Kanye West has been having mental-health issues — and he’s also been histrionically antisemitic. In recent days, debates over whether there is any relationship between these two facts have roiled the discourse.
For those unaware of West’s recent misadventures, a quick recap: Last week, at his fashion show in Paris, the billionaire rapper sported a “White Lives Matter” T-shirt while delivering a nearly two-hour sermon on the divine provenance of his new collection. Diddy, among countless others, took exception to the message, and West responded by accusing the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy of being controlled by Jewish puppet masters. West then tweeted that, though he was “a bit sleepy tonight,” when he woke up the next morning, he was “going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE,” who he said try to “black ball anyone who opposes your agenda.”
In between, West took the time to inform Tucker Carlson that Planned Parenthood was created to “control the Jew population” — clarifying that, “when I say ‘Jew,’ I mean … who the people known as the race Black really are.” West also told the Fox News host that “fake children” had been “placed into my house to sexualize my kids.” (Fox News chose not to air these sentiments, but Vice published the cut footage.)
The impulsiveness and egotism of West’s recent behavior is consistent with the symptoms of a manic episode, and West has previously spoken about his struggles with bipolar disorder. Still, many insist on drawing a sharp line between his disordered mental state and his odious ideological pronouncements. They argue, quite rightly, that neither bigotry nor antisemitism are characteristic symptoms of bipolar disorder. People with mental disorders are no more prone to hatefulness than those without. To suggest otherwise — by baselessly attributing West’s antisemitism to his psychiatric affliction — is both to promote stigma against people suffering from mental illness and to excuse his hateful diatribes as helpless spasms, if not “harmless amusements.”
Others have argued that West’s bigoted actions can’t be separated from his illness and that the impulse to “punish” him for his hateful speech is therefore misplaced. The columnist Hadley Freeman, who in her youth received treatment for anorexia nervosa at multiple psychiatric facilities, argues that his behavior is an unmistakable sign of mental-health issues. Freeman finds the commentariat’s resistance to this conclusion “bewildering” and their determination to see his antisemitism as “a reflection of him as a person” misguided. In her view, the will to deny that mental-health issues sometimes manifest in hateful ravings is indicative of our culture’s fetishization of psychological disorder. We like to imagine those suffering as “sexily impetuous” or “soulfully sensitive.” But mental illness can take ugly and frightening forms. And those suffering from “Bad Mental Illness” are no less deserving of understanding than those with “Good Mental Illness,” as she puts it. Therefore, he “doesn’t need punishment — he needs help.”
I have some sympathy for both of these perspectives. It seems impossible to separate West’s decision to express disordered, antisemitic ravings from his issues. But whether his bigoted beliefs — and/or his attraction to controversy — derives from his mood disorder seems far less clear. There are plenty of bigoted billionaires who suffer from no mental-health issues. To attribute West’s hateful sentiments solely to his condition not only stigmatizes his fellow sufferers but also obscures the cultural wellsprings of antisemitism: If you place a paranoid, manic narcissist into a society bereft of antisemitic ideology, hatred of Jewish people will not magically emerge from their mood swings.
And yet I don’t think we can actually know that West’s bigotry has nothing to do with his illness. Disordered thoughts can sometimes gravitate toward paranoid, conspiratorial logic, and antisemitism is fundamentally a conspiracy theory. Furthermore, there is a long-running debate in the psychiatric community about whether extreme racism itself should be understood as a delusional disorder.
In any case, human beings in general do not need to be mentally ill to be antisemitic. But would the specific human being Kanye West have developed antisemitic beliefs if he had never suffered from bipolar disorder? The question seems no more answerable than that of precisely how West’s music might differ had he never experienced mania or depression. In the absence of mental-health issues, his life path would have diverged from his current one in infinite and unknowable ways. Perhaps in Bizarro World, a Kanye West who never suffered such issues wouldn’t have taken his detour into right-wing controversialism — or maybe that West would be even more hateful. We can’t know.
I think the impulse to flatly deny this possibility may, in some cases, reflect a desire to avoid Freeman’s conclusion. As Freddie deBoer put it, there is an “assumption that to say that mental illness influences behavior is to necessarily fully exonerate someone from the moral or legal consequences of that behavior.” But this assumption is false.
The case for holding someone accountable for harmful actions does not rest on whether they had full agency over that behavior. Or at least if it did, we might have trouble holding anyone accountable for any of their harmful actions because — to the best of our current scientific and philosophical knowledge — free will does not seem to exist.
Even if we stipulate that West’s antisemitism is in no way conditioned by his mental illness, his attraction to that ideology would still have been shaped by countless factors outside of his control — from the cultural currents of the society he was born into to the myriad genetic inheritances and formative experiences that have shaped his character. To say that mental illness did not cause West’s antisemitism is not to say that such bigotry emerged from some innate defect in his essential soul. Rather, it is to say that the determinants of West’s hatred are too multifarious and idiosyncratic to be identified.
The point of holding people accountable for harmful behaviors is not to impose retributive suffering on an agent who has freely chosen to do wrong. The point is to deter harmful behaviors. Even if some psychic derangement led West to embrace — and then express — antisemitic beliefs, his bigoted statements would still retain the power to popularize dangerous ideas. For that reason, even if it could be decisively proved that West had endorsed antisemitic notions only because of his mania, it would still make sense to suspend his access to social-media platforms, as Twitter and Instagram did. Furthermore, given that negative social or professional repercussions might encourage him to seek mental-health care — or to take greater precautions when lucid to prevent himself from doing harm when sick — those repercussions would be warranted even if his bigotry were wholly attributable to his disease. At the same time, were he ever to show contrition for his actions and work to remedy the harm he’s caused, it would be reasonable to attenuate one’s judgment of his past actions in light of his mental distress.
This may be a moot point in West’s case. It is difficult to hold a resolutely popular billionaire musician accountable for much of anything, let alone constitutionally protected speech. But the basic principle is quite pertinent to ongoing debates over criminal-justice reform.
In recent years, sociological and neuroscientific research has illuminated the social and physiological conditions that predispose individuals to commit violent offenses. For example, in 2019, a team of neuroscientists studied the brain scans of 800 incarcerated men and found that those convicted of homicide tended to have significantly less gray matter than those convicted of lesser offenses. These reductions were “especially apparent in regions of the brain associated with emotional processing, behavioral control and social cognition.” If subsequent research determines that there is indeed a causal relationship between these deficits of gray matter and violent behavior, it would not cease being necessary to separate homicidal individuals from the general population. But the case for retributive justice — for inflicting punishment for its own sake — would be significantly weakened. Individuals do not choose their neurobiology. To impose suffering on an individual for actions that derived largely from bad brain matter could be justified only to the extent that doing so was necessary for public safety.
Given that our minds are conditioned by forces beyond our control — and that free will does not necessarily exist — this point applies more broadly. We should want a criminal-justice system that is consequentialist, not retributive. We should punish harmful behaviors to the extent required for minimizing their recurrence and no further. And we should work to understand the determinants of harmful behaviors as best we can so that we can rectify the social ills that inform it and more effectively rehabilitate perpetrators.
Precisely what role mental-health issues played in West’s recent antics is unknowable and likely immaterial. But we should nevertheless get into the habit of rejecting a moral binary that insists a person either has agency over their wrongdoing and is therefore accountable or lacks agency and is therefore blameless. The lines between ourselves and our circumstances are indecipherable. Our thinking about harm, moral culpability, and justice should reflect that reality.