If someone is capable of and now shown to have been lying for at least nine months about having cancer, then they are also surely capable of lying about having a mental illness. This possibility sits awkwardly next to a commendable desire from many of us to respond only with kindness to someone who explains their gross unethical behaviour — blatant and sustained lying — by declaring that they have a severe mental illness.
Is is interesting that we accept Roxanne Joseph ruined her own reputation almost irredeemably, in terms of reliable testimony (which is why she should not, argue some, be a journalist) and yet, without irony, some of us also want to instantly confer on her (again) the status that she is reliable and trustworthy as an epistemic agent.
Let us be clear what is going on here.
Someone fakes cancer for nine months and gets justifiably roasted for such immoral behaviour but when the same person then tells us, in effect, “Trust me, I lied for months on end because I had a mental illness” we want to believe her explanation as complete.
Why and how so? On what grounds, epistemically speaking, do we restore her trustworthiness? Without any new evidence of a change in habit, we are called upon to uncritically accept a declaration of a mental illness. I am sorry, but this is way too fast. And we have to self-examine who gets to have their neat explanations for ethical lapses accepted so swiftly. Because many of us would never even be heard, let alone believed, if we dared to attempt to explain an action that was unforgivable.
We might say her dad, Raymond Joseph is trustworthy as a third party; perhaps he is the source of the explanation that his daughter has a mental illness. But the journalism done by Simon Allison for the Mail & Guardian, and rightly published by editor Khadija Patel, now shows us that the dad is so vested in this particular case that — even if you respect him in general — the dad doesn’t get to be regarded as a reliable bearer of truth in the specific case of his daughter.
That Roxanne’s medical records are ethically to be regarded as belonging to her and her only is trite. I am not implying they should be revealed. That would be callous. The nexus question is: Why should we restore her believability without evidence that morally and epistemically she is a changed professional, a changed character?
So, yet again, some individuals found ethically wanting get to potentially weaponise societal sensitivity around mental illness and we could be hoodwinked and Joseph gets the benefit of the doubt, because society is rehearsing how better to be kind to people with mental illness.
Would a black or brown person, if we are honest, survive this kind of scandal? Do we search for and ascribe this level of complexity to all bodies or only some bodies?
I am reminded of variations on this case. A black mom kills her children and we are not interested in complexity. She cannot be understood. She is only to be condemned. Complexity and explanation are not for those who live under conditions of poverty, not for those who are moving through the world embodied in black skin.
A white mom kills her children and the evening news immediately gathers a panel of experts to explain the mental health pressures of looking after children with a rare, life-limiting muscular disorder. Nevermind that she was wealthy and has access to all sorts of care and treatment. She is to be understood not as mere criminal but as fully human, as capable of error of judgment, as having diminished responsibility for killing her children. Because a white mom cannot be endowed with a one-dimensional narrative. She is too complex to be reduced to a mere criminal. Such simplicity is reserved for the poor mom, the black mom.
So yes, sympathy-privilege is a reality. If you have the right aesthetic or social positioning you can have multiple chances to re-enter the moral community with a clean slate.
Lastly, let’s also remind ourselves that we should be careful of unintentionally stigmatising mental illness — I get that someone can have an event or even an episode that ruins their life while they suffer from a severe mental illness. But if you lie in a sustained series of ways over a long period of time, you would have had at least some moments of lucidity to recognise your wrongdoing. Why wait so long before coming clean? and what does that willingness to sustain the elaborate lie tell us about your character and, crucially, your trustworthiness — including whether you can be trusted to explain your claimed mental illness.
There is kindness, and then there is whitewashing, pun intended. This is worsened by the chronology of the facts and events in the case of Joseph. There was no voluntary reckoning with morally odious behaviour. She was busted. That is not a confession, a recognition of wrongdoing.
There is a whole public industry of self-diagnosing unethical behaviour as emanating from illness to avoid moral skewering. Powerful men caught with their pants down do it all the time, as we know. The “I have a sex addiction” — kind of thing. Meanwhile, millions of people with bona fide mental illness diagnoses live ethically sound lives, while a public narrative unfolds — if you or your dad has power — denigrating and stigmatising mental illness as a readily available explanation for illegality or immorality, to be taken off the shelf when in trouble.
We should give people second chances. And we should all learn to be kinder than we are in a time of online trolling that threatens to change our humanity for the worse, forever. But we should, at the same time, reflect on why we respond so inconsistently to individuals who fall short of community standards and what these inconsistent responses in us reveal about our individual selves and the forms of privilege we are blind to.