Archive for November, 2009

Those Newry Stats In Full

Studies suggest that the average striking public sector worker went to Newry today. But what did she do when she got there? I have been given the data from Newry’s business community.

Now to get to grips with the significance of this data, we have to get a measure of what was going on at the same time in the private sector, while the average striking public sector worker was up in Newry, or stuck in traffic with all the other average public sector workers. Unfortunately we don’t have any expenditure figures, since the average private sector worker cannot afford to take a day off since the country would collapse and besides he has no money. However we do have the results of a survey conducted in which we asked the average private sector worker what he got up to on his work break, since data on what he might get up to while working would be unreliable, given the well-known propensity of the private sector worker to have his mind focused on his work. Therefore whilst what follows is by no means an apples-to-apples comparison, we are confident that it does give an insight into the differing experience of the average private sector worker.

We shall leave it to others to draw the conclusions.

Update: honest to Jehovah, I had no idea this story was on the way when I wrote the above last night.

Us and Them

Poll shows hardening of attitude towards immigrants – The Irish Times – Tue, Nov 24, 2009

THE VAST majority (72 per cent) of people want to see a reduction in the number of non-Irish immigrants living here, according to an Irish Times /Behaviour Attitudes opinion poll.

Overall, a total of 43 per cent say they would like to see some, but not all, immigrants leave the State, while 29 per cent would like to see most immigrants leave. In contrast, just over a quarter (26 per cent) would like to see the number of immigrants remain as it is.

In a reversal of trends from polls in recent years, younger people’s attitudes towards immigration have hardened the most.

Pierre Bourdieu:

These media coups are symbolic coups de force that are struck in all innocence, and all the more effective for being unconscious. There is a sense in which this can only be done because the people who practise this violence are themselves victims of the violence that they practise, and this is where we get the false science of the half-educated that likes to give the appearance of scientific ratification to the intuitions of common sense: typologies based on projecting the social unconscious of those who commission such things (businessmen or politicians) and those who receive their commissions (journalists). And the responsibility of journalists comes from their involvement in this circulation of unconscious material.

This is an example of those symbolic effects that often take the form of the well-known paralogism: ‘The king of France is bald’. When someone says ‘The king of France is bald’, two senses of the verb ‘to be’ are involved, and an existential proposition (there is a king of France) is hidden by a predicative statement (the king of France has the property of being bald). Attention is attracted to the fact that the king is bald, while in reality, the idea that there is a king of France is smuggled in as self-evident. I could cite countless statements about the social world that are all of this type, especially those that have collective nouns as their subject: ‘France is fed up’, ‘The people will not accept’, ‘The French support the death penalty’, etc. In the opinion polls, instead of asking first: ‘Do you think there is a moral crisis at the present time?’, and then ‘Is it serious, very serious, etc.?’, people are simply asked: ‘Is the present moral crisis serious, very serious, etc.?’

Among the most powerful tacit propositions are all those that bear on those oppositions, that are principles of vision and division, such as rich/poor, bourgeois/common people, on which the struggle of the workers’ movement was based and which are still present in the unconscious of the majority of us; but also today, oppositions like nationals/foreigners, indigenous/immigrants, us/them, etc. This is a tremendous change. People might take completely different positions on what should be done about immigrants, but even those with opposing view tacitly agree – consensus within dissent – that the opposition between indigenous and immigrants has predominance and priority over every other kind of opposition, starting with that between rich and poor – within which there can of course also be indigenous and foreigners. This realizes the dream of all bourgeoisies, to have a bourgeoisie without a proletariat. From the point that there are only nationals, rich and poor together, everything is well sorted out, at least for the rich.

-From Questions of Words, The Media In The Service of Conservative Revolution, Political Interventions, Verso.


Maverick strikers and the working classes don’t mix – Analysis, Opinion –

When did Ireland last produce a striker who was in the top five scorers in the English first division or Premiership?


