Thursday, July 30, 2009

Either/Or or Both/And? The Case of Otty Sanchez

I haven't posted anything about Otty Sanchez until now for several reasons. For one thing I hadn't heard enough about the case to be able to form any kind of opinion. And as the mother of a very young child I was just kind of avoiding the news coverage of the story anyway. The salacious way the media often treats stories like this is a little too depressing for me, and when you're chronologically closer to the time in your life when you had a newborn at home, this kind of story is a little too cringe-inducing. And these kinds of stories often get so much blog coverage that I get too burned out to write on them myself.

But this post on Feministing has irritated and saddened me enough to nudge me out of my reticence. I should actually say that the comment thread following the post has irritated and saddened me. I guess I'm always surprised by the either-or thinking that's such a common rhetorical tool in our political environment. Or I'm always surprised when seemingly thoughtful, progressive people fall for it. I expect conservatives to take a "hard" stance on issues like this and view a person who commits a terribly violent act like Sanchez's as hopelessly evil, and exclusively and wholly responsible for the act, and inexcusable, and disposable. I expect them to refuse to view the situation in context or question the systemic and cultural forces at play in the situation or ponder what might have been done to prevent a situation like this. I expect that from conservatives, who tend to be lacking in compassion and an understanding of the complexity/nuance of real life. But I'm taken aback when people who are willingly spending time in a feminist/progressive space exhibit these kinds of attitudes, and this either-or thinking. So, for my own sake if for nobody else's, I feel like clarifying a few things.

  1. A little review from Critical Thinking 101. Oftentimes when someone is trying to get you to agree with them, they'll act as if there are only two options: something you would never agree to, or their claim. Like this: "Either the earth is flat, or you have a turnip growing out of your head." Of course, the only correct answer is "none of the above." And that's easy to recognize when it's a simple and ridiculous dichotomy like the example above. But when the topic of conversation is complex and somewhat confusing, and feelings are running high, it can be hard to back off and question the original dichotomy with which you were presented.
  2. It is not the case that questioning a person's mental state and competence when they committed a violent act amounts to justifying their actions or portraying them as innocent or denying they had any responsibility for the action. This claim is based on a false dilemma.
  3. (I'm just gonna straight-up start quoting my own comments from Feministing here, 'cause I'm too lazy to type it all out again)
    Many events in history have demonstrated that people can be induced to do terrible things in the right circumstances. Good people, who seemed to be compassionate and thoughtful people in other circumstances. Take the situations people find themselves during wartime, or in prison, for example. Brainwashing and mind-altering drugs have also had this effect on people. Heck, look at the Stanford prison experiments or the Milgram experiments. No matter what our cultural mythology says about inherently good and bad people, the evidence shows that anyone is capable of performing horribly violent actions given the right set of circumstances. And it's uncomfortable to think that, because we're accustomed to the idea that every action you undertake, in any situation, is an unquestionable sign of your permanent character. Our cultural mythology also includes the idea that once a person has committed a deeply unethical act, s/he is irretrievably damaged and not fit to live. And I understand that these are the ideas that many of us have internalized via our culture. But feminism and humanism question these ideas,
    partially on the basis of the evidence I've mentioned above, and partially on
    the basis of valuing each human life in and of itself.
  4. There's a huge element of privilege involved in our discussion of cases like this, which may well lead us to view it as a clear-cut, either/or kind of thing:
    I guess I think these are compatible. I do believe she should feel guilty and horrible, but that doesn't mean I can't feel a great deal of pity for her. It's not either/or. It's both/and. I am privileged in that I have never had mental health issues and was able to adjust to parenting and to have a good relationship with my kids. But I acknowledge that not everyone is as privileged in this way, and I feel a lot of empathy for her, even as I am horrified by the tragic way her baby died. I don't have to choose. I can feel both things at the same time.
  5. Another element of privilege that's evident in the discussion of this case reveals itself in the way we conceptualize her actions. I am not schizophrenic, have never suffered from delusions, and have never had any mental health issues. Thus I have always acted in what we would characterize as a rational, self-directed way. So it's natural for me to tend to try to understand and make sense of other people's behavior from this frame of reference. It's natural to wonder "why on earth would she do that?" and "what was she thinking?" But to insist that her behavior has to make sense in my framework is to erase her as a human being. When a person is experiencing delusions, they don't perceive reality in the way they would if they weren't delusional. They might not perceive the being in front of them as their child, or even a child. They might perceive the being in front of the as their child, but also perceive some intensely compelling reason why subjecting that child to violence is the only thing to do, or an act of love, or a means of saving the child from future harm. In that sense, the behavior in question is profoundly rational - it's just based on different reasons than you or I would find compelling. But to insist that the behavior of a delusional person must fit into the framework of someone who's not delusional, and must be judged using the criteria we would use to judge the actions of a non-delusional person is to erase that person and his/her illness and his/her humanity.
  6. I suspect that the lack of empathy that's being shown for Sanchez has more than just a little to do with the fact that she's not married and white and blond and identical to our cultural ideal. People are less inclined to inquire into what went wrong and merely dismiss the person as evil if they are already constructed as less-than-civilized and exotic and savage, as WOC are often constructed in our culture.
  7. Although I don't take myself to be the foremost authority on feminism, I think that empathy should always be a fundamental part of it. And, to quote myself again
    a feminism that fails to inquire into the social situation and the cultural forces that led up to this event is an impotent and useless thing.

