In 2016, after a period of hallucinations, paranoia and depression that led to his being admitted to the UCLA Medical Center, West was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Since then, Kanye’s struggles have become ever more public. In an unaired segment of a recent Fox News interview, for example, he told Tucker Carlson that “fake children” had been planted in his house to “sexualise” his kids. And speaking to journalist Tim Pool, the rapper explained that he has become a target for Zionists whom he believes attempted to plant “some kind of CIA agent” into his inner circle to undermine his success in the fashion world.
These public rantings are a sad reminder of what mental illness can be like (perhaps exacerbated by the robbery of his then fiancée Kim Kardashian in 2016 and West’s subsequent involvement in a particularly public divorce). But many commentators have rejected the idea of a connection between Kanye’s antisemitic views and his mental health status. To point this out is to make excuses for racial prejudice, they argue, and to stigmatise the mentally ill.
It is certainly true that otherwise psychologically normal people can be racists, and that most mentally ill people are not racists or antisemites. And it is true that when we apply a psychological lens to a societal problem, we risk overlooking the social influences that help to explain why bigotry tends to flare up at certain moments in history, and why it takes the forms it does.
But an individual’s beliefs and behaviours simply cannot be divorced from his or her mental state.
There is mounting evidence to suggest that we human beings are not the sole, conscious authors of our actions but, rather, that our beliefs and behaviours emerge—at least in part—from unconscious processes that take place inside our brains.
One particularly striking example of this is the case of the man who, having developed an egg-sized brain tumour, was overcome by sudden and uncontrollable paedophilic urges—which disappeared with the surgical removal of the tumour, and returned with its subsequent regrowth.
Neuroscientists have also shown that brain activity can be used to predict individual actions before the individual becomes consciously aware of an intention to act. And we already know that genetics, hormones, upbringing and even diet can impact the workings of our brains. As Sam Harris has argued, such findings suggest that what we perceive as free will is simply the human tendency to identify with the mental states that arise from the unconscious processes bubbling away in the background of consciousness.
To understand what this means for Kanye, we must remember that antisemitism is distinct from more straightforward forms of racism in ways that make it particularly attractive to those suffering from paranoid delusions. Ordinary racism is fuelled by a feeling of racial superiority and contempt for a lesser breed. Antisemitism, on the other hand, is a conspiracy theory whose adherents focus less on the imagined inferiority of the Jews than on their innate desire and ability to achieve world domination.
In contrast with many racists, who obsess over the physical inferiority of a racial Other, the antisemite is obsessed with the material and the political—the hoarding of wealth, the secrecy of the banking system and the power of modern media, which have become entwined with their understanding of Jewishness.
Kanye’s own ramblings make this abundantly clear. He has accused fellow hip-hop legend Diddy of being part of a Jewish media conspiracy, attacked black performers for working with “a Jewish platform like Disney” and claimed that the Jews are actively trying to financially cripple and even imprison him.
These tropes were not invented by Kanye.
Antisemitism has its roots in the Christian charge of deicide against the Jewish people. But it was perhaps the early twentieth-century forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion that first popularised the idea that Jewish leaders are secretly plotting to take over the world.
Claiming to be a record of conversations between Jewish elders, The Protocols outlines a supposed Jewish plan to amass gold and to weaponise liberalism and modern media in order to enslave Christian populations. According to the text, the secret hand of the Jews has been behind everything from communist revolutions to international wars and the rise of secularism.
This fabrication, itself plagiarised from French and Prussian fiction, was first promoted by the Russian tsars, who sought to undermine support for the Bolshevik regime that had overthrown the feudal monarchy. It was then picked up by the Nazis, becoming a central cog in their genocidal propaganda machine. Since then, everyone from David Icke to Hamas have cited the Protocols as “proof” of a covert Jewish conspiracy to conquer the planet. This belief forms the backbone of the modern New World Order and Illuminati conspiracy theories that animate groups like QAnon. White supremacists do not make such claims about Mexicans, Arabs or Africans. The conspiratorial element is central to antisemitism, in a way that it is not in more ordinary manifestations of ethnocentrism.
Again, unlike other racists, antisemites are obsessed with the Jewish people’s imagined ability to conceal themselves. Nazi, Islamist and Christian propaganda has long painted Jews as not only power-hungry, but deceitful and cunning—uniquely able to avoid detection as they work their plots behind the scenes. This paranoia is partly made possible by Judaism’s dual character as both a religion and an ethnicity, and by the fact that Jews don’t necessarily share any defining physical characteristics (unlike many other racial and ethnic groups).
Antisemitism, then, differs from more straightforward forms of prejudice because it is obsessed not with the external other, but with the enemy within. Hannah Arendt saw antisemitism as central to the rise of totalitarianism for precisely this reason. It is the creation of a hidden, internal enemy, who is to be held responsible for one’s own suffering, and for the suffering of one’s people.
Antisemitism thus openly embraces a paranoid way of thinking. It creates enemies where there are none and encourages believers to view their own prosperity (and the greatness of their race) as under constant threat from this hidden adversary. It encodes the suspicions of the delusional into a political, almost a religious worldview—one that, like any other ideology, offers its adherents a sense of certainty, community and purpose.
Many people are leery of acknowledging the role of mental illness in Kanye’s antisemitism, largely because they do not want to absolve him of some of the blame for his views. But this it to draw a false equivalence between an explanation for and an exoneration of behaviour. Actions must have consequences. We can recognise that a murderer is suffering from a bout of psychosis, for example, but, whatever moral philosophy we subscribe to, such a person must be prevented from harming others. But a vengeful drive to inflict additional suffering on him in retaliation for the suffering he has caused would be wholly counterproductive.
Many progressives have accepted this view that justice should not be purely retributive in other cases—for example, when applied to people who grew up in marginalised communities and find themselves caught up in local gang violence. And few of us would hold child soldiers—kidnapped, abused and forced into ritualised violence from a young age—entirely responsible for whatever crimes they might commit as guerrilla fighters, even after they have been freed from the direct control of a warlord’s militia.
We must apply the same humanity to those whose cultural, social and cognitive backgrounds have pushed them towards unsavoury ideologies—even if this would introduce an uncomfortable degree of nuance into a comfortingly simple moral universe. It has become common in some circles (especially online) to fetishize mental illness or, alternatively, to view the mentally ill as a stigmatised minority deserving of our care. Racists, on the other hand, are the enemy.
This is understandable. Racism, after all, has been responsible for some of our species’ most heinous crimes and we must never forget the daily misery racists can inflict on their fellow human beings. But to ignore the humanity of those we hate is fundamentally counterproductive. A Manichean worldview of this kind serves only to justify punishment and will not help us rehabilitate those who transgress against our moral, social and political norms. It is, in its own way, totalitarian. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was intimately familiar with the workings of the totalitarian state, acknowledges this in a famous passage from The Gulag Archipelago:
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.
“The ability to discriminate,” writes Christopher Hitchens, “is a precious faculty … by judging all members of one ‘race’ to be the same, the racist shows himself incapable of discrimination.” We should not make the same mistake when we consider those in the grip of hateful ideologies. Antisemitism is an affliction of the mind, a paranoid delusion. And to ignore the influence of unconscious factors, such as mental illness, on human beliefs and behaviour is to succumb to a dangerous illusion.