Here's a quote.
We see a sloppily-parked car and we think "what a terrible driver," not "he must have been in a real hurry." Someone keeps bumping into you at a concert and you think "what a jerk," not "poor guy, people must keep bumping into him." A policeman beats up a protestor and we think "what an awful person," not "what terrible training." The mistake is so common that in 1977 Lee Ross decided to name it the "fundamental attribution error": we attribute people’s behavior to their personality, not their situation.
That's from a September 2012 Web log entry by Aaron Swartz. I didn't know him and it seems I never will, because he killed himself yesterday. We had some friends in common and we fought for some of the same causes. He, like me and a lot of other people, got in legal trouble for publishing some information that large corporations didn't want published. In his case it was some academic publishers, and in mine, it was Mattel. It sounds like his case was going in a much worse direction than what happened to me. And it seems that he suffered from clinical depression.
A lot of smart people are talking right now about Aaron Swartz and about depression. Since I didn't know him, there's not a lot I feel I can or should say about the man himself. I poured a libation for him even though I've no idea what his religious beliefs were if any, and even if a lot of people probably wouldn't appreciate such a gesture, but I did it as much for myself as for him. And I don't want to co-opt someone else's life and death to push my own causes, especially not someone who did have plenty of causes of his own and ability to speak for himself. I would hate to have my own life, whenever it ends, used as an excuse for someone else's agenda.
But I led with the quote above because Aaron Swartz said it himself, and I agree with it; and Lawrence Lessig, whom I admire, did know him and wrote that "This is the time when every mixed emotion needs to find voice." So here's a mixed emotion of mine.
I love mental illness! I love mental illness because it's a perfectly crafted excuse. Mental illness allows us to get points for trying to fix a problem, but no human being needs to admit responsibility for the problem. Mental illness is a source of crimeless victims. If someone is sick, then it goes absolutely without saying that that's nobody's fault. We just need to be empathic and offer the patient "help." We feel good if we can "help," but if the "illness" kills them, well, it's very unfortunate we couldn't "help" more, but it's still nobody's fault. People do die from being sick sometimes. Saying that a person is "ill" and talking about biochemistry is an excuse to think that the important problem is a problem with that person and not a problem with anything or anybody outside of that person. Thinking that your problems are outside you and with other people is - and this is a masterstroke - defined to be a symptom of mental illness called "projection." So mental illness is something we're freely allowed to attribute to personality instead of situation. Saying that someone's problems are caused by sickness is an excuse not to think about what and who might have helped them get sick.
By all means if someone has broken knees let's make sure they get to see a Bone Doctor, and get them a good wheelchair and painkilling drugs and let's run a campaign to raise awareness and end the stigma of knee illness. Let's do the research and determine that "broken knees are caused by a nonstandard distribution of calcium compounds in the synovial fluid." But let's not pretend that we don't know what those words actually mean, nor that the language of medicine and illness really explains the most important issue. Let's not completely ignore who's holding the fucking sledgehammer!
Let's never say "mental illness is nobody's fault." Don't let's attribute Aaron's suicide to his personality instead of his situation. Maybe this world could do with a little less "awareness" focused at the victims of mental illness, and maybe just an occasional glance at the bigger picture.