I'm sure there's more that could be said about this story, but I'm too burned out on it to go on. Your thoughts?

17 comments:

  1. Michael7/30/2009

    Wow. I'm still realing from that comment thread. Jesus - you should have given us a trigger warning.

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  2. Michael's "wow" seconded. It sure got ugly.

    One thing that came to mind as I read was that there was no comment at all about her being admitted to a hospital for a *psychotic break* and then released that same day!

    I can't imagine ther is any way they could consider her immediately stable enough to care for herself, let alone a baby. I feel quite confident in guessing that she was released because she didn't have insurance.

    So yay for our "free market" health care system.

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  3. Lyndsay7/30/2009

    Um, wow. There are people like my grand-pa on feministing. That is, people who talk as if they think mental illness doesn't exist. And I think there is really no arguing with people like that. They seem incapable of imagining that someone could be in a state where they lose awareness of right and wrong and what they're doing. Post partum psychosis seemed so obvious to me when I read the article. This case is different from a mother who leaves her baby somewhere, for example.
    I think you give non-conservatives a little too much credit though. People are conservative or liberal for all kinds of reasons. There are compassionate conservatives and less compassionate liberals.

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  4. oldfeminist,

    I feel quite confident in guessing that she was released because she didn't have insurance.

    I hadn't thought about that, but I bet you're right. It would be nice to have evidence of this for the purposes of a post on healthcare reform and the public option.

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  5. Lyndsay,

    This is true:

    I think you give non-conservatives a little too much credit though. People are conservative or liberal for all kinds of reasons. There are compassionate conservatives and less compassionate liberals.

    I also go around assuming that others (especially on feminist blogs) are interested in constructive dialogue when that clearly is often not the case. I'm trying to get over that habit...

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  6. Anonymous7/31/2009

    Otty Sanchez was a Jehovah's Witness -- as was her own mother and other relatives. Yes, these are the same nuts who make a drama out of allowing themselves and their children to die rather than accept a blood transfusion because the WatchTower Society claims that accepting a blood transfusion is the same thing as eating blood.

    Why has the media deleted this irony from all reports?

    Here is the first of 10 webpages devoted to murders and other crimes committed by JWs:

    jwdivorces.bravehost.com/familicide.html

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  7. "Either the earth is flat, or you have a turnip growing out of your head."

    Dammit, who told you about the turnip? You found a picture of me on the web, didn't you? ;)

    I've lost my tolerance for the clueless comment threads at Feministing. Since my irritation levels have reached a point where I'm far too tempted to snark first and ask questions later, I've placed Feministing on my BlockSite list. Consequently, I won't be reading the comment thread in question.