Unenlightened Self-Interest

Time to change the system that failed us – The Irish Times – Mon, Nov 23, 2009

The Toyota Way (the 14 management principles of the car manufacturer) offers similar advice with the Five Whys model (which aims to assist in getting speedily to the roots of problems), emphasising that the obvious answers are rarely deep enough. Few systems are more complex than a liberal, market-oriented democracy.


How society works is complicated, which is why some feel the need to employ methods first used to sharpen industrial production techniques as a means of putting society along the right track. Not a new idea: Lenin, for instance, having previously recognised Taylorism as an instrument for the further exploitation of the workers, man’s enslavement by the machine, went on to ‘raise the question of applying much of what is scientific and progressive in the Taylor system‘. Its application would take place in service of the transition from capitalism to socialism, with Lenin’s form of socialism envisaging competition on a broad economic basis, with competition organised between communes.

But whereas Lenin ostensibly claimed to envisage Taylorism as an instrument for the ‘organisational form of the dictatorship of the proletariat’, leaving behind the ‘formal democracy of the bourgeois republic’ to ‘real participation of the mass of working people in administration’ (and we can leave to one side the matter of how successful this was), the use of modern management principles in Casey’s article is adduced as a starting point for the maintenance of a ‘liberal, market-orientated democracy’, id est, the formal democracy of the bourgeois republic. Another common name for this is capitalism.

‘Liberal, market-orientated democracy’, then, is the system to be analysed, and Casey’s diagnosis is total system failure. Here are the salient elements of collapse he highlights:

  • Collapse in public finances
  • Massive economic contraction
  • Invisible corporate governance practices
  • Ideal of public service dying
  • Massive wealth destruction in financial services

However, he doesn’t specify whether these elements are effects produced by the system, or whether they are symptoms of something that caused the system to fail. The headline confuses things because of it is not clear what the grammar of ‘change’ is – does changing the system mean getting rid of the existing one and bringing in another (like giving up football for golf) or does it mean making changes to the system (like moving from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1)? We are approaching things from a rather technocratic perspective here, but I would like to make one analogy on the idea of changing a system: if you are looking at the failure of a computer’s operating system and how this can be addressed, you can either make changes through patches, upgrades and so on, or you can replace the operating system. But the idea of changing the operating system here is never entertained. In fact, it turns out Casey is really concerned with hitherto unknown system at work within the broader system of ‘liberal, market-oriented democracy’:

Something incredible has happened to our national value system in the course of a single generation. Family, education, work and self-sacrifice defined our parents.


The defining value of Ireland 2009 is self-interest. This is an almost impossible shift in such a short time. The only plausible explanation I can offer is that the omnipresent and suffocating nature of the social partnership process has coded us to think only of ourselves.

Having started out apparently concerned with the highly complex system of liberal, market-oriented democracy, he seems to have been waylaid into a confrontation with something called the ‘national value system’. A naive and sympathetic close reader might regard this as unfortunate. First, because there has not been much talk of the ‘national value system’ (Casey’s article is on the first page of Google search results for the term), and even if it does exist in reality, there’s no reason to assume that its existence is not determined by the broader political and economic system.

Indeed, if we substitute ‘capitalism’ for ‘liberal, market-oriented democracy’, we might find a more convincing explanation than social partnership as to why the ‘defining value’ of Ireland in 2009 is self-interest, since self-interest is well-known as a defining characteristic of capitalism. You know the capitalist love story: a merchant invests in a industry not because they care much about the good of the society in which the industry exists but because they want to make a profit, and in doing so they are guided by ‘an invisible hand to promote an end that is no part of his intention’, i.e. greater material wealth for the wider population. That’s how it’s supposed to work anyway. One problem with this, from the point of view of the merchants at least, is that people compelled to work in industry for a wage will, no doubt out of some degree of self-interest, seek to maximise their wages and improve their general working conditions, and not entirely without good reason.

