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Whiteness, Madness, Violence and Incarceration: The Case of Anders Breivik

November 29, 2011

I have a colleague with whom I have some fantastic discussions that ramble around from topic to topic. His study is around madness and chemical incarceration, mine around race and anticolonialism and where the two find intersections is often quite provoking.

This summer we had a discussion around how particular bodies are read in light of violence, madness and incarceration. We often read and see how Black bodies are read as hyper-violent and criminalized in particular ways – the statistics show in the United States show a high percentage of the prison population is Black. The news carries report after report of violence within racialized bodies – from Gaddafi and his captors in Libya to the Black rapist in Georgia to terrorists in the Middle East. Violence is always located elsewhere and in particular bodies, as I’ve already discussed a little bit on here.

In relation, White bodies are read as naturally civilized, orderly and embody particular moral values. So, how do we read White bodies who do not fit the image of the perfect White, hetero-normative, orderly person? There are White bodies who rupture the image of Whiteness that society has created; how does Whiteness as a system/discourse discipline those who do not fit the mold? Historically, as well as currently, one way has been to deem them ‘insane’.

Perhaps it’s a more ‘genteel’ way of incarceration. It is less visible than those who are handcuffed and shown on the evening news, less sensationalized. The goal of psychiatric institutionalization is to rehab individuals, bring them back into the fold of Whiteness. And, if this is impossible, drug them into silence. Anything to maintain the veneer of order.

That was this summer and then, just today, news out of Norway is that Anders Breivik is insane. You might remember that he carried out a massacre of 77 people in Oslo, a massacre that was initially assumed to be the work of racialized extremists/terrorists (of course). The country and the White world reacted in shock when we realized the culprit was a privileged, ‘normal’ White body. How could this happen?!

bell hooks, in her article “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination“, reminds us though, that for racialized bodies, Whiteness has always been an encounter with terror; certain bodies have always been the subject of White terror. In this light, what Breivik did is no surprise for those who are daily on the receiving end of White violence.

In light of this summer’s discussion, it makes sense that Breivik is deemed insane – it is a way of accounting for or making sense of this deviance of our self-image of Whiteness. It makes even more sense in Norway, a country that is predominantly white and carries a particular image of itself as ordered and civilized – constantly ranking among the most desirable places in the world to live.

Instead of examining what made it possible for Breivik to unleash his barrage of racial hatred (he was vehemently against immigration by racialized bodies and supposed ‘takeover’ of Norway through this immigration’), he is excused and deemed insane, being sent to psychiatric care instead of prison. The explanation for his violence – he had a psychotic  ‘break’, a break from his normal civility and a break from an ordered society that would never breed such violence.

Never mind his high levels of planning and execution, never mind that he was actively a part of White supremacist organizations with similar views – White society is civilized and non-violent, so he must have been crazy. Madness is used here as a way of explaining away violence within White bodies and White society. It is not the norm, it is a break from it. Whereas Black bodies are predisposed to violence, White bodies are normally peaceful.

There are obviously so many layers and entanglements to this – it’s never as simple as black and white. How do we read Black bodies who are deemed insane? How does this differ from White bodies? How does gender further complicate this? How about the history of the homosexual as insane? How has madness been a disciplinary tool used by White bodies against racialized bodies? How do we read White bodies who are in prison? There are some really complex issues here but I think the Breivik case is a demonstrable example of how Whiteness explains away the presence of violence in White bodies through madness. They will attempt to rehabilitate him (which implies a state of order/normalcy to begin with, something not always afforded to racialized bodies) and he will quietly melt out of the spotlight – confined, drugged and unable to speak and further destroy our image of the civilized, non-violent White society.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 18, 2012 03:00

    A similar trait occurs with women. In ‘A Question of Silence’ by film director Marleen Gorris, 3 women who do not know each other kill a male shop assistant. Much of the film is about the court needing to prove the women were insane, rather than white women who could be capable of an act. Just thought it might be of interest.


  1. on the scapegoating of “crazy”: a neurovariant perspective on recent shootings. « imaginary playgrounds.

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