    Our cultural mythology also includes the idea that once a person has committed a deeply unethical act, s/he is irretrievably damaged and not fit to live.

    That's an interesting observation and a very apt one at that. Isn't it odd that the US is supposedly a "Judeo-Christian nation" and yet common US mores place little value upon the notion of redemption? We live in a very punitive culture that can be summarized as, "Once you f*k up, forget it. You're toast."

    People are less inclined to inquire into what went wrong and merely dismiss the person as evil if they are already constructed as less-than-civilized and exotic and savage, as WOC are often constructed in our culture.

    I agree that the ability to empathize with another person's tragedy and dysfunction tends to correlate with how many demographic traits one shares with the person.

    I remember being labeled as a "bleeding heart liberal" by my conservative family because I showed too much concern for people of color. I'm usually faced with the assumption that I "make too many excuses" for groups of people that my family views as irredeemably inferior/dysfunctional.

    Even though we are talking about a liberal website, the prejudice is still there, but it's buried under many layers of denial and rationalizations. With conservatives, the prejudice is far more brash and out in the open. In some ways, it's a lot easier to call out conservatives on their prejudices because the it's more honestly expressed and consequently, easier to recognize and point out.

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  8. timberwraith,

    Yeah, I've been so ready to walk away from Feministing forever too many times to count, but for some reason I keep going back, after taking a break. Maybe it's the educator in me ("they're not bad people, just young and inexperienced..."), or maybe I'm just a glutton for punishment.

    Also, I was beginning to wonder if you'd fallen off the face of the earth! Glad to hear from you. =)

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  9. Oh, I haven't gone away. Sometimes I get tired of writing and commenting and I drop into lurk mode. I witnessed a particularly intense altercation at another blog a week or so ago and as a result, I felt like lurking for a while.

    Your blog is configured into my RSS reader. So, I'm hanging around here at The Feminist Agenda even though I'm quiet.

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  10. I might go back to Feministing in time, but right now, I'm likely to snap at people there in very unpleasant ways. I figure that's a sign that I need to stay away.

    I think I'm starting to develop a preference for conversing at smaller blogs. It feels more like having a conversation with a few friends in a comfy living room. At large venues like Feministing, it feels more like shouting in a noisy auditorium with a sizable contingent of hecklers sitting in one corner.

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  11. At large venues like Feministing, it feels more like shouting in a noisy auditorium with a sizable contingent of hecklers sitting in one corner.

    That's got to be the best description of it I've ever heard.

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  12. Rachel, I love your blog and have followed you here following your comments on Feministing on this subject. Brilliant post above, as well as brilliant comments on the original thread, and you know I agree with you. I despaired when I first started reading Feministing, but have now decided they are uneducated and do need options of views. I MUST though ignore the MRA trolls!

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  13. I'm pretty young and grew up in an area with little about crime and had little interaction with minorities. The concept of cultural and social influences on crime never came up until I started taking social work classes in college and I was shocked to have never heard about this before. Not that all criminals are exempt from blame necessarily but just saying the person was bad doesn't help stop anyone else from doing it in the future while understanding the causes thoroughly can. And I can't fathom how people can figure that mental illness doesn't exist at all.

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  14. Meg'n8/02/2009

    I can understand why people have such a strong reaction to this story, but I think it's our responsibility as progressives to go beyond our gut responses and probe the underlying causes and events that lead up to something like this. The thing is, that can be hard to do, and requires some maturity, which is not the forte of the Feministing crowd.

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  15. Hi Rachel - I've read your comments on Feministing quite a bit over a fair while and finally found myself here; I always find your thoughts particularly considered and compassionate. Seriously good work putting in the hard yards with the post on this topic at Feministing. I read some of the comments until I became too disturbed to keep reading. I was truly surprised by the condemnatory reactions. I don't really have any further thoughts, I just wanted to show support and doing so on Feministing seemed a bit exhausting.

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