Fighting Ableist Language

I often use words like “crazy,” “insane,” and “nutbag” to describe people whose views I think I bizarre, illogical or bigoted. But as Tekanji points out, words mean things. And while words like “crazy” are pretty steeped in my vocabulary, it really isn’t all that hard to make an effort to purge them. Consider this Step 1.

UPDATE: Contrary to the cries on other blogs, I’m not trying to take away your right to use the word “crazy.” I hear the argument that crazy has a modernized meaning that no longer attaches to people with mental illness. I hear the argument that this is overly PC and ridiculous. That’s fine and dandy. You can go on using crazy all ya like. I will probably use it 500 more times myself, because patterns of language are hard to break. My only point is that it’s been pointed out to me by several people that the language I use does harm to them. My first reaction was to think, “That’s dumb, and this PC business has gotten way out of control.” But you know what? It’s not actually that hard for me to try to check my language. It doesn’t do me any damage, and it saves other people from some, so I figure, why not? If you feel no need to do the same, then don’t — but this post wasn’t about me taking on everyone’s use of words like “nutjob.” It was about me sifting through my own thoughts and use of those words. Why that bothers people so much is bewildering.

Author: has written 5273 posts for this blog.

Jill has been blogging for Feministe since 2005.
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137 Responses

  1. Toast
    Toast June 18, 2008 at 10:10 am |

    So what are you going to replace those particular words with? What’s a good shorthand substitute for describing another person’s thinking as fundamentally at odds with reality?

  2. Simplejewel
    Simplejewel June 18, 2008 at 10:12 am |

    I’m always curious about those who positively identify as crazy, like using it as a compliment. “Oh that Sarah, she’s so crazy. Loud and crazy”. Someone who has a hyper personality or persona. Is it still an ableist, derogatory statement then?

  3. Daomadan
    Daomadan June 18, 2008 at 10:16 am |

    Thanks for this. I notice a lot of mainstream feminists still use words like “lame” and “crazy” and it bothers the heck out of me. Yeah, I have PTSD and some anxiety issues. Not my fault and no reason to throw the word “crazy” or “unhinged” around.

  4. amandaw
    amandaw June 18, 2008 at 10:18 am |

    I’ve been chewing on this for the past few months. I mean, each and every member of my immediate family has severe mental illness. Schizophrenia with psychotic episodes, severe depression and anxiety. And I suspect something similar to borderline in my mother (dunno if she fits the DSM-IV but she certainly exhibits the right symptoms).

    I don’t think crazy/insane are too bad, to be honest. They are so divorced from their supposed literal meanings as to be not-too-harmful. Using “psycho” “schizophrenic” etc. though I do feel are problematic. And especially using the words to denote not a break with reality, but “Bad Mean Person” is a huge problem, for reasons I assume I don’t have to explain.

    “Lame” too.
    I’ve been on the watch for these sorts of words.

    Thanks for the post.

  5. amandaw
    amandaw June 18, 2008 at 10:31 am |

    hm. I read Iris’ post (linked in the link) and I may have to chew on this a little harder.

    Husband and I were going to the post office one day and a car parked there had a bumper sticker in the window saying “I don’t suffer from insanity, I enjoy every minute of it” and he asked me if I found that hurtful/offensive, for people who have no actual mental disability but just like to be “different.” I had read it and assumed the person *WAS* connected to mental illness in some fashion and was owning that fact and saying “You know what, it’s not a bad thing.”

    It’s hard to walk that line. If it were the former interpretation, hell fucking yes I would find that offensive. If it were the latter, I dunno.

    My mind is blanking out, tho, on a way to use the concept without those words — instead saying “break with reality” or “out of her mind” or whatever — but when you think through it, you realize that the concept ITSELF is what is problematic. Using the resemblance of mental illness to denote that a person is somehow Scary and Bad and Wrong is problematic whether you use the shortcuts or take the scenic route.

    What I always like to say in these situations when someone asks “Well then, what am I supposed to say instead?” is: “Why do you have to say it at all?” Is the concept of the Scary Mean Crazy Person so invaluable that we HAVE to be able to invoke it?

    Why do you think that Crazy has to be able to be used in that way? As a slur?

    Would you rather be able to use that language or would you rather that every person, of all abilities, is able to lead a good life and be treated with respect?
    Would you rather, then contribute to the system that is oppressing them this very minute?

    s’your choice.

  6. DAS
    DAS June 18, 2008 at 10:34 am |

    I’m always curious about those who positively identify as crazy, like using it as a compliment. “Oh that Sarah, she’s so crazy. Loud and crazy”. Someone who has a hyper personality or persona. Is it still an ableist, derogatory statement then?

    I’ve wondered that too: what does it say about our society also that we, at once highly value conformity but also value being “crazy”?

    As to the use of crazy as an insult, I’ve wondered about that but then thought “many mentally ill people I know use it”. Oftentimes they’ll say “I may be a lunatic — and I have the hospitalization records and prescriptions for antipsychotics to prove it — but [X] makes me look level-headed and sane” or things like that. But now that I think about it, isn’t my reasoning about why it’s ok to use crazy, insane, etc. as an insult kind of along the lines of “DAS referred to himself as a ‘kike sheeny heeb’ so I guess it’s ok to refer to someone who is acting stereotypically Jewish as ‘acting kikey’”?

  7. amandaw
    amandaw June 18, 2008 at 10:44 am |

    OK, let’s try this again. tekanji pointed to this resource, which also has ideas for other concepts that are gendered/racialized/etc.

    Non-bigoted slurs and insults

    Instead of “Crazy”, “Nuts”, “Psycho”, “Insane”, etc.
    Out there
    Wacky
    Over the top
    A bit much
    Out of whack
    Absurd
    Illogical
    Nonsensical
    Preposterous
    Unreasonable

    Instead of “Retarded”
    Ignorant
    Stupid
    Numbskull
    Nincompoop
    Bozo
    Uneducated
    Uninformed

  8. Sally
    Sally June 18, 2008 at 10:45 am |

    I’m along the thinking of amandaw. I, too, am surrounded by family and friends who have mental illnesses, so I try to stay away from loosely using words like “schizo” and “bipolar.” Recently I’ve even been trying to stop saying that things are “depressing.”

    I don’t do the same for “crazy.” I think it is because it’s taken on a meaning that doesn’t actually mean having a mental illness. As in “I’m crazy about him” or “did you see that move, that was crazy.”

    But thanks for sharing the post, it’s important to constantly evaluate yourself and try to come up with better ways to communicate.

  9. corwin3083
    corwin3083 June 18, 2008 at 11:06 am |

    As someone with a mental illness, this is so stupid it makes me wanna weep blood. If you’re so weak that you crumble into a bundle of neurotic offense at a reminder that you’re crazy, you have bigger problems than someone using certain words.

    I mean, really. How is this different from crazy, nutbag, insane fundamentalists demanding that their delusional faith be respected as sui generis?

    For the record, I’m cyclothymic.

  10. Meredith
    Meredith June 18, 2008 at 11:15 am |

    I think this is a good step in that most people don’t even consider this issue. I’m not personally offended by these terms but know many who are. However, as someone with bipolar disorder, I am offended at “bipolar,” “schizo,” “psycho,” etc. except in their clinical uses. Just because someone is all over the place or contradicts themselves doesn’t make them “bipolar.”

  11. Daomadan
    Daomadan June 18, 2008 at 11:20 am |

    As someone with a mental illness, this is so stupid it makes me wanna weep blood. If you’re so weak that you crumble into a bundle of neurotic offense at a reminder that you’re crazy, you have bigger problems than someone using certain words.

    Who’s crumbling? This is a matter of using respectful, inclusive language. I certainly don’t crumble or break down when someone uses the terms “crazy”, etc. But when we’re so concerned with the right language when talking about -isms, then why shouldn’t that extend to ableist language as well?

  12. Mnemosyne
    Mnemosyne June 18, 2008 at 11:22 am |

    Out there
    Wacky
    Over the top
    A bit much
    Out of whack
    Absurd
    Illogical
    Nonsensical
    Preposterous
    Unreasonable

    “Wacky” and “out of whack” both refer to someone not thinking straight because they got hit on the head one too many times. That’s abelist towards head trauma victims, so she needs to scratch those two off her list of allowable terms.

    We really do need words to refer to people who are not dealing with reality and all of the suggestions, unfortunately, are pretty wimpy.

  13. amandaw
    amandaw June 18, 2008 at 11:28 am |

    “Wimpy,” of course, being gendered and homophobic ;)

    We can’t scrub our language completely clean as long as we live in the same society. It would be like trying to paint the surface of the ocean.

    I do appreciate the attempt to find generally neutral terms, though. I liked “unreasonable” and “absurd” particularly. “Uneducated” strikes me as problematic, as well as a couple others. I think it’s a good discussion. Anyone have other ideas?

  14. corwin3083
    corwin3083 June 18, 2008 at 11:29 am |

    This is not respect. This is, rather, an assumption that mentally ill individuals are too weak to face up to the fact.

    I am crazy.

    I am a nutbag.

    I am insane.

    And guess what? If you’re mentally ill, you are, too. Suck it up.

  15. smadin
    smadin June 18, 2008 at 11:31 am |

    I sort of wonder about Toast’s question, myself. I agree with Jill here — but amandaw, in my experience, words like “crazy” are often used not to invoke the concept of Scary Mean Crazy Person, but to characterize someone (or their ideas or writings) as being incredibly, astonishingly wrong and/or dangerous. That’s a useful thing to be able to do. “Crazy” is the wrong way to do it, I agree, just as “gay” is the wrong way to call something bad.

    I want to take a second to emphasize that I’m not being facetious in what follows, or sophomorically trying to “prove” that this line of thinking is absurd. I absolutely agree there are real issues here that need careful thought.

    The whole structure of how we convey emphasis, anger, disapproval, disparagement, etc., in English is tied either to religion or to body shame, sexism, homophobia and the marginalization and derogation of mental illness and disability. Not just “crazy” and “lame” and “fag” and “pussy” but “goddamn”, “hell”, “stupid”, “fucking”, “asshole”, “prick” and even “shit”.

