People are mad and bad, even in the age of genetics

From a lecture given at Gresham College, London, by the Professor Emerita of Social Policy at the University of Bradford, Hilary Rose
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The Independent Online

Mad, bad, sad. Categories like this are never fixed. In the past, religion provided a moral framing for the legal rules as to whether an adult accused of a crime could be held responsible for their action, or not guilty by virtue of insanity. Since the 19th century we have seen a steady "medicalisation" of behaviour.

Mad, bad, sad. Categories like this are never fixed. In the past, religion provided a moral framing for the legal rules as to whether an adult accused of a crime could be held responsible for their action, or not guilty by virtue of insanity. Since the 19th century we have seen a steady "medicalisation" of behaviour.

But biomedicine is not the only scientific discourse committed to re-negotiating the categories. The successful battle of the past three decades to refine the concept of responsibility in partner-murder has been spearheaded by feminist criminological and legal social research. Biomedicine has had rather little to say in this process, by which judges and public alike now recognise that blind rage is not a universal response but is more characteristic of men. Justice requires that the slow burn of women partners on the receiving end of violence is recognised as similarly modifying responsibility.

Unquestionably, this cultural re-negotiation of bad and mad women was underpinned by the women's movement that swept through the last quarter of the 20th century. This immense movement fostered a new willingness in culture and society to look again at categories that falsely universalised difference.

Dealing with false universalisms is the stuff both of the social sciences and of genetics - for both are concerned with difference, though from very different standpoints. For example, we know that class, race and gender are structurally reflected in the statistics of bad, mad and sad, but just what such statistics mean is a good deal more difficult to interpret. Is the young Rasta man psychotic, or is his behaviour simply being misinterpreted by a eurocentric professional with little knowledge or acceptance of cultural diversity? Or does being on the receiving end of steady, unremitting racism simply drive people mad? Or, as some would probably suggest, are all of these just partial truths? Careful social research has already pointed to the importance of social support in protecting young mothers from depression. Our purpose it to set the genetics discussion into a context where it is recognised that it is not the only game in town. Column inches in the media represent high cultural visibility but are not the whole story. Today, behavioural genetics is making huge claims - to explain and to predict behaviour. It works to remove very old ideas of both individual destiny and individual morality. "The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in our genes." The Medical Research Council's popular exhibition of its genome research was called, without apparent irony, Genes Are Us. In this we are invited to see the whole person as reduced to just our genes. If genes are indeed "us", just what happens to our notion of "I"?

What would the ability to isolate traits do to the cultural understanding of responsibility? Despite the power both of the biomedical discourse and of the social and legal sciences to challenge legal and moral categories of responsibility, which in their turn generate new law and new judgements, unquestionably changing and holding on to new categories of the bad, the sad and the mad is not an easy process.

For good and less good reasons, we hold hard on to a raw belief in responsibility. Nowhere do we see this more than in the cultural response to most foul crime, when there is an intense desire to hold perpetrators accountable. Loathsome crime generates loathing for the perpetrator, not only increasing the difficulty of securing a fair trial but also weakening our hard-won categories that modify concepts of legal responsibility.

I suggest that whatever happens as a result of DNA-diagnosed traits, we should not engage in a moral panic; the new genetics will not set us free from the task of working out how to think about appropriate concepts of responsibility for different people.

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