I’ve been all over the internet in the past hour, reading what other people have written about psychiatric terms used as slurs, insults, or jokes, and then I read comments. Many hundreds of comments.
People have strong feelings on this matter. And by strong I mean violent. I’m stunned by the vitriol out there about whether or not people have the right to use words like psychotic, schizophrenic, and bipolar however they want.
To which I say, of course we do. Every one of us has the right to say anything we damn well please. We are free to call our moody cats or our cranky neighbors bipolar. We may certainly call every angry, unpleasant, confusing, or mean person we meet psychotic. If we meet a person whose behavior seems unusual or confusing, we are allowed to say he’s schizophrenic. When a friend seems unusually thorough when she washes her hands, we can choose to joke that she has OCD.
We have that right, every one of us. You, me, and the guy walking his dog down the street. We can say what we want.
But let’s talk about the rights of people who have mental illness. Do they have the right to move through their lives without hearing their struggles made into jokes? Or made into put-downs?
The two rights are at odds with each other, so whose do we honor?
That’s where the “we” part ends because we, individually, get to choose our own words. I choose Carter’s right to not be made a joke over my own desire to pop off with certain wise ass remarks.
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I’m not entirely sure how I’m perceived by the people who read this blog, so just in case you don’t know I’ll tell you this: I think sacred cows make the very best hamburgers, politeness for the sake of politeness is silly, and political correctness sometimes gets downright ridiculous.
I also believe that I am actively creating the world in which I live. Words are powerful.
I’m struggling to remove the slang language of mental illness from my vocabulary. It’s very entrenched in our culture, so common that it’s invisible.
That invisibility doesn’t make it OK. The fact that “everybody does it” doesn’t make it right.
“Oh, you big whiner. Quit being so damn sensitive. You just have to get used to it.”
The fact that some (or even most) people believe it is a non-issue doesn’t make it so. Lots of people thought the N word was a non-issue.
I’m not naive; I know that, in many ways, we who care about how language affects people with mental illness do have to live with it. “Learning to live with it,” though, only means I’m not going to lose any sleep. I’m still going to help people be aware of their words. I’ll be nice about it, and I won’t nag, but this matters.
This probably won’t change in my lifetime. However, language can and does evolve. I haven’t heard anyone use the words cripple, mongoloid, or midget in many years, and those were all in common use just a few decades ago.
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If you use crazy, psychotic, bipolar, or any other mental illness-related word in my presence? I won’t be offended. Like I said, I totally get it. It doesn’t offend me unless someone puts real hate behind it. What I want from you is this: be aware. Notice how the language of mental illness has invaded our culture. Think about how that minimizes the struggle of millions of people, one or more of whom you may be talking to when you don’t know it.
In spite of what the media tells us, mental illness is not always visible. Even very ill people may have long periods of stability. If you lean over to your co-worker and say of your boss, “She’s totally psychotic today. What’s wrong with her?” and your co-worker happens to be a person living with a psychotic disorder, he’s likely to feel stung.
Is he a whining wimp? You just made a remark that makes a joke of an illness that has probably robbed him of much that you enjoy in your life. Many seriously mentally ill people lose years of their lives to their illnesses during which they are unable to build relationships, careers, and families. Many people who have mental illness can have joyful, productive lives, but the road to that place is on a steeper incline.
Whose rights do we honor?
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Finally, there’s the argument that says, “I can’t censor myself just because I might offend you! How was I supposed to know you have a mental illness/love someone who has mental illness/care about this issue?”
This I don’t understand. I don’t use the N word. Not ever, in any circumstances, no matter what, no matter who is or isn’t listening. Ditto any other racial slur of which I am aware. I’m not censoring myself; I just don’t use words like that, no thought required.
The English language is pretty damn big. There’s always an alternative.
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Someday all of this will change. People will acknowledge and respect mental illnesses and will no more joke about them than about muscular dystrophy, leukemia, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Because mental illness isn’t funny, either.