Insane, Immoral, Demonic: Addressing Denial in Adoption

NOTE: to address this issue, I start with an analogy to white privilege, which in any case represents an integrally related aspect of the whole.

Does this seem like a fruitful analogy? What don’t you like about it? And does the alternative–the demonic, as opposed to the insane or the immoral–seem like a helpful alternative way of imagining how to confront adoption denial? [These questions are clarified by the material below]

Part I: Denials of White Privilege & Adoption Entitlement

When confronting white privilege and entitlement (in Occidental culture), it seems understandable why whites (males especially) would feel so eager to deny the reality of white privilege in terms like this guy does, bless his heart:

White privilege is crap. I’m white, yeah, but I got accepted to college because I applied, and applied myself. I became disabled halfway through my education, but finished because I chose to. I never went to prison because I never committed a felony. There is no citation on the white felon vs clean POC panel. I’ve never committed homicide, nor have I been the victim, so that stat doesn’t show any institutional bias for me. White privilege is just one more way that POC’s who want an excuse can blame somone [sic] else, and white people can feel guilty. Utter rubbish (and yes, I’ve been around people of colour my whole life, including my black wife).

Indubitably, this seems virtually comical in its hysteria, but behind it lies resistance to a very real negation of that sense of accomplishment most people require for the sake of their self-esteem. The fact of white privilege, that is, destroys the conceit that I earned my accomplishments through my own merits and hard work. It demonstrates, unequivocally, that what I thought I achieved on my own mostly got handed to me on a silver platter. The guy’s booming pride (above) at being accepted into college dissipates into an empty hush; he might as well have fallen into college for all his application (before and during) mattered. His sense of moral rectitude–that he has avoided prisons by acting properly–collapses, because in fact the police simply ignored his several wrongdoings. This man is not the good or smart person he thinks he is. That’s a bitter, bitter pill to swallow.

And so, utterly unaware of how he humiliates himself, he stands before the world atop the dado of white privilege and hectors us, berates us, that white privilege doesn’t exist. And personally, I know of no worse way to feel I’ve humiliated myself than those times when I confidently, absolutely declared something as the case that my audience all along knew had no truth whatsoever. Like laughing at someone patronizingly and then declaring, almost sweetly, “Okay, hon, you just go on thinking the world is round. The rest of us know it’s flat.”[1]

The analogy with those who want to adopt, then, should need no going into details. And what both share in common involves the challenge to find a way to get around the denial involved in both. By this, however, I do not mean “how do we address the issue”; I mean, rather, “how do we address the denial, which prevents addressing the issue in the first place”?

We know whites may fear to admit white privilege because of what it threatens to destroy of their self-esteem (not because of some guilt, but because their sense of accomplishment gets negated), just as those who would adopt may refuse to confront the actual nature of adoption for what it similarly threatens to destroy of their self-esteem (again, not a guilt, but a negation of the entire affective conceit to love, care for, and rescue a child from a terrible fate, &c., &c., ad nauseam). Denial of this prevents the issue from ever being breached or broached in such people, so what I address myself to here does not hinge on “what angle do we approach the question from” but “what sort of dynamics in our conversations with people might help to circumvent the denial”.

Part II: Two Responses to Denials of White Privilege & Adoption Entitlement

Currently, when we wish to confront the sort of brash and howling stuff of the guy above, we have two basic forms of reaction: we call the person nuts (insane) or an asshole (immoral). A complex cultural (Occidental) history inheres in these two options, actually, and the emergence of psychiatricized descriptions of the world–calling society “pathological” for instance, or the now legion numbers of malignant narcissists circulating in our midst–denotes a major and significant change from earlier centuries where moral depravity supplied the terminology for bad behaviour.