We can take this one step further: if it appears in the self-interest of the merchant, or the ruling class, to maximise the profitability of its industries, it will also appear in the interest of that class to convince the wage labourer that it is not in the wage labourer’s interest to engage in any action that might conflict with the interest of the ruling class (e.g. demands for higher wages, forming trade unions). An outcome of this situation will be that the existing system will be presented by institutions controlled by the ruling class as the best of all worlds, but regrettably under attack from dangerous and morally suspect tendencies. Marx encapsulated this rather nicely in The German Ideology:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.


One curious and interesting thing about Casey’s article, then, is that he profers a pseudo-Marxist explanation for the current situation -the ruling material force of society, which is to say, social partnership, is its ruling intellectual force, and therefore the ‘self-interest’ that pervades the ‘national value system’ is what enables social partnership to dominate. This may strike you -as it does me- as bonkers on rocket-powered rollerskates, but this explanation is, in reality, an expression of the ideas of ruling class dominance, brought to you by the Irish Times.

Whither The Mystic Megs Of Yesteryear

No-one in their right mind should take any prediction of mine seriously. Yesterday I predicted a kind of disaster averted:
Legerdemain « The Punishment of Sloth

Confronted with the likes of this, Thierry Henry has done Irish people a favour. Can you imagine the outpourings of ‘if the footballers can do it, then so can we!’ voluntarist exhortations that would gush forth from every media outlet for months on end?

But what do I know?

Medb Ruane: Yes we wuz robbed — but lads proved we can do it – Medb Ruane, Columnists –

We do not need to say what lessons this team teach us. It goes beyond saying. It’s about love and bonding and fortitude and losing your petty concerns for a bigger ideal that others share too.

And when our friends in Britain, the States, Australia, wherever, text us to wonder if the dream is real , we can say ‘Yes’. Yes, we wuz robbed, yes we feel crushed but yes, they have proved we can do it.

To which one can only ask: do what?


Cheat or paragon: how Thierry Henry could have handled it all so differently | Richard Williams | Football |

To rank the incident in Paris alongside Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” in 1986 is misleading. That was a street kid’s instinct, acclaimed by his compatriots as revenge for Antonio Rattín and the Malvinas. Henry may come from Les Ulis, a quartier difficile outside Paris, but he is a sophisticated man, and a much decorated one. A chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur should have done better – by his opponents, by himself, and by the game.

So what’s the story, people from ‘quartiers difficiles‘ can’t be expected to be as sophisticated as your average Guardian columnist? And what of the appeal to the standards of Legion d’Honneur members? It says on Wikipedia that David Petraeus, Shimon Peres and Vladimir Putin are members. Maybe Henry should bomb some civilians in order to redeem himself.


Politics » The Feral Media

I’ll come now to what bugs me. Governments must be held to account. Yet, I sometimes rail against the blanket intolerance that you sometimes see. Here is an example. There are two ways of looking at Brian Lenihan’s little row with AIB this week. He put his foot down and inisted that Colm Doherty’s salary was limited at €500,000. Or he ceded to the bank by allowing it to pick its own man for the job. Biased assimilation came into play here. It’s the intellectual laziness of choosing the argument that happens to fit your own argument.

I don’t care much for the accusation of intellectual laziness, since many complex but bogus arguments are the product of intense intellectual application. It does not help the argument on display here that the accusation of biased assimilation is introduced via the assertion that ‘there are two ways of looking at Brian Lenihan’s little row with AIB’, since it does not require much effort to realise that there are more than two ways of looking at the situation. But by declaring arbitrarily that there are only two ways, you can narrow things to fit the terms of your own argument.

Nonetheless, the point made in the comment that there is ‘moral shrillness’ in journalism, particularly in relation to politician expenses, seems sound enough to me, though I have no idea what ‘intolerance’ means in this regard.

