disabled people and those with mental illness, casually and routinely, bears much closer scrutiny.

When the culprit was found not to be as first supposed, the Islamaphobia from some ceased yet the epithets for mental health continued in abundance. There seems only one explanation: he must be a “mad man”.

Kay Burley’s incredulity in interviewing notable Criminologist Professor David Wilson when he made this point on Sky News was palpable. She asked whether he was suggesting that it was ‘normal’ to walk around shooting teenagers? He patiently explained again.

I campaign for disability rights. I do so as a parent of two disabled children. I ask repeatedly that hateful epithets for disability such as ‘retard’ be dropped by people to lazy to think of another word for foolish or embarrassing.

I value my own mental health and I’m constantly vigilant for my family’s. Life lived with a disability means some thing’s come as standard. Bullying and disenfranchisement, abuse and ignorance are metered out to vulnerable people such as my girls routinely. If you are different then for some you are a justifiable target.

The irony is that if you experience mental health problems you are far more likely to be the victim of violent crime than the perpetrator. Far too often you internalise your pain through addiction, self-harm or suicide.

So I’m asking for a small thing, before you use abusive epithets for a widely misunderstood yet widely experienced condition, think again.

In fact, by reducing mental illness to a throw away term, by describing something or someone as “mental” or a “nutter”, or a “psycho”, you are using hate speech; you are promoting a stereotypical view of mental illness in a derogatory way.

Describing a killer as a maniac, is actually far more damaging to millions those living with mental illness, coping daily to get well surrounded by pervasive negative clichés.

In using terms without a thought or recognition of the ignorance it breeds through normalising hate speech, it compounds the stigma, which prevents many getting the help they desperately need.

The innocent survivors of the horrific events in Norway who seek to rebuild their lives, and move on from this unimaginably traumatic experience, may in time face this same stigma too.

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Reader comments


Point taken. Could you please provide 10 different ways you would prefer to describe him, consistent with the enormity of what he has done?

It’s interesting in this article, which I in general agree with btw, that you use the terms “homophobia” and “islamophobia”; both of which are implications that the person who holds certain attitudes is, if not mad, at least “disordered” as we say these days. That is, that they are suffering a mental abnormality.

When you consider the number of modern mental disorders that only a short while ago were just considered personality types- shy, boisterous, nerdy, and so on- it’s worth conisdering how routinely these days we “diagnose” each other.

3. Nicky Clark

Ross you could always call him a killer because that is what he is. Just a thought.

Good article. People have to recognise that rational is a personal value – what one person sees as rational, another sees as totally irrational, because of different thought processes, values and stimuli (this is a very crude version of what I was told as a way of combatting depression…). Mr Breivik appears to be perfectly rational in his own way – it is just a very disturbing way – as his actions and his writings apparently fit together well.

Of course, it is a lot easier to tarnish those we don’t like with ‘insane’, ‘mad’, ‘irrational’ than face up to the much more challenging truth that they are perfectly rational but in a different way – and that our own personal rationality is not the only possible choice.

Look I agree with you, but I’m afraid the world’s media isn’t going to buy that one. Need something stronger that will actually get past the Sun’s sub editors, 3 phrases please. Seriously. Or it just sounds like you’re whinging without offering an alternative

In the battle to reduce stigma and ignorance of mental health and disability, semantics are everything.

In the battle to change minds, semantics is irrelevant.

A word that is offensive is only so because people associate meanings to it. Ban the word, and all you do is cause people to select an alternative word to carry their message.

You have a choice between reacting like a government clamping down on every “legal high” and ending up with a language that is mute, or you can change the underlying opinions and let the words cease to be offensive as their usage no longer carries any negative connotations.

I had a long argument once after I used a term to describe myself that was apparently offensive to people in my situation. I was supposed to be offended by my own language and the fact that I wasn’t was oddly, itself causing offence.

But to me the term was descriptive and carried no negative meanings whatsoever, but other people chose to apply attributes to the language which I had not in any way intended.

That is the problem with too many of the “lets censor the language” brigade – they rarely check with the general public to see if a word is loaded with negative meanings when they say it. Often in my experience it is a generic term that people use without any overtly negative implications – but which other people choose to be offended by.

Who is in the wrong here – the speaker who utters a word without any malice, or the listener who fails to understand that and seeks to attribute meanings where none was intended?

So, please don’t go down the easy route of using a censors pen to slowly erode the English language and start to work on changing the underlying opinions.

Then calling someone a spaz wont be offensive, it will be simply descriptive, just as calling someone deaf is simply a statement of fact, and not an insult.

So ‘maniac’ is off-limits now. Good grief.
Dictionary.com gives the definition thus : –noun
1. a raving or violently insane person; lunatic.
2. any intemperate or overly zealous or enthusiastic person: a maniac when it comes to details.

seems about right to describe the Norwegian killer to me. I honestly can’t see what the author is taking offense at. Brevik is (probably) mad , that’s an observation of Brevik, not a statement about other mad people.

Ross,

Look I agree with you, but I’m afraid the world’s media isn’t going to buy that one. Need something stronger that will actually get past the Sun’s sub editors, 3 phrases please. Seriously. Or it just sounds like you’re whinging without offering an alternative

Not sure why we need adjectives to describe the man – that would be the press determining our perceptions surely, which might be a bit of an issue? Yes, I know they do, but to try and oppose the original point by holding up the example of the Sun is frankly not helping – if we have to make all our points in accordance with the Sun’s sub-editors, we’re to put it mildly, f***ed (I hope that would be acceptable to them…).

