I choose not to believe in free will as a courtesy to my friends — Walter Jon Williams
I’ve had a few conversations in the past few days about men behaving badly. One was a conversation about Frank Miller’s opinion of the Occupy movement. Another was a private post about sexual harassment at conventions. Another was an exhumation of an infamous incident involving a famous science fiction author and editor that no one would benefit by being too specific about. Suffice it to say he was an ass in public and everybody knew it.
What they all had in common was the assertion that someone — Frank Miller, the author and editor, a population of sexually inappropriate fans — were mentally ill. This wasn’t done by a mental health professional, or even by folks who had experience with mental illness in their own lives. It was done as an act of charity. Given the behavior of the person in question, the kindest thing we having the conversation could come up with was that he was not merely mentally ill, but in fact so mentally compromised that he was no longer responsible for his actions. That he was, functionally, no longer human.
The alternative was that, with a sane mind and will intact, he’d chosen to behave that way. And agreeing to pretend he was utterly broken seemed kinder than saying was morally responsible for despicable acts.
Medicalizing behavior — talking about brain function and dysfunction — takes it out of a social realm and put it into the domain of science. And I *love* science. It think it’s the most powerful, interesting, beautiful invention humanity has ever created. It’s a system of thought that has more wonders than the best imagination. But as it stands right now, there’s no room in the Western reductionist model for will or choice.
That’s all right. We’ve had all kinds of experience in science where there were experiences and data that didn’t fit the model. We’re used to working with best-fit models that we all know aren’t quite right, but we don’t have anything better yet.
So, for some of us (myself included), when we see someone doing something inexcusable and we still want to like them, it’s tempting to fall into that model and say that there are a lot of guys with Asperger’s Syndrome in fandom. Or that the anoxic brain injuries that often come with heart surgery can lead to impaired judgement and poor impulse control. Or that anyone who’d say crap like that is clearly having some kind of Charlie Sheen-esque manic episode. I know I’m tempted. And the more I think about it, the less comfortable I am with it.
The problem is that I have two ways of evaluating behavior: one that includes will and agency, and one that doesn’t. There are certainly instances when brains do malfunction so spectacularly that holding people to the usual standard is unrealistic. I have no trouble at all crediting people’s good acts to them, but when someone’s behaving badly, I want to shift to the other model to let them off the hook. I don’t consider what I’m saying about all the people diagnosed with Aspergers who aren’t sexually predatory, all the functioning schizophrenics who aren’t shooting congresswomen, all the people with brain injuries who put tremendous time, energy, and attention into respecting social boundaries. And so I think my charitable impulses lead me to a deeper kind of injustice.