Anders Breivik: sane or insane?

 

Talk soon turns to a discussion of the probable state of mind of a murderer whenever the crime is extreme in form or size. It was inevitable that the tragic mass slaughter of Norwegian youth would be no exception. Within a week, before we know much at all about the young man, debate had started. ‘He has to be mad or insane to perpetrate such a heinous act’ was likely to be the initial stance – and the evidence seems obvious. To be quickly followed by a seemingly wiser observation. ‘The man had to be sane – think of the months of detailed preparation Breivik undertook to become perfectly prepared to execute his plan – that can only the work of a sane person’.

As material grows over coming months, with written extracts from his voluminous ‘manifesto’, and verbal assertions and defences from his court appearances, people around the world will consolidate their position, or make a dramatic conversion from one to another camp. And whichever position one is in, everyone will be armed with more and more ‘conclusive’ evidence that the man was sane, or insane, as the case may be. Dictionaries are likely to be consulted to buttress a case; experts in the area will be seized upon or ignored

according to their supportive usefulness. Nothing is likely to be settled before public interest in the issue will begin to fail or until it is usurped by another horrendous, violent tragedy.

Some people will eventually question the debate. They will begin to challenge the framing of the issue and the silent assumptions behind the two opinions. ‘Perhaps an otherwise ‘sane’ person can carry some ‘insane’ qualities as well? Perhaps we should not assume mental states or qualities as ‘pure’ entities (like billiard balls for example) – here, of something labelled ‘insanity’ and ‘sanity’ which by definition are mutually exclusive, any co-existence being inconceivable, inexpressible’. Perhaps we have been tricked by our language: we have two opposing words which make us think they represent two opposing ‘realities’. But are there two things? Could we be composed of different complex mixtures; after all, many writers stress the complexity, disharmony, inconsistency, contrariness of any human psyche – such as the observation of Peter Steele when he says: “Show me a person and I will show you a labyrinth”. And if so, why only two names/ two words? Why do we so easily talk as if everything comes in two’s? And then we could change the imagery of concrete billiard balls bouncing off each other to something more like varieties of clouds moving in and out and between each other. We may need to enrich our vocabulary; to search for different complexities and avoid the temptation to simplify everything. Why do we always descend into crude pairs of opposing things, about which we assume we must make a clean choice: is it right or wrong, yes or no, black or white, good or bad, with us or against us?’

Why do we feel obliged to make judgments? To defend a position and attack another? Why do we get satisfaction from reaching a conclusion, better still, of winning some battle. Are we capable of appreciating another default game – of leaving open-ended an exploration of human behaviour about which we are happy to admit we know and will continue to know little, and that an exhibition of certainty is not a sign of strength but a weakness. And to agree that the discussion was enjoyable and valuable to all parties.

NOTE to readers. You may be interested to read my blog titled  “Going Sane” on the website, and also an article on ‘lessons’ from the Norwegian massacre in the current, July, issue on MCI enewsletter.

Don Miller, 28 July 2011

 

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Timing

If you were cooking a dish having three component parts (say meat, potato and green veg), you would need to carefully attend to one particular issue: the three elements have to be ready to eat at the same time – which means you have to start cooking each dish at different times.  You knew that, of course.

Yet so many home-chefs seem quite unaware of this basic rule: you need to time cooking. Not a race in time  (a misleading emphasis in Master Chef  T.V. shows), nor a simple awareness that a chook takes longer to cook than green beans. It means a careful coordination of starting/ending times of everything to be eaten at the one time. Imagine the timing complexity in restaurant cooking.

But do you realize the critical importance of timing, in all its manifestations, in almost all aspects of life and society?

The elaboration of this blog appears in the upcoming monthly issue of MCI enewsletter for July. If you would like to subscribe to MCI’s free newsletter please send an email to info@melbournecentreforideas.com with the subject “subscribe”.

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Thinking about Thinking Part 1

We have never been taught to think. When you think about it, it is a strange neglectof education  (or ‘schooling’) everywhere. In fact I wonder whether educationalists even think about that lack. Furthermore, of course, we have never been encouraged to think about thinking – apart from some possible rarefied tuition at senior secondary level in logic, contradiction and deductive and inductive thinking – language which the younger generations probably have never heard of.