The alternative is therefore simple. Don’t try and characterise people, just report their actions.

#2 Ian B

I think most people distinguish between “phobias” like arachnaphobia or claustraphobia, which are “disorders” in a sense, and social/political phenomena like homophobia, etc. I think putting them all in the same category is expecting more etymological “purity” than makes sense.

I’m struggling to find the right words, but for lack of better the medical phobias are about irrational fears, or fears that are hugely exaggerated beyond rationality. However the sociopolitical phobias are not necessarily like this – they may be completely rational when based on certain beliefs (beliefs which I would consider erroneous and harmful, but to a degree still “reasonable”). Also the social phobias aren’t so much about fear as hatred, aversion, disgust and moral opposition. For homophobia (and related words) that’s clear very early in the word’s history (according to the OED its first recorded use is 1969 and they have a quotation from 1975 as follows:

“the public’s widespread disdain toward gays, dubbed homophobia” (from “Citizen” based in Ottowa).

“Disdain” doesn’t sound like part of the disordered phobias you are discussing.

Sorry that was a bit windy.

10. Nicky Clark

Ross I do take your point but use fanatical, driven fascist, extremist terrorist etc why use terminology that is at this point is neither accurate nor true. Reporting demonstrates that he has methodically planned this for several years and made the connections he needed. These actions are despicable cruel cold blooded, most mentally ill people can barely function at times. Not whining- campaigning. Admittedly these are not mutually exclusive, but semantics eh? what you gonna do Nik x

11. douglas clark

Do any of you recall Thomas Hamilton? He was the guy that killed lots of children at a place called Dunblane.

Everyone tried to understand him too.

But, at the end of the day, he was just a bit mad and armed.

There is no understanding to be had of madness.

12. Nicky Clark

hengist The offence is relative but it compounds the stigma from the stereotype. It won’t matter a damn to the killer but it is the use of epithets such as these that do damage to millions of people struggling to get help and stay well. drip drip drip.

Douglas if you click on the link in the blog you will see that there is no higher incidence of violence from those with mental health issues than the wider communities. But as a person with a mental illness you are more likely to be the victim of violent crime.

Ross:

1. Right-wing Extremist
2. Nationalist para-military
3. Violent terrorist
4. Murderous zealot
5. Literalist in a society of hate-driven polemics

Anyone want to add five more?

Douglas Clark:

Your example is actually a very good illustration of the OPs point. The Dunblane killer was, genuinely, mentally unwell and his actions are comparable to the explosive unravelling of certain US postal workers in the 1980s. There was no political agenda that I recall, and no rationale offered for what was basically a spree.

Breivik is rational. And intelligent. And I disagree with him very whole-heartedly but he set out to do what he did for thoroughly examined and coherent reasons. Based on axioms that are just not true, but that’s always been the problem with logic: GIGO. He did what he did for political reasons; his violence is not comparable to a psychotic break, it’s comparable to the kind of thing done by soldiers. They kill for political reasons (orders given them by polilticians). He killed for political reasons; he just had the balls to do it himself rather than ordering others to. He is not mad, he’s a violent political agent; just like Tony Blair or George W. Bush but more honest.

This is what the government want people to think of when they say ‘violent domestic extremist’ but the people they are labelling with that term are explicitly non-violent sustainability campaigners.

Nicky, what is your problem with the word “psychopath”? Psychopathy is not a mental illness.

Psychopathy: a personality disorder characterized by the inability to form human attachment and an abnormal lack of empathy, masked by an ability to appear outwardly normal.

Although that may sound chilling similar, if you say psychopath or even worse ‘psycho’ to most people they immediately think ‘killer’ probably partly because of the pre-PC Hitchcock movie. And so further embed the generalisations about those with mental health issues.

But the original meaning of the word (now no longer in use by health professionals) is striking in its appropriateness to my mind.

Lets just not use it? After all how many of us are actually clinical psychologists with the knowledge to make that diagnosis?

Maniac – A person exhibiting extreme symptoms of wild behavior, esp. when violent and dangerous:

Has someone been sniffing their farts again? Get off your high horse.

@Nicky Clark
A starting point for describing Brevik’s state of mind would be mad or madness.
Your premise is to draw a comparison between that and disabled or mentally ill people – those you campaign for. It strikes me as poor campaigning on your part because a comparison to Brevik doesn’t elicit sympathy.

76 people dead and already people are finding things to be offended about. Really, get a sense of proportion.

19. Nicky Clark

Will the time to raise this issue is now as inconvenient as you might find it.

76 people dead and immediately people with mental health issues bear the brunt of lazy epithets whilst the killers mental health is unknown.

Mentally ill and disabled people are stigmatised and disenfranchised everyday, many like you believe it to be a fuss about nothing but that is your luxury. Lucky you.

20. Nicky Clark

heingist no thats not what I was doing.

21. Shatterface

I can’t help thinking the biggest victim in all this is me.

I’m bipolar II and my hurt at the outrageous slurs on me and my kind dwarf those who have merely lost children.

