Barbara Boxer

Stop Using the Mentally Ill to Advance Your Ideology

Fear of a small group of unpredictable people is used to attack political opponents.


No, that's not a dress.

Robert Lewis Dear, the man who shot up a Planned Parenthood in facility in Colorado, killing three, is most certainly likely to be mentally ill in some capacity. He may or may not be legally ruled mentally ill by the courts. Nevertheless, even assuming Dear's violent actions are actually based on objections to either abortion or the use of fetal tissue in scientific research (or both), Dear's behavior is not based on a rational mind mulling over how he might stop  these activities he detests. Dear's attack will not likely result in fewer abortions, nor should it ever be the reason for a drop.

Socially, Americans and American media have developed a pattern in responding to these sudden incidences of mass violence. It starts with the initial hunger for any and all information, often absent of much concern about its accuracy. Give us all of it, and we'll sort it out as we go. But even from the very start, we're not just looking for information about the incident. We're looking for who is responsible for the violence. No, not the actual shooters. Who else is responsible? Speculation begins immediately about the shooter's political affiliation, as though this is any way relevant. Dear's voter registration has him listed as a female! Does this mean he's transgendered? Is this the transgendered movement's fault? No, it turned out to be a data entry error, and even if he did identify as transgendered, the answer would still obviously be no, the transgender movement was not responsible for his actions. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) got into some hot water for speculating about this odd little detail, though really he was trying to point out that it was awfully early to be speculating about Dear's motives.

The problem, though, is that Dear's motives may matter to the courts and to the law, but why is this a matter for presidential candidates, politicians, and society at large? Because, for some people, it can't just be Dear's fault. The culture war demands that everything bad that happens is due to the actions and attitudes of one's ideological opponents. Everything bad that happens is due to the failure of society to monolithically embrace one's view of how the world should be run. And when people operate under such collectivist attitudes (on either the left or the right) about society, obviously the behavior of a person who acts out in violence is (and must be) an indictment of whatever ideology or philosophy that person operates. Dear is an indictment of anti-abortion conservatives. ISIS attacks are an indictment of leftist support for diversity and the entire Islamic faith.

This attitude frequently leads to calls for censorship or restrictions on civil liberties. Why? Because there are mentally ill people out there who just can't handle our vocal and sometimes uncivil exchange of ideas and will act out violently because of them. We can't be too "extreme" in our speech lest we trigger violence in folks like Dear. Everybody's civil liberties should be curbed because of the mentally ill among us. If it just so happens that the loudly stated positions of one's ideological opponents are perceived as the trigger for such violent responses, that's either just a coincidence or actual proof that the opposition is wrong. Hey, if crazy people support your positions, that must mean there's something wrong with them!

Sometimes the calls for restrictions on civil liberties in these situations are literal and government-sponsored. Any number of politicians and cultural figure like to blame representations of violence in popular culture—video games, rap music, movies—for violence in real life, even though violent crime in the United States has been trending downward during this same time period. There are calls by politicians and even the National Rifle Association (which also likes to blame popular culture for gun violence) to use psychiatric diagnosis to determine who is or is not permitted to exercise his or her Second Amendment right to own guns, even though the medical field has been largely unsuccessful in predicting which people with mental illnesses might actually engage in mass violence. As a result, people who will never behave violently could lose one of their civil liberties.

Even when not calling for outright restrictions in civil liberties, there's still plenty of attempts at culture shaming one's ideological opponents for the manner by which they espouse their opinions, because it might inspire violence by the less mentally stable. Over at New York Magazine, after generously stating up front that it is not accurate or fair to blame pro-life conservatives for Dear's actions, self-described "veteran Democratic wonk" Ed Kilgore nevertheless demands that these people must soften their rhetoric because it "provide[s] a theoretical basis for violence against abortion providers specifically and enemies of  'traditional values' generally." Kilgore wants anti-abortion activists and politicians to stop comparing abortion to slavery and the Holocaust. And he wants conservatives to stop pointing out that the Second Amendment exists for the purposes of allowing a revolt against a tyrannical government. He writes:

It's not difficult to see how toxic these arguments become when combined. If legalized abortion (and its alleged extension into open infanticide via the "barbaric" practices of government-subsidized Planned Parenthood "baby-killers") represents government-sponsored mass extermination and/or a perversion of the Constitution comparable to slavery, and there is a fundamental right to violent resistance against this and other acts of tyranny, then it could definitely cross the minds of conscientious gun-owning anti-choicers to emulate John Brown or the conspirators against Hitler. After all, the two greatest wars in American history were undertaken to destroy the Slave Power and Nazism. Why not a small individual war against their contemporary equivalent? 

