Saturday, August 1, 2015

Praise and Blame, Ailments, Madness and Society

I have written before -- at greatest length in "Morbus non Gratus" -- about my illness and its many effects and side effects. One of the most troubling, at least for me, is that porphyria*, in some cases -- rare ones I believe -- can causes individuals to behave strangely, out of character, with little control. This is not just the confusion or dazed feelings to which I have become accustomed, at least whenever I get too much sun or eat or drink the wrong things (or don't eat enough**), that is little worse than the feeling of being inebriated. (And is mercifully uncommon, at least if I take care of myself.) According to what i have read, in a few cases, porphyria attacks can result in relatively uncontrolled behavior, in completely out of character actions.

Reading that has made me wonder from time to time, if I ever experienced such an event. Looking back over my life, there are a handful of incidents where I simply cannot understand why I behaved as I did. I can explain everything before and after -- not always things I would do if I were reliving those events today, but I can still understand my motives -- but in between those understandable actions, there are a few things I simply cannot figure out. In a couple cases, I was drinking, so that may explain it well enough, and in the others I often wonder if it is simply that, having changed and grown in the intervening years, the events which seem so unintelligible were perfectly ordinary at the time, and only seem strange to the person I have now become.

The one realization I have had while considering all of this is, whether or not I ever conclude my actions were explainable or not, I am very reluctant to blame anything on my ailment. Why? Because, if I blame my ailment, if I say my actions are not entirely my own, if I use illness to excuse my behavior, then, while I may not be to blame for whatever I might have done, I also cannot be praised for what I have done either. After all, if our actions are not our own, if we are not to be blamed for our behavior, then we cannot expect to be praised either. And, for better or worse, I would much rather accept responsibility for whatever I might have done in my life, if it means that I am also to be praised for the good things I have done. On balance, I am not sure if I have done more good or bad -- I suppose it depends on who does the judging and how it is weighed -- but regardless of what the balance is, I am proud of those good things I did, and would never want to be robbed of my responsibility for them.

What I find a bit troubling is how many people would argue the precise opposite of that position, how many of my fellows would be perfectly willing to forego any praise, lose all credit, even proudly declare they have no role in the life they have lived, that they are effectively without volition, all if it would only allow them to avoid blame for whatever wrong they might have done, or, even more surprising, just to avoid having to explain why they have not achieved what they think they should. I suppose, in a way, it is why so many people claim ill-defined psychological ailments, or try to surrender some of their agency, be it by exaggerating the effects of stress, or PMS, or some other physical factor they can use to justify their behaviors. So many individuals I have met truly long to be absolved of all blame, even if it means they must pretend they are not responsible for anything they have done. It is what some odd folk mean when they long to return to childhood, or speak of the appeal of mental illness. For them, both states are attractive because just like children, the mad are never blamed for their deeds, and it seems a goodly number of people are truly frightened of facing the blame of others for what they have done.

Which brings me, at long last, to the reason why I am writing about this on this blog.

Now, anyone can understand when a criminal fakes mental illness in order to escape a trial, or at least punishment, but it is much harder to explain why so many ordinary people, in everyday circumstances, seem to be looking for ways to ensure they cannot be blamed for what they do. It isn't as if they face some sort of punishment, or their fellows will shun them . force them out of society. Yet still, many people, perhaps most, seem to have an unexplained dread of others looking down upon them. It is not related to any specific actions others may take, nor is it tied to any specific individuals expressing this blame, it is a very nebulous, yet overpowering, fear of blame in itself.

And it is that fear, that terribly strong -- if somewhat indistinct -- dread of the blame of others, that I so often argue can provide us with a means to control social behaviors. Time and again, I have argued that the government, the use of the threat of lethal force -- whether expressed through the threat of death, or some lesser form, being physical harm, restraint, imprisonment, confiscation, what have you -- should be limited to a very narrow realm of problem behaviors. That is, people should face government actions only when their behaviors violate the rights of others. That is when they threaten life, liberty or property against the others' will.

Yet when I propose this, the reaction tends to be to assume that, if it were so, people would behave in dreadful ways, running about naked and copulating in the streets. I usually respond first by asking if the only reason my reader fails to trade sex for money is because it is illegal, but inevitably they respond that -- yes, they would not do it, even if legal -- but those crazy other people*** out there would!!!

So I next suggest that social controls would work to stop behaviors we want to stop. And, by not using government power, but rather voluntary persuasion, we would not run the risk of the state gradually gaining ever more power, as it has done for so long.

But, again, readers tend to imagine that social controls are just too weak. Even when I point out that almost everything we do everyday, from choosing how to dress, to all our interactions with others, are controlled by such persuasion and societal assumptions, that probably 99% of our lives are controlled by such social controls, and yet those who choose to deviate are a very, very small minority --probably fewer than those who choose to break laws**** -- and still, even with all that evidence, no one seems to believe behaviors can be controlled without the threat of jail for those who do things we don't like.

But now, I think perhaps I can make my argument a little more forcefully. After all, if people live in such fear of blame, even blame from those they don't know, blame they are never likely to receive, for deeds no one is likely to discover -- is it not likely that facing actual blame for doing things obvious to the world would be a strong force to help maintain social control? Is it not just possible that we might not need the threat of jail and fines and execution to make people behave and avoid those things we think are bad ideas?

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* I believe I have mentioned that the final diagnosis of my condition was intermittent porphyria, though the tests failed to identify the exact variety. In addition, since the treatments before I had a diagnosis, and when I later had the wrong diagnosis, also induced countless attacks, I have pretty extensive nerve damage in my arms and legs, hands and feet, and to a lesser degree in my face and neck. So far my liver seems to be otherwise unharmed, and the nerve damage doesn't seem to have harmed my tissues too much (though I do have some swelling from time to time), but the nerve damage is enough to leave me in a fair amount of pain.

** Porphyria has a number of items which trigger attacks, though which do and don't, and to which one is more or less sensitive, seems to vary from case to case, as well as with variety of porphyria. In my case, sunlight very rarely causes any blistering (one or twice I found unexplained tiny round blisters on my arms), but it leaves me confused, and often induces sharp stomach pains. The same is true for large quantities of protein, too much caffeine (more than one soda or coffee in a few hours), or alcohol (again, I can drink maybe a glass of win or one beer a day, maybe a bit more). Smoking does not seem to trigger attacks on its own, but if I smoke more than usual (or worse, try to use nicotine gum) I can have an attack, with stomach pains accompanied by sharp burning feelings in my extremities. The worst trigger, though, seems to be fasting. If go for more than a few hours without some calories (even a soda or juice is enough), I have the worst attacks of all. Actually, even worse were the attacks after taking certain medicines, but I have learned to look up any new prescription on the porphyria database first, so that rarely happens now. (By the way, actually having porphyria, the idea that this ailment somehow created vampire myths, or in some cases werewolf myths, is simply absurd.)

*** This belief that everyone else is so different from ourselves lies at the root of a lot of bad political philosophies, but I won't go into that in detail, instead referring anyone interested to the following essays: "Communist Arrogance","Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences", "Man's Nature and Government", "Appealing to Arrogance", "The Intellectual Elite", "The Citizen Dichotomy", "The Essence of Liberalism", "Liberalism, "Idealists" and Internal Contradictions".

**** This is the other point that always puzzles me. Some people will concede that social controls might stop a number from doing things society frowns upon, but then argue that, without laws a few might still misbehave. To which I must reply, the existence of police and jails proves that even with laws a few choose to misbehave. So neither system is going to produce perfect results. Then why hold that against one and not the other?



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