Nor have we ever been told that there are different ways of thinking practiced by the different peoples of the world. If this were ever to be ‘taught’ we would be amazed to discover that thinking has had a very complex, rich and varied history. It would make a fascinating study, albeit difficult to compose.  Indeed, it seems no exaggeration to suggest that this theme could alone be a sound basis for an entire twelve-year education. And then, perhaps, the basis for the first tertiary degree before specialisation steps in.

But in the absence of such a heady education we probably assume – if the issue were ever raised – that thinking is the same thing anywhere in the world, which in all likelihood we just ‘get better at’ with further education, as we proceed to become more ‘rational’ with maturing age. Language is also likely to be assumed to be pretty homogeneous, and so translatable across cultures by the simple process of transliterating words from one ‘language’ to another.

In other words (pardon the pun), we are all saying the same sorts of things because we all think the same sorts of things – but in our own local languages.

What a pity we have been taught to be so ignorant.

NB This blog also appears at http://melbournecentreforideas.posterous.com

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American ‘Law’

If Julian Assange is classed as a journalist – that is someone who distributes information obtained from someone else – he apparently could be rescued from death or imprisonment in America, once they have him on their soil, by the Supreme Court ruling on freedom of the press under the First Amendment. So those out to get him are going out of their way to classify him under the alleged alternative, espionage.

Philip Crowley, State Department representative, asserts their position. Firstly, WikiLeaks “isn’t a media organisation” then secondly, “Assange obviously has a particular political objective behind his activities and that, among other things, disqualifies him as being considered a journalist”.

So we are presented with a remarkable classification: the ‘apolitical journalist’. Amazing. Have you met such an animal. Rupert Murdoch’s journos for Sky News. Certain Sydney radio talk-back innocents.

With integrity like that of the Philip Crowleys of the American Administration scene we may better understand why Washington classifies so much of its work as ‘secret’.

“According to The Washington Post, the number of documents classified as secret in the US has rocketed since 1966 (5.6 million), reaching 54.6million by 2009.” [Le Monde Diplomatique, January 2011].

The question of ‘secrecy’ is closely related to the issue of lies, deceits, fabrications – and their cover-up.

 

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Likeable women

I have just read about a recent ‘study’ which showed that women who are ‘likeable’ have both more chance of ‘success’ and  more ‘influence’ over others. I started to smile: we all like likeable more than unlikeable people – so it’s good that certain women get deserved recognition and reward.

But I pulled up abruptly. Perhaps this research is little more than a masculine construction. Women have to be (seen) to be different from the male – so why not its opposite: men are ‘naturally’ assertive, focused on the task at hand, frank and forthright even if that calls for occasional sternness. They are concerned with satisfactorily completing a job, this line of thought would continue, not with winning a popularity contest. Besides (men may quietly admit to themselves) ‘we don’t want women asserting themselves all the time and taking over our jobs. Sweet, kindly and harmless, that’s what we want’.

I then thought, maybe playing at being likeable could be a deliberate strategy, rather than an ‘ingrained’ feminine quality, because (most) women don’t want to encourage masculine animosity more than is ‘necessary’. Is it a matter of the two sexes accommodating themselves to each other – but, it seems inevitable, according to masculine rather than feminine or some other mores.

So, I finally wondered, by which type of ‘talent’ do successful women actually earn advancement. And, once again I realized how little we still know about genetic make-up of the two genders – even before we venture into the area of different national cultural dispositions.

The next day an article by a well known feminist in the daily press argued that women must become more ‘pushy’.

I really don’t  know; but I think we could all benefit by spending more time thinking deeply than by writing more prolifically. Is there to be just one strategy for all women to follow. Or all men.

 

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Pre-requisites of Creative Thinking

I have previously distinguished ‘innovation’ (these days an over-fashionable term) from ‘creative, radical thought’ by suggesting the former is a development or improvement within an existing theory or frame. I am not interested in that quest.  The latter, however, fascinates me; it involves overthrowing an existing framework for a new way of seeing, understanding, valuing and acting.

Two particular qualities I believe are necessary for bold thinking to occur.