To draw the distinction too succinctly, when deemed insane, while one’s bad behaviour no longer gets construed as something you remain morally responsible for, at the same time, it represents something that you can never change but can only manage (or, more likely, will be managed for you by others). It ascribes a flaw to you that in principle you won’t get held accountable for but that you can do nothing to remove. This view represents a comparatively recent innovation in human history in the way it got tied to biology (and more recently genetics). By contrast, the previous moralistic schemes for judging human behaviour sometimes would insist at times that some people were simply born bad and therefore irremediable, but for the most part, most moralising against character defects did not assume that the defect made for an inherent part of a person’s nature, but reflected instead a case of bad behaviour and bad judgment in choices, all of which could get corrected or amended, at least in theory.[2]

With regard to encounters I’ve participated in and witnessed with (white or adoptive) denial specifically–and I specifically address myself to denial in this post–I find a frustrating intractability of that denial when subjected to either of our two modes of response (i.e., the moral or the psychiatric).[3]

PART III: An Alternative

That these two forms almost never seem to work points not only to the want of an alternative to them,[4] but also to their complicity in the maintenance of an undesirable current status quo.[5]

Beyond being simply a bad but correctable person (immoral) or morally exculpable but incurable person (insane), the massive social problems of alcoholism (when it directly affected white people anyway) gradually led to a third notion for interpreting bad behaviour: the disease model. (By disease model I mean specifically the sense of disease as associated with alcoholism; I do not mean disease in its typically medical sense.)[6]  What most distinguishes the paradigm of disease from insanity occurs in the fact that one recovers from disease, hence rather than prisons (for moral reprobates) or asylums (for the hopelessly and helplessly dangerous), we have rehabilitation centres (for certain classes of alcoholics and drug addicts).

It has been suggested that racism, and thus white privilege and adoption entitlement, might benefit from being thought of as a disease. But if we widen the scope to understand dis-ease in a more historical sense, then psychologically it functions in the sense of possession (by spirits). I could cite at length Jung’s compelling defence of the use of this word, or the sort of colloquial sense we still use in our every speech—like the phrase “what got into you”?—but we need only think of “possessed” in the sense of “possessed by a mood” to get at the root notion—as those kinds of times when when we feel our will thwarted, as if by something else within our own psyche.

This sense of the term possession offers not only that these moods—Jung calls them complexes—may pass but also that we each have multiple complexes. So if a person gets in a howling tizzy about how white privilege is crap, as a matter of strategy I may attempt to bypass that denial by appealing to some other complex, another mood, in the person. This might amount simply to saying, “I know you’re better than that” or “the better part of you would never say that.” Thus, instead of “you’re nuts” or “you’re an asshole”, it becomes “what’s got into you?”

And one could break this entire post down to simply an observation upon those lines, dispensing with all this strange explanatory apparatus about immorality and insanity and demonic possession. But for one, we too have our own complexes, and complexes can activate one another. Simply to have in mind some compassionate and humanistic sounding phrase for dealing with howling denial won’t help much if our own complex isn’t “in a mood” to let us use it. I suggest then that it helps to understand the mechanism involved in ourselves as much as others so that we do not become the plaything of our own moods, our own complexes.

And second, if we think in terms of possession, then the sort of task that confronts us does not involve merely speaking with the person. We must enter into something more like the role of an exorcist or a traditional medicine healer. Instead of some quasi-psychiatrist passing judgment on the reality of the (sick) person before us or the knee-jerk moralist calling on all of society to shun a (depraved) individual until such time as she or he amends their ways, we instead have an invitation to get in close and deal with the complex plurality before us.

Of course this sounds a certain kind of screwy, but as the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous makes clear on the basis of its disease model, recovery is a co-process that involves at least two engaged in it, just as the exorcist and afflicted one work together. Unlike the moral and psychiatric models that hold the offender at arm’s length, those confronting demonic possession hold on; rather than becoming confounded by and reacting only to what they see or hear, they recognize the light in spite of the darkness, the other voices despite the one loud voice, and so forth.

One could go on mining out more and more stuff along these lines, but this is too long already. The key here seems to me its recognition of the inhabitation of an Other (amongst many) within the person I engage with. I don’t even think this makes for such an “unconvincing” or “weird sounding” claim; how often when speaking with white privilege deniers or adoption apologists does one get the impression that such people no longer speak for themselves. Thus, rather than getting fixated on the curious performance of their complexes, which for Jung have a psychological autonomy (they have  separate existence apart from our ego-consciousness), if I think of the person as “possessed” then this (1) cuts my attention away from the hopelessly impenetrable front of denial erected in front of me, (2) and reminds me to remind to take an approach that assumes that front surely does not represent the sum of all thoughts and feelings they might hold on the matter. If this fails to call forth a different complex, and thus a different course in the conversation or engagement, at the very least the status quo will have been less reinforced by another round of moralistic or psychiatric mistreatment.

