Kyrie Irving, AOC, and the Politics of Mental Health

It was pleasantly surprising—and frankly kind of shocking—how little flak Kyrie Irving got for leaving the Brooklyn Nets last month for personal reasons. He certainly faced criticism (especially if you listen sports radio, which you shouldn’t), but almost everyone with a national platform was careful to emphasize that they were not criticizing Irving for needing personal time or focusing on his mental health. There were limited criticisms of his lack of communication with team, or his violation of Covid-19 protocols, but I saw far more examples of media figures publiclyrefraining from criticizing his decision than those actually criticizing him.

And it’s not like Irving is some media darling that the press is inclined to make excuses for. On the contrary, his relationship with the media has been contentious for years. So this seemed to be less about Irving personally than about the increased attention given to mental health issues. A few decades ago, athletes who dealt with mental health issues were considered weak; even a few years ago, it was discussed infrequently. But now the idea of a player taking a mental health break barely raises eyebrows. A lot of this is due to the pandemic—people seem generally more understanding of mental health issues now that so many lives have been so massively disrupted—but the trend predates Covid-19.

Obviously, this is a good thing. More compassion and understanding for people experiencing trauma or mental health problems is an important step towards easing their suffering. So it was encouraging that even in the sports media Take-o-sphere, people were reluctant to stigmatize something that only a few years ago was often dismissed casually. It seemed like maybe a consensus on mental health had emerged, such that even people who criticized Irving did not want to belittle his personal struggles.

And then AOC posted that Instagram video about her experience during the attack on the Capitol.

The reaction to that was both fierce and symmetrical. For every take lauding her bravery for sharing her story, there was a take accusing her of lying or making it all about her. It was, frankly, the kind of response I expected Irving to get.

That he didn’t get this reaction, and she did reveals a lot: about the way people perceive social media, about the difference between the sports media and the political media, and most obviously it reveals a lot about the differences in how men and women are perceived when they talk about trauma. But it also suggests something about the politics of mental health.

Since talking about mental health and trauma inevitably involves focusing on individual experiences, it seems to endorse a politics of individuals. The biggest criticism that both Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Kyrie Irving faced was that what they did was SELFISH. An athlete, though, is expected to be a little selfish in service of his ability to compete—I suspect a major reason the criticism of him was muted is that NBA stars take regular season games off to preserve their physical health all the time, so it’s not a far leap to do “Load management” for the soul. Whether he was too selfish or not will ultimately be determined by how he plays.

But for a politician, especially one on the left, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, selfishness seems like a betrayal of your constituents. Conservatives, already inclined to see AOC as a self-involved hypocrite, see any discussion of her trauma as narcissism. Her critics on the left, already tempted to see her as a sellout, see it as a tool for self-promotion. Many on the left are already skeptical of the emerging mental health consensus, for understandable reasons. In some cases, it can be a tool used by capitalists to diagnose social problems as individual ones and attempt to solve them with a new pharmaceutical or wellness product. As Laurie Penny put it in a 2016 essay, it can be an extension of “a world whose abusive logic wants you to see no structural problems, but only problems with yourself, or with those more marginalized and vulnerable than you are.” 

This is a real political tension on the left, but one key is resisting the initial impulse to see discussions of mental health and trauma as “selfish” merely because they consider people as individuals. As Penny writes, this can very quickly turn into anti-feminism, since it attacks things women do to deal with sexism, or outright nihilism, since it suggests that any attempt to be happy makes you a sellout. Solving this tension, and ensuring that people on the left have a right to care about themselves, is crucial to the success of leftist movements. You need to retain the people who make up the movement, from AOC down to the anonymous person on a picket line, and that entails caring for their mental health. Consider it Load Management for the Revolution…