    And it’s deeply ingrained. No matter how convinced I am of the non-existence of any deities or other supernatural beings, or how aware I am that to exclaim “jesus!” in a moment of shock or surprise derives its power solely from, and feeds back into, the largely unchallenged assumption that (heteronormative, patriarchal) Christian values are a fundamental element of the society I’m a part of, and no matter how much I’d rather not contribute to that, I’m still very likely to do it, out of habit and out of a lack of other forms of expression. No matter how convinced I am that linear measurements of “intelligence” which rank people above and below each other are at best highly problematic and at worst throwbacks as scientifically illegitimate and societally harmful as phrenology, I still say “that’s stupid” to indicate my disapproval of an idea, partly out of habit, and partly from a lack of another way to express it. No matter how convinced I am that there’s nothing wrong or shameful or shocking about body parts or sex or masturbation, I’ll still call people “dick” or “ass” or “wanker” or “fucker,” and yes, certainly, all of these examples can be attributed to my not trying hard enough to find substitute expressions, but my point is that all of this, this whole structure, is deeply embedded in the way we think and talk, and it bears careful examination.

    Let me clarify, also, that of course I’m not claiming that the body-shame messaging inherent in calling someone an “asshole” (let alone a “prick”, as of course even when used negatively male-anatomy slang doesn’t carry anything like the opprobrium that female-anatomy slang does) is “just as bad” as the body-shame plus misogyny inherent in calling someone a “cunt” (for example). But the idea that all genitalia are shameful and shouldn’t be discussed in polite company overlaps with the idea that women are inferior, overlaps with the idea that sex is shameful, overlaps with the idea that excretion is shameful, etc. The sum of all these notions is a layer of harmful, largely unexamined preconceptions embedded ubiquitously in our culture and minds, and it’s bad for everyone — but really, really bad for some.

    Apologies for the long and possibly rambling comment!

  16. Dawn
    Dawn June 18, 2008 at 11:34 am |

    I do feel these words can be hurtful to SOME people with mental illness (not all, obviously, as corwin3083 points out above). This is because such words very often are used to insult people with mental illness in much the same way ‘nigger’ is used to insult black people and ‘chink’ is used to insult Chinese people and ‘ho’ is used to insult women and ‘faggot’ is used to insult gay people. I would not ‘crumble into a bundle of neurotic offense’ if someone calls me a chink and a ho. But I would be feel insulted. And if someone used ‘chink’ and ‘ho’ to describe the kind of nasty people we’re talking about (like Jill Stanek et. al.) I would feel offended too. And the grind of it happening day after day – being called a ‘chink’ day after day, and then hearing it used as an insult against people who are genuinely nasty – would wear me down.

    So yes, using words like ‘crazy’ and ‘nutbag’ and ‘insane’ is ableist, imho. Telling someone that your boss has a ‘psycho kink’ is very different from saying that your boss has a ‘mental illness’. The first is an insult; the second is a medical fact. The effects you produce are different too. Someone with mental illness who is labelled ‘psycho’ would probably suffer a higher degree of discrimination than one who is merely acknowledged as ‘mentally ill’.

    Anyway, comparing people like Jill Stanek to the mentally ill is an insult to them – the mentally ill have a medical condition. Stanek and co. are just a bunch of dickheads.

  17. Daomadan
    Daomadan June 18, 2008 at 11:34 am |

    *yawn*

    The only think I suck up is ramen noodles.

  18. smadin
    smadin June 18, 2008 at 11:35 am |

    (Uh, for the record, comments 7 through 14 were posted while I was composing my rather long-winded one, so some of the same ground’s already been covered. Sorry about that!)

  19. elizabeth
    elizabeth June 18, 2008 at 11:46 am |

    >>>This is not respect. This is, rather, an assumption that mentally ill individuals are too weak to face up to the fact.

    I am crazy.

    I am a nutbag.

    I am insane.

    And guess what? If you’re mentally ill, you are, too. Suck it up.<<<

    i think there are a few issues with this for me. first is that these words–crazy and insane, at least–have been used in contexts to refer (negatively!) to my mental illness. and i can and do use them positively for myself, but in a culture where mental illness is as stigmatized as it is, they aren’t value-neutral terms when used for/about me, except by other people who actually know my experience and are using them in ways that i consent to.
    second, is that when the word “crazy” is used to refer to someone’s ridiculous, hateful ideology, the statement is not exactly that the person has some diagnosis of mental illness–it’s that what they are saying is totally jacked and calling someone mentally ill is shorthand for that. you know? the problem isn’t that they have psychosis. the problem is that they are self-absorbed and/or self-serving and/or scared and/or ignorant and/or cruel and/or hurtful and/or… you know? i really feel like it perpetuates this link in everyone’s mind of disability=awful or person with mental illness=dangerous.
    (full disclosure: i actually did my masters thesis on an intervention to help people who wanted to stop using ableist language do so–i am pretty solidly in the camp of believing, from my own experience and in attempts to be an ally to some other people with disabilities, that changing yr language is a doable step to not perpetuating oppression in this particular way.)

  20. E
    E June 18, 2008 at 12:01 pm |

    I really don’t think cutting those words out is necessary. This isn’t a case of a negative connotation becoming associated with a disability, as when “lame” is used as a catch-all negative to describe things that can’t possibly have a mobility impairment. A defining characteristic of mental illness is a detachment from reality, so what’s the problem with using crazy to mean detached from reality? Using terms like schizophrenic, bipolar, etc. to describe generic ridiculousness is a different story; those are specific diagnoses with specific criteria, and using them in a generic way trivializes them. But the term crazy as used colloquially incorporates a decent amount of nuance–it can be used both positively and negatively, mirroring our cultural ambivalence about whether being “neurologically interesting” is a good or bad thing.

    When I am depressed, (and I mean that in the clinical sense) I’m detached from reality. Many of the things I believe when I’m in that state are not based in logic or reason, and are in fact impervious to them. In short, I’m crazy. Describing irrational thoughts that way isn’t a slur, it’s using a word to mean what it means.

  21. Sally
    Sally June 18, 2008 at 12:05 pm |

    elizabeth, given your background, I’m interested in knowing what you think about the positive uses of crazy, as mentioned above?

  22. Daomadan
    Daomadan June 18, 2008 at 12:16 pm |

    elizabeth: Wonderful comment! You express a lot of my own sentiments. I would love to hear what you found while doing your thesis.

  23. Bravo Romeo Delta
    Bravo Romeo Delta June 18, 2008 at 12:24 pm |

    Would terms like jerk, doofus, or dork be sufficiently unanchored?

  24. Alara Rogers
    Alara Rogers June 18, 2008 at 12:31 pm |

    I personally believe that if you catch language change while it’s happening, you can stop it. If you didn’t, it’s like trying to catch the wind.

    “lame”, for instance, does not mean “has an injury to the limb that prevents its full and complete use” anymore. It can be used to mean that, it originated as meaning that, but it doesn’t mean that, any more than “gay” means “happy, lighthearted, cheerful” anymore.

    “Crazy” in the context Jill used it means “irrational”. And irrational is a great word, but honestly, we need one that’s more pejorative. Something that implies “you are so irrational it indicates that there is something fundamentally wrong with you as a person.” “Crazy” means that; I would in fact argue that because crazy has such ingrained pejorative status, it should *not* be used to describe the mentally ill. Same with “nutjob”. However, “insane” is still pretty close to its clinical definition and therefore should not be used pejoratively to describe a person who is not, in fact, clinically mentally ill.

    What we really need is a word that means “You are irrational in a way that makes you a bad person”. We can’t use any word that means mentally ill because the mentally ill aren’t bad people. We can’t use any word that means *actual* mental problems such as retardation, because people who have such problems are not bad people. What we need is a word that combines “You are irrational” with “You are mentally competent and healthy and *could* be rational if you chose to be, but you are a bad person so you choose to be irrational in a way that harms others.” That’s a lot to pack into a pejorative. I suggest using the word “Republican”. :-)

  25. jgoreham
    jgoreham June 18, 2008 at 12:39 pm |

    There was a really good post at Alas, A Blog about ablist language back in April. Well worth a look. http://www.amptoons.com/blog/archives/2008/04/28/on-making-argument-disability-and-language-by-wheelchair-dancer/

  26. Goodgrief
    Goodgrief June 18, 2008 at 12:56 pm |

    Wow, a whole new thing for me to be ashamed of.

    There are days when I feel like I’m trapped in an Orwellian world of plastispeak. This is one of them.

  27. rhiain
    rhiain June 18, 2008 at 12:57 pm |

    As for the “crazy” thing for someone who’s out there… I have a great way of describing it, courtesy of a former piano teacher: “talking sideways” or “thinking sideways.”

    It came from this, discussing another of his students (who was a friend of mine):

    “You know how sometimes people are really smart, so you talk up to them, and sometimes people are really stupid, so you talk down to them? J is on his own plane… you have to kind of step sideways to be on his level. It’s a parallel scale. You talk sideways to him.”

  28. roses
    roses June 18, 2008 at 12:58 pm |

    I’ve never really thought that crazy and insane could be ableist terms, but I will think about it now. As someone with depression, I don’t personally find those terms offensive, but if other people do, what does it hurt me to find another word? Personally, I like “ridiculous”. For example, Jill’s post could have been reworded this way: “She’s completely ridiculous, but she’s a ridiculous person who anti-choicers rally around”.

    As for this:

    This is, rather, an assumption that mentally ill individuals are too weak to face up to the fact.

    I am crazy.

    I am a nutbag.

    I am insane.

    It’s not using the words crazy or insane that’s a problem. It’s using those words as an insult. Because by using them as an insult, you are automatically implying that they are bad things to be. In doing so, you’re implicitly insulting all people with mental illnesses.

  29. Bee
    Bee June 18, 2008 at 12:59 pm |

    Thanks for the post!

    I think the thing here is to consider your language and what it means for and to people who don’t share your background. Refusing to consider this proposition by classifying it as “stupid” or something similar I think really shows privilege.

    Yes, many people with mental illness don’t mind those terms. But remember that those terms, used by someone with enough power, get people locked in institution and stripped of their rights.

    The usage that really gets to me is when a (ignorant, bigoted, homophobic, etc) conservative is described as “insane.” The thought is that therefore we shouldn’t listen to/believe hir. That is a problem because we often refuse to listen to and believe people with mental illness and people with disabilities in general. Just having such a classification is enough to get you denied all kinds of rights.

    I wish I could talk concisely about the power of the “medical model” in the lives of people with disabilities, but there are a ton of PWD bloggers out there who can get you started.

    (It was my mental health diagnosis and struggles through the mental health system and through higher education that got me tuned in to the disability rights movement.)

    The most important thing is to listen to people and especially women with disabilities. (Let me take a moment to link to Ms. Cripchick and Wheelchair Dancer. Those are just 2 of my favorite bloggers and by no means do they represent all that is out there.)

    To that end, I would like to share a poem written by Lois Keith from the anthology she edited, “What Happened to You?”: Writing by Disabled Women.

    Tomorrow I am going to rewrite the English Language.
    I will discard all those striving ambulist metaphors
    of power and success
    And construct new ways to describe my strength
    My new, different strength.