But there are very good reasons for journalists to produce morally shrill pieces on political expenses. One is that politician expenses are a relatively cheap source data by comparison with expenses accumulated in the private sector. If top executives are gorging themselves sick in top restaurants using their expense accounts whilst simultaneously cutting worker wages and funding lobby groups to advocate wage cutting (and I happen to know for a fact that this happens), news journalists are unlikely to get round to reporting on this because a) the cost of reporting on such a matter is too high relative to reporting on information provided on request by the state; b) news outlets have no incentive to investigate anything other than the most egregious instances of such behaviour, since to do otherwise would hit the appeal of the outlet to potential advertisers, and even in cases where such behaviour comes to light, it would tend to be on account of involvement of some politician or other, and would be therefore effectively subsidised by the state; c) media reproduces the interests of its owners, among which one might find an interest in representing government as evil by contrast with virtuous and dynamic private enterprise, and a denial of the existence of class conflict, except in the grotesque form of corrupt politicians and their cronies the faceless bureaucrats versus the common man who only seeks to earn an honest crust.


Oh dear, I watched the France-Ireland match last night to watch Ireland crash out at the hand of Thierry Henry. Henry’s manipulation was even more outrageous than Diego Maradona’s hand of God back in Mexico ’86. First, because he handled the ball twice, and second, because it’s a long time since Ireland was at war with France.

I don’t get this ‘any professional player in Henry’s position would do the same’ reasoning, which Jim Beglin had the privilege of expressing first, and which is spreading like knotweed. I think it is probably true as a matter of fact: you would need to be some sort of moral giant or idiot to plead for your goal to be disallowed, given the pressures from fans, players, sponsors and so on. Being nice is not so big a money-spinner as being a winner. Which is why the playoffs were seeded, because the risk of a World Cup without Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema needed to minimised.

But if you’re satisfied with the idea that any professional player would do the same, why watch professional sport? Once a sporting spectator has dispensed with the central idea of the match, that is, the exercise concerned with which competitor comes out on top in playing by the rules, you enter the realm of spectacle of the order of WWE wrestling, where what you’re concerned with are the story and the sensations that come with victory or defeat. And WWE has better back stories. The moment a professional footballer grabs the announcer’s mike to tell the crowd that he enjoyed a drug-fuelled steamy session with the opposing centre-half’s wife and her lesbian lover at the very moment that the centre-half was laid up in hospital getting his jaw reset from a beating administered to him in the car park of the gender reassignment surgery centre by a group of goons hired by his own manager seems far off, but I sense the hour is later than we think. Lots of football fanatics I know are able to draw on a wealth of seamy, prurient stories about professional footballers to complement their deep knowledge of match statistics, tactics, formations and so on. Some of these strike me as fantasy, with some stories approaching oral slash fiction.

I have to admit, though, that it would be very odd to take an interest in televised spectator sports and at the same time have no interest to some degree in the personalities and allegiances involved: the psychological side of things is all part of the spectacle. For instance, I enjoy watching Nicolas Anelka play because he combines immense skill, strength and no small amount of subtlety with the appearance that he really hates playing football.

Nor do I think there is much to recommend a spectator sport that is concerned with unerringly rigid application of the rules, which is one of the reasons that I take no interest in rugby. I mean, if you have a huge apparatus of rules and procedures bearing down on the sporting activity, to me that defeats the central point of most sporting activity, which -if I might be pretentious-moi about this- is above all un jeu. Sure, there need to be rules in order to enable play to take place in the first instance. But too many rules just render the whole thing an exercise in exploiting the rules to their limit, rather than a matter of play.

There is a bit of a paradox at the heart of l’affaire Henry, which is that a less rigid set of rules would mean that the goal would not have stood, but the objection to the goal is on account of the rules not being rigidly followed. That is, if the Irish players’ impassioned protests had been entertained by the ref, then the ref, even after awarding the goal, could have consulted with TV cameras, found that the goal should not have stood, and then disallowed the goal.

