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Don’t blame me, blame my stress

A Canadian politician claimed that work worries made him steal a $50,000 ring - and everybody bought it.

Tana Dineen

Topics Politics

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MP Svend Robinson has long been one of Canada’s most controversial politicians. But recently he landed himself in hot water, and brought about the possible end to his career.

An outspoken advocate of gay rights, Robinson had been preparing to play a prominent role in the upcoming federal election. But on 15 April, he stood before news cameras and, with a breaking voice and dropping tears, issued a statement saying that on Good Friday he had stolen a $50,000 diamond ring.

People were stunned by what he had done, but the idea of Robinson as a thief was a fleeting one. It was soon replaced by the prevailing image of him as a victim of stress. Both friends and foes were quick to express sympathy, concern and even respect for this man, whose political career had come to such a sad and dramatic halt.

Jack Layton, the leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) that Robinson represents, talked of the ‘very personal inner challenge’ Robinson now faces. The prime minister of Canada, Paul Martin, spoke of him as a dedicated parliamentarian who is ‘obviously under a lot of stress’. One of Robinson’s parliamentary colleagues, MP Lorne Nystrom (who himself faced charges in 1990 for shoplifting a package of contact lens cleaners, and was acquitted after saying that he had been distracted and inadvertently left the store without paying), cast Robinson’s ‘real health problems’ as the priority.

But Nystrom’s offence was minor, Robinson’s wasn’t. In fact, there is good reason for people to ask why Robinson hasn’t been arrested. Due to the political sensitivity of the case, a special prosecutor continues to ‘investigate’; should a criminal charge eventually be laid, it would be serious.

But what I find intriguing about this story is neither this dangling legal issue nor what it reveals about Svend Robinson as a person. It interests me because of what it says about our society’s proclivity to redefine illegal acts as signs of mental illness in need of therapy.

In earlier days, we might have described what he did as ‘out of character’ – a term that I think describes the situation well. But in our current culture, this interpretation is deemed insufficient. We want to know ‘why’ he did it, and we turn to medicine for answers that we believe to be definitive.

Perhaps that is why, before describing his actions as ‘inexplicable and unthinkable’, Robinson had already laid the psychological foundation for understanding: ‘For some time now, I have been suffering from severe stress and emotional pain.’ When he claimed that ‘accumulated stress culminated’ in the theft, people grabbed on to his explanation. And when psychologists started appearing in the media using labels such as post-traumatic stress, depression and brain damage, many assumed that we had the answer.

I don’t think we do. Instead, I think that what we have is a modern ritual in which we obviate crime and guilt by recreating them as aspects of mental illness. There might be nothing wrong with this, except that it puts us in the bind of having to see someone such as Robinson as either a criminal to be punished or a damaged person to be healed.

Psychological notions have become our new moral reference points. Having substituted ‘health and illness’ for ‘right and wrong’, we have developed a common therapeutic language that provides the sole route to caring and forgiveness.

Offenders confess their psychological problems and we rationalise their actions in terms of personal woes. Former US president Bill Clinton, knowing that emotive language resonates with the public, demonstrated his mastery of this art in his tearful confession of the Monica Lewinski affair. It saved his political career.

Now Robinson is following suit, doing what repentant wrongdoers must do – speaking about his emotional pain, beginning ‘a course of therapy to deal with these problems’, and hoping that after ’healing and recovery’, his constituents will once again trust him.

He’s not a common thief. Like everyone, I’m curious to know the real reason why he stole the ring. But I am no more satisfied with theories of ‘severe stress and emotional pain’ than I am with the archaic explanations of foolishness and imprudence. Neither do I believe, as one of his staunch supporters said, that his experience just goes to show that mental illness can hit anyone.

What is taking place here is a ritual that has become commonplace in our therapeutic culture, one in which the offender can rationalise the irrational and we, in turn, can feel legitimised in offering sympathy and forgiveness.

For Svend Robinson, this may offer his best shot at recovery – his own political recovery.

Tana Dineen is the author of Manufacturing Victims: What the psychology industry is doing to people, Robert-Davies, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)), and a frequent columnist for Canadian newspapers including the Ottawa Citizen. A practicing psychologist for three decades, and now a brutal critic of her own profession, she has been dubbed ‘The Dissident Psychologist’ by the North American media.

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Topics Politics

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