    The I won’t have to feel dependent
    Because I can’t stand on my own two feet.
    And I’ll refuse to feel a failure
    When I don’t stay one step a head.
    I won’t feel inadequate if I can’t
    Stand up for myself
    Or illogical when I don’t
    Take it one step at a time.

    I will make them understand that it is a very male way
    To describe the world
    All this walking tall
    And making great strides.

    Yes, tomorrow I am going to rewrite the English Language
    Creating the world in my own image.
    Mine will be a gentler, more womanly way
    to describe my progress.
    I will wheel, cover and encircle.
    Some how I will learn to say it all.

  30. FashionablyEvil
    FashionablyEvil June 18, 2008 at 1:01 pm |

    Would terms like jerk, doofus, or dork be sufficiently unanchored?

    A dork is a whale’s penis.

  31. meggygurl
    meggygurl June 18, 2008 at 1:11 pm |

    Me and my girlfriend are trying to purge “retarded” from our vocabulary. It’s a lot harder then it should be. But back in high school before I self-identified as a lesbian, I called EVERYTHING gay, and then when I started to question my sexuality, a good friend pointed out the silliness of me using that word. I managed to get it out of my vocabulary.

    So, my currently goals are purging “retarded” and “pansy” from my usage.

  32. meggygurl
    meggygurl June 18, 2008 at 1:12 pm |

    Oh dear… currently goals make no sense. I SHOULD have been, current goals. :P

    I have a headache and was distracted by the words “whale’s penis” above me on the page.

  33. Bravo Romeo Delta
    Bravo Romeo Delta June 18, 2008 at 1:16 pm |

    So, I suppose that the word dork would be unanchored only if the whale keeps moving? Beats me.

    Although all in all, this thread has been a pretty compelling case for the reintroduction of classic stock insults (jerk, etc.). Granted, I’m not up on the etymology of them all, but it seems to be direction to go.

    BTW, would the term wingnut be considered abelist?

  34. Rachel
    Rachel June 18, 2008 at 1:20 pm |

    This is not respect. This is, rather, an assumption that mentally ill individuals are too weak to face up to the fact.

    Speak for your own mentally-ill self there, corwin3083. I call myself crazy/insane/nutso bananas/loony/the list goes on (and on, and on, and on), but I don’t presume to do the same to other people with mental illnesses. It’s not my place, or yours, to tell folks what should and shouldn’t offend them.

    Jill, I personally appreciate this step. I’d also challenge you to remove the word “lame” from your vocabulary as well.

    A dork is a whale’s penis.

    I had no idea. Thank you for embiggening my vocabulary, FashionablyEvil!

  35. sly civilian
    sly civilian June 18, 2008 at 1:22 pm |

    well, i for one appreciate the effort. i usually remain agnostic about the use of “crazy” on it’s own. Frankly, most of the time we use it, the behavior in question does make sense just on terms that we do not like. Phelps is a great example…his “crazy” behavior helps him solidify the control he has on his family and feeds his needs for attention. Nothing crazy about it, just manipulative, abusive and wrong.

    I’m not for using the word, not because it always offends me (tho i understand how it can be harmful in certain context) but because it offers a less biting critique than we should be giving.

    When i see supposed liberals using schizo, bipolar, images of straightjackets, asylums, and specific slurs …is when i become extremely angry.

    My experiences, and my community, are not a stick to beat someone else with. And with all due respect to my colleagues who don’t object to such terms…some of us do.

  36. amandaw
    amandaw June 18, 2008 at 1:27 pm |

    Winger is a good ’nuff substitute for wingnut, I think.

    It amuses me to see the reaction to people who are trying to reflect on their OWN use of language, as though these people are COMING FOR YOUR RIGHT TO FREE SPEECH OMG, by casting such reflection as “crumbling into a neurotic ball of hysteria” (to fit as many bigoted concepts in as possible) at the mere sight/sound of such words. I do know that not everyone here has the intention of conveying that attitude, but trust me, it’s well conveyed at this point.

    It’s also a common tactic: “if you can’t handle the heat, stay out of the kitchen” employed against people who are fighting against the bigoted use of the words bitch, cunt, chink, nigger, and so forth. Why are you being so oversensitive? It’s just a word. Get over it. Suck it up! I’m a bitch/ch/ng and I don’t have any problem with those words. If you can’t handle those words how can you manage to tie your shoes in the morning?

    Look, YOU might not be insulted, but that does not mean you get to say that NO ONE should be. If you wanna keep using those words, fine. But don’t get upset when other people try to negotiate neutral language use on their *own.*

  37. amandaw
    amandaw June 18, 2008 at 1:33 pm |

    tho on second thought I am sympathetic to when a person from X group is watching people outside X group say that something is wrong/offensive/problematic when sie doesn’t see a problem with it, and neither do a great many of hir X group peers.
    but that’s not the case here. Jill and tekanji are fully-abled afaik (according to society) but they pointed to pwd who are discussing these terms. It’s not like it’s the dominant group forcing their language choices on the sub group.

    Look, I don’t really feel hurt or angry when I hear the words crazy, insane, nutter, whatev. (Psycho, manic, neurotic? Yes.) But that doesn’t mean that they AREN’T problematic. They might not be the most hurtful words evar!, but they can still be tied to a societal structure that is harmful to the people they presume to address.

    Like I said, I’m just amused by how vehement the responses are to this sort of conversation. Again I ask: why do we NEED these words? Is your quality of life going to be diminished without them? Because you know what — mine just might be, WITH them.

  38. Bravo Romeo Delta
    Bravo Romeo Delta June 18, 2008 at 1:43 pm |

    AmandaW,

    Watching the convergence of topics in this and the previous thread is interesting. I think it is a very good antidote to the “can’t-stand-the-heat” class of argument. Being uncivil is just flat out uncivil, and shouldn’t be permitted, regardless of how anyone thinks the put-upon group should feel.

    Or, in other words, it is bad to be a jerk, especially if the jerk in question falls below the standard of a proper ad hominum and being unable to even insult the individual in question, but has to resort to batch classifications as a basis for insult.

    And I’ll go with winger (for what it’s worth, I actually do get a grin at the image of a wingnut when I encounter the term). Is moonbat fair game?

  39. corwin3083
    corwin3083 June 18, 2008 at 1:57 pm |

    roses: “It’s not using the words crazy or insane that’s a problem. It’s using those words as an insult. Because by using them as an insult, you are automatically implying that they are bad things to be. In doing so, you’re implicitly insulting all people with mental illnesses.”

    Being crazyis a bad thing. Try it some time if you don’t believe me. Hell, try taking lithium for a month if you don’t believe me.

  40. Cecily
    Cecily June 18, 2008 at 2:02 pm |

    I just wanted to add this to the discussion: mental illness, real or fictive, has been used to control or stigmatize women for centuries, at least in the West. That history can very easily come into play with the use of these terms, especially when they’re self-applied (“Oh sorry, I’m so crazy today!”) or used against other women. Regardless of whether a feminist understands the offensiveness of the term to some mentally ill people, the potential baggage should give any feminist reason to reflect on her use of the term.

  41. corwin3083
    corwin3083 June 18, 2008 at 2:02 pm |

    Let me add something to my previous posts:

    Mental illness is a Darwinian process, red in tooth and claw. Sucks, but there’s not much to be done about that. You have to be strong to survive it; the weak kill themselves, ergo the abominable statistics on suicide rates for the mentally ill. Complaining about the use of “crazy” as an insult is in itself an insult to the strength that it takes to live despite a mental illness.

  42. Anna
    Anna June 18, 2008 at 2:04 pm |

    I’ve been working on a post about this for some time, and it’s going nowhere fast. But it’s basic idea is that English is the HUGE language that, when it gets bored, takes words from other langages, and when confronted with “please don’t say r#tarded, or lame, or that someone is being a spaz, it’s offensive to some”, people get very angry and in your face about OMG FREEDOM OF SPEECH!

    Feel free to keep using any words you want. They will have social consequences. No one has actually outlawed the n-word or any of the other offensive slurs you can cast about – but there are *social* consequences.

    For me, I usually use “pathetic”. I probably use it too often but it’s my go-to at the moment.

    It’s a big langauge. You’ll find something.

    (The thing I’m trying to weed out at the moment is ‘I’m angry, let me threaten violence against others or myself!’)

  43. Anna
    Anna June 18, 2008 at 2:14 pm |

    the weak kill themselves, ergo the abominable statistics on suicide rates for the mentally ill

    Oh ffs.

    I appreciate being once again that my husband, on top of being physically disabled and struggling under the weight of depression, is also weak after two serious suicide attempts several years ago.

    There’s enough random hate being directed his and my way just for daring to demand spaces to exist, it’s always nice to know that other people who live with illness think he’s not strong enough.

  44. shah8
    shah8 June 18, 2008 at 2:24 pm |

    Hmmm…

    As a person who’s hard of hearing, I do not find this route to sensitivity appealing. My problem is that people avoid talking to me because of the hassle. I almost would welcome incidental abusive terms if it meant that people would have the patience to talk to me even about basic things. Hence, I view this sort of conversation to be another one about disentangling, detached speech, no matter how much it’s supposed to be more sensitive to such people. If you haven’t noticed, people who think that they have to be more sensitive around various disabled people, tend to not want their heads to hurt, and they tend to avoid disabled people as a result.

    It’s one thing with words that inspire…such as nigger, hysterical, mongoloid, blockhead, numbnuts. It’s another thing when it comes to words that are increasingly incidental to the lives of disabled people, like crazy or lame. And it makes me believe (probably wrongly), that these people who are sensitive to words like that have (relatively) mild impairments that by and large still allows them to easily participate in society. Those of us, that I have known, who are truly blocked from easy participation, I’m not sure any of us could possibly give a damn about that sort of incidental contact words. Our disabilities are too damn omnipresent to lack *some* sort of sense of humor to beat the helpless feelings.

  45. amandaw
    amandaw June 18, 2008 at 2:30 pm |

    corwin… wow. Just wow.
    I’m going to leave it at that for now.

    Wow.

  46. Heather
    Heather June 18, 2008 at 2:32 pm |

    What we need is a word that combines “You are irrational” with “You are mentally competent and healthy and *could* be rational if you chose to be, but you are a bad person so you choose to be irrational in a way that harms others.” That’s a lot to pack into a pejorative. I suggest using the word “Republican”. :-)

    This is insensitive, classist, exclusive, hurtful language that is irrational and totally at odds with reality.

    You’re mentally competent and healthy and *could* be rational if you choose to be, but apparently you are choosing to be irrational in a way that harms others. I suggest you apologize and reconsider your choice of hurtful words in the future.