One time I was refereeing a rather low-profile match and a player went outside the goal-line with the ball before slotting the ball in the back of the net. I forgot to blow the whistle when the ball went out, had no linesman, and when I then declared, with a shake of the head, that there was no goal, I got assailed by several members of the team claiming to have scored, screaming at me for not having blown the whistle, saying that the goal ought to have stood. I told them to go to hell: it was damned obvious that the ball had gone out. The captain, in a rictus of rage, was like, well, you should have blown. And I was like, well, you’re right and I didn’t, but it’s obvious that it wasn’t a goal, as is the fact that you are a tool, but I don’t ask you to wear a sign saying so, and I think you’re humiliating yourself making an issue out of this when you’re 4-0 down.

That was my last match as a referee – the gulf between the my impressionistic ideas on the spirit in which the game ought to be played and the reality of the petty legalistic whingeing that sustains the game at any level was too much for this gentle flower to bear. There’s something undignified, ugly even, in the image of people getting all het up about something that matters very little: football shouldn’t be more important than life and death, even though, when it comes to people’s passions about things, it often really is, when it take hold of people’s every waking moment, giving them something to look forward to in the absence of anything else, occupying the space formerly held by religion.

Not that I wish to make little of the opportunities for real enjoyment, friendship, songs and so on that football provides- my point is not that it doesn’t matter at all. Hell, I woke the child twice last night shouting at the TV. I just get struck by the huge investment of time, money, effort and thought that people put into football by comparison with other things, and how easily they show allegiance to professional teams that have precious little to do with them. In particular I have a deep distaste for the way football (and other sports, too) is used as vehicle for presenting a common interest in the absence of any other: the jaw-dropping demands for a rematch from Minister of Justice Dermot Ahern is as good an example as any:

Mr Ahern has said FIFA should be called to account in the interests of fair play.
‘They probably won’t grant it as we are minnows in world football but let’s put them on the spot,’ the minister said.
‘It’s the least we owe the thousands of devastated young fans around the country.
‘Otherwise, if that result remains, it reinforces the view that if you cheat, you will win.’

Satire, if not dead yet again, is lying bleeding from multiple stab wounds.

Confronted with the likes of this, Thierry Henry has done Irish people a favour. Can you imagine the outpourings of ‘if the footballers can do it, then so can we!’ voluntarist exhortations that would gush forth from every media outlet for months on end? Not to mention the astrological economics wondering whether a world cup finals will herald a return to the good times. It was the right moment to deliver a lesson that game is rigged by powerful interests and claims to honest endeavour and appeals to the rules of the existing system won’t count for shit. Chapeau.

Not I, Said The Sparrow

Who killed the Celtic Tiger? – The Irish Times – Sat, Nov 14, 2009

The economists who acted as the cheerleaders for the property bubble acted in bad faith. The French have a phrase, la trahison des clercs , the treachery of the intellectuals, for those who are aware of abuses but fail to denounce them. They are the last people we should listen to now as we seek to recover from the damage they inflicted.

‘La trahison des clercs’ strikes me as too grand a term to apply to people who are in the pay of financial institutions and therefore issue opinions in line with the interests of their employers. To say that they acted in bad faith is to imply that they could have acted in good faith.

A more interesting question is how these people gained widespread respectability. The well-known fact that both the Irish Times and the Irish Independent had made substantial investments in property-related enterprises is undoubtedly a factor, since the opinions of these people, which could be represented as authoritative statements, meant a low-cost supply of content for delivering reporting on the property market intended to stimulate the fears and aspirations of potential buyers.

What has received less attention is the role of the state broadcaster, which used these people regularly, and continues to do so. Just last week I heard a radio discussion involving a prominent economist still in the pay of a financial institution, who, referring to himself as a ‘worker’ at one stage, and calling for public sector pay to be cut, proferred the opinion, somewhat incongruously, that the VAT arising from unsold houses would result in a substantial contribution to the state coffers if these houses were sold. In doing so he was implying that some form of action should be taken in order to expedite their sale, a course of events that would no doubt boost the revenue of his employer. His interlocutor, whilst known to bristle with colourful language on occasion at suggestions he finds unpalatable, particularly with regard to his own house, saw no need to challenge the brazen promotion of private interests in the guise of objective analysis.

