Attitude Is Everything

Officials Wanted to Keep Unfit People Out of the U.S., courtesy missouri.edu

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, heĀ  helped build a case for his insanity.

Ellis Island, courtesy Library of Congress

Immigrants Waiting Examination, courtesy Library of Congress

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One thought on “Attitude Is Everything

  1. Lisa Sullivan Taisey

    The Ellis Island Pics are priceless. Can’t imagine what they were going thru. My g g grandmother was held with my g grandfather and another cousin (they were teens). I have to find the Ellis Island records but she went back and forth to visit family in Italy and it say on the manifest they were held and given all meals then released. It said something along the lines of mental issues. I must find it and e mail it to you. How could the agents possibly hold someone without any knowledge of ANY illness?

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