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In the early 1970s, political philosopher John Rawls published A Theory of Justice in which he challenged the political philosophy community to rebuild society via the conceit of what he called “the veil of ignorance.” This limiting factor asked the reader to follow Mr. Rawls’ reasoning as he postulated a political system based on the idea that, as its creator, he or she would have no idea what place they would occupy in that society once the “veil” was lifted. From this he created a robust argument for an understanding of justice on the societal level, the need to respect every individual’s freedom of expression so long as it doesn’t impinge on the freedom of others. He also posited that if one does not know where he or she will end up within a society, one is most likely to design a society where differences of income and personal wealth are only allowed after that society agrees to provide for its members’ basic needs (freedom from want). Rawls’ first principle of justice, “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others” is a core tenet of The Painted Brain mindset.
While chopping broccoli for my dinner, I was thinking over another a priori idea from which to build a society – what if you designed a society with the needs of people with mental illness as a starting principle? By the time I added the chopped broccoli to the sautéing garlic and tofu, I was convinced that this would be a great way to build a kinder, more interconnected society.
First, let’s take a look at transportation. A safe and secure way of getting from one place to another without a car is a huge priority when the needs of those with mental illness becomes one of your guiding principles. This is not because people with mental illness cannot or should not drive, not at all. It’s because promoting public transportation is also a way of promoting social interaction. Virtually everyone is familiar with the comparison between L.A. and New York. People are gruff to each other in New York, but also far more likely to act with kindness when called upon to do so. The stereotype about LA is that people act nice but behave quite viciously when given the opportunity. I think this is very true, and it has a lot to do with the vastly different ways that people in the two cities get around. In New York, people from all walks of life are actively encouraged by circumstance to interact with one another on a daily basis, something that is clearly beneficial and prosocial.
This ideal society would have to have a very different attitude toward service workers as well. There are frequent instances and situations where bus drivers, DMV workers, housing inspectors, et al, display kindness, courage, and compassion toward other people, but alas, it’s not a job requirement. Meanwhile, the pay scale for these jobs does not say to these very same service providers, We value you for who you are, and we want your personality to be an integral part of how you do your job.
If we honored service providers with equitable pay and the commensurate respect they deserve, I would argue that the experience of all, especially the sensitivities of the few, would be far better served. Needless to say, (or apparently not, since arguments of this nature are seldom taken seriously) teachers, home health care workers, nurses, and even social workers would be more respected, and of course, better paid. While we’re on the subject of work, it would be vital to create a city based on employment in general, I don’t mean in a creepy, central committee sort of way, just direct and support work to enhance the creative and productive energy of citizens. We would want a vast expansion of public services, especially medical, mental health-oriented, and supportive services. We would definitely want to cultivate our own fashion industry and food culture. All work would earn a livable wage. Why not pay people to coach local kids’ sports teams or take elderly folks for walks or cook meals for neighbors who need an extra temporary supportive hand? One could invoice the city for good works. The potential is endless. A citywide version of the Gesundheit Institute, where everyone has something to offer someone else. Of course, you would want to promote the arts and public entertainment. I want to live in this city!
People with mental illness in our society are most vulnerable to its pathetically inadequate safety net, and the way any society treats its most vulnerable members is the easiest way to judge the caliber of its compassion. I have argued elsewhere that proposals like Laura’s Law force badly-designed mental health services on people who clearly don’t welcome them, skirting the need for drastically-needed improvements in the quality of such services, services that might actually be attractive to the people we are currently forcing to swallow what we have to offer. The quality of mental health services could be seen as a challenge to the public health, a challenge to be addressed at every level, from a basic change in attitudes to the availability of direct services. Changing the public’s perceptions about mental illness while promoting acceptance and respect for people with varying levels of neurological function would be core components of all public education. The public would support people in crisis because they would know what to do. Teaching people to care for people with mental illness is not all that different from teaching them to love and honor their neighbor.
I think I read that somewhere else, too.
Dave Leon LCSW is the founder and director of Painted Brain and a frequent contributor to Painted Brain News