The Human Library.
"Madness became pure spectacle...which was offered as a diversion to the good conscience of a reason sure of itself...Until the beginning of the nineteenth century...madmen remained monsters- that is, etymologically, beings or things to be shown."
Michel Foucault, "Madness and Civilisation".
The most recent initiative from the national "Time to Change" campaign, aimed at dismantling the stigma which surrounds mental illness, is called "It's time to talk". The brains behind the campaign think that talking openly about mental health is, to quote from their "Update" magazine, "one of the best ways to improve knowledge, attitudes and behaviour." One of the aspects of their new initiative has been the opening of various "human libraries" around the country, where people with no experience of mental illness can meet those who have had experience and, hopefully, therefore, "see beyond the label and meet the individual behind it." The events take place in informal settings, where people with mental illness volunteer as "human books" which the public can "borrow" to hear their personal stories.
I have been, at one time or another, either impressed by the "Time to Change" campaign or left cold by it. I was quite impressed, for example, with their viral films which broached the subject of schizophrenia and its stigmatising connection to violence. I was less enamoured, however, with the TV adverts that the campaign has produced, which seemed to me to be either too negative or just not clear in their meaning.
So, as I read through the article in their magazine about the "human library" events, I began to wonder exactly how I would feel if I were taking part in such an activity, perhaps as one of the "human books".
For a start, I think, I would feel as if I were being "put on display" for an audience of what the sociologist Irving Goffman called, "normals". I'm not exactly saying that the "human library" comes over like some kind of freak show, where members of the public come to gawp at "those mental people", but to me it does have an air of the slightly exploitative about it.
As if to confirm my initial feelings, one "human book" remarked that he had taken part in "the human library" enterprise and was bolstered by one student's remarks that he was, actually, "quite human." Well, excuse me for disagreeing about how this should have made him feel. To me, that is a somewhat ill-informed remark. If you don't know that those who have experience of mental illness are human, what does that say about you? And to actually say to someone, oh, you're really quite human, whereas before I must have thought of you as a three-legged, one-eyed alien is not all that encouraging to me.
One of the TTC campaign's stated aims is to target so-called "subconscious" stigmatizers, who inadvertently discriminate against those with mental illness. But could it be that in this case the Time to Change campaigners have done a little subconscious stigmatising of their own, and unwittingly invoked the days of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when the mentally ill were displayed to the public? OK, so the cages and the bars are no longer there, and the setting in which the human library is staged is a welcoming and informal one. But, are the same thought processes, perhaps subconsciously, going on behind the welcoming facade?
To me, then, the "human library" and the response to it highlighted above only prove that stigma remains a problem; that those with experience of mental illness are still, to some degree, objectified and thought of as almost a different species of human. Strange, then, that this be called the "human" library, as it seems to reveal, or perhaps it is better to say, invoke, the "unhumanness" of those with experience of mental ill heath, and all that is inhumane about their treatment at the hands of those without.