Oh, purlease.

I’d suggest that simply saying ‘we don’t understand his actions, so he’s mad’ is a bad idea not because it is offensive (most people with mental illnesses do not self-define, and are not defined, as mad), but because it is an easy excuse for not understanding and shielding ourselves from other opinions, however horrible we find them.

Just passing someone off as mad is dismissive. It fails to address the problem – which in this case seems to have been incomplete understanding of the world.

23. douglas clark

John Q Publican @ 13,

Thanks for your comment.

I am really not very sure about this but bare with me.

It seems to me that Thomas Hamilton had a warped and nasty idea of what life was about. It would appear to us to be beyond comprehension. In the sense that we’d – you and I – would prefer to pretend that there was no sense behind it.

At a certain level – anything that is descriptive to most of us – then that is true.

I am not however convinced that people like that don’t have a completely different world view that includes murder as a means of publicising their viewpoint, abhorrent as it is.

To that extent, I think that the likes of Iain Huntley, Hamilton, Shipley et al had an agenda to publicise their viewpoints, much as our latest Oslo killer has.

These people see themselves as predators, keeping us in line.

They are frankly horrible. Partly because they completely bust any sort of Liberal Conspiracy and partly because the lack of morality of these people is as next to evil as makes no difference.

Mentally ill and disabled people are stigmatised and disenfranchised everyday, many like you believe it to be a fuss about nothing but that is your luxury. Lucky you.

So are the mentally sound and able bodied. Whats your point again?

25. Nicky Clark

You seem to be of the opinion that if I ask for accuracy in terminology that if I ask for people not to use abusive terms for mental health that this is the same thing as not caring about the events or the murdered children?

This is not the same thing. Obviously.

disablism stereotyping of those with mental health issues is as unwelcome as sexism homophobia Islamaphobia etc. It’s just not given any credance because making these references is accepted. Just like racism was. Time to change that.

The EDL rep on Newsnight called him a psychopath and a lunatic by your reckoning and calculations does that mean you are the EDL?

26. Nicky Clark

Dave re read my blog if you still don’t understand then I have no more answers I’m afraid but thanks for your comment. It was really illuminating

ma·ni·ac/?m?n??ak/Noun
1. A person exhibiting extreme symptoms of wild behavior, esp. when violent and dangerous: “a homicidal maniac”.

I can see why him being described as “mad” or “mentally ill” might be offensive absent further explanation.

I have no idea why anyone would be offended that Breivik is described as a “maniac” – he detonated a car bomb and murdered nearly a hundred people fgs.

28. Edward Carlsson Browne

All questions of semantics aside, what is the evidence he was mentally disturbed? He planned effectively, he picked a soft but very effective target (half the kids he killed would have been local councillors within ten years and they might have lost a future cabinet minister or two), he was extremely methodical (shooting the fallen just in case they were playing dead) and he surrendered when the police arrived so he could further spread his message.

His acts were horrible, but from his point of view they were rational. He did as much damage as he could and is still trying to get the maximum amount of press he can. He’s well beyond the borders of what could ever be morally acceptable and continuing to accelerate away from them, but that doesn’t mean he’s mad. It means he’s (for want of a better word) evil.

29. Beatrice Bray

@Hengist

Dictionaries vary a lot in scope. When you tried to look up the word “maniac” you chanced on a dictionary which did not include the full range of meanings for that family of words. “Mania”, “maniac” and “manic” all belong to the same group of words. They are all associated with the illness we once knew as manic depression. Today it is known as bipolar disorder. The old name had too many cruel connotations.

Your dictionary site of choice – dictionary.com appears to define the word “maniac” as a term of abuse. Some people choose to understand it in this way but not everyone.

I have experienced episodes of bipolar disorder. None of your terms of abuse apply to me. For me the illness does not carry a stigma. It can be painful. Some people refuse to talk to me because they are scared by the name of my illness but if we met at party you would see me as normal. Maybe your feelings about the word “maniac” are not the right ones for me.

You speak as though mental illness is inexplicable. I do not have a PhD in psychiatry but I have lived with the illness for 26 years. I know its ebbs and flows. If you want to live with an illness you learn to understand it. Either that or you suffer a lot of needless pain. You might even die.

I suspect that you have not had close contact with anyone with a long term mental illness. You have not learned to see the person beyond the illness. I cannot provide you with such a friend but you do know yourself.

Have a think about more ordinary experiences. Why do you sleep at night? What makes you fall in love? Even if you have never studied psychology I am sure that you have an intuitive sense of what it is to be human. Experiences like mania and depression are stranger but I see them as extensions of the normal human condition.

I am an optimist at heart. I believe that one day you will see how silly you have been. Only stupid people use mental health words as terms of abuse. But you are not stupid, are you? I think you are smart.

30. Shatterface

[deleted]

@Ross:

‘Killer’, ‘murderer’, ‘mass murderer’, etc.

We don’t need overly emotive (and inaccurate) terms like ‘lunatic’. Terms like that help noone to understand the situation; they only sensationalise it. Nicky Clark’s got a point.

32. the a&e charge nurse

[28] “All questions of semantics aside, what is the evidence he was mentally disturbed” – although not a psychiatrist it appears Breivik’s lawyer regards him as ‘sinnsyk’
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jul/26/norway-attacks-anders-behring-breivik

I assume by this he means there must be some sort of rift between Breivik’s version of reality and the way the same sort of phenomena is experienced by everybody else?