Leaving aside the manifold appearances on discussion programmes, there are many examples, easily found, of RTE using privately-funded economists as authoritative sources in their news reporting. In many cases, the interventions appear as the product of objective, dispassionate empirical inquiry, touching on broad macroeconomic matters, with no outward relation to encouraging the sale of particular financial products. No doubt this is the intention, from the perspective of the entity providing the analysis, because if a particular individual can be seen to provide wide-ranging, apparently disinterested, commentary on a range of general matters, this serves to create the impression that the institution he -it is normally a he, of course- represents is primarily concerned with acting in the interests of the general public. Or, in a complementary fashion, what is good for the financial institution is also good for the general public. This activity, which continues to this day, has a cumulative effect: the longer it goes on, the greater the authority the representatives acquire, and even though the current robbery conducted by the government on behalf of the banks has done much to dispel many illusions about where the interests of banks and related institutions lie, RTE as yet has shown no inclination to dispense with the services of the individuals in question. Nor, for that matter, do the individuals appear inclined to dispense with the services of RTE.

The story, then, as it concerns the ‘experts’, seems to me not so much a barrage of misleading stories about the housing market produced by interested parties, but how easy it was for private financial institutions to circumvent the normal limits of advertising to represent themselves in license-payer funded media as acting in the public interest, even though their only true interest can only ever be the bottom line.

Ill Communications

There are some things I prefer to stay quiet about, or joke about, rather than take them seriously. One is anything that relates to mental illness. One reason for not wanting to talk about mental illness is the fear that by doing so, not having any special words for it, I myself will become mentally ill: like when Nietzsche says gazing into the abyss leads the abyss to gaze back at you. (Incidentally I had a brief episode in my teens, in the course of a ‘what’s-it-all-about-Alfie’ moment when I tried to read Thus Spoke Zarathrusta, and, since I hadn’t developed any sort of knowledge beforehand about what Nietzsche was all about, it all ended quite abysmally.)

So the first question I ask myself is whether there is such a thing as mental illness, and that leads me into Foucault territory, in particular the matter of the relation of expert psychatric opinion: in his Abnormal lectures, he talks about how this opinion ‘(made) it possible to put in place or, in any case, to justify the existence of a sort of protective continuum through the social body ranging from the medical level of treatment to the penal institution strictly speaking, that is to say, the prison and, if it comes to it, the scaffold’.

I am afraid that, when confronting myself with this sort of thing on my lunch break, my response is like that of the Water Rat from Wind in The Willows, that what we are talking about is ‘the Wild World. And that’s something that doesn’t matter, either to you or me. I’ve never been there, and I’m never going, nor you either if you’ve got any sense at all. Don’t ever refer to it again, please’.

The problem is that it’s hard not to be confronted with the matter of mental illness, or mental health, even on your lunch break. Yesterday the Guardian reported on Robert Enke, the German goalkeeper who committed suicide, reporting his as wife saying that he ‘spent years trying to hide his mental illness, fearful it might destroy his career and cause the authorities to take away their adopted daughter, before he finally killed himself.’ and that ‘Enke, 32, who was a favourite to start in goal for Germany at the World Cup in South Africa next year, having overcome a series of personal tragedies and professional setbacks, left a suicide note in which he apologised to family and friends.’

