If Breivik is sane, what is sanity?

Fittingly, a Norwegian court today pronounced its conclusion that Anders Behring Breivik is sane and thus has been given the maximum sentence for his crimes. As The Guardian notes, Norway demonstrated that terrorism can be faced without suspending the legal rights of the accused through ‘an open trial in an open society.’

But to say that Breivik is sane — even if we understand that to be nothing more than a determination of his legal responsibility for his own actions — begs the question of what we really mean by sanity.

We live in societies where it is generally assumed that, with a relatively small number of exceptions, everyone is sane. Sanity is normality, but what form of sanity functioned in Breivik’s mind?

To be sane is to be of sound mind and soundness of mind is a determination of mental coherence — that the mind is not broken. Whatever is sound is not about to fall apart.

This image of mind as an internal structure that may or may not rest on solid foundations, misses the fluid and dynamic relationship between cognition, awareness and the flood of sensory input out of which we can construct a constantly evolving understanding of the world.

If we are to view sanity as something with intrinsic value and not assume it to be commonplace, it actually has less to do with the internal structure that we designate as a sound mind than it has to do with the manner in which that mind engages with the world.

You can’t think straight unless there is a corresponding clarity in the way you see, hear, feel, and connect with your surroundings.

So many of the nominally sane are nothing more than sleepwalkers satisfied to engage with a crude representation of the world (“the world as I see it”) which becomes a filter that narrows and eventually replaces perceptions.

And nowhere is this filtering mechanism applied more extremely than in the mind of the ideologue. There, an infatuation with a representation not only means that filters are constructed in order to shut out anything that might challenge the ideology, but the ideologue then goes one radical step further by attempting to propagate his own conceptual framework inside the minds of others.

Breivik’s mind was consumed by a particularly destructive ideology; the fixations of others tend to be more benign, but what all hold in common is this inclination to shut out the world — a world that cannot be reduced to a collection of ideas; a world in which perceptions constantly touch the unknown; a world in which everyone’s vision springs from a vantage point.

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1 thought on “If Breivik is sane, what is sanity?

  1. Christopher Hoare

    I believe you know the Heart Sutra, Paul, and are very familiar with Zen koans that suggest society’s idea of reality and the nature of the individual is flawed.

    I would suggest that the whole right wing ethos is at odds with reality when it holds the highest value to be the ‘freedom’ of the individual. Libertarianism, the cult of the individual can be rationally described as a product of this ‘reality’ postulated on self-contingent individuals; non-existant self contingent individuals. Therein lies the whole rationale for opposition to a government that accepts responsibility for its weaker bretheren and bases its duties to be the amelioration of the plight of those in need. In a word, a compassionate government.

    The right winger does not choose to believe in a universe where ‘we are all in this together’ and where progress comes from unity and working together. They view everyone outside their immediate circle as an enemy out to take part of their property. There is much justification for calling the whole collection of them to be on the very edge of reality. Anders Brevik is not more insane than Mitt Romney and his supporters, but both have a tenuous grasp on the nature of the real world that most of us wish to live in.

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