As a final note, nothing in this implies agreement, even for a moment, with the untenable and false premises of adoption entitlement and white privilege. When a shaman takes into himself the poison of the disease, it remains a poison that he neutralizes and expels. Nothing suggests that trying to call up a better daemon, a different complex, requires even for a second co-signing or agreeing with or pretending to support the false premises of adoption entitlement and white privilege—rather, exactly the opposite. This offers a way to refuse to engage the premises we find ourselves confronted by while still working to undermine them. Thus, the phrase “you’re entitled to your opinion” plays no part here much less “agreeing to disagree” and in just the same way as a medicine woman may or may not refuse to address the demon she exorcises.


[1] Of course, in this case it ameliorates the sting some that most white folks listening also think the world flat, but an ignorant consensus remains ignorant nonetheless. It only makes the hectoring and blaming of people of colour as uppity or stupid just that much more embarrassing for bystanders to witness and that much more awful and gratuitous for targets of such abuse to receive.

[2] At least if you were a member of the ruling class (and white). The moral depravity of the poor required management, even if debate sometimes kicked up whether one might salvage or reclaim or redeem (the character of) the poor. thus, public humiliation in things like stocks were intended to provide the motivations for change. Importantly, here, the moral point of view holds us as essentially good though (perhaps inevitably) prone to lapses; the psychiatric view, by contrast, holds us as inherently broken, though (optimistically) subject to management of that brokenness. To call someone an asshole, however unproductive, rests on an assumption that someone might therefore stop being an asshole; to call someone crazy, by contrast, assumes the only possible course of correction lies by way of shock treatment, chemical castration, lobotomy, or perpetual internment in a lunatic asylum (or  perpetual regimen of psychotropic drugs while “on the outside,” which amounts to the same thing). To examine the history of the treatment of alcoholism exhibit nicely the differences in the moral or psychiatric approaches and, not insignificantly, we see also (since alcoholism affects white people so extensively) the articulation of yet a third approach: the disease model. “You drink because you are a bad person”. “You drink because you are insane.” “You drink because you have a disease”. Compare the senses of those.

[3] As an aside, the option of “speaking reasonably to the person” almost always too much accepts the Power of white/adoptive privilege in the first place; it too readily sacrifices its own position, and Power concedes nothing without an equally forceful demand from the other side. Especially where white privilege gets at issue, I hear arguments by people saying we need to “speak nicely” and such shit and this itself falls squarely in the neocolonial ethos of white supremacy. In adoption circles, we see how this makes anger the great no-no. So fuck such empty twaddle as advice. At the same time, however, to approach the privilege of a person (in its entitlements as race or adoption) in psychiatric or moral terms (e.g., in some variation of “you’re crazy” or “you’re an asshole”) almost never punches past the denial involved in the first place. It may seem I have gone too far afield or lost the whole thread of this post. Think of  time when you have confronted that vast and usually wholly unconscious egotism of white privilege denying it does anything wrong (like the guy above) or the would-be adopter spooling out what to your ears represents the nth-most iteration of the most already worn-out and tired tripe all over again. Even if we (attempt to) keep our tone moderate–for we know that a display of anger merely provides the pretext the one entitled seeks for stepping away in a cloud of self-righteous hand-waving–we approach that pother as either nuts or humanly shitty, and rightly so because those kinds of entitlement of white privilege and adoption don’t come down otherwise than as radically delusive (e.g., the emotionally hyper-charged types) or as morally repugnant (e.g., the grossly selfish types). White privilege and adoption (as we now have it) both rest on (similar) false premises, so to hold to those positions means: seriously distorted thinking (“you’re nuts”) or little more than an arrogance of power (“you’re an asshole”). And, if we think the person cracked, then we (unconsciously or not) accept the psychiatric view that the problem remains irremediable but manageable, i.e., we can “medicate” by consolations the patient into acting differently in the future. Or, if we think the person an asshole, then we (unconsciously or not) accept the moralistic view that we might correct the problem with some variety of social shaming, often in the form of a public harangue.

[4] Once again, I acknowledge fully and completely that the variety of possible human interactions cannot boil down to only two different forms or that other forms I’ve failed to bring up specifically don’t exist.

