the politics of shame

January 9, 2008 at 8:27 pm (blogging, flamewars, healthcare, mental illness)

there are many contexts in which vigorous conversation leads to a changing viewpoint, or strengthening of an existing viewpoint. sometimes we can take a bit of what the other party presents in a way that, at the very least, gives us a sense of the strength of our convictions. in the feminist community, there are plenty of topical opportunities for this; just look at all the debate stirred up over things like body image and who gets to call themselves a feminist.

but there are some topics that are so charged, so flammable, that it just doesn’t appear that folks can civilly disagree. the post that started here with kactus over at Feministe talking about her relief at getting pharmacological assistance in dealing with her symptoms, quickly escalated into a flamewar. a subsequent post commenting on the contention also escalated quickly.

mental illness is not a politically neutral topic. never has been. in all of human history, the mentally ill have been oppressed beyond the parameters experienced by any other group. think about that: longer than the slaves of any regime, longer than any religious group. people experiencing mental illness have been shackled and chained in cells, starved, flogged, force-fed, force-medicated, spun, caged, shocked with electricity, placed in situations of sensory deprivation and sensory overload; heated and chilled; waterboarded; have had holes drilled into their brains, and prongs stuck into their brains through the eye sockets (lobotomy); involuntarily sterilized, detained, and treated. they have been bled out via leeches or surgical incision; and steamed, beaten, and generally treated at a level well below the way any given culture would treat an animal.

with few exceptions (though yes, there are some), people experiencing mental illness have been systematically brutalized, with governmental and societal blessings. so when commenters like Elaine Vigneault say things like this:

Just throwing this out there. My theory is that many people’s depression is anger turned inward. Anger is a powerful emotion that can be both destructive and constructive. Anger that is unjustly aimed inward becomes debilitating depression, but justified anger aimed outward towards things like injustice can be a powerful motivator. I think if more people embraced this view and used their anger as a motivator, we’ve have a revolution and possibly a better world.

…it just kind of makes me wonder how people can be so misinformed.   she then follows up at her blog with many, many posts on her views on mental illness, the prescription of psychotropic medications, and the incompetence of psychological/psychiatric professionals. which is all well and good–she is entitled to her opinion. but the strength of the argument reeks of anti-choice rhetoric, and an “i don’t like it, therefore it’s wrong” sentiment.

as a mental health professional, i see people who are trying out many kinds of treatment options as well as those who are not receiving treatment or are inadequately treated. Elaine states that psychology is a “baby profession” and that medications are not to be trusted because of the relatively short time they have been used. looking at the history of treatment options for people experiencing mental illness, i’d have to say that Elaine appears to be a bit confused in the application of her logic. in the past hundred years, approaches to humane treatment options that enable quality of life and community integration have taken off exponentially. i dare anybody to compare the treatment of a person with schizophrenia today against the treatment they would have received at any other time in history prior to about 1910. sure, we haven’t got it all figured out; all of medicine is a ‘practice.’ but progress has accelerated faster in the past century than ever before, and to a more humanist result.

so the degrading of people who are receiving services for mental illness then achieves a level of shaming that is long-standing, and that taps into a larger social unconscious that has determined for thousands of years that some people are not to be trusted to make their own decisions, and must be controlled. in light of the societal frowning upon the use of shackles these days, dissenters are left with a tool shamelessly ganked from their beloved order of the patriarchy: shame as a tool of social control.

shame seems to be used conveniently in many cases; in blaming the sexual assault victim for her actions or choice in clothing, in making people feel too fat/too thin, or too obsessed with their weight. it is used in furthering the anti-choice movement, is applied to mothers receiving state assistance, and is often leveraged over the idea of parenthood. shame is violent in it’s passive aggression, and i ask you to consider whether violence is a useful component in the dialogues of feminism, or in the framing and construction of issues of personal choice.



  1. jessilikewhoa said,

    i just followed the link from the trackback at feministe, and i just want to give big love to this post. thank you.

  2. Mia said,

    aww, thank you! ❤

    do you have a blog?

  3. antiprincess said,

    rock on, Mia. excellent post.

  4. Elaine Vigneault said,

    You’re writing about “humane treatment” of the mentally ill? Really? Like it’s OK to experiment and practice on them so long as it doesn’t hurt?

    And I’m the offensive one?

    What about those “mentally ill” persons who’d just like to be left alone and not have your version of “humane treatment”?

    Are you seriously arguing that we’ve made progress in the “science” of psychology because we now use more “humane” methods of torturing, forcing, coercing, pressuring, practicing, and dealing with people who have a different outlook than “normal” people.

  5. Mia said,

    okay, Elaine, here goes:

    “You’re writing about “humane treatment” of the mentally ill? Really? Like it’s OK to experiment and practice on them so long as it doesn’t hurt?”

    well, yes. the topic is about the treatment of mental illness, thanks for noticing! and as you probably also noted, i did make the argument that treatment today is more humane (with few exceptions, as i said) than it was in the past. most forms of treatment today tend to be more humane than shackles, lobotomies, and electric shock; i hadn’t anticipated that that would be a contested argument.

    “And I’m the offensive one?”

    hmm, i didn’t use the word ‘offensive,’ so if you’re feeling that way, i didn’t do it.

    “What about those “mentally ill” persons who’d just like to be left alone and not have your version of “humane treatment”?”

    well, Elaine, to that i would ask, what are you doing to help repeal ITA (involuntary detainment/treatment) laws around the country? because those are the tools by which society, your society, forces people into treatment. and really, you are inadequately informed to make any judgment on what my opinion of “humane treatment” is. making the argument that treatment has become MORE humane is not the same argument as stating that it has ACHIEVED humane status.

    in addition, the recipients of pharmacological and CB therapies most likely to be treated against their will are minors, which means someone entrusted with their well-being has consented to that practice. what are you doing about that? i mean, since it’s something that is so meaningful to you, i’m sure you’re actually using that sentiment to, say, revolutionize the system and change the world.

    “Are you seriously arguing that we’ve made progress in the “science” of psychology because we now use more “humane” methods of torturing, forcing, coercing, pressuring, practicing, and dealing with people who have a different outlook than “normal” people.”

    that is a conflated sentence. i stated that mental illness treatments have become more humane, which is a different argument from whether psychology has made progress. psychology and MI treatment are not necessarily synonymous.

    society regularly identifies certain issues to be of public interest; dealing with individuals whose behavior is different from what that society defines as “normal” is a pretty common one. noting the status of that treatment over time is not the same as condoning that treatment. an example of this is stating that prisoners have more humane environments now than they did in the era of chain gangs; that statement does not argue that prisoners are perfectly treated, and it does not address legal or social issues of how they came to be branded as criminals.

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