Many people, both lay and professional, passionately debate the very essence of insanity. Some people believe that insanity is mainly a social construct, which can change over time as society itself changes. That is, what was once considered insane is now accepted as normal, or vice versa. Are there truly “insane” behaviors which every society, in every time period, agrees are insane? If not, how can insanity really be established if its definition changes over time?
This societal construct particularly gave trouble for those who didn’t fit mainstream society and weren’t protected by laws or tests which took culture or country into account. Early immigrants often faced criticism as they tried to integrate into American culture. Their different ways were either seen as merely odd or “foreign” and tolerated, or were actively disdained and suppressed. The real problem arose when someone with particularly odd behavior came to the attention of authorities. When the question of insanity arose, the standard that immigrants were judged against was not their own culture and what was accepted within it, but by the Anglo-based white culture in their new country. When immigrants came before an insanity commission or a typical alienist, they often did not present themselves to advantage. If the suspected lunatic could not speak English well, acted out nervousness and fear in odd ways, or refused to answer questions due to fear or confusion, he helped build a case for his insanity.