  47. Anna
    Anna June 18, 2008 at 2:32 pm |

    And it makes me believe (probably wrongly), that these people who are sensitive to words like that have (relatively) mild impairments that by and large still allows them to easily participate in society.

    In my case, you are wrong.

    Of course, on top of everything else, my husband is also partially deaf.

    People aren’t afraid to talk to him because “omg, the disabled are so sensitive”. They don’t talk to him because “disabled” = “bad” and scary and obviously if he’s physically disabled he’s mentally disabled, and isn’t is *sweet* and *kind* and *saintly* of me to be with him – assuming I’m not his paid care taker.

    Another specialist appointment today. Maybe this one will fast track us onto the recycled wheelchair waiting list (strangely, in a one income household there isn’t a spare 500$ for a chair) and he can maybe go for a walk with me sometime this summer. That would be awesome, since he’s lived in this city for 18 months and never been along the waterfront, three blocks from where we live. He can’t walk that far.

    But I’m sure we’re just one of those unusual exceptions!

  48. Retief
    Retief June 18, 2008 at 2:43 pm |

    Allow me to refer you to something Jill said earlier today;

    Apparently “whitey” “crazy” is actually a painful and cruel slur towards metally ill people. Now, I’ve never actually heard anyone actually use the term “crazy” seriously — and the term I do hear cruelly hurled at some mentally ill people is “psycho” but that involves a class issue that wingnuts aren’t going to touch — but that doesn’t stop the mentally ill from jumping on the oppression gravy-train. I can just see the thought process: “Maybe if we push this one hard enough, we’ll get affirmative action too!”

    Sure it’s not the same, but it does remind us that it isn’t crazy to draw a line somewhere in our language policing.

  49. corwin3083
    corwin3083 June 18, 2008 at 2:57 pm |

    Anna, if your husband is still around, that’s de facto evidence that he is in fact strong.

  50. shah8
    shah8 June 18, 2008 at 2:59 pm |

    Okay, Anna, I bow to your experience. But people think of your husband as scary?

  51. amandaw
    amandaw June 18, 2008 at 3:04 pm |

    Great, so we’ve got pure social Darwin theory and the people trying to equate the dominant group’s use of language to reinforce an oppressive structure for the oppressed group with the oppressed group using language to indicate their own oppression by the dominant group, with no power to actually harm that group, and that group feigning insult.

    Oppression gravy train for me, I s’pose. Wheeeeeeeee!

  52. shah8
    shah8 June 18, 2008 at 3:04 pm |

    My attitude, though, results from a very intimate aquaintance with pity.

    I really would like to avoid more of it. I don’t want to discourage people from using language in a way that they think is better, but I also do not want people to be influenced by languaged and the use of it in such a way that insulates themselves from disabled people. Just be conscious that when you are trying to avoid ablist language, that you aren’t acting in some sort of diplomatic mentality, but interacting with disabled people in a normal way.

    There’s a reason why the deaf can be rather fanatically defensive of their culture.

  53. Sara Anderson
    Sara Anderson June 18, 2008 at 3:05 pm |

    I’ve thought about this subject a fair amount lately, having suffered a brain injury very recently (My immune system freaked out this winter and ate a bunch of the myelin in my right-frontal lobe, which caused a huge amount of swelling in my brain and various ill effects on my cognitive abilities/mood. I’ve since had the lesion resected and the swelling treated with steroids.). Though I still haven’t been back to work since the surgery (in the beginning of March), I’m amazed at how much daily-life functionality (including baking and cooking and driving and blogging) I’ve retained (I’m going to learn details of where my cognitive abilities are at quite soon – I’m in the middle of a battery of neuropsychological tests), and how easily I’ve slipped back into social settings. There have been lots of things that have improved a lot since the surgery, and I would say that I now have a “bad brain day” only once every few weeks. A “bad brain day” includes weird errors in thinking or doing normal stuff, like walking down a hallway and going into the wrong room, or washing my hands and neglecting to turn the water off afterward. It totally creeps me out when these things happen, not because they themselves are a big deal (who cares if I forget to flush the toilet?), but because I still don’t know the extent of how this will have changed me and my life. I’ve still got some recovering to do, so I’m not going to know for a while. At first, when I’d do something probably related to my brain hole, I’d always have an explanation for it. Now I am better at recognizing when I’ve absent-mindedly neglected to do something, and don’t have a particular thought process behind it.

    It took me quite a while to accept that even though I feel fine, I’m probably not fine like everyone who has their entire brain. At first when my husband would point out to me that I’d done something weird, I would argue with him (I would say things like, “I’m not crazy!” and “I do things for reasons!”). It’s easier to see now that I’m not only buying one potato to serve to six because I’m lazy and thinking about something else at the time and used to cooking for only two. Sometimes your brain just is broken. Before I’d figured out that something was seriously wrong in my head, my boss had sat me down at work and told me I was acting weird, and that he didn’t think I could really be safe at the time, and asked me to go on medical leave. (I work as a lab tech in an animal diagnostic lab – lots of yucky diseases and chemicals and stuff) At the time, I thought my biggest problem was a particularly nasty episode of depression, so my internal monologue had lately been saying “Aw, I can’t do anything right.” Then my inner demons got their validation.

    So getting back to the subject at hand, mental illness and cognitive problems can make functioning difficult, but I don’t think it’s incorrect to portray them as possibly wrecking your ability to think about something in a particular way.

    I’ve been meaning to articulate a lot of this stuff for quite a while now, and I hope it can add something to the discussion here.

    All that said, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with just saying that person who you disagree with is simply wrong, and skipping the “crazy” bit. Sometimes I just happen to be wrong about things, and sometimes I do things wrong because there’s a hole in my brain.

  54. amandaw
    amandaw June 18, 2008 at 3:18 pm |

    See, here’s my thing. The meaning implicit in these terms boils down to: having a mental illness/condition/disability is bad for you and all the people around you.

    When we speak of ourselves going “crazy” we mean that we are seeing harm in our own lives because we can’t fully control our brain’s functions. (May I remind the world that a brain is a body part, and unfortunately, we cannot simply will a part of our bodies to do what we would like. Otherwise, I’d be flying over several people’s heads next time I have to take a shit.)

    When we talk about other people being “crazy” it means that their unconventional behavior is harming other people.

    The thing is, we don’t then say, “This person’s behavior is harmful to that person.” We say, “This person is behaving in an undesirable way, which means they must be thinking unconventionally — because how can any person think rationally and not end up with all the exact same conclusions as I??? — and that unconventional thinking progress must be the cause of the harm at hand!”

    Which is why it’s a problem. It associates not-perfectly-”normal” with doing-something-bad when it DOESN’T NEED TO.

    You can say a person is thinking irrationally (tho that can be gendered!) or that their thinking/attitude/behavior harms X person, and describe how it does. You don’t have to invoke the concept of the Scary Mean Bad Crazy Person to do it.

    And when you say “crazy” you may not be thinking of actual mental illness, but it would be pretty damn disingenuous to suggest that the two aren’t part and parcel of each other.

    I think we may need a tutorial on how the little things just reinforce the hurtful structure — you can’t separate the little thing from the Big Thing that birthed it.

  55. Anna
    Anna June 18, 2008 at 3:19 pm |

    Shah8, he’s 6’10″ tall and carries a big stick. (This is my pathetic attempt at finding humour today. I’m failing. Sincerely, he is very tall – he’s got Marfan’s Syndrome – and walks with a cane, which has to be kinda big for his height.)

    Honestly, people act like his disability is catching. They’ll look over his head at me when we do rent a wheelchair and ask me questions like “Is he okay if he waits here?” Cuz, I dunno – the scary man in the chair will eat them if they ask him directly? When I was away, he went a full year without anyone who wasn’t a doctor touching him – and if you read blogs of people who have very obvious physical disabilities, they’ll talk about the same thing. Life is full of casual touches until you’re untouchable in some ways. People don’t even want to shake his hand.

    Guh, I’m too hyped up to talk about this. Every day is another bloody struggle, and some days I’m just so damned tired.

    Words aren’t that difficult to change if people really want to be inclusive, but I can’t magically fix him. I can’t make him suddenly socially acceptable. I can’t make people stop assuming he’s a charity case and I’m a saint. All I can do is call people on their ablism, every day, and using “lame” and “r#tarded” and “crazy” as slurs is part of that.

  56. amandaw
    amandaw June 18, 2008 at 3:28 pm |

    Sometimes I just happen to be wrong about things, and sometimes I do things wrong because there’s a hole in my brain.

    Right. And even when things are because of the second? that shouldn’t be held against you.

    Sometimes I just happen to be wrong about things. Sometimes I do things wrong because my conditions include cognitive impairment. Sometimes I do things wrong because my medicines have the side effect of cognitive impairment.

    Sometimes I do things wrong because I was brought up by crazy people. ;)

    And either way, you know what, sometimes Normal people do things wrong because they’re just wrong. Sometimes Normal people do things wrong because their routine got fucked by sleeping through their alarm this morning, and it threw them off track. Sometimes Normal people do things wrong because their diets don’t include sufficient nutritional for Optimal Brain Function (god I sound like a woo scam commercial!). Sometimes Normal people do things wrong because they are preoccupied by other stresses, like the death of a parent or an upcoming move. Etc.
    In this case, let’s say the something-done-wrong is leaving empty pens in the pencup at work.
    Funny how most of those things don’t morph into the Defining Aspect of a person, and end up used as a template for criticism against other people who also leave empty pens in the pencup.

    Do you see what I’m saying here? I’m struggling to put it into words.

    OK, maybe it isn’t really hurtful to call the person “sleepyhead” or something. But imagine a world wherein late sleepers do face routine oppression, and you might be able to imagine a world wherein the otherwise-innocuous word “sleepyhead” becomes a problem. Hell, just imagine a world where people who leave empty pens in pencups are called “sleepyhead” and how little sense it even makes.

  57. Nolittlelolita
    Nolittlelolita June 18, 2008 at 3:38 pm |

    Is ‘lame’ really ableist? I managed to successfully weed ‘retarded’ and ‘gay’ out of my vocabulary by replacing them with ‘lame’. Time to find a new word if it really is ableist D:

  58. Alara Rogers
    Alara Rogers June 18, 2008 at 3:50 pm |

    This is insensitive, classist, exclusive, hurtful language that is irrational and totally at odds with reality.

    What, it’s not instantly obvious that the majority of Republicans are mentally competent but choose to do things like vote against gay marriage *just because* they want other people to suffer for being different from them?

