by Flo Read
Friday, 9
December 2022
Video
15:15

Freddie deBoer: We should forgive Kanye West

What lessons can we take from the public's treatment of the rapper?
by Flo Read

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. 

“It is now considered ableist to participate in stigma about mental illness[…]So, there’s a very strange process that’s been happening whereby the desire to normalise mental illness has meant that the default picture of what a mentally ill person is has become more and more normal. In other words, as you normalise mental illness, at least in the way that we’re doing it, you push the people who are suffering the most deeply from mental illness to the side and you foreground people who have the least problems[…] The spotlight has shifted from people with schizophrenia, people with bipolar disorder, people with schizoaffective disorder etc., to people with more minor, manageable conditions.”
- Freddie deBoer

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.

“I think people want to live in a morally convenient universe. I think that they want to live in a universe where they can always completely condemn or completely exonerate where they don’t have to ask themselves hard questions about who is to be forgiven and who isn’t to be. […] I think that we have completely destroyed the idea of a nuanced moral perspective.”
- Freddie deBoer

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:

“Psychotic delusions tend to borrow from previously existing conspiracy theories […] The nature of schizophrenia, in particular, but potentially mania also, is to see shadowy forces that are arrayed, that are committing crimes and are doing bad things that will hurt you, eventually. You’re very likely to borrow the language and the explanations and the theories of the conspiracy movements around you. And I can tell you from personal experience, there’s a lot of people in mental illness facilities, mental health facilities, who believe in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, because anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are some of the oldest in the world. They’re some of the most prevalent in the world.”
- Freddie deBoer

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.

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R Wright
R Wright
1 month ago

It’s OK to be a nutcase so long as you’re left wing.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago

One great shame about all of this is that his vile antisemitic outbursts overshadowed the moral excellence of his “White Lives Matter” activism.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 month ago

I watched him being interviewed during a period when he was lucid and he appeared fairly reasonable, intelligent and thoughtful (inasmuch as he is also a provocative creative). Then he went into this manic episode and clearly he needs help. Can’t help being involved with the Kardoshians either.

Dominic A
Dominic A
1 month ago

I could forgive him for transgressions due to mental illness. I will not forgive him for building a career, or rather a music business, off the backs of actually talented people, and passing it off as his own, and then believing that lie.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 month ago
Reply to  Dominic A

I agree, his talent is very limited. The attention paid is a reflection on the media rather any cultural value he’s capable of adding. I don’t doubt he’s suffering as a result, but it should serve as an object lesson to all those wannabes who seek fame at any cost.

Last edited 1 month ago by Steve Murray
Ian S
Ian S
1 month ago

Disclaimer: I’m coming late to this discussion, commenting two days later than the people who have commented already, so maybe subsequent reader comments will render my view out of date. Anyway, here it is: I’m amazed that all the comments so far are (understandably) condemnations of Kanye. But this interview was about something else: it was about Freddie de Boer’s perspicacious insights into mental health more generally, and societal responses to it. His intelligent and articulate analysis – along with the interviewer’s equally intelligent and probing questions – surely warrants at least SOME responses to the subject matter discussed in the interview? De Boer is one of the brightest sub-stackers around: I recommend him to UnHerd readers.

Last edited 1 month ago by Ian Steadman
Abe Stamm
Abe Stamm
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian S

Mr. de Boer, other than apparently suffering from mental health issues, has absolutely no educational or vocational background in mental health care. He’s got opinions…like the idiotic opinion ” And I can tell you from personal experience, there’s a lot of people in mental illness facilities, mental health facilities, who believe in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, because anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are some of the oldest in the world. They’re some of the most prevalent in the world.” Guess what, the world is HUGE, and most of it isn’t inhabited by, nor has it ever been inhabited by Jews in any amount worth counting. Patients in the psych wards of sub-Sahara Africa, ALL of Asia, and most of Central & South America wouldn’t know the history or the meaning of a Jewish trope if a list containing a myriad of them was read out loud in their own languages.
I can tell you from experience, being one of 2 million+ New York-metropolitan Jews, that with a name like de Boer, Freddie is far away from identifying as a Jewish person, and can’t possible understand why the hackles of American Jews are raised every time Kanye West says something like, ” I love Nazis and Hitler ” to his adoring public…no matter what mental state he’s in at that moment in time.

Last edited 1 month ago by Abe Stamm
Ian Steadman
Ian Steadman
1 month ago
Reply to  Abe Stamm

Yes, yes, of course: hence my word ‘understandably’. My larger point is a simple one: anger and bile arise easily in discussions about anti-semitism. My own preference is for a more nuanced debate of the issues. See for example Glenn Loury’s discussion just received.

Last edited 1 month ago by Ian Steadman
D Walsh
D Walsh
1 month ago

I don’t have a problem with Kanye West

The people trying to destroy him are far worse

Abe Stamm
Abe Stamm
1 month ago

Kayne West has been spewing vile antisemitic tropes to his social media acolytes for far longer than the longest bipolar episode would last. A person can be BOTH mentally ill and a rabid hater of Jews…which is the reality of Kayne’s case in my humble opinion.
In the New York-metropolitan area, which has the largest population of Jews outside of Israel (over 2 million), antisemitic hate crimes are reaching elevated levels that are unprecedented, the data being compiled in real time by law enforcement officials and agencies like the Anti-Defamation League. Kanye is adding fuel to the fire, and should be held accountable for his high profile rants…especially if his hate speech spurs somebody to commit a hate crime against a Jew or Jews.

Last edited 1 month ago by Abe Stamm
Max Price
Max Price
1 month ago
Reply to  Abe Stamm

I tend to agree. His bipolar would explain why he feels comfortable expressing these vile views, but not explain him having them.

D Walsh
D Walsh
1 month ago
Reply to  Abe Stamm

Could you list the tropes that Kanye West has been spewing, I’d like to fact check them myself

Abe Stamm
Abe Stamm
1 month ago
Reply to  D Walsh

The American Jewish Committee provides 5 examples of Kanye’s antisemitic rhetoric (though there are many more), and explains why they tap into age old tropes against the Jewish people:
https://www.ajc.org/news/5-of-kanye-wests-antisemitic-remarks-explained
The ADL has also done a good job explaining and verifying Mr. West’s antisemitic remarks, with a timeline:
https://www.adl.org/resources/blog/unpacking-kanye-wests-antisemitic-remarks

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago

“…I think that we have completely destroyed the idea of a nuanced moral perspective…”

In the febrile world of online debate sure, but the reality is that nobody in the real world actually believes that. The ability to build and target online hate mobs is a convenient weapon for digitally influential people, certainly, and it can carry severe real-world consequences for those unlucky enough to be shamed online, but it almost never describes how the majority of people really feel. It is powerful, but it is not accurate.

I do not think the power to destroy people this way can possibly last. At some point, a target of these hate mobs will successfully mount a legal claim against the perpetratotors or the law will simply change via statute to destroy the present asymmetry in which hate mobs can act with almost no efffort and at zero risk to themselves, but their targets can lose careers, reputations and livelihoods. It can’t last, and won’t.

Gerald Arcuri
Gerald Arcuri
1 month ago

Kanye is a fraud. Always has been, always will be. Claiming mental illness is no defense. He’s a clown, starring in his own circus.