Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Musings on Mental Illness and the Ethics of Co-Habitation

In Judith Butler’s final lecture “Towards an Ethics of Co-Habitation” she presented ideas of co-habitation and ethical responsibility to others.  In weaving the threads of her argument, she pointed out our interconnectivity as social beings who are now, more than ever, connected in more expansive networks which shape our involvement with one another.  For Butler, this reality raises the question, “to whom, then, are we bound?”

Through my social work training at Bryn Mawr’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, I have had the opportunity to work with those who truly exist on the margins or, perhaps, even beyond the margins—those who are diagnosed as severely mentally ill.  I understand that there exist pejorative connotations to this title, but for the purposes of this post I am referring to those whose mental health diagnosis impacts their ability to function appropriately according to society’s standards, and who often are unable to care for themselves without the support of professionals.  This is a population that is not only disenfranchised, but has also become completely dependent on social institutions and their employees.

According to Butler’s lecture we are often implored by images of injustice and suffering in other places, which draw on an ethical obligation for engagement or support, however we can also distance ourselves from the very real problems that are happening in our communities.  People in other countries who are subjected to certain horrors of war, famine, and other forms of precarity may be more legible than the mentally ill.  How can people appear if they are not even “seen”?

The public often finds it difficult to share space with this population and finds them threatening in their unpredictability.  This is a population that despite their perceived limitations, have often found ways to navigate a complex health care system because there are few people that are, in Butler’s terms, “overwhelmed” and therefore “mobilized” to action on their behalf.  Social workers and their allies and colleagues are the few people that engage with this population and help to advocate for their needs and rights.  They are invisibilized, shunned, and excluded from society, and yet impacted daily by policy and dependent on a system of care that often fails them.

So, my question is where does this population factor into Butler’s argument?  I appreciate her presentation of Levinas’ principle that ethical relations are “symmetrical not reciprocal”, which is important to consider with regards to health care and the impact that managed care has had on our society.  According to Butler’s lecture, if we are bound to others by our sociality as humans, mustn’t we then all contribute to the better good or health of each other?

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