33. theophrastus

@ 4: ” People have to recognise that rational is a personal value…they are perfectly rational but in a different way – and that our own personal rationality is not the only possible choice.”

Down that road lies the vortex of moral and cultural relativism. Being ‘rational’ involves being able to apply logic and the scientific method to experience – to think critically not only about the world around us but also our beliefs and assumptions. It also involves feeling appropriate emotions conducive to human thriving and to having due regard to the needs of others. Aristotle pointed all this out nearly 2500 years ago.

Spree killers, except perhaps on the battlefield, are by this definition irrational. And spree killers with weird ideological obsessions are even more irrational.

34. the a&e charge nurse

Anyway – what makes anybody think we always have the tools or words to really understand what goes on inside the head of some people?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A15T3cytPs4

35. theophrastus

“Lunatic”, “nutter”, “psychopath”, “madman”, “deranged” , “unhinged” and “maniac”…I think you are being oversensitive. Of these words, I would see only “nutter” as offensive. All of the other terms seem to me quite inoffensive and
largly accurate epithets when applied to a spree killer.

(And, incidentally, members of my family have been treated for serious mental illness, my mother being sectioned.)

36. douglas clark

28. Edward Carlsson Browne

He was entirely sane then? It is kind of obvious that there is a new definition of sane floating around. If you think that killing kids in fairly massive numbers is reasonable as a political statement then it seems reasonable to me that the rest of us see that as insane.

It is pretty obvious that anything can be rationalised, which is how we get into the position that some people, not you, not people that comment here, apologise for him. That Edward is where the insanity begins.

Melanie Philips is right to go on the offensive over being linked to him. She cannot afford to be linked to something that most of us, you, me, Sunny et al, see as disgusting. Her problem is how to cast him adrift from the words whot she wrote, the venom and the propoganda that has characterised her ‘work’ for a long time now. It could ruin her, just as the more lurid stuff brought down the NoW.

Least, that is how it seems to me…..

Of these words, I would see only “nutter” as offensive.

Yes, you can only call American right-wingers “nutters” nowadays without anyone important taking offence, apparently.

Melanie Philips is right to go on the offensive over being linked to him. She cannot afford to be linked to something that most of us, you, me, Sunny et al, see as disgusting. Her problem is how to cast him adrift from the words whot she wrote, the venom and the propoganda that has characterised her ‘work’ for a long time now. It could ruin her, just as the more lurid stuff brought down the NoW.

At least Philips has a chance of defending her reputation. No such luck for Thomas Jefferson or Count Dracula.

39. Shatterface

[deleted]

1. The man is obsessive, paranoid, delusional. He killed 80 odd people with a rationale that makes no sense. I don’t think it’s a huge leap to assume he suffers from some sort of mental illness.

2. Indeed, isn’t it actually a more sympathetic response to think that he must be ill? That there must be a problem that he suffers from? That he isn’t simply and purely evil? After all, if he’s ill he emerges as a victim as well as perpetrator.

3. I agree that describing him in the same terms as would be used for someone living with mental health problems is potentially offensive. However, I’d never describe such a person as a nutter, a loon, a manic, etc.

Shatterface @21

I can’t help thinking the biggest victim in all this is me…
…slurs on me and my kind dwarf those who have merely lost children.

I really cannot understand why you think anyone is saying that. Is it self absorbed to suggest that people use accurate terms when describing a killer?

I mean this pro American, ex squaddie and death metal fan* has killed nearly a hundred people, surely we should not paint other mentally ill people as potential killers?

*if it turns out that he isn’t any of those things, then we can just skip it and move on?

42. Charlieman

The number of people who commit political crimes of this magnitude is thankfully small. Further, those who commit them often take their lives during the process. Gathered from across the world, we have a living sample of mass political killers for psychologists and sociologists to study that would fit in my living room.

In order to describe the extremity of recent acts, the perpetrator is loosely described as a psychopath, sociopath, nutter etc. Those words are commonly used because we can’t comprehend the motives of mass political killers. And without an intellectual or bioscience breakthrough, we (the public and experts in criminology) still won’t know much in 10 years time. There is one extreme case every couple of years, and as we understand them, the perpetrators are very different.

Whilst I sympathise with the OP, Nicky Clark, about the implications of words I think it is fair to describe Breivik’s actions as crazy. If a person suffering from mental illness (previously identified or otherwise) commits a crime or an anti-social act, society and the judicial process have attribution; the individual was mentally ill, and it is unnecessary and entirely unhelpful to describe them as loons. In the case of Breivik we do not know whether he suffers from mental illness, but his actions were lunatic (far beyond the bounds of normally accepted behaviour).

43. Shatterface

‘I really cannot understand why you think anyone is saying that. Is it self absorbed to suggest that people use accurate terms when describing a killer?’

Its self-absorbed to exploit the mass murder of children so close after the event.

44. Shatterface

Its also quite typical of Sunny to delete comments by the one person on this thread quite open about his *own* mental illness – not somebody elses – but allow an endless parade of commentators to be offended on my behalf.

Thats pretty much the definition of infantilising.

All questions of semantics aside, what is the evidence he was mentally disturbed?

