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Unsold Olbermann/mental illness op-ed

Tuesday 9/5/23

Mental illness as a putdown.

Lambasting someone as mentally ill is one of the more curious aspersions of our vituperative age. It’s meant to be this withering comment, a putdown that puts someone in their deserved, lowly place, in all of their inglorious culpability.

But I’ve always had the sense that when people say this, they mean it as statement of accuracy, even when they’re caught up in the super-charged emotion of their latest splenetic moment. It’s a very fashionable insult because there’s so much mental illness in the world right now.

Have a walk outside with observant eyes or log on to your preferred social media site and note what the people you know are saying about their lives and the disconnect with reality.

Stare at a phone, replace a self with a performative persona, forsake critical thinking in order to fit in with whomever one feels a need to fit in with, and experience ever-widening gaps of disconnection, and mental illness is going to have the run of the place.

It’s like a kind of math. What occurs on the left side of the equation dictates how it’s going to be on the starboard side of the equals sign.

Let’s say you think someone is mentally ill. I mean in a way that it’s as if they can’t help what is happening without outside help.

Sometimes, for instance, when we’re broken, we have control, but we give in. We don’t fight to repair and, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, begin the process of pasting it back together again.

We’re on the hook for that, and certainly we can make ourselves less mentally well. But take Keith Olbermann. I wouldn’t be able to stand anything about this man. I find him cartoonish in his histrionic hate. But we’re also dealing with illness.

He remarked on X that Riley Gaines—ex-Tennessee swimmer and current vocal opposition against biological men participating in her former arena—“sucked at her sport.”

This provenance of the statement is in one sense Gaines’ stance which is, at the very least, reasonable. Why should biological men be allowed to compete against biological women in physical contests?

I feel like if you had to host a visiting alien for a day and you took them around and they saw a biological man crushing a biological woman in a swim meet, they’d think we had it way wrong.

Does anyone really think the alien would say, “That seems very judicious and right.”

In another sense, the provenance of the remark is Olbermann’s own misogyny, insecurity, and diminished mental health.

A well person doesn’t make the statement. Even if they thought it, they’d know it was wrong, and they’d have some degree of control, which one never senses with Olbermann.

This was someone whose job was in sports media. Gaines was a two-time second-team all-SEC swimmer. Do you know hard that is to do? If Gaines were to meet 25,000 people, chances are that none of them would be a better swimmer than she is. I’ll posit that that makes you pretty good at swimming.

Olbermann would have to know this, but he can’t stop himself. That’s the nature of sickness.

I’m the last person who’d attempt to fashion an apologia for someone I think is only capable of hate. But we also have to consider ourselves. We don’t want to go down into someone else’s vortex, and we compromise who we attempt to use illness as a cudgel.

Someone can be both a horrible person and mentally ill, of course. Alleviate the latter and they may still the former. I think that’s Olbermann. But to blast someone for their illness is to blast yourself. Would you blast someone for having cancer?

It’s always better to be aware. Awareness is a progression and accession of distinctions. Our words reflect back on our own levels of understanding and compassion, when it comes to everyone.

Orson Welles said, “Your heart is God’s little garden.” He didn’t mean anything religious. He meant that you need to think about what someone is and why they’re that way when you chose your words.

Olbermann may be an obvious example, but the verbal brickbat of “You’re mentally ill!” is everywhere and it says much about the person making the gleeful charge.

That’s not a free pass or making light of another’s toxicity. This is about your mental health. It’s important to be above what one should be above. Stay atop those dark waters of an Olbermann, and swim on.

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