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Law and Order, Racism, and Mental Illness - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
Law and Order, Racism, and Mental Illness
One of the things I like about Law and Order is that, more often than not, it doesn't demand that an audience agree with anyone. Sometimes you agree with the protagonists, sometimes you don't... the interest is in the argument.

So the one I was just watching involved a murder in which was committed by a racist (a black man had gotten a cab ahead of him), and his lawyer argued that his racism was a mental defect. McCoy, of course, argued that this is not a valid excuse for murder. This is true. No arguments. But the court psychiatrist, Scota, stated flatly that it wasn't a mental defect, and it really got me to thinking about the issue of prejudice.


Legal questions aside, is racial prejudice a mental disorder?

I find that I can't dismiss it quite as easily as the D.A.'s office in the show did. Yes, there are places where it's so endemic and the exposure to counter-evidence so rare that even bizarre beliefs might not indicate mental abnormality. But in New York City, or any metro area, really, where you're faced with day to day encounters with people of every possible shade and every permutation of belief, then there does have to be, at the least, a kind of willful blindness to believe this sort of thing.

I've read a bit of the history of antisemitism, and of course looked at some contemporary antisemitism, and frankly, I don't see how it isn't delusional. I'm not talking about the religious differences, but beliefs like "Jews use the blood of Christian children to make matzoh." There is no possible way to believe this if you have the slightest exposure to Jews and Judaism... unless you have a paranoid belief system in place already that allows you to discount all evidence that may disagree. The notion that an African-American must inherently be less intelligent than someone of another race likewise cannot survive actual experience in the real world unless there is already a delusional system in place.

These are beliefs that fly so far in the face of reality that I have a hard time not assuming that there's a mental defect involved in them. If the same defendent had beaten a man to death because he believed the man was operating on orders from the moons of Jupiter, no one would question that he was touched in the head, no matter how reasonably he acted otherwise. Why is a belief that African Americans are nefariously trying to steal the country from its natural (white) owners seen as somehow any more realistic? Why is a belief that Jews control world finances and have a cabal of Elders of Zion treated as anything other than delusional? Or that anyone of Japanese descent is out to destroy American? Or the belief that anyone of European descent is out to oppress anyone not of European descent?

If I had been writing the defense attorney in the script, instead of arguing that racism itself was an unrecognized mental defect, I would have argued that it was the visible symptom of a recognized one--paranoia. The defendant's paranoia happened to take the form of racism, but could have expressed in other ways. He might have believed in the moons-of-Jupiter theory, or believed that news anchors were trying to control the world, or that intellectuals were all traitors, or... anything. It happened to take the form of racism this time. And I think I'd believe that argument. However, I don't think it should excuse the crime.


Okay, so the defense's argument was that his client didn't deserve to do any jail time for murder, because racism constituted such a mental defect that he was no longer responsible for his actions. This has been argued in other cases, and is the crux of why the insanity defense is so controversial (if not as often argued as the television would have us believe). So here's my question--there's an option for guilty, and an option for not-guilty by reason of mental defect, but how about, "Guilty, but crazy-as-a-loon." Okay, put it in a more dignified way, but doesn't it seem like there should be such a category? So the person can pay for his crime, but also get some treatment, and that others suffering from the problem before committing a crime would get attention? Maybe do a certain amount of time in a hospital trying to cure it, then, if cured, serve the rest of the sentence in prison?

I don't know. The problem with classifying something as a mental defect seems to be that it's written off as an excuse. Maybe if it weren't an excuse, we could examine the issues more thoroughly without having to sacrifice justice for it.

I feel a bit...: thoughtful thoughtful
Soundtrack: Law and Order on TNT

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Comments
titti From: titti Date: November 26th, 2004 06:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
Not guilty by reason of mental incapacity doesn't not mean that the person is free to go, and that's the reason the defense is not used often. The person is sent to a criminal hospital for treatment, and isn't released until it is determined that he is cured (of course, there are immense areas for improvement).

If the defense is temporary insanity, then yes, the person goes free, but that's limited to a few cases, and it's not as common as TV would like us to think.

