Those who believe, like the philosopher John Gray, that social progress is an illusion would do well to consider the following:
In the mid-18th century, queues of people would gather outside Bethlem, the psychiatric institution in London popularly known as Bedlam. In return for a small fee, they would have access to the facilities and could wander round at leisure taking amusement in the gurns, groans and gestures of those that society had condemned as too disturbed, demented and/or dangerous for general circulation. It is speculated that in the mid-1700s there were around 96,000 such visitors a year. It was not the intention of the authorities that the public should find what they saw a mere source of entertainment: according to Wikipedia, “the mad on display functioned as a moral exemplum of what might happen if the passions and appetites were allowed to dethrone reason”. Nevertheless, the historian Roy Porter records that what drew most people was undoubtedly “the frisson of the freakshow”.
The practice ended in 1770, just as the world entered a more enlightened age. No rational person would now defend such morbid and disrespectful treatment of the mentally disturbed. We are now infinitely more sensitive with regard to how we treat and talk about mental illness in all its forms. Still, curiosity persists as to the mindset of those whose psychological proclivities and/or life histories of emotional torment deprive them of access to reason. Thankfully, technology affords us a window into their way of thinking, so we can view the most mentally unsettled at a safe and solicitous distance. For example, simply typing the words ‘paid by Soros‘ into the Twitter searchbox produces instantaneous and bounteous insights into the macabre forms that outright derangement takes in our own era. Just remember not to laugh too loud or too long. There but for the grace of God go we.
Disclaimer: This article was funded with a generous donation from the Open Society Foundations.