Oh, I don’t know… maybe murdering nearly one hundred people?

He planned effectively, he picked a soft but very effective target (half the kids he killed would have been local councillors within ten years and they might have lost a future cabinet minister or two), he was extremely methodical (shooting the fallen just in case they were playing dead) and he surrendered when the police arrived so he could further spread his message.

Nobody said being mentally disturbed meant you’re thick. Surely that’s an insult?

I mean this pro American, ex squaddie and death metal fan* has killed nearly a hundred people, surely we should not paint other mentally ill people as potential killers?

Sunny Hundal: “Sure, but this is what I mean when Jennie says the Libdems welcome unorthodox views – to a certain extent they will! They are a whole bunch of nutcases that occupy the lower rungs of the Labour party too… but they’ll never get anywhere near the top… see?”

Jim: “All over the board the ‘ideas’ gleamed from the average nutcase who joins the Tory Party.”

Surely the mentally ill should not be painted as potential LibDems or Tories?

Oh, and Jim: “The Tea Party have openly courted the hard core of the American ‘survivalist nutcase’ and guess what? A nutcase went into a supermarket and blew away a dozen people in the process of trying to do away of one of the enemies of the Country. Who would have thought that rhetoric DESIGNED to stir up the minds of the paranoid gun-owning fuckwits, ended up stirring up a fuckwit with a gun, eh?”

UkLiberty @45:

This is interesting, because generally I agree with you. Would you argue, then, that every British serviceman is mentally deranged, because they kill for political reasons in an organised and effective way?

That’s what Breivik did. He’s a far-right paramilitary, but there’s no evidence he’s mentally unwell. He just takes seriously what Phillips and company rant about on paper.

48. Beatrice Bray

Diagnosis is not a quick business. I expect that Breivik’s mental health is being watched around the clock but I doubt that the psychiatrists involved have reached firm conclusions.

Prisoners sometimes dissemble. If you want to read an account of one such case read Jon Ronson’s book The Psychopath Test. The common motive for faking mental illness is the desire to avoid prison. Some people think that a secure psychiatric hospital is a softer option.

I know that Breivik’s lawyer has declared him to be insane. He might be right but this kind of statement is best tested in a full criminal trial. I imagine that Breivik’s mental health will be discussed fully in any future court hearings.

Of course a crime like this cries out for comment but perhaps it is best if we live with the uncertainty of not knowing all the answers. In any case this is not our calamity. It is a calamity for the Norwegian people. Perhaps they should be the ones to make the final judgment.

49. Richard W

Exactly correct, John Q. Publican. No army ever sent its soldiers into battle telling them that the enemy were human beings the same as themselves. For Breivik, it was a rational response from his ideological perspective. The problem is not Breivik, it is his ideology. The conclusion that one can draw is for those who are susceptible to propaganda is that propaganda works. He may be mentally ill or he may not be mentally ill, but I don’t think it is a requirement. He only needs to be convinced of the correctness of the propaganda.

50. Charlieman

@47. John Q. Publican: “That’s what Breivik did. He’s a far-right paramilitary, but there’s no evidence he’s mentally unwell. He just takes seriously what Phillips and company rant about on paper.”

That is your bias, JQP. We do not know whether Breivik is mentally ill; he is such an outlier that criminologists and psychologists cannot judge his sanity. He is one nutter (OP’s argument acknowledged) in a global population of what number? Even amongst European political weirdos, he is strange.

If the Daily Ranters are associated with one killer, there is a good argument to investigate the quotes in his manifesto. But the investigation may be pointless. And I’ll buy you a beer for every manifesto quote from Orwell.

John @47,

This is interesting, because generally I agree with you. Would you argue, then, that every British serviceman is mentally deranged, because they kill for political reasons in an organised and effective way?

That’s what Breivik did. He’s a far-right paramilitary, but there’s no evidence he’s mentally unwell. He just takes seriously what Phillips and company rant about on paper.

ISTM that’s a bit like saying a person with poor social skills has full blown autism.

UKL @ 46

Yep, I stand by every one of those quotes, the term ‘nutcase’ is not about mental health and not clinical terms. Was I under the impression that either survivalists or Tories were suffering from mental illness, then I would have been forced to judge them not culpable for their actions. However, I would suggest that the worse Tories are absolutely aware of their actions are completely culpable for what they say and believe.

However, I can understand where the contributor of this piece is coming from and will endeavour to use terms that cannot be misinterpreted as an attack on the mental health of those I describe.

shatterface @ 43

Its self-absorbed to exploit the mass murder of children so close after the event.

Eh? Who is doing that then?

UKL @51:

Er, no, not really. Mental disfunction is, as has been pointed out here, medical. Political extremism isn’t.

Everything from his manifesto (profoundly disturbing as I find it) is coherently reasoned if you accept his axioms. I don’t, but the anti-Jihadist movement not only accept them, they propagated them in the first place.

The planning and execution of his unilateral military action were thorough, rational and extremely effective. This is also true of UK military actions in the warzones. He’s certainly an extremist, a unilateralist, a One-True-Wayist, a zealot, and a terrorist. But I have seen no evidence that his mind is disordered.