Now, in terms of racism as a mental disorder, I simply can't buy it. Ignorance, yes. Mental disorder, no.

Let me give you an example. When I moved to the States, back in 1986, an Italian American girl split up with her boyfriend. She was friend with a black guy who used to go and visit her. Ex boyfriend and friends killed the black guy because he was invading their territory. It had nothing to do with paranoia, and a lot to do with pride and jealousy.

Of course, I've been to courts in Harlem, and I'm white, and I get looked at by the black community like I was scum.

Things are much different now, but there are still neighborhoods dispute. You simply do not come here. End of story.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: November 26th, 2004 07:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
Let me give you an example. When I moved to the States, back in 1986, an Italian American girl split up with her boyfriend. She was friend with a black guy who used to go and visit her. Ex boyfriend and friends killed the black guy because he was invading their territory. It had nothing to do with paranoia, and a lot to do with pride and jealousy.

That's a little different from what I'm talking about, though--that's a tribalism thing. If the guy had said and believed that the black boyfriend was acting out of a racial prerogative to despoil Italian girls as a formal belief in favor of revenge for Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia, then I would consider it delusional.
ide_cyan From: ide_cyan Date: November 26th, 2004 08:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
There's a history of lynching in the US that has nothing to do with tribalism and everything to do with racism.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: November 26th, 2004 08:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm not sure that I'd make that neat a separation between the two.
ide_cyan From: ide_cyan Date: November 26th, 2004 08:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've been reading Angela Davis -- Women, Race, & Class, and now I'm maybe a fifth of the way through Women, Culture & Politics. When slavery was abolished, racist oppression replaced it. The goal, to continue to profit from the exploitation of a given population, remained the same, only, because activism made it progressively more illegal to discriminate, the means changed. Lynching, which would have been unprofitable for slaveowners, became a common terrorist measure of oppression, and all kinds of excuses were invented to justify murdering Black men and women. It's tempting to look for the explanation of oppression in the psychological, instead of the social, but it mystifies the problem and makes it that much harder to correct, because it's treating the symptoms instead of going after the cause of the disease.
skelkins From: skelkins Date: November 26th, 2004 09:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
I often don't know if I think that one should make too much of the distinction between 'psychological' and 'social,' myself. We're a gregarious species.

That said, I think I would agree that if racism is a psychological problem, then it is a widely-shared and societally-reinforced psychological problem, and therefore probably one better understood on the social level than on the individual one.

In other words, I don't really think that someone who kills for racial reasons is necessarily someone who could just as easily have killed because the Little Men From Venus told him to. Both types of killers may be said to be delusional in a sense, but I don't think that they're often delusional in quite the same way -- or for quite the same reasons.

Of course, there are always exceptions. I think, though, that the number of people who possess socially-reinforced paranoid delusions is much, much higher than the number of "paranoid schizophrenics" (whose delusions don't receive the same sort of social reinforcement or social sanction), and I'm not really sure if I think that the two problems ought be approached in precisely the same way.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: November 26th, 2004 10:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think, though, that the number of people who possess socially-reinforced paranoid delusions is much, much higher than the number of "paranoid schizophrenics" (whose delusions don't receive the same sort of social reinforcement or social sanction), and I'm not really sure if I think that the two problems ought be approached in precisely the same way.

Absolutely. I'm disturbed by the sheer amount of socially reinforced paranoia in the world, which is why the question came to mind. If it is a mental defect, can such a defect be shared by an entire group? Can a community have a shared delusion? What about death cults? What about militia culture, or the various "rage" movements? Where do you draw the line between the person who dislikes the president and the person who committed suicide the day after the election? There's certainly a lot of social reinforcment of dislike-for-Bush, but not that many November 3 suicides.

I think, psychologically, we may be dealing with a common personality disorder that may cause one person to be a virulent racist and another to believe that he should castrate himself for the aliens traveling in the tail of a comet--something's not working, and it latches on to something that's free-floating in society and runs with it.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: November 26th, 2004 10:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
When slavery was abolished, racist oppression replaced it. The goal, to continue to profit from the exploitation of a given population, remained the same...