    Oh, okay, some Republicans simply have a hard-on for low taxes and will vote for anyone who promises such things, while disapproving of stuff like “you can’t have an abortion, you sluts!” So perhaps “Republican” should not be the word. Maybe “right-winger” would be a better pejorative for people who are mentally competent but choose to behave in an irrational way that harms others just because they feel like it.

    (BTW, classist? Republicans belong to all classes — the class of poor white people who think if they just pick hard enough on the gays and the blacks God will reward them in heaven, the class of middle class people who think that if they just pick hard enough on the poor they will become rich, and the class of rich people who know that their undeserved wealth is built on oppressing others and want to make damn sure the country continues such oppression so they can remain wealthy. There’s nothing classist about calling someone a Republican.)

  59. de-lurking Meghan
    de-lurking Meghan June 18, 2008 at 3:54 pm |

    Allow me to refer you to something Jill said earlier today;

    Apparently “whitey” “crazy” is actually a painful and cruel slur towards metally ill people. Now, I’ve never actually heard anyone actually use the term “crazy” seriously — and the term I do hear cruelly hurled at some mentally ill people is “psycho” but that involves a class issue that wingnuts aren’t going to touch — but that doesn’t stop the mentally ill from jumping on the oppression gravy-train. I can just see the thought process: “Maybe if we push this one hard enough, we’ll get affirmative action too!”

    Sure it’s not the same, but it does remind us that it isn’t crazy to draw a line somewhere in our language policing.

    Trouble with this analogy is that “crazy” and “psycho” are terms for people with mental illness, an oppressed class, whereas “whitey” is a term for a privileged class. The analogy only works if you replace “whitey” with “sane” (or some slightly pejorative variation on sane. how about “normy”?) In which case, Jill’s point stands.

  60. Alara Rogers
    Alara Rogers June 18, 2008 at 3:58 pm |

    Being crazyis a bad thing. Try it some time if you don’t believe me. Hell, try taking lithium for a month if you don’t believe me.

    There’s a big difference between saying someone has a condition that really sucks to have, and using that condition as an *insult*.

    “You, you unhappy person, you!”

    “Oh, she’s such a grieving widow, I can’t stand to listen to her.”

    “Clearly the blogger I disagree with is a total bereaved mother.”

    “You goddamn person with cancer, how dare you say such a thing?”

    I mean, there is a *lot* of bad shit that happens to people in life that we feel *sympathy* for. We don’t turn those bad things into pejoratives. There is a big difference between saying “It really sucks to be crazy” and “What are you, crazy?”

    As for saying the weak who are mentally ill kill themselves, this is like saying the weak who go to Iraq get blown up by IEDs. When you have clinical depression, bipolar disorder or other syndromes that cause suicidal ideations, whether or not you kill yourself has probably just as much to do with luck — the right meds, the right support from your loved ones, the lack of an insensitive comment at just the wrong moment — as it does with personal strength. In fact I would guess the strong are more likely to kill themselves, because, being that they have spent a lifetime being strong, they won’t recognize that they need help in time and are more likely to mistakenly believe they can handle it. The kind of emotional strength you need to not kill yourself is *not* the same as the emotional strength you need to put a brave face on tragedy or keep going in the face of adversity.

  61. Hot Tramp
    Hot Tramp June 18, 2008 at 4:05 pm |

    Regardless of the terms we choose to use, I find the whole “those people who disagree with me are CRAZY!” meme to be deeply unproductive. Conservatives are not mentally ill and they’re not out of touch with reality. They simply have a different perspective and different values. Let’s focus on the places where their perspective is demonstrably incorrect and their values are demonstrably harmful, mmmkay?

  62. Rachel
    Rachel June 18, 2008 at 4:05 pm |

    Is ‘lame’ really ableist?

    Yes. See, e.g., here.

  63. shah8
    shah8 June 18, 2008 at 4:08 pm |

    Anna, that lack of willingness to touch, that caution of asking whether if he wants to be put in a spot, is what I’m getting at, in terms of language. I hope that people don’t learn to see disabled people as primarily and object-someone not to hurt or offend and see the skilled use of language as *aid* to communicating across all sorts of barriers and allowing a diverse range of intimacies. We should talk about to make ourselves at ease in talking to disabled people. In such a context, it’s easier to concentrate on the elimination of hurtful word in a properly toxic disposal sense and as part of the whole communication matrix.

  64. SnowdropExplodes
    SnowdropExplodes June 18, 2008 at 4:17 pm |

    I’m with the “language drift” school of thought on the use of “crazy”.

    In fact, I think that “crazy” and “insane” are now only appropriate when used to describe thinking or acting that is not merely illogical, but actually runs counter to any logical argument, to the point that it defies explanation.

    It has become so specifically a term of pejorative reaction, that it is an insult when applied to people suffering mental health issues, because it is now having the effect of likening the mental health problem to the behaviour of people whose thinking or action is so bereft of reason, rather than (as was originally the case) likening the behaviour of those people to being symptoms of a mental illness.

    Thus, to describe a mentally ill person as “insane” or “crazy” is now having the effect of saying that they are incapable of rational thought, and that isn’t really the case except in the most extreme examples. As someone suffering from depression, and who has helped a loved one cope with a severe episode of bipolar, I know that reason and intellect remain quite functional. Although, as someone pointed out, behaviours can be predicated on beliefs that are untrue and remain in place despite rational attempts to dislodge them, and those behaviours can also be driven by very strong or overwhelming emotions resulting from the effects of the illness, the wits and intelligence of the sufferer are not harmed. Whereas, when we describe someone as “crazy” or “insane”, we are usually referring to them as acting in defiance of reason or intelligence, as though they have none – or have no conscious control at all over their own actions.

    Therefore, to use “crazy” or “insane” about a mentally ill person is to sign up to a negative extreme stereotype about mental illness, and that is where the problem lies from my point of view. There is still some overlap, of course, with the old meanings, and that is problematic, but I think the best thing is to educate people better about what mental illness is and how it affects people, rather than try to “scrub” the language.

  65. Meowser
    Meowser June 18, 2008 at 4:28 pm |

    I have had a psychiatric hospitalization. I have official psychiatric diagnoses. And FWIW, I have never minded the words “crazy” and “nutjob” being applied to people who are irrational, obsessed with power, money, status, and appearance. In fact, I’d actually prefer that those words be associated strongly with those kinds of people. Because they’re the ones who deserve them, not people who have actually had hospitalizations and diagnoses. I just don’t see how calling someone like Dick Cheney a “nutjob” stigmatizes me, since I’m as far from him in money, power, influence, and thought process as you can possibly get.

    I’m not saying that people who object to “crazy” and “nutjob” are wrong to do so. But there’s far from consensus on the subject, whereas almost every black person, for example, would object to white people saying the N-word.

  66. Kathe
    Kathe June 18, 2008 at 4:36 pm |

    Try not to worry about it too much. In my experience, it’s the families and friends of mentally ill people who mind, not the mentally ill people themselves. At least, that the way it is with me.

  67. smadin
    smadin June 18, 2008 at 4:54 pm |

    Hot Tramp brings up a good point, I think. On the one hand, these kinds of terms clearly are (as, for example, the Alas, a Blog! post linked above by jgoreham shows) seen as hurtful, offensive and othering/marginalizing by at least some people with disabilities; so on that score, we should at least be willing to examine our use of them and. On the other hand, they’re also inaccurate when applied to people we disagree with (even when they’re demonstrably wrong) and have a tendency to obscure the substance of the disagreements or criticisms we’re trying to articulate; so on that score as well we should probably think twice before employing them.

  68. Anna
    Anna June 18, 2008 at 4:59 pm |

    NoLittleLolita , try “Pathetic”. I will also say things are stupid and people are jerks. Or irritating.

  69. PhysioProf
    PhysioProf June 18, 2008 at 5:45 pm |

    Hmm. I am going to have to give this some thought, as almost every single one of my posts at PhysioProf is built around characterizing sick-fuck right-wing scumbags as “demented”, “insane”, “wackaloon”, “nutjob”, “crazy”, “psychopathic”, “deranged”, “depraved”, “lunatic”, etc. I guess I really do believe that there is something wrong with their minds.

  70. Benjamin
    Benjamin June 18, 2008 at 5:48 pm |

    Yes, many people with mental illness don’t mind those terms. But remember that those terms, used by someone with enough power, get people locked in institution and stripped of their rights.

    Honestly, I think I can relate to where this is coming from, but it hits a button with me. Mental illness, in my experience, is episodic. Yes, it’s wrong to characterize the person afflicted as being in a state of permanent disability. But as someone who has, at times in the past, been unable to protect family members from themselves during an episode and had to enlist the help of law enforcement to have them hospitalized, this particular assertion makes me a little angry.

    You don’t get “locked in [an] institution” by anyone calling you crazy or insane. You have to be shown to be a real threat to yourself or others, and (depending on local law) you have to have this condition affirmed by a psychiatrist. And frequently, if you were to find yourself in this situation, you would be able to effectively remove yourself from said institution within a week or two on your own recognizance.

    I’m sympathetic to the idea that the negative connotations of terms describing mental illness contribute to what is an undeniable social stigma about these conditions. But I’m also painfully aware that not everyone is high-functioning during an episode, and that not all of the activity around the treatment and protection of mentally ill persons can be attached to more generic discussions of class and identity with that much facility.

  71. Bravo Romeo Delta
    Bravo Romeo Delta June 18, 2008 at 5:48 pm |

    Alara,

    I’d have to admit that at least based on your characterization of people who share a similar political self-identification is pretty offensive. Suggesting that my entire life experience and my thinking is invalid simply because it agree with yours is kind of rough.

    On the other hand, I’m calling it a day, so have a pleasant evening.

    Cheers,

    BRD

  72. r@d@r
    r@d@r June 18, 2008 at 5:58 pm |

    this is actually an issue that i’ve blogged about recently. it’s hard because those of us in the community of the [as i couldn't help myself but put it with tongue firmly planted in cheek] “differently mentated” have often internalized the stigma and prejudice in the form of self-hatred so much that we’re more apt to use such terms than anybody – sometimes in what i’ve described as a passing game. “what, me crazy? look over there across the street at that homeless guy talking to himself – THAT’S what a crazy person looks like! not me, who like, has a job…..uh, that is, who has a job at the moment…..i think…..”

    it’s like my jewish friends who call themselves heebs, my gay friends who call themselves queer, my black friends who throw the N word around while the rest of us duck – does it mean something different if we call ourselves and/or others crazy? should it? i know that when i am in close, exclusive social contact with my fellow MI people, we throw around such terms all the time – it’s a form of relaxed commiseration one has when one feels to be among one’s own kind. i’m not sure there is a comfortable or even right answer to this. Kathe at 67 has a good point when she says our families and friends might be more sensitive about it than we are – possibly since they are often the ones who pay a heavy daily price for having to deal with our illness. i find i have to laugh at myself every day in order to survive, and in actuality having that sense of humor about my condition carries more compassion toward myself than enshrining that self in some sort of armor of dignity.

    and corwin – you can hide your pain behind bluster all you want, but you can’t lie to me. especially because i am intimately familiar with the science fiction character you’ve handled yourself after. stay strong my friend, reach out, come out of the basement.

