On August 7th, movie theater shooter James Holmes was sentenced to life in prison. At the sentencing hearing, Holmes’s mother pleaded that he was a sweet, innocent boy whose mental illness haunted him and eventually turned him into a murderer. From Columbine to Charleston, every time a white man opens fire, mental illness is the go-to scapegoat. Rather than admit normal people are capable of evil things, a dysfunctional brain is blamed, as though dysfunction and evil go hand-in-hand. The tendency to blame evil on mental illness lends itself to grotesque human rights violations against those who think differently from what’s socially acceptable.
Much of mental illness is socially constructed. By using medical diagnoses to condemn patterns of thinking, we stigmatize and alienate anyone who thinks differently from what the capitalist, patriarchal state will accept. How dare anyone be restless, anxious, or depressed. People who are socially awkward, can’t focus for long periods of time, or struggle to deal with emotional trauma don’t make good capitalist workerbots. Patriarchal state capitalism depends on the masses’ submission to hierarchy and taking orders. For state capitalism to function, the state’s subjects must conform to the hierarchical standards set before them. People become cogs in the machine, and when a cog doesn’t fit properly into the system, the machine tosses it aside.
In the recent past, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)included homosexuality and gender identity disorder. Gender dysphoria is still by and large considered a psychiatric disorder. Diagnoses that remain in the DSM such as Asperger’s, depression, bipolar disorder, and ADHD reflect “abnormal” personalities, not any sort of illness. While some mental illnesses are real and can be debilitating, neurodiversity is desirable and a normal part of the human condition. Neurodivergence, or divergence from social standards of normal thinking, isn’t shameful.
People who are neurodivergent are much more likely to experience violence than to perpetrate it. One in four neurodivergent people experience sexual, physical, or domestic violence in any given year. Within mental hospitals and similar institutions, abuse runs rampant.
Regardless of the nature of one’s neurodivergence, a 1998 study showed that unless drugs or alcohol are present, the neurodivergent are no more likely to commit acts of violence than anyone else. When people with mental illnesses do commit violence, it is almost always directed toward family members and friends, not strangers. One quarter of the homeless population has a severe mental disorder, as the society that lives in fear of the mentally ill leaves them exposed to street violence and police brutality.
Neurodivergent people are more likely to be the victims of police brutality than their neurotypical counterparts. Police murdered at least 14 people who the state deemed mentally ill between January and August of 2014 alone. Police often arrest people simply because of their mental illness. Or they are involuntarily committed to hospitals and then forced to pick up the bill. The State also notoriously uses mental illness to suppress dissenting opinion, such as in the classic case of anarchist Aurora d’Angelo. Our society treats those with mental illnesses as freaks at best, and criminals at worst.
The neurodivergent need to be able to protect themselves. Because they are frequent victims of violence who cannot look to the State for reliable help, they must have the option to arm themselves. When trying to prevent mass shootings, the State seeks to either restrict the freedom of those with mental illness, restrict access to guns, or both. Many of these restrictions, such as AB 1014 in California, require only that someone be suspected of having mental health issues—no medical diagnosis is necessary. Such medical diagnoses are often based on restrictive social norms and are thus unreliable assessments of neurotypicality anyway. They certainly shouldn’t serve as the standard for curtailing a person’s freedom.
Gun control hurts the societally and legally marginalized the most, including (and especially) the neurodivergent.
This article was originally published on August 11, 2015 at C4SS.org.