The fact that he was prepared to act on hysterical myths about our society which others only write about doesn’t make him mad, it makes him a dedicated man of principle, and extremely wrong. We would rather write him off as insane than confront the idea that if we create, as a society, an environment of extreme rhetoric, eventually someone will take us seriously.

On whether the man behing the recent terror attacks in Norway is “insane”, I found this unrelated clinical discussion of the differences, if any, between “sociopaths” and “psychopaths” illuminating:

Traits that sociopaths and psychopaths share include:
• a disregard for the rights of others
• a failure to feel remorse or guilt
• a disregard for laws and social mores
• a tendency to display violent behavior and emotional outbursts
http://helpingpsychology.com/sociopath-vs-psychopath-whats-the-difference

What comes through is that those so afflicted are not obviously deranged or irrational. Given the motivating premises for their behaviour, the actions that can follow are driven by a remorseless logic unmitigated by any sentimental concerns about the hurt inflicted on victims. Arguably, much of the Nazi hierarchy also exhibited psychopathic tendencies.

56. Edward Carlsson Browne

36 – douglas clark

I don’t know that I’d call him sane. But there is a difference between not knowing the difference between right and wrong and not caring. The one is clear incapacity. The other is a rejection of normal moral and social standards.

He clearly had the latter. Whether he had the former has not been established, but there’s every evidence of capacity in the planning. I would argue we shouldn’t use terms like ‘lunatic’, because they minimise the culpability he willingly bears.

I’m not comfortable with it, because I’m not comfortable with that kind of simple moral judgement, but the only judgemental vocabulary to which he is obviously fitted is that which we use in a moral framework. He’s evil. Whether he’s mad is another question. And whether he’d be mad if you shared the same evil moral preconceptions he has is another question again.

@8 Watchman: The alternative is therefore simple. Don’t try and characterise people, just report their actions.

A newspaper that did this would be a boring read and would go bust shortly thereafter. Therefore what you describe isn’t practical.

Surely “maniac”, “zealot” and “fanatic” all mean essentially the same thing: someone who is excessively enthusiastic about something.

As to Breivik’s state of mind, it’s clear that his cognition and belief systems were very different from those of an typical person, in a way that a typical person might find inexplicable, and his actions in support of his beliefs were not effective at advancing those beliefs[1]. In layman’s terms he’s clearly a nutter (in the sense of how a typical person would use that word), though I very much doubt if he would warrant a clinical description of mentally ill.

1: his actions have caused a good deal of revulsion against him and his ideology. He’d have been more effective if he had expressed hies beliefs using the parliamentary route, perhaps through the Progress Party or Norwegian Patriots. Or if he wanted to be violent, he’d have been more effective if he’d done a false flag operation, killing a load of people and blaming it on Muslim terrorists.

Surely “maniac”, “zealot” and “fanatic” all mean essentially the same thing: someone who is excessively enthusiastic about something.

They mean more or less the same thing, in the same sense that river, lake and ocean all mean bodies of water.

A maniac, in the sense of someone suffering from any mania, carries a different English nuance than a zealot, which is a specific reference to a political party in 1st century Judea and as such is very rarely applied without a religious subtext, and a fanatic == someone who likes Star Trek (‘fan’ == ‘fanatic’). Usually when someone says fanatic it’s qualified with ‘religious’ or ‘environmentalist’ or whatever.

English is as remarkably useful as it is precisely because of nuance and texture, providing a very evocative language that can, with effort, be used very precisely. Suggesting that three words which are vague synonyms are mutually exchangeable diminishes that. And it’s a trick we learned from tabloid sub-editors.

60. Leon Wolfson

I find the people here who think they can do a DSM IV diagnosis from this distance mildly amusing.

The guy’s a zealot and a extremist. Anything else? Let’s wait for the court-appointed mental health expert’s checks.

Leon:

In general, I’ve been agreeing with that. The rush to call him mad based on his actions has ignored the counterbalance of his thought-process, which provides considerable evidence of his rationality and erudition. He’s just taking seriously the rhetoric the Right-wing spout, and acting on it.

With regard to the use of maniac – mania tends towards short-term consequences, this was planned carefully.

I suggest ‘abnormal delusionist” as number 6 on John Q Public’s list @13

The totalitarian nature of Political Correctness can be seen on campuses where “PC” has taken over the college:freedom of speech, of the press, and even of thought are all eliminated. A Breivik

The kind of rubbish you have spouted in the OP was precisely the kind of thing that……drove him bonkers/made him mad/inspired his lunacy/unhinged him.*

*Delete as required

Do you accept no responsibility?

John Q. Publican,

Er, no, not really.

Yes, really – IMO of course. The trouble with your kind of ‘equivalence’ or relativism is that it ignores matters of degree. (You also seem to think ‘irrationality’ or illogic is prerequisite for mental illness, which ISTM is incorrect.)

I imagine the military tries to train ‘the normal’ out of recruits, in a sense, and to an extent, in that most people don’t actually want to harm other people, and we’d prefer that soldiers did in certain situations. We give them ranged weaponry that makes it easier (mentally) for them to harm other people. We also put them in warzones, so it is do or die, self defence, that kind of context. I like to believe they are trained to minimise ‘collateral damage’. What we don’t do is train them to compile 1500 page manifestos, adapting material from the likes of the Unabomber, detonate car bombs in public spaces and deliberately shoot children (outside the context of imminent danger / a warzone, anyway). So no, I would not “argue, then, that every British serviceman is mentally deranged, because they kill for political reasons in an organised and effective way”.