The first is to accept that the unconscious plays a critical part in all our thinking and behaviour. We must, in this sense, be ‘post-Freudian’; without a necessity to be ‘Freudian’ (the meaning of such terms demanding too long a discussion to be treated here). This allows us to ask ‘why’ we think X and not Y – which leads us to confront and even change deep seated habits which have long dictated and formed our most basic, unchallenged thoughts and values.

The second is to break through the ‘positivist’ heritage of the last two centuries and accept without doubt that language is not a simple, transparent mirror of reality, but a complex, changing mixture of words inherently ambiguous, allusive and elusive. It is full of opportunities to think afresh, but also full of traps and false detours for the unwary.

 

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“Going Sane”

One of the many exciting books written by the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips is “Going Sane”. That title  immediately starts you thinking. Why does it make sense, for example, to say ‘going insane’ but not ‘going sane’? A can of worms opens .

We think we know what ‘insane’or insanity means – in one way or other. So, we assume, to be sane is its opposite; and that means us ?- we are the sane – surely? So, it’s a simple matter. Try it, and see what you come up with. I leave it to you.

But I can say, when you look at the set of words you have compiled, isn’t it a boring lot of words:  dull, ordinary, safe, ‘good’?  It would drive you mad to be that sane. There must be more to it, surely?

 

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What is Reading?

If, while walking down a corridor of any large organisation, public or private, you saw a notice on a door saying “Knock and Enter” what would you do? Of course, you know, don’t you? How do you think you originally learned what it meant?

Do you know that people suffering  ‘schizophrenia’ always obey the apparent order; they knock and enter every time they pass. Why? They read it quite correctly. So why did they make a mistake but you didn’t?

Are there different ways of reading?

 

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About Knowledge

Many years ago I reviewed a book which  prescribed all the latest sciences – in which ‘nano’ and ‘spikes’ flourish. The author insisted that “we now know over 90% of what constitutes the human brain, and within the current generation we will know everything”.

I criticized this, arguing that it assumes knowledge is always cumulative, each new piece building on some old, until the pyramid is complete. Whereas, new knowledge may well, in one sweep, jettison the existing system of knowledge, and a new enterprise begins. We are never in a position to know which way things will go. [By 2010 that author, I hope, would know better]

That morally and politically objectionable man, Donald Rumsfeld, expressed it more elegantly when he was putting a spin on the changing fortunes of the American invasion of Iraq: there are things we know we don’t know, but there are other things we don’t know we don’t know.’

I am reminded of this by the report in The Age on 6/11/10 of the work of  Sydney physicists led by Professor John Webb. They argue that “one of the fundamental constants of nature, alpha, is not a constant. Not only does it appear to be changing, it also differs depending from which direction in space you are facing.” In apparently 5-10 years time a definitive affirmation will be known, according to Professor Webb.

If correct “it means the laws of physics can vary throughout the universe, which would have a profound effect on science. —This would make the universe a much more complicated place. Scientists tend to consider simplicity is more likely than complexity. But I think that has historically been shown to be an incorrect philosophy” Professor Webb concludes.

We are foolish ever to think we are getting closer to the ?satisfactory completion of any system of knowledge. As Jacques Derrida reminds us “there is no ‘last word’ on anything.” Often we need to retrace our steps, or even start again.  And, as well, ?the more we learn the more we discover complexity and mystery not simplicity ?and order in everything.

Why is it that in so many ways we still ‘think’ mechanically, as if we were living still in the ?eighteenth century?

 

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Thinking, Language, Beyond Language

In ‘Thinking about thinking’ I urged a greater use of ‘why’ questions – the challenging, threatening, subversive question – not only  towards others, to ourselves as well.

I now want to suggest that, as you delve into the ‘why’ you think this rather than that, you are likely, eventually, to sense the limitations of language, perhaps for the first time. In all its richness it can never go quite far enough, or deep enough, or precise enough to fully satisfy your questions.

At this stage, you could chuck it all in, and take up lawn bowls; or take up a god which we are told is ineffable and that we therefore have no need to understand.

Or you can begin, for the first time, to really come to grips with thinking, but with a language that you acknowledge is inevitably inadequate. Words can never be facts; and words can undermine us just as much as they aid us in exploring  the impossible but wonderful, exciting and essential task of thinking seriously about anything. The final word will always elude you; you have to accept that everything is incomplete. But to feel ‘really human’ and worthwhile, you stick at it. Your rewards are without limits.

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