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Treating Our Jokers Right

He paints a smile from his blood and dances in complete indifference to the sane world. It’s a festival of anarchy. There is chaos; absolute chaos and mayhem. Protesters are burning the enlightened worldview and its self defined contemplation of madness in their sadistic rage. Law enforcement is all over the place; sidelined by the charged mob. The only collective identity that the mobs carry is of a clown. A joker. In such an environment of mutineers taking hold of the streets, he dances and manifests a certain philosophical completeness. These scenes closed the contemporary masterpiece of the Hollywood film industry: Joker; starring Joaquin Phoenix.

The film is a hard-hitting tale of a tragedy and a modern life crisis. After failing as a party clown and being treated in an agonizing way because of a neurological disorder that makes him laugh uncontrollably, Arthur Fleck finally resorts to violence and murder.

The grievances of Arthur Fleck get intensified by the chain of events. He had no prior tendencies to kill but the societal behaviour that he is subjected to brings him to a point where he feels that he has nothing to lose. After getting attacked by street hooligans, he carries a gun for safety which falls out off his pocket while performing at a children’s medical facility, hence resulting into his termination. All the miseries add up and when three men on a subway humiliate and physically assault him. He retaliates and shoots them. He also dates a woman who never actually accompanied him, hence falling into the pit of his delusions. His next catch becomes his own mother, who he kills after discovering that she was delusional and she let her boyfriend torture Fleck and herself in his childhood and has told her stories about his father, which were unreal. Then Fleck goes on to kill a moderator of a famous TV show on-air for mocking him and portraying him as a failed comedian.

As far as the film critics are concerned, they would rather be moved by the glorification of violence projected through movies like Joker; anarchy portrayed as heroics and adversaries as saviours.

The portrayal of the chain of events in the movie could lead to violence, according to critics. One such event took the form of a mass shooting in 2012 in Colorado’s Aurora Cinema which resulted in several fatalities of mostly teenagers who were there to watch the film, Dark Knight (the cinema actually refused to screen Joker this time around).

On a philosophical level, the film could challenge the argument of setting the “mad” free to mix with “normal” people, as it could lead to chaotic events. But is there a counter narrative on the treatment of those so othered – i.e. the “Mad”? How do we treat the mentally ill around us? Should they be entirely ostracized and locked in penitentiaries? Should they be subjected to surgical seizures and treatments like lobotomy and shock therapies? Should they be barred from mixing with society? Should they be mocked, belittled or deprived of health care? These are questions the critics have no interest in asking.

To answer these questions, Michel Foucault’s profound work Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, published in 1961, is of great assistance.

Foucault saw the history of madness in a philosophical way. His focus was to analyze the treatment of the mad in the Western world between the years 1500 to 1800. Of course the modern view is that the mad are well kept and more pampered than they have ever been in the history of humankind, but Foucault puts this generalized view to rest with this critical juggernaut. He argues that though there were instances of the mad being locked up and jailed in the Classical Age, but by the Renaissance Era, the mad were viewed as having a distinct kind of intelligence. They were free to roam the streets and coexist within society. But with the dawn of the Age of Reason, mankind started viewing madness as a threat to their sane world.
He notes:
“[…] modern man no longer communicates with the madman […] There is no common language: or rather, it no longer exists; the constitution of madness as mental illness, at the end of the eighteenth century, bears witness to a rupture in a dialogue, gives the separation as already enacted, and expels from the memory all those imperfect words, of no fixed syntax, spoken falteringly, in which the exchange between madness and reason was carried out. The language of psychiatry, which is a monologue by reason about madness, could only have come into existence in such a silence”

Foucault stressed on the importance of seeing the “mad” as holding a different perception of the truth. We, according to Foucault, should not be seeing them as violators of the social order. The institutionalization of the mad was described as a tragedy by Foucault and he called it the “process of a great confinement”. He criticized the walls of self-defined sanity that limited or eliminated the engagement of the mad with broader society.

Foucault also linked the institutionalization of madness in Western society with an end to leprosy. After leprosy died, all the space created to keep the leper was emptied, hence the state took it as a political agenda to find new projects of incarceration. And so, “Leprosy died but the leper remained.”

Foucault argued that madness is a social construct and he used the analogy of madness and homosexuality since the latter was once also considered as madness and was supposed to be “corrected”. This worldview changed considerably when the social construction of homosexuality changed.

The Foucaultian viewpoint as outlined above contributed to the famous Anti-Psychiatry Movement in the West around the mid-twentieth century.

What was anti-psychiatry all about?

The Anti-psychiatry Movement has its roots in Europe. It originated as a movement against the practices of psychiatry or the Freudian psychoanalytic method, which it often labeled as a pseudo-science. Thomas Szasz, Michel Foucault ad David Cooper became the most prominent names and proponents of the campaign. Although Szasz was skeptical of the term Anti-Psychiatry and had a more liberal humanitarian viewpoint to justify his writings, his work was considered to be a part of the movement. Primarily, the definition of madness was itself challenged by Szasz in his landmark work The Myth of Mental Illness in the following way:

“The primary problem with modern psychiatry is its reduction of mental illness to bodily dysfunction. Objectification of those identified as mentally ill, by insisting on the somatic nature of their illness, may apparently simplify matters and help protect those trying to provide care from the pain experienced by those needing support. But psychiatric assessment too often fails to appreciate personal and social precursors of mental illness by avoiding or not taking account of such psychosocial considerations. Mainstream psychiatry acts on the somatic hypothesis of mental illness to the detriment of understanding people’s problems”

The movement vociferously attacked the treatment and medicalization of madness in the modern age and suggested that modern treatment of mental illness is more destructive to the patient rather than therapeutic. It does not seem to cure the underlying problem. The proponents of the anti-psychiatry movement were skeptic of the shock therapies, restraint chairs, madhouses, physical and mental torture techniques.

In our contemporary world, a lot has changed in terms of the construction of madness and the treatment of its subjects. But are we keeping the “mad” in safe waters? We have to ask ourselves whether it is us, the society, who fail to laugh at meaningfully told jokes or if we laugh at meaningful people to fail them. Are we still turning comedies into tragedies? Are we treating our jokers right? The questions remain unanswered.

“The plague of mankind is the fear and rejection of diversity: monotheism, monarchy, monogamy and, in our age, monomedicine. The belief that there is only one right way to live, only one right way to regulate religious, political, sexual, medical affairs is the root cause of the greatest threat to man: members of his own species, bent on ensuring his salvation, security, and sanity.”

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