Medical researchers have long puzzled over schizophrenia’s late emergence (it was first diagnosed in 1911, in Switzerland) and its prevalence in the industrial world, where the illness is degenerative and permanent. (In “primitive” societies, when it exists at all, it is typically a passing malady.) In 2005, when Jean-Paul Selten and Elizabeth Cantor-Graae, experts on the epidemiology of schizophrenia, reviewed various risk factors—foremost among them migration, racism, and urban upbringing—they found that the factors all involved chronic isolation and loneliness, a condition that they called “social defeat.” They theorized that “social support protects against the development of schizophrenia.”
– Susan Faludi, “Death of a Revolutionary”, The New Yorker, article dated April 15 2013 (yes, I know I read it on April 11 . . . must be going to appear in the April 15 2013 edition of The New Yorker, but I’m not sure what date it was published on the web)
First off, I would like to warn anyone thinking of following that link: the paragraph I posted is the only paragraph in the article that’s really about the causes of schizophrenia. The rest of the article is about the life and times and death of Shulamith Firestone, someone who was a radical feminist in the 1960s and 1970s.
Secondly, I am personally not a big fan of radical feminism. I realize that not too long ago, it would not have been easy — or even possible — for a woman to get a degree in electrical engineering, and not long ago it was considered to be socially unacceptable for a woman to be unmarried in adulthood. I am glad that today my gender does not determine what college degrees I am able to study and that I am not judged by my marital status.
But for all that, I feel feminism achieved many great things and then went way too far trying to unmake and remake the world.
With all that out of the way, I would still really recommend the full article.
There’s a bit of history about movements and groups and key events among some parts of the American Left in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s interesting to read about the history of feminism and also how it fit into Left movements at the time (or didn’t fit, as it were).
But Faludi’s article is largely about the group dynamics of a social and political movement imploding and exploding in various different ways. It was for more interesting for me to read about how a movement with a lot of passionate dedicated supporters fell apart and destroyed many of its own members from within.
Group dynamics and how organizations work and stay together — and don’t work and don’t stay together, all too often — are topics which greatly interest me.
I am honestly still wrapping my head around some of what I’ve just read about Firestone . . . in places the story gets so odd that it becomes one of those “Well, this has to be true because I can’t imagine anyone making this up and expecting people to believe it” type of things. For instance, sisterhood and equality became so important that other feminists expected Firestone to give the copyright for a book Firestone personally wrote to the feminist group Firestone belonged to, or else she wasn’t treating all women like sisters.
In other sections of the article, Faludi describes how having a group hierarchy and a plan of action was deemed to be too “male”, even though without those things it is difficult to get any group of people coordinated and moving in the same direction for any length of time. Did it occur to the feminists that perhaps men used “plans” and “organization” because they work, not because men thought other men invented the concepts?
A large amount of petty jealousy and rivalry comes through in the story. I would hope a person acting out of such motives would eventually stop and look at themselves and experience a bit of self-doubt and humility. Perhaps they might try to reduce and moderate their own emotions a bit. But so many of the activists in the story seemed to feel that because they were fighting for a greater good, humility was something that was below them and so they were free to be as unpleasant and spiteful and accusatory as they wanted.
Sadly, this is still a problem that affects many people on all parts of the political spectrum even today, “I am doing this for a greater good, so moderation, accuracy or research are beneath me, I can yell as loud as I want and be as degrading towards others as I want because I’m doing it for a good cause.”
Now that I think on it, that is also a mindset that people of strong religious feelings are also prone too, and perhaps that is why there is the old rule of never discussing religion and politics in polite company: it is not because they are controversial topics, but because it is so very very difficult to find people who are willing to discuss and disagree about the topic politely.
After all, why worry about difficult things like politeness and courtesy, which require thought and discussion and mutual respect, when they’re busy with their much more important mission of Saving The World From Itself.
So, coming away from my tangent and getting back to the article, I am still really struck by the short paragraph about schizophrenia and how social isolation seems to be a risk factor for it. I had not heard that before.
And I think becoming completely obsessed by a political or social movement — so much so that people are destroying groups that were formed by fellow believers for the express purpose of pursuing that political or social goal — is probably a really good way of creating a lot of social isolation and loneliness.
If you’ve destroyed a group from within and driven other allies away from a movement altogether, how much have you really achieved?