The death of singer Amy Winehouse at the age of 27 connects, I think, with the terrible events in Norway. Both stories concern mental illness of a certain sort, and in both cases the social and cultural context plays a role.
For Amy Winehouse: She was clearly ill, and yet in our culture she could not be forced to receive treatment, and arguably we don’t have very effective treatment as yet for problems such as hers. We can only wait for more effective treatments to be developed, but on the first point, what are the limits of personal freedom? Do we have an obligation to intervene when someone is clearly destroying herself?
On Norway: In a culture that tolerates bigotry, xenophobia, racism, and violence, a few less stable individuals will inevitably follow these leads to their logical conclusion. Again we come up against the question of limits on personal freedom. We also confront the demons that afflict the human soul—to use a traditional way of describing them. Perhaps before too long the physical causes of such aberrations in brain structure or chemistry will have been identified: what then?
In the meantime, we in international schools have a special opportunity to take seriously the proposition that people from very different backgrounds can not just live in peace but can come to know and understand and love one another—a proposition we see supported every day in our students. We need to give this more conscious thought and attention, and examine closely the areas in our own school communities where it is not yet completely true: where groups or individuals are, subtly or obviously, segregated from the majority.
And in our national communities we need to be less complacent about pools of hatred, fear, bigotry, and violence. These sub-communities on the margins of society need attention, not neglect. And wherever we see the same trends, we need to speak out against them. Especially in political discourse, we must insist on dialogue that is respectful and non-violent. The mass media, which profit directly from sensation and scandal and controversy, must be held to account, as well.
All in all, however, we can expect more such atrocities as happened in Norway yesterday, and more personal tragedies like the early death of Amy Winehouse, because the conditions that make them possible will change only very slowly.