15 Dec 2016
Being human, at least in my view, is intrinsically connected to creativity, education, tolerance and weakness. How we treat those who need help, how we treat ourselves when we fail, and how we use our fragility to foster collaboration, reveals much about who we are, and allows us to make some prediction about the future.
Among the developmental phases civilizations go through, power-thirsty periods of governance seem to come back like a boomerang. These periods are also characterised by limited tolerance for those categorised as ‘unfit’. A narrow understanding of ‘weakness’, seen as a defect rather than an integral part of human life, can permeate culture and lead to a low degree of social trust and deficient tolerance for diversity. Populistic promises such as those we have heard in recent months, slogans pledging to make a country “great again”, can all too easily perpetuate this idea of ‘weakness’ and ominously resemble the past.
The present-day climate surrounding the elections in Europe and the US, has reminded me of past events of the 20th Century and called to mind some interesting individuals. I will start with a story of a fascinating collaborative project, a story of struggle and weakness which included at least one person who was deemed ‘unfit’.
In 1755, Samuel Johnson published A Dictionary of the English Language. About a century later, members of the Philological Society of London started collecting citations for another dictionary. After over 20 years of that work, James Murray took over the reins and began compiling entries for what finally became the The Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The project was huge and risky, and got rejected by several publishers. Eventually, Oxford University Press signed the contract. The enterprise took Murray half a century, and involved meticulous work by him and many supporters, often via correspondence. Among them was a physician, William Chester Minor (1834–1920). Minor’s contribution was significant, and the citations he delivered drew Murray’s attention. When he decided to get in touch with Dr Minor, Murray found out that this prolific contributor was a convict. Minor shot an innocent man, conducted an autopeotomy, and spent most of his life incarcerated in an asylum. He suffered from paranoia, and possibly schizophrenia. Nevertheless, in his own way, he was also a fascinating individual who managed to use what remained of his mental freedom for a good cause.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Germans wanted to put their achievements in science and medicine into practice. In an attempt to do this they built a state-of-the art psychiatric hospital in Obrawalde, roughly 100 miles East of Berlin, in what is now western Poland. The hospital occupied over 100 hectares, and its construction cost over 4 million marks, a fortune back then. It was designed as a self-sustaining village with a wide-range of therapeutic facilities to choose from. It had its own sports grounds, with tennis courts, a pool, a bowling alley and even a cinema.
Broadmoor asylum, where Minor spent most of his life, was,in contrast, far from modern. It was decades behind institutions such as Obrawalde. And yet, in a sense, Minor was lucky to have been confined in England. Obrawalde, which was supposed to pave the way towards new standards in psychiatry, was transformed during World War II into a sinister place of mass extermination. All those who failed to meet the criteria of eugenics lost their rights and often their lives. This toxic value system that aimed solely to seek out and destroy ‘weakness’ lead to the most calamitous humanitarian crisis of the 20th Century. Within a couple of years thousands were brainwashed by demagoguery, and many acted driven by the belief that those who are ‘weaker’ harm societies and should be eliminated.
Many years after the war, my in-laws began their work in Obrawalde, now called Obrzyce, in Poland. Both are neurologists, and my mother-in-law, also a psychiatrist, was once Vice-Director of the hospital. Inspired by interactions with patients, my father-in-law developed a passion for poetry and sculpture. The hospital, still surrounded by beautiful forests, provided him with twisted branches, which he turned into human shapes. Over the last two decades or so, I have had many opportunities to listen to numerous anecdotes related to this place, some from the dark past, some more contemporary and more optimistic, or even amusing. They all are edifying, show the fragile boundaries between healthy and disturbed minds, and speak volumes about our imperfect nature.
Today, when I look at my father-in-law’s sculptures, sometimes I wonder about this fascinating connection between the intellect, the importance of self-expression, inclusion, and the role that tolerance for weakness plays in our lives. William Minor, in some ways weak — tormented by his mind, was also an artist: a keen watercolour painter who enjoyed music, and a significant contributor to OED. Had he been born merely a couple of decades later in Germany or occupied Poland, rather than in Britain, he would have been entirely defined by his illness, his ‘weakness’. Minor’s rights would most probably have been taken away from him, and his intellectual contribution made impossible.
It would be a stretch to build a direct analogy between the dark times of Nazi Germany and today’s political climate, but there does seem to be some resemblance between past prejudices and the intolerance that has been displayed on the international political stage this year. There may be a dangerous contradiction between the hopes and needs of the modern electorates, and the means by which some politicians promise to address them. When we look at our leaders breaching social trust, focusing on divisions, eager to build walls, planning to penalise minorities, threatening immigrants, and questioning established international relations, the patterns echoing the inglorious past can be worrying.
However, despite the fact that we humans are susceptible to certain forms of manipulation, especially when exposed to demagogues, in our own minds, we are — hopefully — free to question, to observe and also to learn from our mistakes. Rather than trying to eradicate anything that does not fit in with the laws, or with changing norms, we can choose to counteract the destructive rhetoric. Perhaps a solution to some of the contemporary social problems is more investment in tolerance, so that each and everyone can fit in, contribute, be included in the vastness of the social fabric in the way that William Minor, despite his illness was able to do. With a global population approaching eight million, technology competing for jobs with humans, inclusion for ‘everyone’ may sound naive or utopian, but maybe, against all odds — possible?