With a breaking
voice and tears dropping, MP Svend Robinson admitted on Thursday that
he had stolen a
People were stunned by what he had done, but the idea of Svend as a
thief was a fleeting one. Instantly,
it was replaced by the now prevailing image of him as a victim of stress.
Friends, and even foes, were quick to express sympathy, concern, even
respect for this man whose
political career had come to such a sad, abrupt and dramatic halt.
Federal NDP leader Jack Layton talked of the “very personal inner
challenge” Robinson now faces.
Prime Minister Paul Martin spoke of him as a dedicated parliamentarian
who is “obviously under a lot of
stress.” NDP MP Lorne Nystrom, who himself faced charges in 1990
of shoplifting a package of contact
lens cleaners and was acquitted after explaining how he had been distracted
and inadvertently left the
store without paying, cast Svend’s “real health problems”
as the priority.
But from the scant details available, it seems that, while Nystrom’s
offence was minor, Robinson’s wasn’t.
Terms like “shoplifting” and “pocketing” seem
euphemistic. A criminal charge, if laid, would be serious.
But what I find intriguing about this story is neither this dangling
legal issue nor what it reveals about
Svend Robinson as a person, but rather what it says about our society’s
proclivity to redefine illegal acts
as signs of mental illness in need of therapy.
In earlier days, we might have described what Robinson did as “out
of character.” But in our current
culture, this term, which I think describes it well, is deemed insufficient.
We want to know “why” he did
it and we turn to medicine for answers that we believe to be definitive.
Perhaps that’s why, before describing his actions as “inexplicable
and unthinkable,” Robinson had already laid the psychological
foundation for understanding: “For some time now, I have been
suffering from severe stress and
When he claimed that “accumulated stress culminated” in
the theft, we grabbed on to his explanation.
And, when psychologists started appearing in the media using labels
like post-traumatic stress,
depression and brain damage, we thought we had the answer.
I don’t think we do. I think that, instead of an answer, what
we have is a modern ritual in which we
obviate crime and guilt by recreating them as aspects of mental illness.
We’re caught up in a myth.
And there would be nothing wrong with that except it puts us in the
bind of having to see someone
like Robinson either as a criminal to be punished or a damaged person
to be healed.
Psychological notions have become our new moral reference points. Having
substituted “health and
illness” for “right and wrong,” we have developed
a common therapeutic language that provides the
sole route to caring and forgiveness.
Offenders confess their psychological problems and we rationalize their
actions in terms of personal
woes. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton, knowing full well how emotive
language resonates with the
public, demonstrated his mastery of this art in his tearful confession
of the Monica Lewinski affair. It
saved his political career.
Now Robinson is following suit, doing what repentant wrongdoers must
do — speaking about his
emotional pain, beginning “a course of therapy to deal with these
problems,” and hoping that after
“healing and recovery;” his constituents will once again
He’s not a common thief. Like everyone, I’m curious to know
the real reason he stole the ring. But
I am no more satisfied with theories of “severe stress and emotional
pain” than I am with the archaic
terms of foolishness and imprudence. Neither do I believe, as one of
his staunch supporter said,
that his experience just goes to show that mental illness can hit anyone.
What is taking place here is a ritual that has become commonplace in
our therapeutic culture, one
in which the offender can rationalize the irrational and we, in turn,
can feel legitimized in offering
sympathy and forgiveness.
For Svend Robinson, this may offer his best shot at recovery —
his own political recovery;