#CultOfCompliance – Thought Crime and Involuntary Commitment

Today’s stories about compliance take a different spin. Thankfully, no one is being shot or tasered by the police in these examples. Two men have, however, been involuntarily committed for what they might do in the future.

One is an English professor. His case has not made the news but he was involuntarily committed and tweeted about it. I understand there has been some misinformation and definitely misinformed speculation (I was responsible for some of it). It’s put the issues of involuntary commitment front and center, especially given the next case.

The other wrote science fiction set centuries in the future. He worked at a school. His story was set at a future school, beset by violence. And then he was taken for a mandatory emergency psych eval, his home and school were searched for weapons and drugs, and as far as I know he remains un-free. More details below.

When police justify violence, they often speak as follows: I told the person to comply, they didn’t comply, so I felt there was an imminent danger to me, I felt at risk or threatened, so I had no choice but to shoot/taser/beat the individual. I’m sure I have hundreds of those justifications in my file by now.

In my work on the cult of compliance (click here for the overview), though, I am arguing that such incidents reflect a broader cultural veneration of compliance, a decreasing tolerance for risk, and the rise of authoritarian strains more generally in our society. As people with disabilities often behave in unpredictable ways, a compliance-driven society will tolerate such unpredictability less and less, which is my point of entry into the broader issue.

Involuntary commitment is predicated on incarcerating someone for actions that they have not taken yet. It’s based on predicting imminent danger. As such, it’s subjective (though there are medical requirements), it’s been historically subject to immense abuse, and it’s one of the topics on which my research is going to focus over the next few months.

Involuntary commitment is an important tool for law enforcement and mental health treatment. The problem is that it has frequently been abused as a way of enforcing social norms or even for eugenic purposes. Deviancy often gets classified as a mental illness, mental illness gets classified as a danger to society, a danger to society requires incarceration, and into institutions the deviant is forced.

Here’s an excellent overview of the history of involuntary commitment. People familiar with Queer history are very much aware of the dangers here, because homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder subject to psychiatric treatment and commitment and such things as shock therapy (i.e. torture to remove homosexuality). Here’s an upbeat piece on “danger” redefined, saying things are pretty good now (and they are much better). Here’s a consumer factsheet on your involuntary commitment rights from HHS (that word consumer baffled me).

Alicia Curtis, the author of the overview, notes some of the complexities of the situation. She writes:

Dr. Paul Chodoff, who has written several articles on the topic, points out that the focus of the involuntary commitment law on “imminent harm” as the main criterion for commitment, leads psychiatrists to feel frustrated that their work is aimed more at serving the police state in keeping dangerous people off the streets than in carrying out the aims of psychiatry. He argues that the involuntary commitment law should be broadened to allow commitment of those with a mental illness who need hospitalization due to the severe state of their illness, whether they are dangerous or not.

Chodoff is right to some extent. For a long time, people with psychiatric disabilities (for illness vs disability, see here. When I use “illness” I am intentionally mimicking common use, not endorsing it) were routinely committed. Then we as a society moved away from that model, leading in some cases to better inclusion in communities. In too many cases, though, it’s led to homelessness and the rise of prisons as the de-facto institution for the mentally ill.

Moreover, every time there is a mass shooting in which “mental illness” is involved, politicians and law enforcement call for looser involuntary commitment laws (see Sandy Hook). In fact, right after that event, a teacher was committed for buying a gun and claiming that the government was behind the massacre. Maybe he was a danger; I don’t know. He denies it. And I don’t agree with his conspiracy theory, of course. Still, I see involuntary commitment function, in many cases, as a tool of social control. And that worries me.

So these are the debates. What is the best way to manage situations when we perceive a risk of harm to self or other by someone who cannot, by themselves, seek help? How can we avoid the abuses of the past?

Here’s the recent story.

Patrick McLaw writes science fiction. He teaches, well, taught, language arts at a school in Cambridge, MD. One book, The Insurrectionist, tells the story a huge school shooting in the 29th century (i.e. 900 years from now). McLaw is black. He is 23. He writes under an alias.

As near as I can tell, based on reports, he was suspended from his job, banned from school property, and involuntarily committed. Law enforcement swept the school and his home, finding no weapons or explosives.

And then there’s this.

With school starting Tuesday, some parents tell WBOC they are concerned about safety, but both Wagner and Phillips said there is nothing to worry about.
“There will be a Cambridge Police Department presence at Mace’s Lane middle school for as long as we deem it necessary,” Wagner said.
“I think that the various police agencies that we have, working in conjunction with the board have a handle on the situation and I think we’re going to have a safe and happy opening day of school tomorrow,” Phillips said in an interview Monday with WBOC.

Reaction to the case from Reason, DailyKOS, The Atlantic. There’s been lots of links made to Soviet practice of incarcerating dissident artists, but I think that’s not what’s going on here.

Rather, this is about a demand for thought-compliance. To think about a school massacre is to create the possibility that one might do it. Any evidence of violence must be met with overwhelming response – loss of freedom, loss of job, public exposure.

And then the kids can have a “safe and happy opening day of school” in our zero tolerance, and highly compliant, world.

One Reply to “#CultOfCompliance – Thought Crime and Involuntary Commitment”

  1. Anonymous says:


    I think I see the equivalence they're making here – as quite often in schools a kid may make a diary or a short story of a violent fantasy.

    9/10 times, this is just a creative way of venting frustrations. Getting things out on paper can kind of work as self-therapy. Doesn't mean they would actually do anything violent in actuality.

    But given that school shootings occur, 1/10 times the writings the student has made may be some kind of declaration of intent, some kind of message or sign that they actually *would* do something violent in actuality.

    Therefore I can somewhat understand the argument that caution is required, just in case that example is the 1% and is the real thing.

    The assumption that it always is, though, would be ridiculous.

    It's further ridiculous to suggest that a professional work of fiction is any kind of declaration of intent. Yes, there is "write what you know", yes there is drawing inspiration, but the author is separate from their characters.

    To suggest otherwise is to the intentional fallacy, assuming authorial intention. Aside from the thought-crime element, it's a flawed premise.

    To claim that because someone is a teacher, and therefore in a position of trust, they cannot do other non-teachery things in their free time is also ridiculous.

    Yes, you have to (and should) behave in a certain manner when teaching.

    But it doesn't mean that you have to be completely PG-13 in the rest of your adult life outside of your job.

    Particularly not when writing under a farking pseudonym.
    (which is why I'm also very irked by the idea of an erotic fiction writer/teacher being struck off)

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