Whenever somebody takes a radical or desperate action for reasons others cannot understand, we call them mad. We call Hitler mad. We call Anders Breivik mad. And we call literary characters like Captain Ahab of Moby Dick mad.
Call it the fallacy of the ubiquitous madmen- that we call every misunderstood fanatic “mad”. But they are not mad; we are simply too lazy to understand their thinking. And what you do not understand, you cannot counter.
Now I partly understand Ahab’s claim to insanity- he certainly is in an unusual and unhealthy mental state. A big white whale chops his leg off, and so Ahab decides to run around the world chasing the most deadly marine monster known to man simply because it bit his leg off.
It’s unhealthy, foolish and unwise to be sure, but I doubt it’s mad.
Hitler, Ahab and the Norway gunman were not mad; rather they were slaves to logic. Once the belief of Aryan supremacy was fully accepted, one had no choice but to build Auschwitz. Hitler wrote a whole book, Breivik a manifesto, on why they had to kill the Jews, or the Norwegians.
We call them mad, because their thinking is so strange, and so different. But we don’t take the time to dig deeper and see they produced reasoned (maybe poorly reasoned) arguments supporting their actions.
If their logic could convince them, it can convince others. The only way to stop others from learning their logic is to present counter-arguments. But why argue with a madman, when he can see a shrink twice a week?
Ideas have consequences. In 1629, a Dutch ship, the Batavia, was shipwrecked on a coral reef off the West Australian coastline. Marooned with over 300 other survivors, one man, Jeronimus Cornelisz decided that there was not enough food and water to go around; so he gathered a band of cutthroats to kill the other unarmed passengers in a reign of terror that lasted for weeks. They butchered everybody judged to be unhelpful for the murderers’ chances of survival- including men, women and children, even babies. How could this one mastermind, this Jeronimus, contemplate such an action? Simple: he believed that there was no Heaven and there was no Hell, and whatever man did, God had put it in his heart; therefore killing hundreds of unarmed people was the will of God.
Ideas have consequences. The danger in describing dictators like Hitler or mass murderers like Breivik as “mad” is that we fail to spot the ideas that caused the consequences. We must acknowledge these men as bad, not mad, men who thought and reasoned their way to murder and tyranny, and then wrestle with our own ideas to produce an alternative philosophy. If we fail to spot their dangerous ideas now, we will likely fail to spot those ideas again later, when they reoccur. That is dangerous.