Tuesday, February 25, 2014

On politics and mental illness

Alright. Spurred by some posts, media pieces, and public figures commenting that I've seen about the place in the wake of the Charlotte Dawson suicide, I've been thinking ....

i) mental illnesses are, y'know, "illnesses". It's sort-of right there in the name. I don't doubt that a lot of factors go into both the manifestation of an illness and whatever the sufferer chooses to do about it; but in light of the Hill-Cone Herald column et al., I really must echo Hume's Daily Blog piece in suggesting the focus for an explanation ought to be on the illness itself, which can definitely be a terminal one.

ii) we seem to hold "public figures" to a rather higher standard of thick skinnedness and infallibility than we would otherwise demand of ourselves or our associates. What this means in practice is that if you're on TV or prominent in other media, then dealing with some occasionally quite horrendous sentiments and the cretins that go with them, is increasingly viewed as merely "par for the course", rather than something abominable in our public discourse. Yon video of TVNZ people reading out abuse they've received recently goes some ways to confirming this.

iii) I liked Annette Sykes' status pondering the vitriol often heaped in the direction of activists and others in the political sphere, even though I feel she may have gotten it *slightly* the wrong way round in putting the focus on politicians abusing activists, rather than activists (and everyone else) abusing politicians.

Which leads me to iv), where it occasionally gets somewhat personal.

We demand an arguably far higher standard of both sanity and sanctity from our politicians - both the elected ones, and the ones aspiring to become so. Don't believe me? Well, think about it this way. Put yourself in the shoes of a candidate campaigning for office. Persons such as myself already get written off as "crazy" in a semi-serious way for our choice of beliefs, solutions, or political party straight from the get go - but imagine for a moment the trepidation of having an identifiable mental illness and still putting yourself out there in front of voters. You spend a bit of time pondering how your fellow countrymen/electors would react were they to find out what's up. Optimistically, would some of them go "Yup, that's a valuable perspective to be able to draw upon when shaping the course of our Nation and its laws; I won't think any worse of them for it"? Or, more likely, would the average voter think "Gee, that BIPOLAR candidate [and you can bet it would be screamingly emphasized by some voters/partisans] .. Ain't going to vote for them! .. They might do something crazy and reckless in a manic phase or be a less effective legislator or official in their depressive phases. Much better/safer to entrust my vote with the obviously sane candidate with the financial trader background, a stable home life, and that ambitious glint in the eye who seems perfect and polished all the time."

That's a thought-chain that I know for a fact be running through the minds of some politicos, candidates and political public figures. And it makes acknowledging there's a problem, or seeking help for it THAT much harder and unpalatable. Particularly as there's such a pressure to be "presentable", and "aspirationally normal" on the national stage.

Matters are totally not helped by the fact that life in this most rough-and-tumble segment of the public arena is replete with all sorts of hazards and contributing factors taht are *definitely* not conducive to positive mental health. You might find yourself wracked with huge cognitive dissonance by having to speak against/vote against something you dearly believe in. You might hospitalize yourself through overwork and woefully insufficient sleep cycles. Otherwise rational people will attempt to construe you as a sort of avatar of incarnate evil for your beliefs (or, worse and more frequently, what they *think* your beliefs are, never mind what you're actually saying/doing) - and eventually, you may even start to believe it yourself.

You'll find yourself under constant attack from ALL sides - most especially, and most damagingly, from your OWN PEOPLE and those who're supposed to have your back. Eventually, you almost inexorably develop paranoid tendencies (and here I mean *literal*, actual paranoid tendencies) because your brain's been training itself for so long to see supposed allies (to say nothing of the adversaries) out to get you or manipulate you through insidious methods, plots and conspiratorial subterfuge (because they almost invariably actually *are*) ... that it hardwires itself to now see underhanded, guileful and malicious attempts to do you harm pretty much everywhere it looks, and in every interaction. (Sadly, because of proximity and the fact that you're constantly looking out for knives from your own side, this chiefly means habitually assuming the worst about those who would otherwise be amidst the nearest and dearest to you, which obviously makes finding help and support very, very difficult indeed)

This is the life of a politician, and this is how we live. It's what we signed up for, I suppose - to continually operate in an extraordinarily toxic environment, subject to constant (and often highly public) barbs, plots and attacks .. and fundamentally trepidacious about *ever* showing a moment's weakness, particularly if it's something intrinsic to you and which would look really bad for your prospects if it somehow managed to find its way onto, say, FailOil (and from thence, in twisted form, into the minds of the voter).

