I’d planned on a peaceful afternoon following a few arduous days but then I read this piece by journalist Madonna King, titled “Billy Gordon must stop making excuses for bad behaviour” and honestly, if this doesn’t encapsulate everything I’ve been writing about for the last few days I can’t imagine what would.
King opens by observing that Andreas Lubitz, co-pilot of the Germanwings flight that ended in tragedy after he flew the plane into the French Alps might well have been suffering from depression however, that doesn’t mean he ought not to be recorded in history as a mass murderer responsible for the deaths of 150 passengers.
From this King moves onto the saga of Queensland politician Billy Gordon, currently facing universal disapprobation for past crimes and present misdemeanours. Many people, King claims, suffer difficult childhoods and depressive illness, but they don’t all fly planes into mountains or resort to criminal activities, so why should anyone excuse the behaviours of Lubitz or Gordon on the grounds of their struggles with their personal demons?
Indeed, goes the illogic of her argument, Lubitz and Gordon are even more morally bankrupt because they did not manage to deal with their demons in a manner that did not cause anguish to others.
Let me unpick King’s moral dummy spit.
While there are undeniably common factors in depressive illness, and in the reactions to childhood trauma, it should never be forgotten that every circumstance is individual, and neither depressive illness nor childhood trauma occurs to robots and replicants but to human beings, formed by genes, nature, and nurture, different in every case, different even within the same family. To argue that because one person does not react like another to trauma indicates that they are exceptionally morally deficient, is the worse kind of middle class, self-righteous, pseudo-psychological conservative claptrap.
Lubitz undoubtedly will quite rightly be remembered as the murderer of 150 passengers and the bearer of anguish to hundreds of others. However, no human action takes place in a vacuum, and understanding Lubitz’s circumstances is not “making excuses” for his acts, but informing ourselves, the better to avoid such catastrophes in the future.
Likewise, knowing where Billy Gordon is coming from is not “making excuses” for his actions, but adding to our knowledge of how the events of an individual’s life form him or her, and of the enormous variety of responses and reactions individuals can have to what on the surface appear to be identical or very similar circumstances.
Taking a moral stand on these matters does nothing to inform us of anything. This is a classic example of how pointlessly destructive moral stands can be. If we say, as has Ms King, that explanations and understanding are “excuses” for certain types of behaviour, we come to a dead-end. If we want to reduce and prevent certain types of behaviours, we won’t do it by simply deciding they are “bad.”
Gordon has at some point this week described a deprived childhood. To which King replies: Guess what Billy. You should have spent less time wanting what others had, and less time breaking the law too.
He should have spent less time wanting what others had? What? It is an offence have nothing and want what others have? The poor must not envy and covet the privileges of the comfortable? They must simply accept they can’t have them?
King goes on: Excuses are now the reason for bad behaviour across the community. An act of road rage because someone cut someone off at the pass. A scratch along the side of a car because someone took somebody else’s car park. One punch outside a night club because someone thought someone else’s drink had been spiked.
There is a vast difference between excuses and reasons, a difference that entirely escapes Ms King. These are explanations, however inadequate, of certain actions. They are vital to increasing our understanding of why some of us behave so abominably at times, and therefore indicators of how our abominable behaviour can be addressed and hopefully reduced, in the interests of the common good.
There’s not one among us, including Ms King, who can know with any certainty that we will not at some time become the victim of peripeteia. How we react in unexpected circumstances is determined by any number of factors, the majority of which are likely entirely unknown to us. Morality is largely unhelpful in these situations, and is particularly so when applied after the fact.
Apart from anything else, it is profoundly arrogant for anyone to assume or demand that every individual who suffers trauma and/or mental illness reacts to her or his circumstances in the same way. Using some of us as a yardstick by which to judge the others is a game of the privileged and the entitled. Traumatised and mentally ill people do not lose our individuality because of our experiences. We have the right to be who we are, without the burden of the expectations and moral judgements of the “normal” and the “healthy.”
Thank you Eroticmoustache (I think :-)) for the link that led to this rant.