  73. Ableist Slurs Of The Mentally Disabled « PhysioProf

    [...] 18, 2008 Jill just posted something at Feministe that, for reasons that will be obvious, has me thinking very hard: I often use words [...]

  74. PhysioProf
    PhysioProf June 18, 2008 at 6:04 pm |

    I have just posted about this at my blog, and have asked my readers to weigh in. If anyone here is willing, I would be very grateful to people who would go to my blog, read the kind of language I use, and tell me if I am collaterally injuring people who are not the intended objects of my rants.

  75. akeeyu
    akeeyu June 18, 2008 at 6:10 pm |

    Okay, I’m a crazy person, and as such, casual use of the terms “psychotic”, “schizo” and “bipolar” in conversation drive me absolutely bugfuck.

    That being said, when some nutbar does something spectacularly noteworthy and claims the insanity defense, my first response is “What a bunch of crap. I’m may be insane, but that guy’s a crazy asshole who needs to be in jail.” Frankly, the overuse of the insanity defense is a much greater slight to the, er, Differently Sane Community than calling Ann Coulter crazy, because then the term ‘insane’ is automatically linked in people’s minds to DANGEROUS CRAZY PEOPLE WHO WILL KILL THEM. Thanks a lot, crazy assholes with guns. Way to make my life less pleasant. Jerks.

    Where was I? Oh, right. This post.

    I think a lot of people have raised a lot of interesting and varied opinions about this whole thing, but my first reaction upon reading it was “What, they PITY me, now? If saying ‘crazy’ is able-ist, this means they consider me disabled*? Fuck. How much more normal and functional do I have to be/look/act before sane people consider me acceptable?”

    *Yes, I know that certain mental illnesses legally qualify as disabilities, and yes, I further know that ‘disabled’ is not a slur, but gosh, how often do you hear it used with positive connotations in common situations? Tons, right?

  76. ThickRedGlasses
    ThickRedGlasses June 18, 2008 at 6:19 pm |

    Like someone said before, words like “crazy” or “nutbag” don’t bother me, because they don’t describe people with a particular disorder. Throwing around actual diagnoses like “schizophrenic” and “bipolar” or saying someone’s “psychotic” or “antisocial” (to describe someone who is very shy) can blur the line between someone who is suffering from a legitimate problem and someone who is just really racist or sexist or something like that. People assume that people with schizophrenia are dangerous and mean, even though many of them are on medication, and you wouldn’t even know that they have the disorder. I don’t think someone like Stanek should be called “schizophrenic,” because there are probably very few schizophrenic people who say the things she says to begin with, let alone because they have a debilitating mental disorder.

  77. Anna
    Anna June 18, 2008 at 6:40 pm |

    Really? REALLY?

    This is the side of feminism that makes me cringe. Find something IMPORTANT to address. It’s not like there is a shortage.

    I have bipolar disorder and ADHD. I take meds every day. I still throw around “crazy,” “insane,” “unhinged,” “psycho,” etc.

    Unhinged refers to a door that has swung off its hinges. Nutbag = balls. These are synonyms for “crazy” but they’re not ableist. Jesus H. Christ, people.

    Jill, chill. You’re going to explode from all that guilt.

    Everyone else, please address this issue after we’ve put a stop to, say, violence against trans people, or impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence against women in wartime.

  78. Anna
    Anna June 18, 2008 at 6:46 pm |

    Sorry, I am a different Anna than the one in the rest of the thread. This post and the one above are by me, not by the previous person. Argh, confusion.

  79. Chicken Girl
    Chicken Girl June 18, 2008 at 6:56 pm |

    What akeeyu said.

    I think this is a classic case of not being able to see the forest for the trees. You know what is a problem? The negative stereotypes about people with mental illness. You know what isn’t a big goddamn deal? Calling a Republican nutjob “crazy”. Priorities, people. Taking a walk on the “euphemism treadmill” accomplishes NOTHING. The attitudes are the problem, not the words.

  80. tekanji
    tekanji June 18, 2008 at 7:05 pm |

    Mnemosyne: Noted and removed. I had no idea that that was the origin of the term. o.o;

    amandaw: I meant “uneducated” in terms a synonym for “uninformed”, but I can see how it could have classist implications so I removed it. I’d be interested in knowing which other ones on the list you found problematic and why. If you could switch that part of the conversation to my blog it would probably be easier for me to keep track of.

  81. Lottie
    Lottie June 18, 2008 at 8:13 pm |

    Jill,

    I think it’s great that you want to make this effort, as long as it’s your own conscience talking. Personally, I’ve never been offended by your choice of words. Not even when you talked about cracks and junk (or perhaps especially not then). :-)

    I said my full piece under the post where this topic originated, so there’s no need to reiterate it here.

  82. William
    William June 18, 2008 at 8:24 pm |

    Amandaw: a little point of contention. The term “psycho” as we think of it today (“mean bad crazy person”, as you’ve described it) likely doesn’t come from psychotic but from psychopath (which was later changed to sociopath and then to Antisocial Personality Disorder). I know its difficult for a lot of people who haven’t had contact with them but actual Axis II Antisocials are the closest thing to real evil I’ve ever encountered. Theres a reason that even the humanistic branches of psychology pretty much close the book on these people, and its because they are “mean bad” people.

    Corwin3083: If your personal strength helps you get through the night, fine, but don’t start projecting it on others. Some of us who have struggled with mental illness need to be able to think of ourselves as strong in order to survive, it becomes a necessary feature of our personalities, but creating an externalized expectation of such strength is the height of narcissism. I’ve seen strong suicides and weak survivors, the assumption that your particular experience is universal isn’t just arrogant, it’s ignorant an maladaptive.

    A more general note: if you haven’t read “Mourning and Melancholia” just drop the word depressed from your vocabulary, it doesn’t mean what you think it means.

  83. PhysioProf
    PhysioProf June 18, 2008 at 8:49 pm |

    I just looked up some of the words we are talking about in the Oxford English Dictionary: crazy, insane, demented, and lunatic. I know that the origins of these words is not dispositive of how we should view them today, but I think it might at least be relevant. In their first usages that relate to a disordered or irrational thought process, these words predate medicalized notions of mental illness or disability, and seem to all have first been used to apply to people whose behavior or thinking was incomprehensible and irrational. Here are the first uses in this sense:

    crazy: 1617 J. CHAMBERLAIN Let. in Crt. & Times Jas. I, II. 19 He was noted to be crazy and distempered before.

    insane: 1560 ROLLAND Crt. Venus III. 259 Than said Venus with mind almaist Insane.

    demented: 1644 J. MAXWELL Sacr. Regum Maj. 105 Who can be so demented, as..to.. runne the hazard of totall ruine.

    lunatic: 1377 LANGL. P. Pl. B. Prol. 123 Thanne loked vp a lunatik, a lene thing with-alle.

  84. Sarah
    Sarah June 18, 2008 at 8:51 pm |

    I would say that “stupid” should be scrubbed out, actually; it’s still ablist, because it denigrates people based on intelligence or IQ. (And the fact that the whole IQ test thing is pretty racist anyways makes the whole “stupid/smart” thing even more distasteful…) I’m on the fence about “ignorant” however; I’m not sure if it’s maybe ablist and/or classist, or not.

    Being a “crazy” person (depression, anxiety, a little OCD), I like to sort of reclaim that term (at least with my friends.) I suspect that I’m sometimes mistaken by others as joking when I’m being honest, though. “Oh, I’m just being a little OCD about that!” literally means that I am being bothered by my OCD in that situation, but it could sound like I’m just being a perfectionist and exaggerating about the mental illness. (Actually, it’s kinda my way of “passing” without lying, which isn’t ideal, but it does keep me in college… did you know colleges can kick you out for a suicide attempt? Also, guidance counselors tell you to say you were “ill” and *never* say you have a mental illness in your apps…)

    Also, the suicide=weakness idea is bullshit. It’s not weak to die of cancer is it? Maybe the deceased just didn’t love their family enough, ’cause they didn’t try as hard as corwin thinks they could have not to die and upset people… 9.9 (And, to be clear, I’m not bashing this idea when expressed as part of the anger stage of grief-and-mourning, I’m calling bullshit when it’s applied seriously.)

    “Crazy” used as a pejorative is harmful because it’s not completely divorced from “mental illness” as “Other” and “wrong and scary” which is a concept that I do find offensive, and which has materially hurt me. Using “crazy” as an insult perpetuates this Othering, even if it’s not conscious or directly/noticeably harmful. The stigma around mental illness is damaging, even if the word “crazy” isn’t offensive to everyone, and using “crazy” as an insult contributes to the stigma.

  85. William
    William June 18, 2008 at 9:17 pm |

    I would say that “stupid” should be scrubbed out, actually; it’s still ablist, because it denigrates people based on intelligence or IQ. (And the fact that the whole IQ test thing is pretty racist anyways makes the whole “stupid/smart” thing even more distasteful…)

    The tests aren’t racist, only the administrators. The Wechsler instruments in particular aren’t racist, they’re culturally bound. Anything that examines word knowledge and cultural understanding is going to be useful pretty much only for people from the culture in which it was developed. The problem is that you can’t really measure intelligence without examining language development, fund of information, and understanding of social rules. Like any psychometric they basically come down to who is giving the test and what kind of understanding they have of it’s significance and operation. I know that when I was being trained in administering Wechslers a lot of time was spent discussing which subtests worked cross-culturally, which didn’t, and what kinds of problems you run into when giving the test to specific minority groups and people for whom English is not a primary language. A good administrator will address these concerns in their report and focus more heavily on other tests in the battery when working with individuals for whom more Wechslers weren’t designed.

  86. That’s Just Crazy! « Rambling On

    [...] 18, 2008 In Fighting Ableist Language, Jill of Feministe makes the following statement: I often use words like “crazy,” “insane,” [...]

  87. Chel
    Chel June 18, 2008 at 9:21 pm |

    I always wonder though, is it better to be called mentally ill than crazy? Mentally ill sounds like someone’s brain is rotting, and crazy can be associated with many things like “wow, that was some crazy party i went to last night” that aren’t bad. I don’t know, it’s just a random, rhetorical question.