[5] In Jung’s early psychiatric works (to cite only one example) one can see the curious crisscross occurring as the terminology about bad behaviour shifts from a moral analysis to a psychological one, so that a category like “moral insanity” actually existed at one time as a kind of diagnosis; that is, to steal something meant you suffered from a mental illness rather than a character defect. (To be more precise, psychiatrists would be called in to determine if this diagnosis were accurate and that you were not simply a bad person after all.) In this we see also how this psychiatric approach proposed a more humane approach to bad behaviour. It attempted to identify those parts of human behaviour that were compulsive, that a person could not really help, and thus not hold him or her accountable for it as strictly as for someone who could exercise some moral choice in the matter. “Management” of these conditions, however, precisely because by definition you could do nothing about it yourself still strike us as horrific: electroshock, lobotomies, forced sterilization, five point restraint, and, these days, the ‘kinder and gentler” annihilation of personality and will brought about by many, if not most, psychotropic medications.

[6] If insanity draws on the trope that we should pity the sufferer because he (or she) cannot help it, the disease model similarly asks for forbearance and understanding because the sufferer did not bring it upon him- or herself. But unlike the psychiatric model, one may take “moral action” against one’s drinking and recover, thus avoiding the stigma of eternal brokenness that mental illness still tends to get associated with it. If psychiatric assessments originally might get you a diversion for your crimes into the asylum rather than the prison, the disease model avoids also the asylum. And it is very obvious that the  ostensible compassion of this did not extend to how people talked about “drunk Indians” and the like, or how little Eric gets a diversion to a rehabilitation program for his marijuana use while Jamal gets eight years in prison for carrying a joint.


One thought on “Insane, Immoral, Demonic: Addressing Denial in Adoption

  1. I’m going to ramble some thoughts back at you as I’m wont to do; there’s a lot of food for thought here but it’s late and my brains are a bit fried.

    After the municipal election results Sunday showed a large gain for the right-wing National Front, I tweeted a memory I had of living near the Place des Fêtes in the 20th arrondissement, and the FN guys coming to the market, setting up a table for their literature, and screaming at us (mostly black and Arab residents of the area) sales bougnoules (dirty sand n——) to “go home”. I tried to imagine some KKK guys going up to 125th St. in Manhattan and doing such a thing.

    Anyway, someone replied to me that he heard many stories from French people that they were told “get lost, dirty ‘blanco’, you’re no longer ‘home'”. I replied that this was a bit of an exaggeration; that there was no even playing field between a majority and a minority and the power differential separating them; that living in France means knowing very well “in whose home one is”.

    That this discussion in French so matched the usual American “50-50” discussion of racism really took me by surprise. We had a pretty cordial back and forth, although I was braced for the worst. And when I said that French political discourse had been “Anglo-Saxonified”, he replied: “This we can agree on.”

    It seems much of the denial involved is ascribing to this “everything is equal despite the fact that the playing field is tilted 45 degrees” conundrum. It all reminds me of a really great movie called “Matawan” about the coal mines in West Virginia, and the shift in labor practice from locals, to immigrants and former slaves from the South.

    The immigrants are Italian, not “seen-as” white at the time. There is, after much difficulty and infighting provoked by the Company, common cause made, once they saw themselves as workers united against the Company which owned them for all intents and purposes. Of course, they don’t win in the end. And of course, the setting of races against each other becomes a legacy of Capital and anti-union activism in the States and elsewhere.

    But the movie still gives me hope. In the sense that “common cause” can be found if a shift is made. In this case, perhaps from race to include class. Here in Lebanon, I often try to shift from sect or nationality to include class. It’s easier to discuss class differences or similarities, and they explain much more in terms of alliances and animosities.

    It is interesting too the discussion of possession. The word in arabic for “crazy” (majnoon) shares its root with “jinn”, or the spirits born of fire (in Muslim tradition) who share this realm with us. So crazy comes from the idea of being so possessed. The consonant root, j/n/n, actually means “hidden” or “obscured”. So to be “crazy” is in effect to be alone, occulted, removed from the community as it were.

    The solution to such “craziness” is thus, to me, not a further shunning, but a concerted effort to welcome back “into the fold”. This often involves an intervention (not quite an exorcism) of a sheikh, and I’ve seen the positive results of this. This is premised, however, on a “clearing of the air”, which might involve a lot of vitriol and garrulous emotional exchanges previous.

    I think this is healthy. At least, I find it much healthier than how I was acculturated.

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