It sounds to me like Davis is really oversimplifying things by making it a conscious decision for one group to oppress and profit off of another. While there were certainly some who did, in fact, consciously do this, a lot of people had the much more frightening process of creating a belief system in which they thought they were right. In a way, the economic perspective is disgusting, but I'd rather see it, because then it's just a question of fixing the economy, or presenting logical arguments about how, clearly, the racists are misreading the causes of their economic plight. Because then, hey, it would be logical to stop.

People thinking rationally don't wake up and say, "I think my group should oppress another group in order to make a profit." That may be the ultimate outcome, or the ultimate source, but I really don't think that's the case. The hate seems to have come first, and it drove the desire to oppress and beat down.
ide_cyan From: ide_cyan Date: November 26th, 2004 11:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
Davis's argument is more complex and better-documented than my account of it. See her book for the details.

One interesting thing she relates is that the number of lynchings, pre-emancipation, was nearly nonexistent, and the victims were Whites (who supported slaves' rights), but that the numbers shot up afterwards and the victims became overwhelmingly Black.

People thinking rationally don't wake up and say, "I think my group should oppress another group in order to make a profit."

That may be so, most of the time, but when a group of people you never had to think of as people suddenly are freed, and suddenly you can't exploit them like animals as you did before, resentment and hatred are going to be unsurprising reactions. And then it will be in your best interests to foster these sentiments with propaganda, which, as US politics are demonstrating once again right now, can be amazingly effective, so that even persons who wouldn't consciously think "we should oppress this group" may be persuaded to do so.

Exploitation comes first, without necessarily the design to evil (narrow-mindedness or lack of reflection will amply suffice), and oppression follows, if those who exploit other people refuse to give up their privileges gained through exploitation and therefore to stop exploiting others, because it becomes necessary to keep the exploited group under control. Supremacist ideology (deeming the power imbalance as a natural state, fostering entitlement), fear (of retaliation, of loss of power, etc), hate (driven by dehumanising propaganda and fear), as well as greed, will easily motivate the oppressors.

Social, economic and political forces will shape the psychological profiles of the masses.
titti From: titti Date: November 27th, 2004 04:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
I didn't watch the episode, but really do people think that? I find that it's usual much simpler: black=thug, Italian=mafia, irish=drunk, etc, and these stereotypes are brought to the extreme.
azaelia_culnamo From: azaelia_culnamo Date: November 26th, 2004 10:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think that often, people who are biased really do have problems. I don't think it's always mental illness, but it's definitely worth seeing a therapist over.

The main problem is, in my opinion, the fear of the D word: Difference. And it can be very, very easy to manipulate words if you try hard enough. On a messageboard, I was accused of being a wishful thinker and a uptight radical - all because I said I was Christian. I never said anyone else had to be, just that I was. And suddenly, it had me on people's flame list. One person even went as far as to say my religion had been against hers for the past five hundred years. Do I think she was mentally ill? No. Do I think she was obviously misguided, and had had bad personal experience with Christians? The latter could be true, or maybe it was what she was taught.
dreagoddess From: dreagoddess Date: November 26th, 2004 10:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
There SHOULD be a "guilty by reason of insanity" verdict, IMO, so they can be locked in a mental hospital for the rest of their lives. With a NG by insanity verdict nowadays, they'll be committed for an evaluation, but that's usually no more than 90 days. If they convince a doctor in 90 days they're all right, they can go free. That is NOT right, IMO.
miss_daizy From: miss_daizy Date: November 26th, 2004 10:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes, you hit on something I've often thought..."The problem with classifying something as a mental defect seems to be that it's written off as an excuse. Maybe if it weren't an excuse, we could examine the issues more thoroughly without having to sacrifice justice for it."

Yep, yep, yep. Andrea Yates jumps to mind with this. No one thinks she should have an excuse for what she did, but she was so clearly driven by her mental illness, that to ignore that fact, perverts the justice we need to preserve (at least to me).

Is racism a mental or a societal defect? I tend towards the second, but could probably be convinced otherwise. The line blurs, doesn't it?

