Can we honor the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a vital and meaningful way? On his birthday holiday, can we recognize how King and the civil rights movement are essential for us to succeed in mental health system change?
To truly rise to the invitation this day brings us, we need to set aside some of the more dominant, and wrong, responses to King’s legacy. As I’ve written before on Mad In America, the US civil rights movement and the Black Power movement were integral to the emergence of patients rights activism in the 1970s and have deep relevance today. We forget that and it’s all over for what we want to achieve. It’s wrong to do what we usually do: treat Dr. King and civil rights as somehow an “add on” discussion or a sideline interest, a “topic” that comes up and then gets set aside, over and over. If we forget this history, if we move ahead propelled by the wake King and the civil rights movement made in US culture but not recognizing it, then we make a terrible mistake and we cannot succeed in our aims. Worse, if we forget or deny what made the “mad movement” possible, we risk just ending up doing what the US has done since its inception: take the work of African-Americans for granted, reap the fruits of their labor without recognition or acknowledgment, stand on the shoulders of those silenced and forgotten.
King was just one leading, charismatic, and central figure in a broader mass change that reached from Ella Baker, Malcolm X, and so many others we are still gathering stories of. Celebrating and honoring King’s personal legacy should be no more or less important to understanding our movement than when we honor, say, Judi Chamberlin. Her vital leadership was also charismatic and central — but only one part of a broader mass of individuals making change, large and small. King’s legacy is truly not the legacy of a “great man” of history, but a story of one person carried by many countless ordinary people to represent something for all of us. He illuminated a vision that shines light on the heart of what it is to be human in this world. Everyone, not just the heroes on television or the loud ones speaking from the pulpit, is invited to be part of this vision. And it is very concrete, very specific, and asks very practical participation from each of us.
King is significant because he was part of a movement. The civil rights movement has a clear name and identity in our historical memory and political discussion. Does our movement? When I write about “our movement” I immediate face our lack of such a clear name. “Mad movement”? “Critical psychiatry?” “Psychiatric survivor movement?” In our early days the language was different and made immediate sense and easy identification. Our groups were named “anti-psychiatry” and “mental patient liberation.” That’s pretty clear. I do recognize we moved from “patient” to “consumer,” from “psychiatric abuse survivor” to just “survivor,” and away from “anti-psychiatry” for (in part) good reasons, but what about on a more fundamental level? When we lost a grip on our language we lost a grip on our power.
(When I talk about and name our movement I tend to take a bit more time to notice and point out how our language is not established or clear. I might say “the movement of patients, critical professionals and our supporters to challenge dominant mental health” or something clumsy and awkward like that, but intentionally — to open up the conversation. I certainly don’t call our work “the recovery movement” — what a confusing mess that is, to take the name of a different movement for our own; one based, no less, on the idea of powerlessness in face of an incurable disease. We bury ourselves insulated in in-group jargon and bureaucratese at our peril. Not to put down the hard work of those making change, but I cringe when I hear the phrase “peer respite” because it is such an awkward, jargon term that leaves people out of the conversation. One of the best ways to defeat a mass movement is to start using language to describe it that people don’t understand. Movements are called mass movements for a reason: they need to be understood on a mass level, not just to the insider initiated, so they can build power. Using jargon is a bureaucratic and political derailing of our immediate, common sense vision. It may be done for “practical” political and funding reasons, but don’t you see how losing touch with ourselves as a movement means we are much less likely to get those “peer respites” that we are aiming for in the first place? Don’t get me wrong, of course I do want to see more peer respites. I just think we should name our goal and vision clearly, and leave the jargon and compromise up to the bureaucrats, who never were pushing for our goals to begin with, just responding to the efforts we — not them — have made. Why not say hospital alternatives? That is what we want, that’s our goal, it taps into broad and common experience of hospitals as not nice places for anyone. It’s language for the mass of the society — not language for the bureaucrats at the table. Being clear and direct with our language is a political imperative; George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” deserves wide reading by those seeking mental health system change.)
