By Ron Bassman (Originally published here)
How we think about health, happiness, and self-fulfillment, and a myriad of issues including suicide, inexplicable violent acts, and the influence of technology/information glut, ecology, the impact of war, poverty, the inequitable distribution of wealth and power and how they are linked with flawed systems of government has been assigned to the domain of social scientists. The most influential of those are the psychiatrists who have been given the government-mandated power to diagnose, incarcerate and forcibly drug those who are perceived to have a form of mental illness. I believe that such power is arbitrary, unjust and frequently harmful.
Madness defies explanations that prize uniformity. It is a dynamic chaos without boundaries that is unique to the individual. Yet madness contains enough common features to seduce our thought leaders to create all-encompassing theories. At its simplest, madness may be a reaction to pain, suffering and confusion in which the individual attempts to use all of his or her resources to find a way out of ever-shifting mazes. Too many of others’ attempts at help, where force is used without regard to the person’s wishes, needs, and timing that is so important to the individual, often serve to make the maze’ s walls more confining and impenetrable. .
I have been trying to generate outrage about the new iteration of the Murphy Bill. Unfortunately the response has been more of mild agreement – that it is not good – rather than what I hoped would be enough outrage to mobilize actions. NAMI, if it has not already, will be calling on its huge network to generate a response that would make the Bill look like it is mandated by a public majority.
Today I got a surprise call from a dear friend, Tom Olin, whom many consider the premier visual documentarian of the disability rights movement. He said he had just come from Tennessee and had visited the Highlander school where we had first met. While talking to people there, they asked him if he could get a copy of the statement we created there in 2000, so that they could display it next to a photograph of his that was already hanging there. Tom asked me if I still had the statement and if I did to send it to him. I dug it up and read it over. It brought up great memories of the comraderie of that meeting, and how thrilling it was to be part of that historic site of civil rights activism. But too soon I felt sad, realizing that what we had fought to change back then had not changed much. And now, more disturbing, is the potential damage to our rights, dignity and ultimately our freedom if the Murphy bill is passed.
Once again I thought about how the pressures and inequities of modern life defy the simple formulas that many crave. When those too-simple solutions do not work it is easier to assign blame to the outliers, the bad, the evil, the differently endowed, then to examine how developed countries offer their citizens grossly unequal support and opportunity. The majority have very little control in a game rigged in favor of the advantaged while teasing the disadvantaged with unrealistic expectations of attaining “the good life.”
How we best limit the rights of individuals, when necessary, for the good of the community in a way that does not elevate conformity to an exalted position – at the expense of the seers – is a conundrum. For communities to operate efficiently, interdependence is paramount. I wonder how the lofty goal of interdependence can be flexible enough to value and sustain diversity. Our instinct to be wary of difference, the not us, does not serve us as it once did when it was an alert to threat. With our devastating ability to decimate those we objectify as “other,” and our capacity to damage our planet, it is imperative that we overcome our instinct to see danger in the not us, and most importantly to develop the ability to see the potential gifts of those who are different in some way from the “chronically normal.” Social justice may be elusive, and rife with seemingly insoluble dilemmas, but we cannot abandon its pursuit.
Freedom and the right to choose is precious. I ask us to stop closing our eyes to the insidious chipping away of our freedom and subscribing to the need to suppress and dominate the not us. We cannot afford to sacrifice any more of our already limited freedom and privacy for the tenuous illusion of safety. The anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act 25 years ago will be celebrated this summer. The rights of people with disabilities was a hard fought battle probably best illustrated by the pictures of massive protests – most notably pictures of people leaving their wheelchairs and crawling up the steps of the Washington capital building. Words can inspire us to actions but I believe that it is with our actions that we provoke progress. The struggle to defeat discrimination and advance disability rights is not over.
I believe the Highlander Statement of 2000 remains all too relevant.
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The Highlander Statement of Concern and Call to Action
March 25, 2000
In the tradition of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt and thousands of men and women concerned about social justice and progressive change, thirty people with long histories of fighting for human rights in mental health gathered for three days at the Highlander Center in Tennessee. We argued, came to consensus, and then quietly shared our pain, our concerns, our fears, and our hopes for the future.
We came to understand that our personal stories have power and that they must be heard. We must tell them to other people who have been damaged by psychiatric treatment, to the public, to lawmakers and to political candidates as well. We are compelled to share our collective struggle and claim our place as a civil rights movement along side of those who have been similarly discounted, disenfranchised, and marginalized: people of color; gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people; people with physical disabilities; women; people belonging to religious, ethnic, and linguistic minorities; Jews and others now at risk for ethnic cleansing; and people forced to live in poverty amidst the great wealth and abundance of corporate America.
In the Highlander tradition, we came away from those three days on the mountain determined that we will not allow anyone to do for us, to discount us, or to pat us on the head instead of looking us in the eye. We came away invigorated and ready to act individually and collectively to insure that selfdetermination, respect, ethical behavior, and humane voluntary services and supports become the foundation of a reinvented mental health system.
We came away ready to make this a reality.
The Highlander Call for Action:
We call upon all people committed to human rights to organize and fight against the passage and implementation of legislation making it easier to lock up and forcibly drug people labeled with psychiatric disorders, legislation that is creating the backwards of the twentyfirst century not just in hospitals, but also in our own homes.
We call upon all people committed to human rights to work together to build a mental health system that is based upon the principle of self-determination, on a belief in our ability to recover, and on our right to define what recovery is and how best to achieve it.
We call upon people who have used mental health services to heal each other by telling our stories. We call for the creation of literature and other arts that use our truths to educate, to inform, and to validate our culture and our experience.
We call upon elected officials, political candidates, and those with power over our lives to recognize and honor the legitimacy of our concerns through their policy statements, legislative proposals, and their actions; and we hereby give notice that we will do whatever it takes to insure that we are heard, that our rights are protected, and that we can live freely and peacefully in our communities.
The Highlander 30: Laurie Ahern, Patricia Deegan, Ken Schlosser, Judi Chamberlin, Tom Berendt, Carla X Cubit, Celia Brown, Anne Krauss, Ron Bassman, George Ebert, Mary Ann Ebert, Linda Morrison, Janet Foner, Tom Olin, Lawrence Plumlee, Gayle Bluebird, Cookie Gant, Vicki Fox Wieselthier, Mickey Weinberg, Beverly Jones, Loren Mosher, Ty Colbert, Jay Mahler, Kris Yates, Sally Zinman, Ted Chabasinski, Lynda Wright, Sue Parry, Linda Sisson, David Oaks