Reframing Sanity: Scapegoating the Mentally Ill in the Case of Jared Loughner

RE/FRAMING IDENTIFICATIONS 159-168 (Michelle Ballif ed., 2013)

11 Pages Posted: 22 Jul 2013 Last revised: 21 Oct 2013

Date Written: July 20, 2013


Rhetoric scholars (Predergast, Leweicki-Wilson, Pryal) have examined the rhetorical disempowerment of the mentally ill, whose perceived lack of reason isolates them from public discourse. Such isolation can be explained using Kenneth Burke's theory of identification (and its "ironic counterpart," division) which shows how the discursive markers of "sane" and "insane" function to create an in-group, the sane, that relies upon the rhetorical and physical isolation of the insane. The article argues that the mentally ill make an ideal Burkean scapegoat, and that the criminal acts of a few mentally ill people provides the necessary justification for the scapegoating of the entire group, taking the case of Jared Loughner's shootings in Tucson, Arizona. This article examines reports of major U.S. media outlets in the weeks following the 2011 shootings to show how the public rhetorical response to such tragedies tends to be one of division, and then scapegoating, of all mentally ill people. The public reaction to a criminal perpetrator's mental illness follows a predictable rhetorical pattern, including arguments of blame (who is at fault for the crimes of the mentally ill?); arguments for greater categorization (who is mentally ill?); and arguments for prevention (what should we do with the mentally ill?). These arguments arise out of a desire for reassurance that future tragedies can be prevented, so long as we can identify, and isolate, the insane. Thus, this article reframes sanity as a culturally imposed division that is used to forge identification, especially after a traumatic event.

Keywords: rhetoric, psychiatry, violence, sanity, Kenneth Burke, mental illness, scapegoat, crime

Suggested Citation

Pryal, Katie Rose Guest, Reframing Sanity: Scapegoating the Mentally Ill in the Case of Jared Loughner (July 20, 2013). RE/FRAMING IDENTIFICATIONS 159-168 (Michelle Ballif ed., 2013). Available at SSRN:

Katie Rose Guest Pryal (Contact Author)

Independent ( email )

United States

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