Language, Offense, and Lines Drawn in the Sand….

If you’ve been reading me for a while now, I am sure you know that my favorite blog is Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars.  When I first got into the online atheism/skepticism thing it was because of the evolution/creationism debate, which naturally brought me to Dispatches and PZ Myers’ Pharyngula.  At first I was more of a PZ fan, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that Ed’s post were all on subjects that interested me, from a viewpoint very similar to my own, and I started to pay more attention to DftCW.  Now, to be honest, I can’t even remember the last time I read Pharyngula.

Anyway, Ed made a post today that has me thinking, and I’m going to discuss it here for a bit.  If you are looking  for some quick snark, stop back tomorrow and I will supply.  This post is mainly for me to put my thoughts into words so I can let them sit out there for a day or so, to figure out what I actually think about this.  Feel free to toss in your loose change as well.

The post in question is here:

The other day I put up a post in which I said that I think Glenn Beck is bipolar or manic depressive. A colleague messaged me on Facebook and called me out on it, suggesting — politely — that I try to avoid using language that marginalizes or diminishes those who struggle with mental illness. As I reread the post, I realized that she was right and I sought out some advice on how to change the language I use.


Miri’s advice was good:

My own position on this is pretty simple: the only time one should use mental illness-related terms to describe a person or that person’s behavior is when they know for a fact that that person has either been diagnosed with that mental illness by a professional, or self-identifies with that mental illness because they believe that they have it but perhaps haven’t been able/willing to access professional mental healthcare. Further, mental illness-related terms should never be used in a derogatory way. Just as it’s offensive to call someone “gay” instead of boring or stupid, it’s offensive to call someone “crazy” or “bipolar” instead of “wrong” or “harmful,” which I’m sure are two things that definitely apply to Glenn Beck.

But it’s a convenient shorthand to call someone crazy, loony or insane. Everyone knows what we mean by it, that this person has ideas that are beyond the pale and so disconnected from reality as to be utterly absurd. I use those terms constantly here and always have and I’m sure everyone knows that I don’t intend to disparage those who really do suffer from some form of mental illness. But that isn’t really the point, is it? If it makes those people, many of whom I care about a great deal, uncomfortable and makes them feel more marginalized than they already are, I need to try to find other ways to express myself.

I definitely see the point they are making.  But I have to admit that my immediate thought was that this may be going a bit too far down the line.  I just see a difference between calling something “gay” and calling someone “crazy,” or “bipolar.”  Using “gay” as an insult is infusing the word with eons of homophobia and oppressive sexual norms, to call someone or something “gay” as an insult implies that there is something wrong with being gay.  When a 12 year old boy calls something “gay,” he is putting all of his instilled fear of homosexuals, any moral teachings that have been rammed down his throat, and his own concerns over his awakening sexual identity into that word, with the assumption that being gay is something that is a sin, that is gross, that is wrong.  And that is something that our modern society is fighting against rightly.  People are born with different sexual identities, and if you happen to be homosexual that may be different from the norm, but it is not wrong.  There is nothing wrong with being gay.  It is no longer considered a mental illness, or a problem, except in a religious context, or in the eyes of someone insecure with their own sexuality lashing out.

But “crazy”?  There is something wrong with crazy.  It is a problem.  We treat it.  We go to doctors for it.  I am not saying that people with mental illness are inherently broken, or second class citizens, or less than.  I have been diagnosed with both major depression and social anxiety disorder.  I don’t look down at people who suffer from mental illness.  But it is not the same as “gay.”

Like I said earlier, I can see the point.  I think I could compromise on this in some ways.  Like, I could see not calling anyone “bipolar”.  Bipolar disorder is a complicated illness that is horribly over-simplified into a quick insult normally directed at people who are not behaving like an actual person with bipolar disorder, but like a cultural stereotype of a manic depressive.  But where do we stop?  Am I not allowed to refer to a person as “delusional” anymore?  Can I no longer call someone a sociopath for fear of offending sociopaths?

Or let’s go back to the word “crazy.”  As far as I am aware, there is no diagnoses of “crazy.”  It is a very general term with several meanings.  Maybe I am wrong, that is one of the reasons I am writing this all out, so I can look back over it and let it sit for a bit.  But if you are getting offended because someone is calling Glenn Beck crazy, or Michele Bachmann delusional, maybe it is time to grow a thicker skin?

Don’t get me wrong.  If someone calls you “crazy” because you see a psychiatrist, or because you have a mental health diagnosis, I’ll get offended with you.  I can see how that would be a hurtful term when directed at a person with a mental illness.  When I was suffering from depression, the last thing I needed was some idiot to come along and call me crazy.

I’m just not sure I buy that I shouldn’t use the phrase “batshit insane” anymore because someone with mental health issues, which I also suffer from, is going to be offended.

I’m not that big on censorship.  I have no problem not using words that are actually bigoted and hateful.  This just seems like we are limited language for the protection of those offended by the breeze.

Maybe I’ll read this tomorrow and change my mind.  Maybe I’ll see it from a different angle.  Maybe someone will school me on exactly why it is just as offensive as calling someone a homosexual slur.

Call me crazy, but I doubt it.


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