Saturday, 9 May 2020

Of madness, discourse and gaslighting

I’ve been slightly obsessed with Shakespeare’s Hamlet the past few days, and came across this short article that I really enjoyed while doing some research. 

For those how haven’t read or watched Hamlet, (I hope my summary does justice) it tells the story of a prince (Hamlet) whose father (King Hamlet) was murdered by his uncle (Claudius, King Hamlet’s brother) in order to marry the Queen and become the new King. Throughout the entire play, Hamlet plots the revenge for his father’s death while his uncle discredits him by calling him out as a mad person. Of course, there are many other things going on in the play but I will dwell on the theme of madness as it is what the article explores.

The article discusses the concept of madness and argues that it is a “subjective and political term.” A person is considered to be mad when he or she behaves in a way that lies outside of societal norms. As societal norms are subjective, so is madness. And by branding someone as mad, it denies them of rights that are accrued to a “normal person”. They are seen as incapable of logic, different and dangerous – “the Other”. This can be used as a form of power play, as observed in Hamlet, where King Claudius’ declaration of Hamlet as a madman causes him to be an outcast. Hence, madness is also political.

Here, the author introduces the idea of discourse (which is the use of language), as espoused by Foucault, and how powerful it is in establishing social hierarchies and achieving personal agendas:

“And, of course, as long as those in power have the ability to define difference as abnormal and insane…they can eradicate any democratic change or disparate voices.”

He then discusses the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, which tells the story of patients in a mental hospital who are afraid to question the harsh governance of the hospital until the arrival of the protagonist, McMurphy. In one scene, the patients are afraid to take a vote on watching the TV in the afternoon, as they are afraid of the consequences. The author observes that the patients are afraid to vote not because they do not have the capacity to do so but because stepping out of their “safe world of insanity” involves significant risks. He also observed that many of the patients are in fact pretty intelligent and “very able to speak for themselves.” However, they accept the label of insanity and as a result,

“Insanity has usurped them of their voices, their decision making process, even their ability to think.”

What I then realised is that this (the power of discourse) applies to all sorts of relationships – between family, friends, couples and people at work. And hence the phrase “politics is everywhere.”

When discussing gender roles, the author observes that “man is given words of strength while women are named after flowers and treated as the inferior of the two opposing terms.” Let me illustrate. When telling a man to take courage, we use phrases like “man up!”, or more crudely, “grow some balls”. On the contrary, when shaming him for his lack of courage, we use phrases like “stop being a pussy” and “stop crying like a girl”. We may not realise it but these are politicized, gendered terms which empowers a group of people (in this case, men) while oppressing the other (women).

At work, I see it in play with the NSFs. It is convenient to dismiss them as “lazy”, “opportunistic” and “always trying to cheat the system”. Before a new batch of NSFs are given the chance to prove themselves, they are already treated with distrust. As a result, we end up breeding cohorts of NSFs who believe that they cannot make a change in their two years of National Service, and squander it away by giving their bare minimum.

Between a couple, you may find that one is always right while the other is always in the wrong. Perhaps, it is true that the one who is right is indeed right most of the time. However, there is also the case where over time, by using phrases like “you’re crazy”, “you’re being oversensitive” or “you don’t make sense”, one may be able to cause the other to doubt their own thoughts and opinions – gaslighting.
As a victim of gaslighting, you would be less likely to speak up about the injustice you might feel in the relationship, as you constantly question yourself if your thoughts are rational and your opinions, fair. You bite your tongue and swallow your pride, letting your partner get his or her way, again and again. Once again, we see how powerful discourse is in establishing dominance.

In Hamlet, Hamlet gets his revenge eventually by embracing his madness, as he realised that “living within this word’s social meaning will liberate him to probe and investigate, to ask questions that would otherwise not be suitable for a prince.” But it is nonetheless a tragic ending – he dies as a madman. For the rest of us who are not pursuing revenge or some other lofty ideal, the best thing we can do is probably to understand the power of discourse and not fall prey to its use as an instrument of oppression. And of course, to not become the oppressor.

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