Back to my main point: We fail to honor or understand the legacy of King when we don’t understand that he was part of a movement. The movement wasn’t single issue. It wasn’t about segregated schools, although that was part of the broader agenda. It wasn’t about labor rights, although that was part of the broader agenda. It wasn’t even about ending the US War in Vietnam, though that was also part of a broader agenda. King’s vision was to overturn elite rule and put people above the monied special interests responsible for war, racism, and poverty. As we remember and celebrate King’s legacy, do we accurately remember this movement and its far-reaching, radical vision of a transformed US politics?
Here are some key myths and facts we might need to look at on MLK Day, and every day we seek real change in society:
“Creative maladjustment” is a wonderful slogan, but are we using the term the way King used it? Are we tapping King’s words without actually reading or understanding his message and how he intended it?
King’s legacy is visible in the movement today in talk about “creative maladjustment” from his speeches. But he picks up “maladjusted,” a term widely used in the time, as a rhetorical invitation to reject acceptance of social injustice — not a mental health system critique. When he used this idea, King wasn’t arguing against mental health stigma; he endorsed using the term “schizophrenia” for example, and did not claim (in anything I’ve come across, please correct me if I’m wrong) that what gets labeled as mental illness should be seen as a protest against society. He is trying to expand the narrow social concern for helping the “maladjusted” — which he does not negate, only sees as not radical enough — to a broader movement agenda. His examples of creative maladjustment were Amos and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom proclaimed equality in an era of inequality. He notably does not give examples of any mad social disturbers. King was an orator and rhetorician, and he is using the term metaphorically and provocatively: his aim is the aim of someone who is part of a movement challenging complacency. He is not making a point against the medical model, other than saying to professionals: “Hey, you are privileged people who are part of an unjust system — join a movement.” King is calling on psychologists, and everyone, to rise up against social injustice itself; he’s not making a case against psychiatry.
King’s image of creative maladjustment is certainly evocative and implicitly cautioning against pathologizing protest (a trend in psychology at the time). He is certainly saying that accepting an unjust society should be questioned. But there is no critique there of diagnosis. He gave one of the “creative maladjustment” speeches at the American Psychological Association, who he was challenging in his inimical, powerful, and eloquent way. His problem with the APA was that these were a bunch of almost exclusively white, privileged people who were part of an unjust society. He was asking them to stop smugly seeing themselves as doing good by helping distressed people, and instead recognize how they perpetuate injustice by going along with it. He was asking people to stop being concerned about social maladjustment exclusively, and, with rhetorical flourish, to start to organize against social injustice by being “maladjusted” to it. By joining a movement.
I am 100% supportive of psychiatric survivors taking up the creative inspiration of King’s vision to guide them in our work, and “creative maladjustment” is a wonderful vision and evocation — certainly effective. But is it incorrectly citing King, enlisting him for a more narrow contemporary agenda of psychiatry reform, and removing his words from the context of his work against war, racism, and poverty. Does it risk misusing his legacy and missing the point of his message? Do we lose the bigger discussion of movement-building if King becomes for us the “creative maladjustment” guy and that’s it? King did not champion “let’s get rid of the DSM and start seeing what’s labeled as mental illness as a response to an unjust society.” His goal was much broader, that’s why he was part of a movement. Everyone today — right, left and beyond — is on the bandwagon to get King associated with them through King quotes taken out of context. King is even used in a twisted way to argue against King himself. Let’s not misappropriate his eloquence and provocation. Let’s instead honor his legacy by reading his words and doing what he wants us to do: join a movement.
King was not a pluralist: he didn’t see the the point of single issue politics.
