In the novel I am currently writing, entitled Colourful People (the fourth book of the Boy & Girl Saga) the young people are confronted with a problem. They have successfully evolved a way of healing that depends on the existence of a blueprint for a healthy body present in every cell. As a result, they can heal by encouraging the body to return to that blueprint. But no such convenient blueprint exists for mental or behavioural problems. The question seems dauntingly complex. When one of their number begins behaving in ways that are alarming if not threatening, the urgent need to find a solution raises difficult questions about so-called ‘mental illness’ but also about the concept of normality. The following text is part of an effort to get a better picture of the subject. Naturally these exploratory ideas would take on a very different form if they were to be integrated into the story.
A constellation of characteristics
A description of dyslexia will list a series of characteristics, a certain number of which would be expected if a person is to be diagnosed with the ‘condition’. I prefer the word ‘characteristics’ to ‘symptoms’ because the latter is linked to the notion of illness or abnormality whereas not all the characteristics are necessarily signs of ill health. On the contrary. What’s more, when listing characteristics, authors tend to say they can vary over time. The resulting picture is that a condition like dyslexia is a recognisable constellation of characteristics that can change with time. These characteristics generally reflect the way the mind works or the person behaves, but they can also be seen as competences, or the lack of them.
Encompassing all human behaviour
Now if we go beyond limiting ourselves to those numerous mental disorders gleefully listed in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) – the current professional Bible on the matter – and consider all human behaviour, is it not possible that every person can be described as a changing constellation of characteristics? As a result, the line between so-called normal and abnormality becomes much less rigid. I will return to the question of frontier later. Seeing all individuals as a constellation of characteristics might be construed as a return to a mechanistic model, but rather the constellations are necessarily dynamic and interact between themselves as well as with those of other people and the wider society.
The central question then becomes, how is the supposed superiority of certain constellations justified? The major argument in favour of the superiority of a limited number of constellations that make up the majority of humanity over a wide variety of less frequent but increasingly numerous others is that they render people better adapted to function in society. While this might appear self-evident, the linking of ‘suitability’ to a given ‘social order’ is questionable. It could be construed as a way of gaining power over other constellations and maintaining the status quo, when in fact the organisation of society for which people are supposed to be adapted might be far from adequate and that inadequacy might be largely due to certain dominant mindsets.
A parallel to competences
To illustrate this point, let’s draw a parallel between these characteristics and competences. Like characteristics, there are a great many competences with each person having a number of them that can change and evolve over time. Some can dance. Others can beat complex rhythms or paint beautiful paintings. Yet others are good at finding their way in confusing environments. Then there are those who can resolve conflicts or negotiate deals. And so on. But our society is dominated by an education system which privileges and rewards a very narrow set of competences – related to academic ability. Those who fail to make the grade in school are often stigmatised and at a considerable disadvantage in the jobs market, for example, even if they have skills society sorely needs. This dominance of one limited set of competences has far-reaching repercussions on the life and esteem of individuals as well as on the functioning of society which needs a much wider palette of competences.
Stigmatised and disempowered
The stigmatisation of those who don’t have the ‘preferred’ characteristics goes even further. It disempowers them, giving the right to a select group of individuals – seen as experts, drawn from those with superior constellations – to ‘treat’ them as cases, that is to say, handle them as people lacking in some way, and, as such, in the name of alleviating their symptoms and adapting them to society, limit their freedom and impose treatments with varying degrees of ill if not devastating effects.
A map of constellations
To get a better grasp of the lay of the land concerning these multiple constellations, a cartographic metaphor might prove useful. Imagine a 3D map of all existing constellations in which the elements constituting a given constellation are positioned so that the further they are from the centre, the less likely that particular characteristic is to work in a given society. Some constellations might be tightly grouped, others spreadeagled across a large area. For the constellations to be recognisable, the constituent characteristic could be pictured as linked to its fellows by a line rather like constellations of stars on a star-map.
The galaxy of behaviour
If we now step back and look at the overall picture, we perceive a central area like the hub of a galaxy, regrouping a limited choice of constellations most of the characteristics of which correspond to behaviours and mindsets of a great number of people and are seen to work best in the existing society. At the rim of this central hub, a larger variety of constellations would gravitate, partly within the sphere of what might be considered workable, but some of their characteristics are more far-flung and seen as troublesome for the individual or society. Finally, the outlying constellations link characteristics that are patently unworkable leading to behaviours that could endanger the individual or even society.
Stability and instability
This image resembles that of a so-called attractor in chaos theory. Let me explain. In a dynamic system, like those that underlie living organisms where the emergence of the complex properties necessary for life depends on a fine balance in a sea of disorder, an attractor is a set of states toward which a system tends to evolve. That set of states represents a zone of stability in an otherwise unstable situation. Note that the name ‘attractor’ could be misleading. It does not ‘attract’ its fellows, having no agency of its own. But like constellations do tend to congregate there. On the basis of this metaphor, our central hub of constellations of behaviour can be seen to be a zone of relative stability in which like constellations cohabit. Moving too far from that zone leads to grave instability and, ultimately, the breakup of the system.
The relationship to society
The contours of the central hub is, to a large extent, dependant on the nature of the constellations that make it up, but it is not solely dictated by them. It also depends on the nature of society. In a world in which being able to spin what H.G. Frankfurt (1) calls ‘bullshit’ – replacing widely perceived reality by a fabricated and forcibly maintained alternative – is seen as acceptable if not advantageous – to choose a topical example – a number of characteristics that might be considered inimical to a society which favours truth, facts and a consistent reality, suddenly take on a central and legitimate place and other competences are relegated to the fringes as aberrations, notably the quest for truth as in scientific research or investigative journalism. When certain constellations that were hitherto marginalised as ill-adapted or inappropriate manage to take a central place, the resulting mix becomes increasingly unstable. The overall balance is lost. If nothing is done, society will break down giving way to a desperate struggle for survival and, ultimately, life itself becomes impossible. In that it is similar to bodily illnesses. If care is not taken, some illnesses can get progressively worse until the body ceases to function.
(1) On Bullshit, Harry G. Frankfurt, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2005.