P.S. I post on the Quill and we have lj friends in common - hope you don't mind the "intrusion", but it's an interesting topic that has a lot of relevance in my life.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: November 26th, 2004 10:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
Is racism a mental or a societal defect? I tend towards the second, but could probably be convinced otherwise. The line blurs, doesn't it?

It really does. Does dangerous delusion become less of a delusion if it's shared by a lot of people? And what about the difference between the person who maybe doesn't especially like a group, but doesn't do anything about it, and the complete fanatic who thinks he's driven by some higher power to kill all members of that group?
sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: November 26th, 2004 11:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
The "guilty, but insane/temporarily insane" verdict does seem appropriate for a lot of cases. For example, we've just had one in New Zealand where a man killed his baby daughter. He had just discovered she was going to be blind, deaf, and a vegetable for her entire life (which would be, at best, a couple of years) after thinking she just had mild epilepsy and was, obviously, in deep depression. There is also some question as to whether he deliberately killed the child (he believes he did, but as I said, his mental state at the time leaves it open to doubt.) The jury acquitted him of both murder and manslaughter. I know people who know his family, and they are totally supportive of him. The general consensus is that going to jail would have been wrong.

But the thing is: you canNOT set that sort of precedent for the killing of handicapped children. You just can't. One editorial put it very well - mercy was the judge's prerogative, not the jury's. He killed his daughter, and legally, he was guilty of murder, or manslaughter at the least. End of story. He shouldn't be locked away in a prison. But he should not have been acquitted. In this sort of case, the verdict of "guilty, but temporarily insane" would have allowed the judge to exercise discretion in his sentence, without setting the sort of legal precedent that this does.
a_lurker From: a_lurker Date: November 27th, 2004 03:04 pm (UTC) (Link)

Erm, hello.

You don't know me. I was wandering around livejournal, reading other people's flists -- I don't even remember who it was -- and I came across this. It jumped out at me because it said 'Law and Order' which I love. (Mainly SVU, but I watched the regular episodes yesterday -- TBS had some kind of marathon.

I saw this episode yesterday so I know what you're talking about, and I had some thoughts on the issue myself.

Irrational hatred of another person based solely on skin color is just that - irrational. The person is not behaving irrationally.

Also, the man on the show (I think, contrary to the psychiatrist's opinion) clearly believed that he was justified in murdering the man. IMO, the reason why he spent so much time trying to convince the doctor of his opinion was because he wanted to sort of recruit someone to be on his side and to support him, not because he truly didn't believe he was justified.

So, based on the above, I could certainly argue that he is incapable of seeing his act as wrong. He doesn't know that it was. Therefore, he would be incapable, in this particular situation, of differentiating between right and wrong.

However, would that mean that the White Supremacist newsletters he was subscribed to would be responsible for supporting delusions? And then the argument would start leaning toward the freedom of speech issue.

Do people have the right to support ideas even if those ideas could be construed as literally insane?

Er. I hope you don't mind my -- rather lengthy -- intrusion.
lauraflute From: lauraflute Date: November 27th, 2004 03:33 pm (UTC) (Link)

L&O marathon sparks LJ debate -- I approve

Don't know that I can really add anything new, but during McCoy's cross he stepped a big issue that would've cinched the case had it been iffy (not that it was). The defendant said, "It's okay for them to say they don't want to work with you, but you can't say you don't want to live with them." Had I been the prosecutor, I would've taken that moment to bring up the point the whole reason he got fired was because he went into a black co-worker's office, screamed at him, and showed him a gun (assuming that wasn't excluded by prior bad acts although I think it could get in by going to motive or the fact the defendant himself opened the door to that line of questioning). To me that would prove he was someone refusing responsibility for his actions and only looked to place blame outside himself.

On the flip side of that, someone who buys the mental defect theory might say it's proof he is diseased because how could someone brandish a gun in their office and not expect to get fired? Guess it all depends on how you look at it. I would've liked to see that come up.

Anyway, with that guy's mouth, hope wound up in protective custody at Attica. :P
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