And the really sad thing is ... if you're outside politics - outside our side of the glass at the zooish aquarium enclosure, then you don't see much or all of this, unless you're watching House of Cards or something. This means that trying to open up to "normal" people about any or all of this - even the ones you "trust" - often doesn't help much either. I've found a very common refrain from non-political types about all this to be along the lines of "if it's that toxic and that damaging/harmful ... why are you still in the game? You should get out and go and become something less stressful like a teacher or something". Because they don't really get why you got in in the first place, or why you're still, addictedly, still there years on after having seen it for what it is. So you wind up spending late nights in the bar talking with your fellow politicos - enjoying the tangential empathy of your adversaries because they, at least, know how the game is and what it's like. But never revealing too much, lest it find its way to the wrong ears or eyes. You can't talk to your own Party high-ups about it, because then they'll think you're weak, unstable or unsuitable - and who knows what your enemies inside your own party would make of it or do with the information; you can't talk to people from other parties too candidly for obvious reasons ... so you wind up coping however you can, keeping things secret, and learning to inflict the misery on others for political gain.

That's our life. And that's why, while I (and I'm sure many, many other Kiwis) have immense and immeasurable sympathy/empathy for All Blacks or models or TV personalities or other public figures who wind up (one way or another) letting us in to their battles with mental illness and adversity ... I also think that we should often spare a thought, particularly in an election year (where things are going to get seriously vitriolic) for our politicians.

Because without getting into the Merchant of Venice monologue ... we're human, all too human, too. And far less able to publicly admit it.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Ernest Renan and Waitangi Day

A few thoughts on Kiwi Nationhood, inspired by the day.

A guy called Ernest Renan once wrote that the process of forging a Nation is as much (if not more so) about the people of that nation coming together to forget as it is about shared memory. He was writing about the French nationalistic experience, and given my Great Grandfather's country is comprised of an eclectic (and occasionally quite volatile) combination of previous conquering peoples, faiths and languages ... for them, he had a point. There would be no France if every Frenchman cleaved to his ancestral identity and *remembered* just which of his neighbour's ancestors had conquered the region and deposed his own. Why, you'd get Northern Ireland! [Or, incidentally, that period of Breton-Fascist co-operation, wherein my Breton co-ethnees won a brief quasi-independent state and the right to speak, teach, and live their own language ... by collaborating with the Nazis against the unitary French ideal]

For New Zealand, it is a bit different. The average New Zealand European has probably forgotten much of what his ancestors did to Maori - or even to other NZ Europeans; and probably thinks still less again to what was done to those other early migrant groups like the original NZ Chinese.

But for many Maori, and some Europeans, this is not so. We remember what happened (occasionally through interesting lenses) ... and if we do not remember, then we endeavour to learn.

This, to my mind, is where we differ as a people from Renan's Frenchmen.
We have not come together to forget ... particularly in recent decades.

Instead, we have done quite the contrary. We have come together ... to first remember, and then (and arguably more importantly), to Overlook.
(i.e. to hold the Memory, and yet quite pointedly focus on the positives of our relationship and its future; while only occasionally bringing up the negatives of the past - which, while present, are not allowed to become overwhelming, except when a point is being made)

Renan also wrote that the process of nationhood was something akin to a "daily referendum" - that is to say, a process by which the people of said nation continually affirm both their relationship with the nation, as well as its shared communal existence.

This pretty much seems to be the modern spirit of Waitangi. Shared overlooking (rather than forgetting) of some of our past; and (hopefully) shared rememberance of both the promise of our future.

And most importantly, a dual reminder of the knowledge that our nationhood is still very much a work in progress - which can only continue to be forged through conscientious and shared effort by *all* our peoples.