King moved from bus boycotts and labor strikes and voting enfranchisement as battles in a broader movement with deeper aims: ending war, racism, and poverty. That was his goal and that should be our goal. If you think that is somehow “losing focus” and “off topic” from our goals, then I challenge you: Sit down with anyone who has been diagnosed schizophrenic. Interview them deeply about their lives. Then see if you can convince me that a society dedicated to war, racism, and poverty didn’t play a central role in the distress that got them there, or doesn’t play a central role in preventing them from receiving a truly healing response from society, really getting their needs met. If you are looking for a place to start to do this thinking, you might ask yourself why, in the richest country on earth, there are no “resources” and “budgets” for funding the kinds of programs that might make a difference for this person (military spending? inequality?). You might ask why ordinary people have so little power in a so-called democracy against the entrenched power of medical, pharmaceutical, etc. elites (racism as divide and conquer?). You might ask what prospects this person has for adequately meeting their needs as an “unproductive” unemployed person (inequality and poverty?). Now think about whether your own calls for single-issue change are really, really going to help this person in the long run and prevent others from getting into the same situation. Doesn’t the real solution mean addressing the roots of war, racism, and poverty in society as King asked us to do? King’s colleague Ella Baker put it clearly: “Remember, we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit, a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind.” To think we can truly help those diagnosed with “mental illness” without working for broader human freedom is itself a kind of madness.
Ending forced treatment is not meaningful if you are facing forced homelessness. Getting people off psychiatric drugs is not helpful if your job is driving you crazy with stress and meaninglessness. Hospital alternatives are not useful if people are running from police brutality and terrified of white supremacist mass shootings. Depathologizing mental distress is not useful if people need a diagnosis to get a disability check to survive. People live in the world, not in the mental health system. The mental health system is part of the world — a reflection of it, intimately connected to it. Promising to fix the mental health system without fixing the world it exists in is a false and fraudulent promise.
“But Will, that’s so big, we have to stay focused and manageable.” Perhaps now King’s provocation about “creative maladjustment” might make sense to you. His critique and call applies to anyone who, like the psychologists one of his speeches was delivered to, see themselves as “doing good” without being part of a movement to make real change and end social injustice as a whole. Maybe, in our drift from being part of a real movement, we’ve become part of the system that needs to change? Maybe our identities and job descriptions are narrowing our focus, maybe fear of losing our reputations or having our funding cut off, not an honest look at what it will take for real change in this country, is making these decisions for us?
King did not turn race into an issue separate from other issues: he saw racism as a symptom.
In today’s reality-television political circus, those of us who are “against racism” are often just manipulated into supporting a Dem-against-Repub discussion that loses the deeper goals King and the civil rights movement were aiming for. The issue is a failed democracy and the powerlessness of all ordinary people, not just the animosity and division that are expressions of that failed democracy. The problem is upstream, in how democracy is unfulfilled and taken over by monied elites buying votes and dividing us against each other. Again King is misunderstood here: King saw racism for what it is — his goal was upstream, at the source, changing the power structure of the US as a whole.
Racism is more than the reflexive tribal suspicion and derision of the Other. Racism is more than bigotry towards difference. Racism is even much more than institutional differences in power. Racism — not just racism but race or whiteness itself — is a very effective strategy to divide powerless and impoverished people against each other to prevent challenging elite rule. This is what race is about in the US: talking about race without understanding that this is a dead end. It’s all about power and democracy, and popular control against monied elites. That is what King understood in launching the Poor People’s Campaign to end poverty, and why he challenged the US War in Vietnam. Race is dividing us because of the Democrat and Republican political use of race: how television and troll politics wants us to frame race as a single issue in itself, separate from discussion about elite rule.
King’s goal and the civil rights movement’s goal was to end war, racism and poverty by empowering the disempowered and rebuilding society. He called for specific changes in US economic, social, and foreign policy based on overturning elite rule and fulfilling the promise of real democracy for all citizens. Real voting power, as a way to express popular democratic power, was key for that. Today the voting rights King fought for are still not achieved because the power of votes has been taken over by those who have the money to buy votes.
Slavery built modern society and was kept in place by deeming one less human than the other in order to endorse brutality and murder. The political system built on slavery to enrich elites was, and is, kept in place by promising advantages to the artificially categorized group of “whites” that are denied to the artificially categorized group of “blacks.” As James Baldwin put it, “As long as you think you’re white, I’m going to be forced to think I’m black.” As soon as we divide we are lost. This is not to be color blind — Baldwin marched with King and the advantages of whiteness over blackness are stark and need abolition. Whites do need to be challenged for our privilege, and specific expressions of racism also need to be challenged. But not at the expense of the larger message and goal that King lived and died for: a movement that has as its goal real democracy.
