5 MIN READ | Mental Health

How the Language of ‘I’m Just Following Orders’ Relates to Mental Health

Maxwell Guttman

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Maxwell Guttman, (2021, January 13). How the Language of ‘I’m Just Following Orders’ Relates to Mental Health. Psychreg on Mental Health. https://www.psychreg.org/following-orders-mental-health/
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‘I was just following orders.’ The Nuremberg defence – just following orders; due Obedience, or by the German phrase Befehl ist Befehl (‘an order is an order’). This plea justified Nazi crimes against humanity. ‘Just following orders’ implies that the criminal was participating in a crime instead of conceiving it. Following orders also suggests a level of distance from the offence. With this formula, the offending person becomes absolved from the act of transgression. Somehow this proximity deflates the enormity of the crime and makes it less terrible. In cases like this, rhetoric creates an illusion; the illusion complicates the relationship between the criminal and the crime.

‘I was following orders,’ or when people use rhetoric to obfuscate and distort language must be investigated like a Nuremberg. Throughout history, people have used terms like ‘smokescreen’ and other words to describe similar uses of words. Frankly, to do so carves out the meaning from within, making it impossible to identify or mark anything in discrete terms. In doing so, criminals like the Nazis, politicians, and other people who use words to cover up and distort the truth continue to get away with crimes and their responsibility in critical public matters. From crimes against humanity to mental health affairs and social welfare programmes’ general status, rhetoric can be mobilised in various ways depending on intent and aim/goal. Martin Luther King Junior evoked powerful imagery with his use of rhetoric.

In his I Have a Dream speech, King used several technical benefits of rhetoric to paint a picture everyone could understand with different education and background levels. The rhetoric of upward social mobility in King’s speech was an act of social reform. Rhetoric paints us a picture in vivid and compelling terms describing what is happening out there worldwide. Depending on the beliefs of the talking head and news platform, these messages take on different meanings. 

The news, the most current global affairs status, is not always articulated with the same language. Generally, with some pause, we put stock in the news and media. At some point, we understand what is happening and what has happened through the media and journalists. Even on the level of the arts, messages take on broader, overarching concepts and themes.

The skills allow us to evaluate trends and ideas over time through a golden thread that runs throughout the discourse and binds it into academic terms at a field of inquiry. On a less intellectual level, underneath the fine arts, we find these themes creeping into modern cinema and literature in the humanities. 

The point of this survey of how rhetoric is used across various linguistic mediums, from speeches to print journalism, reinforces that we cannot escape the power of language and those that wield it to create a binding, lasting, and unassailable truth with words. These words, if evaluated and studied over time, share some common attributes. Like I was following orders, words are just one example in the recent history of the language used to mask harm and proximity to the harmful criminal act.

I am marking this rhetoric’s importance and flagging it for all readers, jury, and cinema lovers to do a double-take with such a smokescreen. I firmly believe that a crime’s magnitude must be great with such language in its enormity and scale. Think about it. 

As we talked about earlier, the language ‘I was following orders,’ has several rhetorical implications built into the language.

  • proximity, in terms of distance the act,
  • a very neutral context and quality to the action (verb) committed (crime)
  • disavowal/minimisation of culpability.

So many rhetorical mechanisms with so few words used. That is a powerful language used with evil intentions and intent. This language is not only powerful; it is easy to replicate and produce in large volumes for the people who carried out such horrible acts. These Nazis created yet another blueprint to escape responsibility for a crime articulated on such a massive scale, like the final solution. In doing so, the Nazis and wrongdoers escape retribution, just like the Nazis post World War II at Nuremberg. We need to study this insidious language closer so future crimes against humanity are brought to justice.

We also need to understand how similar language uses are used on the home front in our society in each area we talked about: politics, social reform, journalism, the arts, and humanities. At each intersection is another opportunity for evil to creep into the picture and find asylum and use in rhetoric. This discussion is the first step, one of many ahead of us. We have marked the mechanism and delivery system for language to be wielded by people with various aims. We have even gone as far as to outline, in general terms, the implications on a social level. Now, imagine the consequences of mental health affairs. 

Are you complicit in using similar rhetoric to achieve your aim and hide your intentions? How do you use words to achieve your goals? How can we at the broader societal macro/mezzo level harness both the reproducibility and power of such rhetoric to drive our culture closer to reform, beauty, and all things rife with a broader cultural progressive aim? The application of more proficient and moral use of rhetoric is endless. 

Community mental health settings use terms either void of meaning or so rife with destructive aims that patients are at risk of the workers wielding rhetoric, even down to covering up patient abuse. Rhetoric passes through incidents and reports during the provision of treatment. We must teach mental health workers the importance of such language and its impact on service recipients’ lives and well-being.

What will this mean for establishing new best practices? Well, at the level of language. Especially when it comes to reporting, client reporting, and documentation around the provision of care, we begin to evaluate the paper trail (electronic records EHR) documenting treatment for people at risk of the system failing them or gaps in treatment. 

New adaptions to EHR documentation systems and the language around record-keeping can provide a standard for monitoring quality of care. More standardised (a new gold standard) reporting can supply folks with all the information they need to monitor the treatment or underserved groups and patients who typically fall of the radar and re-emerge in the system in a full-blown crisis. 

With a new scope to evaluate how language is used in practice, we can then begin to educate new generations of workers, families, and existing health professionals on creating a culture and system that is more inclusive and accessible. Belief in motivating patients and lifting patients requires a belief in their recovery potential. It means not enacting punitive roadblocks to moving towards a lower level of care and less dependence on the system when we promote independence by creating a system that empowers people who genuinely believe in the potential of the people they serve.

We must charge social work, psychiatry, and other helping professions at the university level. All language dispensaries teach people how to communicate and interact through language the broader moral and ethical aspects of rhetoric before becoming consumed by those seeking to destroy goodness and our way of life in the free world. Only then will rhetoric and positive uses fall on the right side of history and land us in a time and space closer to our dreams. Similar to Martin Luther King Jr. this is my dream. I once called my plan New Freedom. Well, that dream is alive and well today.

At the same time, I take ownership of my goal. The vision includes all of us bound to looking firmly ahead in unity and belief that we can achieve, and we will do so. We must do the right thing if ever this brave experiment is to yield social labour fruits. Our greater human collaboration must deliver life-bearing results and not harbour the seeds of death and destruction. We must work towards rhetoric uses that cultivate life’s protection and a broader landscape free of harm. 


Maxwell Guttman teaches social work at Fordham University. He is also a mental health correspondent for Psychreg where he shares his insights on recovery and healing.

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