  88. exholt
    exholt June 18, 2008 at 9:32 pm |

    I am with the commenters who have serious problems with the use of clinical psychological terms/diagnosis as pejoratives, but I am not sure about terms like “crazy” as I have yet to meet any medical professional who uses “crazy” or “nutjob” as clinical terms in the professional context.

    Moreover, some of the suggested substitutes are themselves problematic or lacking in rhetorical impact as Mnemosyne has pointed out.

    I would say that “stupid” should be scrubbed out, actually; it’s still ablist, because it denigrates people based on intelligence or IQ. (And the fact that the whole IQ test thing is pretty racist anyways makes the whole “stupid/smart” thing even more distasteful…) I’m on the fence about “ignorant” however; I’m not sure if it’s maybe ablist and/or classist, or not.

    I can see your argument with terms such as “idiot” and “moron” as those were terms once used to denote people who fell within different below average IQ ranges where normal was around 100.

    Not really sure about the terms “stupid” or “ignorant”.

    The former term is often used IME to denote someone who performs below-par in the intellectual/social sense more due to lack of one’s effort and application towards one’s studies/tasks and/or willful lack of curiosity/awareness more than a mere innate lack of intelligence or IQ per se.

    I’ve always thought the latter term was to denote lack of knowledge or experience with a given concept, skill, or experience. Unfortunately, too many teachers, parents, and society have given this term a negative charge by equating this lack of experience with assumed negativity when it really should be regarded as a state we are all in throughout our lives depending on the situation and context.

  89. Anna
    Anna June 18, 2008 at 9:32 pm |

    Well, Anna, for me, I’m pretty capable of both being really angry about ablist language and going out tomorrow night to the Pride Committee and doing more of my own activism on Trans issues and the like. I care about multiple things at once and caring about “lame” doesn’t make me incapable of caring about and being very vocal about trans issues locally.

    (Although being as angry as I was this afternoon is exhausting. I’m sorry I lost my temper so badly at people who really don’t deserve it. This stuff is just so much a part of my day to day life.)

    People are murdered over being disabled. A “disabled = bad” helps make that okay. It’s “understandable” when disabled children are murdered by their parents, it’s “understandable” when a disability leads someone to drop a friend, it’s “understandable” that doctors can decline to treat. There have been some major cases up here regarding parents murdering their disabled children that completely make the disabled child invisible, and I’m constantly told how it’s “tragic, but what else can you do” because, you know, disabled people = bad, and disabled people are horrible and it’s all so bloody “tragic” that someone like that could exist and….

    It’s othering. It’s all part of the othering. And just like “gay = bad” is wrong, so is “lame = bad”.

  90. Lottie
    Lottie June 18, 2008 at 9:36 pm |

    I know its difficult for a lot of people who haven’t had contact with them but actual Axis II Antisocials are the closest thing to real evil I’ve ever encountered. Antisocials are the closest thing to real evil I’ve ever encountered. Theres a reason that even the humanistic branches of psychology pretty much close the book on these people, and its because they are “mean bad” people.

    As someone who has had direct and intimate contact with at least one of these people, and spent the last six years researching the subject, I concur. They have no conscience, and are incapable of feeling empathy or remorse. And make no mistake – they know exactly what they’re doing when they hurt people and even torture people. If they care at all, it’s only in the form of personal amusement.

    And, yes, I believe the term “psycho” comes from psychopath and not psychotic; two entirely different conditions.

  91. Chel
    Chel June 18, 2008 at 10:10 pm |

    Great, so we’ve got pure social Darwin theory and the people trying to equate the dominant group’s use of language to reinforce an oppressive structure for the oppressed group with the oppressed group using language to indicate their own oppression by the dominant group, with no power to actually harm that group, and that group feigning insult.

    Oppression gravy train for me, I s’pose. Wheeeeeeeee!

    You sent me for a loop de loop there, but I came out laughing anyway. So…. good point.

  92. Mnemosyne
    Mnemosyne June 18, 2008 at 10:42 pm |

    Also, the suicide=weakness idea is bullshit. It’s not weak to die of cancer is it? Maybe the deceased just didn’t love their family enough, ’cause they didn’t try as hard as corwin thinks they could have not to die and upset people…

    Off-topic, but a former friend actually said something along those lines to me when I mentioned my mother’s death when I was a child. Basically she said that my mother must not have wanted to live.

    Notice I say “former” friend. The “former” part happened about 5 seconds after she opened her mouth.

  93. BRD
    BRD June 18, 2008 at 10:48 pm |

    Upthread, someone used a term with which I am not familiar: nutbag.

    Having never heard this term before I am compelled to ask two questions.

    First, is the word “nutbag” offensive to women, men, and/or crazy folk?

    Second, is someone just trying to employ a euphemism for a scrotum?

  94. BRD
    BRD June 18, 2008 at 10:49 pm |

    Mnemosyne,

    A credit to you that the person in question is not a former friend with a broken nose. I am sorry to hear about both the loss of friend and your personal loss.

    BRD

  95. EKSwitaj
    EKSwitaj June 18, 2008 at 10:53 pm |

    For those complaining that suggested substitutes don’t have the same impact as “crazy”, please consider the reason why. “Crazy” taps into our biases against those with different thought forms and abilities; it relies on the stigma against people whose minds operate in an atypical manner, even if we don’t consciously consider that in the moment of use.

    In other words, it is ableist for precisely the same reason it is powerful.

  96. Meowser
    Meowser June 18, 2008 at 11:40 pm |

    Another thing to consider about “crazy” or “nutty”: it’s often used as a compliment, to denote something outstanding or with special energy. How often do we say we’re “crazy” or “nuts” about something? That’s a good thing, right?

  97. Kate
    Kate June 18, 2008 at 11:41 pm |

    My sister died from suicide three months ago. She had severe mental illness (bipolar, borderline personality, substance abuse, eating disorder) and had over 30 psychiatric hospitalizations between 14 and 29 (when she died). She would have been the first to self-identify as “crazy”.

    I, too, have had a psychiatric hospitalization and suffer from depression and severe PTSD. I also self identify as “crazy” and “nuts”. At support groups for survivors of suicide I often identify more with the “mentally ill” deceased than the supposed “mentally well” survivors.

    I think like any other oppressed and stigmatized group in society the important thing is self determination and having a voice.

    The issue in any name calling is intent versus impact. While anyone’s intent may be as a joke, or as shorthand to mean “republican” or “short sighted” or “poorly thought out”, or what ever insult is intended the impact may well be a grievous insult. As human beings who care about our fellow human beings, why risk it?

  98. BRD
    BRD June 18, 2008 at 11:45 pm |

    Kate,

    Is there a way to pursue two angles?

    The idea that we shouldn’t risk hurting others, and the idea that we should try to encourage self-determination and having a voice. I am not sure about how one would tackle this, but it seems that protecting folks while helping them build their own defenses might be a reasonable strategy.

    BRD

  99. Torri
    Torri June 19, 2008 at 7:16 am |

    Using terms like schizophrenic, bipolar, etc. to describe generic ridiculousness is a different story; those are specific diagnoses with specific criteria, and using them in a generic way trivializes them

    This is something that bothered me the first time I heard it, calling someone bipolar as an insult always seemed out of line… now I’m wondering if I should be more conscious of using words like ‘crazy’. Hell isn’t it stock dialog for the hero/ine to hear the villain’s maliciously evil plot and mutter angrily ‘You’re insane!’
    On another level my dad constantly missuses the term ‘phobic’ when he’s actually referring to behavior bordering on obsessive compulsive… which is annoying on many levels

  100. Rockit
    Rockit June 19, 2008 at 8:33 am |

    Maybe someone’s already said this (100 comments is a lot to read at once) but wouldn’t time be more usefully spent persuading people not to use ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’ about mentally ill and schizophrenic patients, rather than trying to shame people into not using them in ordinary conversation?

  101. William
    William June 19, 2008 at 8:54 am |

    I’m wondering if I should be more conscious of using words like ‘crazy’. Hell isn’t it stock dialog for the hero/ine to hear the villain’s maliciously evil plot and mutter angrily ‘You’re insane!’

    I think it depends on the context. If you’re using those kinds of words as shorthand for “doing something unusual or outside the general bounds of social acceptability” then year, you’re probably out of line. If what you mean by “crazy” or “insane” is that a person seems to be displaying poor reality testing, then I think you’re good.

  102. Sweet Machine
    Sweet Machine June 19, 2008 at 10:15 am |

    Kate, I’m so sorry for your loss.

    wouldn’t time be more usefully spent persuading people not to use ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’ about mentally ill and schizophrenic patients, rather than trying to shame people into not using them in ordinary conversation?

    Rockit, I don’t think shame is the goal with this kind of discussion. I wrote a post linked in one of the comments above about my reaction to the word “retarded,” and I wrote it not at all to shame people, but to ask them to think about the damaging impact of the word. I specifically focused on what it feels like to hear “retarded” thrown around so casually when mental disability is an intimate part of my family life, and I focused on that in the hopes that people who think “this is not a big deal because everyone says this” would maybe, for a few minutes, get a vicarious sense of what a different perspective/personal history with that kind of slur would feel like. Personally, I was completely uninterested in causing people to feel shame, and if anyone had responded “oh god I’m so ashamed,” I would have found it unproductive. What seemed most productive to me was when people responded that they’d never thought about it that way before, and they’d think twice before using ableist language in the future.

    This is a really fascinating discussion–thanks for starting it, Jill.

  103. Panopticon
    Panopticon June 19, 2008 at 11:30 am |

    And it makes me believe (probably wrongly), that these people who are sensitive to words like that have (relatively) mild impairments that by and large still allows them to easily participate in society.

    WTF? If you knew you were probably wrong, why would you say that? You clearly have no idea what it is like to live with mental illness – why make assumptions about those of us who do?

  104. Parapluie
    Parapluie June 19, 2008 at 12:59 pm |

    I find it interesting that the link in #7 lists “Poindexter” as one of the “okay” insults. I know someone with that name, and I bet he gets pretty tired of telling strangers his name and having them say, “huh huh, for real?”

    If insulting entire races, genders, orientations, etc., is wrong, then I imagine insulting an entire family is wrong, too. Not to mention it’s insulting to academic-types.

  105. William
    William June 19, 2008 at 1:24 pm |

    And it makes me believe (probably wrongly), that these people who are sensitive to words like that have (relatively) mild impairments that by and large still allows them to easily participate in society.

    WTF? If you knew you were probably wrong, why would you say that? You clearly have no idea what it is like to live with mental illness – why make assumptions about those of us who do?