King’s proposals for change are as vital now, for us, as they ever were.
One example: King was a strong supporter of a universal basic income. Set at a level too low — or manipulated by political elites — a universal basic income could just be another form of cutbacks and austerity. But the potential of universal basic income raises our discussion about disability, healthcare, poverty and alternatives to the level of real, lasting, and meaningful change. What leading mad movement organization is having this discussion?
I travel around the US and speak again and again with people working at mental health programs. They understand that “mental illness” is so often a label to avoid problems of poverty and inequality. When will we start to really address this? “The solution to poverty,” wrote King,”is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” That’s clear. That’s a goal. That will take a movement. He wrote it in 1968 (in a book called Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community — and the answer of course is that we went to chaos), and now guaranteed income or universal guaranteed income is being discussed anew (partly because robots are threatening to take over the labor market — not exaggerating). Think about it, people: since one of the biggest rationales for psychiatric diagnosis itself is to play gatekeeper to receive anti-poverty benefits, doesn’t a universal anti-poverty measure offer a meaningful way out of needing psychiatric diagnosis? Hammering away at the logical fallacy and pseudoscience of the DSM for 40 years hasn’t gotten us anywhere; a real movement with real change can.
King fought fiercely for voting rights. Why? We have become so accepting that “electoral politics” isn’t relevant to our day-to-day lives that we lose sight of how voting and elections in a real democracy are the way forward to challenge elite rule. As our reality-television political circus pits Dem against Repub we lose sight of the very basic truth of our political system: not that electoral politiics in itself is meaningless, but that electoral politics becomes meaningless when our vote does not matter. You could even convince everyone in the US to endorse your vision of real change in the mental health system, you could get everyone to agree with you (opinion polls actually show people strongly supportive of our goals), and it would make zero difference, none, if the elite interests who can afford to buy votes are still against it. Elites and monied interests have made US democracy into a fraud. On every issue — quality teachers, gun safety, abortion, foreign policy, climate honesty, pharmaceutical company greed — monied interests block the way.
All of us are now urgently challenged to join the movement to end corruption of our democracy and make our votes count. HR1, the anti-corruption electoral reform bill, is a huge watershed change in our national discussion. That the bill pits Dems against Repubs is an unfortunate symptom, but the broader question — transpartisan support for change — is now on the agenda. My question to the mental health reform movement, the mad movement, the patient movement, the critical psychiatry movement — whatever we call our movement — is: Where are we in this discussion? Not “can we join the chorus of anti-Trump,” which to me is more reality-television spectacle distraction. But the real question — the question King asked — is this: Will we join the movement to make real change, to get to the heart of human freedom and work to fulfill the promise of democracy against control by monied elites? Because that’s what it’s going to take to get the mental health system change we are all talking about.
King was not simply a leader of more compassion, tolerance, respect, and treating people equally, as his sanitized legacy and co-opted holiday shrink him down to be. He was all of those things, but he was something much bigger and much more important — and he died for it. He was a leader raising his voice across this country to ask us to join a movement. A provocative, militant, loud, disciplined, multi-racial, upstream, system-change and concrete-goal-focused mass movement, with one specific aim: fixing democracy. His goal was to overturn the anti-democratic control of our political system by elites and put power back in the hands where it belongs — with us, ordinary people. Is the movement we think we are part of, whatever we name it, the same as the movement King fought for, whether or not we invoke his legacy or reference his words? Most importantly, can we admit we will never succeed if we don’t join the movement King was creating when he was murdered? Are we instead professional complainers and critics in a narrow, single-issue pluralistic fantasy, promising single-issue reforms that can never become real?
Do we want to see meaningful mental health reforms that actually work? Do we want to meet the great moral challenge of our day and be part of a real movement for a real solution? Because that’s how we can truly honor the legacy of Dr. King.