Because it won't accomplish anything? Rational people realize this. Some who are mentally ill unfortunately do not. Kilgore is demanding that his ideological opponents censor their own arguments. That the pro-choice activists and the Democratic Party could benefit from this scaling down of rhetoric is surely an acceptable societal cost for a potential reduction in violent responses from people with mental problems? Do you support Americans being randomly murdered?

In reality, what Kilgore is demanding is that pro-life arguments be less compelling. I will acknowledge being an extremely pro-choice libertarian. But I will also acknowledge that, despite my disagreement, opposition to abortion can be and often is an extremely rational position taken on the basis of when a person believes life begins and when the legal protection of an individual's right to exist should come into play. As such, if a person believes that abortion is murder, it is entirely rational and even apt to compare the number of abortions that have taken place to other incidences of mass violence like slavery and the Holocaust. Kilgore argues such an "extreme" argument is used by some fringe folks as an excuse for violence. It also, coincidentally, argues that pro-choice citizens and organizations like Planned Parenthood are immoral and wrong using some very vivid comparisons. It challenges those of us who support reproductive freedom to think about the reasons we hold our positions and defend them internally, if not outwardly.

Just as we need freedom of speech to defend controversial opinions, we need to defend compelling opinions, too. Opinions that aren't influential aren't the ones people try to censor (though some folks have a poor sense of what opinions are or aren't influential). To be clear, Kilgore doesn't argue that the government should intervene and censor the arguments of his political opponents. Rather, he's saying his opponents should stop trying to be so darn influential. "Won't somebody think of the crazy people?" has replaced The Simpsons' Helen Lovejoy's "Won't somebody think of the children?"

And then, with that attitude, ideological opponents can be attacked as being dangerous without ever having to engage with what they say or to counter the argument. When you can't win the debate (and nobody is going to "win" the abortion debate anytime soon), try to change the rules to make your opponent lose. Claim your opponents haven't adequately condemned the violence of these extremists, even though it should go without saying, and also you probably never actually even looked to see whether they had. This pops up on both the left and the right. Apparently every Republican candidate must repudiate these murders or else that means they support it. And every Muslim on earth must tweet their opposition to ISIS every time they engage in a terrorist act (against the Western world, mind you—nobody cares what they do to other Muslims) or else that means they're supporters.

They can advance their own ideology and politics by trying to shut down actual policy discussion in the government in response to violence. The ever-mercenary Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) responded to the killings by calling on the House (that is to say, the part of Congress in which she is not even a member) to end a special panel investigating Planned Parenthood. She obviously didn't support the panel even before this violence, and it's extremely unlikely that this panel is what finally triggered Dear. Even this Associated Press headline, "GOP leader defends House Planned Parenthood investigation," suggests that there's some sort of "crazy person's veto," that conservatives have to justify continuing pursuing their policies because of the behavior of one likely mentally ill person.

Since nobody's ideology can lay claim to all the world's mentally ill people, because that's not how serious mental illness works, we end up with absurd comparison stories like this clickbait from William Saletan at Slate, arguing that Christian extremists from the Carolinas have killed more Americans in the United States than Syrian refugees. His goal is ultimately to challenge the argument that the fleeing Syrians are a terror threat to the United States, but his poor logic begs to be thrown back in his face by pointing out how tiny even that number is (less than 100) compared to the total number of Americans murdered in just 2014 (14,249). And even the total number of Americans murdered annually pales in comparison to the number of Americans out there (nearly 320 million). Statistically speaking, if you're an American, you're unlikely to ever be murdered at all, be it by mentally ill ISIS death-cultists or Americans suffering some sort of psychotic break from reality.

But no media site ever got readers by telling them, "You're probably never going to be murdered," and no politician wins votes that way. If every crisis is an opportunity, then every person with signs of mental illness is a potential crisis, and therefore an opportunity.

Given this regularly occurring cycle of responses to mass violence by the disturbed, is it really any mystery how college campuses turned into one massive emotional freak-out session? Where did they get the idea that invoking vague mental health issues to demand "trigger warnings" and safe spaces and declaring speech that contradicts their opinions or offends them to be a form of "violence"? They learned it from us, of course. They're just extending it to its natural, absurd conclusion.