It is correct to say that I am not competent to determine if Breivik has some kind of mental illness or disorder despite him detonating a car bomb and then deliberately shooting 100 defenceless people outside of a warzone, killing most of them, to promote his politics, after compiling a 1500 page manifesto that includes material from the likes of the Unabomber. Then again, I have not claimed Breivik is mentally ill. My claim is that ‘maniac’ – in the sense of what I understand to be its commonly understood meaning, not the meaning understood by, say, psychologists – seems apposite.

It might be worth considering that in some of the dirtier wars of the past century in some parts of the world, the deliberate massacre of children and other non-combatants has been a deliberate tactic planned and carried out by apparently sane people. Breivik’s justification for his action seems to have been logical- firstly to strike terror, secondly to maximise publicity and thirdly to cut off a generation of his enemy at source. It is not apparently the action of somebody who “just wanted to kill young people”.

It might also be worth reflecting that our moral qualms are really quite a recent and unique thing. In most societies for most of history cruelty has been acceptable and even admirable when inflicted upon enemies; it just so happens that we consider it a symptom of mental derangement.

I was amused a while ago reading wikipedia about the Biggles novels, where it said that one of them is now considered racist for depicting the Dayak as “savages”. I then clicked to the article on the Dayak and was greeted with a photograph of a Dayak’s living room, with his display of enemy heads. A person in our society who kills people and saves their heads for home display- in civilian life or wartime- would be considered such a dangerous madman that he would never be released from prison. Is madness relative to the society in which the person lives, or objective?

66. Chaise Guevara

I understand why people get upset by these terms, but what language should we use to describe a policy or person that we consider “insane” in the sense that they appear to be detached from factual reality or rational thought?

Take the word “crazy” for example: it’s used (rather unscientifically) to refer to people with actual mental health problems. But other definitions might include “zany” or “eccentric” in reference to an individual, and “ill-founded” in reference to an idea. Should the first meaning automatically take precedence over the others, with the effect that they are deemed unacceptable? If so, why?

There are some words that describe mental or physical disability that I won’t use in general company as they’ve come to be terms of real abuse – “spastic” and “retard” for example. But I don’t like the idea that any term associated with a demographic group can be broadly labelled as offensive, and its use held up as proof of bigotry.

In one particularly ill-thought-out example of this, I once came across someone who insisted that the word “idiot” is offensive because it once referred to a category of mental disability, despite the fact that the use of “idiot” as an insult is far older and more common.

what language should we use to describe a policy or person that we consider “insane” in the sense that they appear to be detached from factual reality or rational thought?

Socialist? 🙂

68. Leon Wolfson

@66 – The misuse of terms by the public is something which people in the mental health field can be absolutely biting about. And, frankly, with good reason.

I’ve had some (very) basic training in the field, as part of medical training, and I’m careful about the terms I use.

69. Chaise Guevara

@ 68

Sure: “psychopathic” has a much more specific meaning scientifically than it does in general usage, and people generally mean the wrong thing entirely when they say “schizophrenic”. And this can cause problems when the meanings are confused.

But I don’t think that there are strict medical definitions of words like “crazy”. And even if there are, does that mean the medical version is the only correct version? Even in cases like “idiot” where 1) the general use of the term is hundreds of years older than the medical one, 2) most people don’t know that the medical term exists and 3) the medical term is (AFAIK) out of usage now anyway? It seems to me that declaring several meanings of a word null and void requires an authority over the language that nobody can claim.

Heres is an interesting word some people seem unfamiliar with:

Context.

71. Chaise Guevara

@ 70

Complaining about people not being aware of context, while failing to provide any context to your own post (or even say who it’s directed at)?

Interesting. A “physician, heal thyself” moment, I think.

Then kudos to you for figuring out that I was complaining about people not understanding context and that my post was aimed at people not understanding context.

73. Chaise Guevara

Sigh. I wish there was a way to make all the trolls wear badge so we could identify them immediately.

74. Leon Wolfson

@69 – I said they had good reason, and they do. The public use words, which as you note are obsolete, to categorise people.

Stereotyping of mental illness is a huge problem. Heck, seeking mental health help is in itself stigmatised, when the majority of people seen by mental health practitioners are not, and never will be, mentally ill.

Chaise,

Sigh. I wish there was a way to make all the trolls wear badge so we could identify them immediately.

Well, there’s the sally test (do they agree with me? No – they’re a troll)…

Otherwise, not much you can do unless you casually ask people if they live under a bridge and have an issue with goats of the gruff variety.

Giving Breivik a diagnosis of mental illness, be it one that is a correct clinical term, or the slang of the street, implies that he acted with diminished responsibility. In fact, people who commit crimes, and do have a mental illness, are not automatically thought to have diminished responsibility, and generally are punished in accordance with general sentencing procedures.
It is easier for the rest of us to accept that this man acted in some kind of robotic way than accept that humans are capable of such actions by choice.
@65 makes a good point, if we look back at all the atrocities carried-out, there would be a lot of people who would be considered as mentally ill.

