What lessons can we take from the public's treatment of the rapper?
In the space of a few months Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, has gone from world-famous rapper to appearing on Alex Jones’s InfoWars praising Hitler. It’s not clear if he will ever recover reputationally from the stigma of this episode.
Here’s the problem: it’s no secret that West has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition that could lead to periods of mania and strange or anti-social behaviour. Mental health awareness, as it’s often called, has never been more prominent in public discourse. But does awareness equate to understanding? And are we reserving it for only the most palatable cases?
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Writer Freddie deBoer joined me in the UnHerd studio to wade through the issue. deBoer documented his own experience of bipolar disorder after a highly public manic episode in 2017 saw him shunned from his job as a journalist. If anyone can shed some light onto this story, it’s him.
deBoer begins by laying out the problem with the American public’s approach to the mentally ill. With the help of social media ‘awareness raising’ and Hollywood narrativising, so-called ‘mental health ambassadors’ have romanticised mild conditions such as anxiety which for the most part do not cause the person to transgress social norms or cease to function within society.
The irony, as deBoer points out, is that this increased appreciation of the relatively small struggles of those with high-functioning mental illness has decreased our ability to understand severe cases. By insisting, for example, that mental illness does not necessarily make a person violent by calling this ‘stigma’, deBoer says that we have lost compassion for those whose mental health does in fact make them prone to violence.
deBoer also links this shift in attitudes to an increasingly polarised public discourse. On Twitter, he says, we seek clean breaks between good and evil. Anti-social behaviour or breaches of social norms caused by mental illness are too destabilising to this binary system. In the world of saints and bigots, he reckons, there can be no room for complicating factors.
In the case of Kanye West, he says, latching onto anti-Semitism is not a surprise. While in mental health facilities, deBoer himself witnessed something similar himself:
As in his own case, deBoer thinks fame has accelerated West’s breakdown. Living a public life with little privacy and legions of fans and haters is a recipe for disaster for anyone vulnerable to mental illness, he says. Being briefly married into our real-life Truman Show, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, probably didn’t help either.
deBoer also had some advice for those witnessing the Kanye car crash in real time. It’s all too easy, he warns, to boost the message of #BeKind on Twitter. But it takes real empathy and patience to treat the most unpleasant, unpalatable cases with kindness. If we can practice more forgiveness (and improve the social protections) for these cases, then maybe there is a path to social redemption for figures like Kanye West.