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Pilots in the Coal Mine


This Jacobin article about the Germanwings disaster makes an important point about the particular case: pilots are increasingly a contingent, vulnerable part of the labor force, and this context should be considered when trying to understand why a pilot would hide an illness that would affect his ability to fly. Further, even violent acts can be extreme responses to social and material stresses everyone is facing, and they may be informative about those stresses.

[Lubitz] lived in this social context — characterized by weak or non-existent unions, poor working conditions, and rock-bottom morale — and became socially alienated to a pathological level.

The point is not to justify Lubitz’s actions, but to try to understand why a human being might behave in such a way, so as to prevent similar tragedies in the future. Within aviation over the last few decades, this has been the goal of aircraft accident investigations: not to heap blame on any particular individual, but to try to uncover a chain of events in order to draw lessons. Similarly, we shouldn’t just throw up our arms and declare Lubitz a “madman” or a “rotten apple” who lived in a social vacuum.

We should instead situate Lubitz’s actions in the context of both the degradation of work experienced by pilots and the degeneration of the aviation industry. Hyper-individualized analyses of cause and effect won’t get us very far.

This is closely related to a point that is often buried in our current narratives about mental illness. Lubitz wasn’t only mentally ill, he was apparently profoundly alienated and violent, but it is similarly true that mental illness doesn’t arise in a social vacuum, and can tell us something about the world we’ve built for ourselves. Yet people often speak of mental illness as if the only way to understand it as a spontaneously occurring brain disease. The biomedical model of mental illness is powerful and useful in many ways, but it also has some limitations, especially its poverty of language to describe or tools to investigate the social and material causes of profound distress. I get very frustrated when I hear something like, “the cause of mental illness is in the brain.” Of course in some trivial sense, the proximal cause of all behavior is the brain, but in many if not most cases, mental illness is better understood as a relationship between a person and their environment. Treating mental illness as if it only belongs to the individual divests us of our responsibility to fight for security and justice for everyone, and to do what we can to enable everyone to find belonging and purpose.

It may not be a coincidence that societies that fail to provide for the collective welfare and expect individuals to care for themselves also promote narratives of violence and dysfunction that locate causes within an individual bad actor or sick person. Those narratives excuse the failures.

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