Ukliberty @64:

Yes, really – IMO of course. The trouble with your kind of ‘equivalence’ or relativism is that it ignores matters of degree. (You also seem to think ‘irrationality’ or illogic is prerequisite for mental illness, which ISTM is incorrect.)

And ensuing paragraph.

I understand the argument you’re making. But afaict it rests on an unexamined assumption, which is that sane people do not do atrocious things. History is full of examples of sane people doing hideously atrocious things. They do them in the name of religion, they do them in the name of politics, of greed, or simply of a perceived sense of wronged honour which drives them to vengeance. Sometimes, out of actual vengeance. In times past such atrocious behaviour was often accepted without much comment, due to the past having a different moral code from the one our particularly unusual current civilisation claims.

For an accusation of madness, I’d need to see some evidence of madness, not merely an act that is beyond a current moral pale.

However:

Then again, I have not claimed Breivik is mentally ill. My claim is that ‘maniac’ – in the sense of what I understand to be its commonly understood meaning, not the meaning understood by, say, psychologists – seems apposite.

Point taken, you meant mania in the sense of obsessive and monofocussed behaviour, which seems entirely accurate. I thought I was seeing evidence of the combination of woolly thinking with an assumption of modern superiority over the past which seems to be driving most of the accusations of insanity. I appear to have been wrong, which is a relief.

78. Chaise Guevara

@ Leon Wolfson

I agree as far as people misunderstanding mental illnesses goes. And obviously that’s exacerbated by casual use of some specific terms for mental illness. “Psycho” is a good example – it’s scientifically meaningless as a term to describe people, but people hear “psychopath” or “psychotic” and think it means “serial murderer”.

However, there’s a point past which common usage has to win. I don’t think the fact that we use words like “crazy” and “insane” casually is a problem. You get scenarios where someone says “this policy is insane”, only to be accused of bigotry against the mentally ill… in that kind of setting, I think the accuser is trying to use linguistic traps to misrepresent their opponent and bully them into silence.

79. Chaise Guevara

@ 75 Watchman

I’m pretty sure that, under sally’s rules, the world is divided into “people who are trolls” and “people who are sally”. And obviously all trolls are brownshirt fascist tory rapists etc etc…

Agreed @ John Q Publican @77, except

Point taken, you meant mania in the sense of obsessive and monofocussed behaviour, which seems entirely accurate

No, I meant “maniac” in what I think is its colloquial sense, e.g. someone who goes on a one-day murder spree.

81. Leon Wolfson

@78 – Yes, but here we /are/ discussing someone’s mental health, no?

Use of those terms in other situations doesn’t bother me.

82. Charlieman

Returning to the origins of this thread, it is unlikely that criminologists can ever determine whether Breivik is clinically insane, or bonkers (but rational) in common parlance. His custody is welcome; it is deeply unpleasant for investigators to encounter individuals such as Breivik, but science will learn a lot from it.

On reflection, I think that the acts of David Copeland can be compared to those of Breivik. Copeland wanted mass death and caused mass injury and murdered fewer than he desired to kill. Like Breivik, there is no indication that Copeland had intention to kill himself. Can anyone familiar with the Copeland story comment on whether he sought martyrdom by trial?

By my count, criminologists have two living mass political killers to study. Timothy McVeigh was killed following USA “judicial process”. Perhaps, just perhaps, Michael Stone might fit mass political killer status by ambition.

These killers are random and we, experts and laypeople, don’t have a clue about what triggers them.

83. Chaise Guevara

@ 81 Leon

“Yes, but here we /are/ discussing someone’s mental health, no?

Use of those terms in other situations doesn’t bother me.”

Ah – we’re at cross purposes, I reckon. I agree that sloppy definitions of mental disorders are problematic, and conflating them with other behaviours is worse. I was talking about the article’s attack on using words like these in any circumstance. See this from the OP:

“In fact, by reducing mental illness to a throw away term, by describing something or someone as “mental” or a “nutter”, or a “psycho”, you are using hate speech; you are promoting a stereotypical view of mental illness in a derogatory way.”

That’s what I object to. I agree that all forms of mental illness shouldn’t be tarred with the same brush (although IMO it’s still a step up from saying “he did it cos he’s evil”). I just also think that people shouldn’t be painted as bigots just because they use words like “insane” in everyday conversation.

83
The problem is that ‘evil’ is associated with mental illness, it appears to be part of our culture from the time when schizophrenia was considered to be a possession by the devil. Now, each time we have violent incidents on a large scale, the first line of explanation is ‘madness’.

85. Chaise Guevara

@ 84 Jojo

I suspect people just like to find uncomplicated explanations for horrible events. It’s easier and less frightening to say a terrorist is “evil” or “insane” than to examine what could make an otherwise ordinary person become a multiple murderer. It also helps cement the “us and them” dichotomy that everyone carries around in their head. I’m sure you noticed after 9/11 that even discussing what could have lead the bombers to do what they did was often enough to get you accused of “sympathising with the enemy” – the correct response was apparently to pretend that they were cartoon villians.

I get less annoyed with kneejerk invocations of madness than I do with kneejerk invocations of evil, simply because the former is a little less stupid. Thinking about it, however, the latter probably has more real-world implications in terms of encouraging people to demonise the mentally ill.

Insightful post CG.

87. Chaise Guevara

@ Jojo

Why, thank you!


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
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