French philosopher, Michel Foucault, made the case that society is governed by an archaeology of knowledge, a set of unwritten rules that influence what is stated about a particular category of knowledge at any particular time, and how that statement of knowledge is related to other statements of knowledge. These ‘rules of formation’ of the discourses of society are what Foucault describes as an ‘archaeology of knowledge’.
We are living in a time of such a discourse, a discourse about mental health that has been co-opted into the political struggle over gun control. Early on in the public debate over gun control following the terrible events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, CT, mental health entered the scene, touted as a serious contender for American society to find a lasting solution to the problem of mass shootings. As well as the assertion that ‘the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun‘, the National Rifle Association made the case in its very first public statement of substance following Sandy Hook that what was needed was an ability to know who is sane and who is not:
“How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame …A dozen more killers? A hundred? More? How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation’s refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?”.
Mental Health advocates have rightly cheered the efforts being made to bolster mental health services that could help millions of individuals and families gain access to preventative care and on-going support and advocacy. Yet, beneath all of the rhetoric is an archaeology of our society’s discourse about mental health. A mass shooting of children is such a hauntingly terrible loss of human life that we are inclined to look for apparently productive ways forward wherever we can find them. Yet, the rules of the formation of our discourse of the past several weeks have led to a conversation about an archaeology of difference: the point about Adam Lanza that all of this public narrative drives home is that he was different to us. The photographs, the descriptions of the life he led, the covers of magazines all seemingly cement this view.
Yet, what this accumulation of image and word around Adam Lanza’s supposed difference to the rest of society most reveals is not difference but sameness. In a society such as ours where between the Sandy Hook massacre and the President’s Inauguration there were over 1000 fatal shootings, the conversation that we are yet to have is why we are so easily inclined to react violently to one another. Sandy Hook stands at the apex of a vast trend in our nation where angry outbursts aimed at complete strangers are not only common but to be anticipated, so much so that our lexicon has enlarged to accommodate the shades of rage we should expect on one another: road rage, web rage, air rage, even desk rage.
We equate freedom of expression as our ability to say what we want, when we want, and how we want. We live in times when our ability to customize our daily experiences – from our music to our Facebook friends – is in danger of making our worldview myopic. Ours is an age of profound impatience and excessive demand for consumer satisfaction. And all of this, in all of its ubiquity across America, is the context within which a desperately deranged young man tragically took the lives of 26 human souls two and a half months ago.
One of the most essential gifts of the Christian tradition to our world is the theological assertion that we are fundamentally the same. Each of us is made in God’s image. Each of us bears his likeness. Each of us is beloved by him. Christianity’s voice in the public square is one that says to the world that an archaeology of difference is ultimately a flawed project. One of the Church’s great gifts to the societies that it finds itself in is that it has been willing to offer public voice to the deep need we have to reflect on our life together. Our current debate in this country about gun control and mental illness is too narrow. We need to look at ourselves and ask why it is that we are willing to live so estranged from one another, and the Church needs to offer a word of hope to that conversation that says a customized and ego-driven universe is not the only one on offer.