What interests me here is the application of the term ‘mental illness’. Clearly he had been plunged into inestimable turmoil on account of his daughter’s death. But wouldn’t his response -his deep turmoil- fall into the normal range of reactions to such an event? So to talk about how he was mentally ‘ill’, for me, nearly -I am being deliberately tentative here- implies that there was something abnormal about his state of mind, when, given the circumstances, it would be something to be expected as falling within the normal range of responses. Or to put it another way, had he shown no outward reaction at all, and continued as though nothing had happened, would we be talking about him being mentally ill, even though that would be an abnormal response? You might counter that there are lots of people who lose children and do not commit suicide, and that’s true. But most of them are plunged into uncontrollable grief, and many go through long periods in which they find it difficult to go on living. Should we talk about them as mentally ill too? Or is it only when a number of boxes are ticked, in terms of a set of clinical criteria -the expert psychiatric opinion again- that we can talk about them as mentally ill?

There are millions of people prescribed anti-depressants in order to cope with life after losing a loved one. If they stopped taking anti-depressants and acquired the symptoms of clinical depression, would we describe them as mentally ill? If so, would it be right to talk of people currently under such medication as -thinking of a current trend- possessing an underlying medical condition?

It feels as though in many cases, the category of mental illness -backed up with a scarcely more precise diagnosis like ‘clinical depression’- serves, in similar cases, to explain away, to place under control, the infinite fragility and contingency of everyday life. Maybe having this apparatus of knowledge, control and treatment in place serves to tell us that in the end, everything can be turned out all right. Yet it seemed Robert Enke for one had developed a fear of the same apparatus that was supposed to come to his aid.

Perhaps every instance of what we encounter as mental illness through interaction and observation with the subject, can, with sufficient tools of investigation, be identified in neurobiological terms, that is, they have a physical manifestation, and they are therefore physical illnesses and ought to be treated with medication, surgery or therapy, to alleviate suffering, as with any other physical illness. The problem is that the general category of ‘mental illness’ has a stigma and physical illness does not.

There is a long history of investigation into the stigma attached to mental illness and the culture in which it flourishes, and I am almost entirely ignorant of it. However, I guess that part of the stigma arises from the idea that a person with mental illness cannot be trusted to follow the same rules and conventions as a ‘sane’ person. When we talk about someone as mentally ‘disturbed’, maybe what we often mean is that they have the potential to behave in a way that disturbs the normal course of events. They defy what is held to be reasonable behaviour. Hence talk of lunatics, nutters, headcases, loopers, madmen and madwomen and so forth goes way beyond the description of people who have been clinically diagnosed as suffering from a mental illness.

It may be that the stigma is also grounded in the fear that there is no underlying sanity in the rules and conventions we accept as necessary. If I am confronted with someone who by my lights refuses to accept the same rules and conventions as me, then he or she may pose a danger to my own sense of who I am and what I do. If I can resort to classifying this person as ‘mentally ill’, then this bolsters the proper order of things as I perceive it ought to be, and I can appeal to the brute facts of the ‘protective continuum’ mentioned above to cope with the disturbance.

An useful example of this occurred with the case of the man who railed against Pat Kenny on the Frontline show on Monday last. In the course of investigating why a man would do such a thing, in defiance of conventional behaviour, the Irish Independent, the Evening Herald and the Irish Times drew attention to Mr O’Brien’s ‘history of mental illness’.

Had the individual in question possessed a heart or kidney complaint, I doubt it would have been mentioned, because it would have been deemed entirely irrelevant. But it seems permissible to see mental illness as permeating every aspect of what a person with a ‘history of mental illness’ does. Furthermore, the introduction of the question of the man’s mental illness invites the reader to imagine that one would have to suffer from mental illness in order to create a disturbance on the show in the way that Mr O’Brien did.

Yet at the same time, while the TV show operates according to certain rules and conventions, there is no ultimate justification for the existence of these rules and conventions, since neither the form nor the content of the show are derived from some universally accepted natural order of things. Also, it was clear that many people were sympathetic to what he had to say. Whilst I might not share Mr O’Brien’s analysis, or his way of getting his point across, I see nothing that renders his intervention any less ‘sane’ than the extremely artificial and rarefied environment in which his actions took place. But if we are led to understand his intervention in terms of ‘mental illness’, it gives us a starting point for returning things to proper order.

I on Twitter

November 2009