Violence, mental illness and culpability- a left-wing perspective

Details have been changed to protect all involved.


I want to protest against a tendency I have seen, in some parts of the left, to deny that sometimes mental illness diminishes responsibility for very serious crimes. This tendency is well intentioned. The intention is to deny hurtful and dangerous stereotypes that mentally ill people are generally dangerous. However, it is ultimately respectability politics in the sense that it throws some “disreputable” people under the bus, leaving some of the most vulnerable people on their own.

It is true that mentally ill people are more likely to be the victim of violent crimes than perpetrators. However, it is also true though that sometimes people commit violent crimes because they are mentally ill- crimes that they would not had committed had they been well.


One of the most facile responses to this is “well I’m mentally ill and I’ve not done anything violent”. Such “reasoning” could be used to deny the link between any objective or subjective factor and crime. Different people experience- and react to- different risk factors differently. There are plenty of poor people who don’t shoplift, yet statistically the poor are more likely to shoplift. It would be inhuman to deny this diminishes culpability.

Causation in the human sciences is always a complex mosaic. A can cause B in person 1 but not in person 2. A can cause B in group 1 but not in group 2. It is probabilistic, conditional and fiendishly difficult to disentangle. Denying A can cause B just because it didn’t in some specific case is obnoxiously wrong. It’s as wrong as saying “smoking can’t cause cancer, my aunt smoked her whole life and she never developed cancer”.


I had known Samantha as an activist and organiser. Full disclosure, I had once asked her on a date not knowing her true gender. She struck me as an intense and morally serious person, though I won’t claim I knew her that well.

I fell out of contact with Samantha for several years. The next I saw her, she was on the news. She had been on a Grindr date. It ended badly. She was insulted for her gender identity, aggravating previous serious mental health issues. This triggered a personal crisis and she took a cocktail of powerful drugs. In tandem with her preexisitng mental health issues, these drugs detached her from reality. She attacked four random people in a Newsagents with a sword she had found at a nearby shop, apparently intending to kill them. Fortunately they all survived. She was sentenced to 8 years in prison.

While the trial was going on, I spoke up for her in the communities she had once been a part of. I argued that to deny the role her mental illnesses had played in her actions in the name of avoiding “ableism” and shift the blame entirely to her “personal choices’ was a right wing frame. I argued that standing up for the vulnerable meant standing up for her. My argument was not well received. The community seemed focused entirely on the possibility that her actions might reflect badly on other people who were mentally ill, or on other people who were transgender. Her welfare, and the welfare of those in similar situations, didn’t seem to be a consideration.

The true left-wing line on criminal justice has always been one of nuance and mercy. It has always been founded on awareness that agency is always mediated by subjective and objective factors. These principles mean absolutely nothing if they don’t apply in hard cases as well as easy cases, and if we’re willing to abandon them in the name of respectability politics.

While you’re here you might be interested in my recent suspension from Reddit for what I feel was an unobjectionable post about racial injustice:

If you enjoyed this article please consider joining our mailing list: also, a collection of my best writing between 2018 and early 2020 is available as a free e-book “Something to read in quarantine: Essays 2018-2020”. You can grab it here. 

One thought on “Violence, mental illness and culpability- a left-wing perspective

  1. Huh, what a strange convolution of expectations. My understanding of the left is that they are supposed to rightfully examine the role outside factors plays in someone’s crime, such as alcoholism or economic context. Isn’t it a leftist position to support people who plead insanity when convicted? Or maybe that’s old hat now.


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