    He kind of has a point there. I have a relatively mild mental illness and I work with people who have more serious ones. The people who get angry about terms like “crazy” tend to be the people who are more fully integrated into society, more educated, and less seriously impacted. You hear a lot more students and professors in grad programs complain about language use than you do patients on a ward. People who have to spend pretty much all of their energy on just functioning well enough to get by don’t have the luxury to take up a cause. Shah was pointing out an element of their own personal experience of living with a disability. I’m not quite sure where you get off invalidating that experience because you’ve come to different conclusions.

    They weren’t saying that taking up a cause was wrong, they weren’t even saying that having a discussion about the impact and meaning of language was wrong. All they were saying was that, from their own subjective experience, they couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. They then tried to figure out why someone else would have a problem with something they found inconsequential. Take a couple of breaths and actually try to understand what someone is saying next time before you essentially tell someone to shut up because they don’t disagree with you.

  106. William
    William June 19, 2008 at 1:24 pm |

    erm…that should read “because they don’t agree with you.”

  107. zingerella
    zingerella June 19, 2008 at 1:53 pm |

    I just gave my Editing Out Oppression class on Tuesday, so I’ve been thinking even more than usual about how to address the assumptions that language can carry, not only about what may or may not be desirable, but also about what may or may not be normative. I, too, use “insane,” to describe certain viewpoints that seem to me to be not based in reality; perhaps I could use “wishful,” or “unreal.” I’ve used ableist imagery such as “blind to the distinction,” or “one step at a time”; perhaps I could use the less colourful, but also less damaging “unaware of the distinction” or “unable to perceive the distinction,” and “one thing at a time.”

    As we discussed bias in language, and how to be aware of it, one of my students said “This becomes more challenging the more I think about it!” She’s right. But my students also found that being forced to think about the assumptions implicit in language also forced them to be as accurate and precise as possible in their language. Sometimes this felt like it came at the expense of colour and fluidity; I’m willing to be that colour and fluidity will both come with time and practice, as happens with many changes in language. I think, too, that accurate communication that doesn’t alienate readers might be worth a little more effort to also make the language sing.

    P.S. Hi Anna-who-is-married-to-a-tall-guy-who-uses-a-wheelchair! (*waves*)

  108. DEAF FEMINIST PUNK!!!
    DEAF FEMINIST PUNK!!! June 19, 2008 at 3:09 pm |

    I’m a Deaf woman and I think it’s a weird topic. I’m glad that the terms “deaf and dumb,” and “mute” are no longer used anymore because these are deeply offensive toward the Deaf community, in my opinion. But some people have told me that the word “Deaf” is offensive, too, and I say it’s NOT offensive. I am Deaf, it’s who I am, and I’m not ashamed of being Deaf. So who’s right and who’s wrong???????????????????

  109. romham
    romham June 19, 2008 at 3:12 pm |

    seems to me that anytime someone works to check their own shit it’s a good thing. not sure what all the hubbub is about wanting to take step one in that process. sure theres going to be a bunch of assumptions going on, but thats why its 101 and not Advanced Placement Ableism.

  110. zingerella
    zingerella June 19, 2008 at 4:00 pm |

    Hi DEAF FEMINIST PUNK!!!,

    Of course nobody can tell you what you should be offended by. I think what people are saying is not that the word Deaf is offensive when it’s used of people who are, indeed, Deaf, but that those of us who are not Deaf should consider what we’re saying when we say things like

    “Are you deaf? This is the fourth time I’ve asked you where you put the keys.”

    “This poet is deaf to irony and rhythm.”

    and that sort of thing, where we’re using the word that applies to your condition to apply to people who aren’t deaf—they’re just not paying attention, or don’t understand something.

    We’re also suggesting that maybe we want to pay attention to how we use the word “dumb,” so that we’re not implying that people who (for whatever reason) use sign language or who can’t speak with their vocal cords (I’m aware that these may be different groups) are stupid, or that there’s some overlap between an inability to speak and a lack of intellectual capacity.

    I think that being conscious of ablism in our language is more about being precise in how we use terms that apply to people who are Deaf, or people who use wheelchairs, or people who are blind, and using them correctly, to describe one aspect of those people’s needs and the conditions under which those people live their lives, and avoiding using terms that accurately describe certain conditions to inaccurately describe other things.

  111. Panopticon
    Panopticon June 19, 2008 at 4:27 pm |

    He kind of has a point there. I have a relatively mild mental illness and I work with people who have more serious ones. The people who get angry about terms like “crazy” tend to be the people who are more fully integrated into society, more educated, and less seriously impacted. You hear a lot more students and professors in grad programs complain about language use than you do patients on a ward. People who have to spend pretty much all of their energy on just functioning well enough to get by don’t have the luxury to take up a cause. Shah was pointing out an element of their own personal experience of living with a disability. I’m not quite sure where you get off invalidating that experience because you’ve come to different conclusions.

    Bullshit. There is a world of difference between recognizing that yes, there are people who don’t have the luxury to take up a cause and assuming that because someone is involved in a cause, or is “sensitive” to language that is degrading to them, they must not really be disabled. It is not “invalidating” someone to expect them to not make assumptions about the experience of those who are impacted by labels like “crazy” and “mental” and “sick”.

  112. Persia
    Persia June 19, 2008 at 4:35 pm |

    I specifically focused on what it feels like to hear “retarded” thrown around so casually when mental disability is an intimate part of my family life, and I focused on that in the hopes that people who think “this is not a big deal because everyone says this” would maybe, for a few minutes, get a vicarious sense of what a different perspective/personal history with that kind of slur would feel like

    I stopped using ‘retarded’ altogether when I caught myself using it in front of a mildly mentally disabled acquaintance. I did feel ashamed at that, because I suspect he’s had it thrown at him more than once.

    wouldn’t time be more usefully spent persuading people not to use ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’ about mentally ill and schizophrenic patients, rather than trying to shame people into not using them in ordinary conversation

    Maybe we should be doing both– noting our own language use and working on improving attitudes.

  113. Norway Catches CokeHead Under Wig • Trans Woman Beaten By Cops In Memphis [Leftovers]

    [...] “Bean curd made by a pock-marked woman”? • Just throwing this out there, but, fighting a PC battle against a ubiquitous adjective like “crazy” is probably a lost cause. • A trans [...]

  114. Norway Catches CokeHead Under Wig • Trans Woman Beaten By Cops In Memphis [Leftovers]

    [...] “Bean curd made by a pock-marked woman”? • Just throwing this out there, but, fighting a PC battle against a ubiquitous adjective like “crazy” is probably a lost cause. • A trans [...]

  115. William
    William June 19, 2008 at 5:18 pm |

    Bullshit. There is a world of difference between recognizing that yes, there are people who don’t have the luxury to take up a cause and assuming that because someone is involved in a cause, or is “sensitive” to language that is degrading to them, they must not really be disabled. It is not “invalidating” someone to expect them to not make assumptions about the experience of those who are impacted by labels like “crazy” and “mental” and “sick”.

    I was just saying that perhaps a little more reflection and a little less vitriol was in order. See, you believe that certain kinds of language are degrading to you because you’re mentally ill. I’m also mentally ill and I disagree. But whether or not certain language is degrading (a pretty subjective thing in this discussion) wasn’t the point the poster was making. The poster was talking about how the perception of needing to be sensitive around certain types of people makes those people taboo and reduce opportunities for social contact. They went on to discuss their experience as a deaf/hard of hearing individual and how it related to that other side of the pendulum. Considering the fact that the neuro-diversity and deaf communities are extremely similar, it would seem that the experience ports well to the discussion. You responded with, in essence, “shut up, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” You threw in a “wtf?!” which, to me, seems to imply that what they said was so far outside of consensual reality that you couldn’t understand it. In other words, you invoked the same hurtful shit you’ve been railing against.

    You seemed to focus entirely on an assumption that the poster had made (which was based on the evidence they had available from their involvement in disabled communities) which was pretty secondary to the point. Moreover, you decided that the assumption was wrong because it didn’t fit your frame of reference. You then chose to respond in an aggressive and belittling manner. You can dance around it as much as you want, but thats what happened. And, for the record, I know a bit about living with mental illness, I’ve had a lot of contact with the mentally ill, I have training in the subject, and I can say that the assumption that made you angry wasn’t too far off in my experience.

  116. PhysioProf
    PhysioProf June 19, 2008 at 6:12 pm |

    I am surprised and dismayed that anyone would actually be angry that Jill has started a discussion about whether or not it hurts people to use some of the words we are discussing in the way that some of us commonly do. Sheesh.

  117. Mnemosyne
    Mnemosyne June 19, 2008 at 7:23 pm |

    Personally, I probably won’t stop using “crazy” because I do feel that it now has multiple meanings that run the gamut from good to bad, so it’s hard for me to pin it down and say it’s a bad word. I already stopped using slang words that refer to specific illnesses (manic, schizo, etc.) casually. I do sometimes refer to developmentally disabled family members as “retarded” because, frankly, it’s easier to say and I don’t spend 20 minutes explaining that, no, she’s not autistic, she was brain-damaged as an infant, but I never, ever use it in any other context.

    I have stopped using “drinking the kool-aid” after seeing the episode about Jonestown on “The American Experience” because those people did not choose to kill themselves. Jones and his inner circle murdered their children in front of them and then offered them the choice of drinking cyanide or being hacked to death by machete. So I’m no longer comfortable implying that those people willingly killed themselves.

  118. Lottie
    Lottie June 19, 2008 at 8:09 pm |

    Re: Jill’s update:

    For what it’s worth, I never thought the intention of this post was to try and stop other people from using the words in question. It seems perfectly clear to me that Jill was making a statement about herself and her own intentions. I’ve already expressed my thoughts on the subject, in general, so I won’t belabor that point, but although I don’t intend to make the same change, I think it’s important for each individual to follow his or her own conscience here.

    If nothing else, this makes a good talking point and that never hurts. At least I don’t see why it should. It’s interesting, and who knows… one of these days I may find myself in a situation that causes me to rethink my position, and the discussions here could prove useful even then.

    Anyway, I said all that to say that I don’t understand anyone being angry over it either. Jill wasn’t telling anyone else what to say or how to feel. At least I didn’t see it that way.

  119. Eve
    Eve June 19, 2008 at 8:53 pm |

    As a feminist with a graduate degree in linguistics, I think that attempts to entirely purge tenuously ableist (and other -ist) language from people’s vocabularies are unrealistic and doomed to fail.

    I find it kind of funny that the original poster is opposed to the word “crazy”, and yet she uses “dumb”. Which originally meant “mute”, and thus is also ableist.

    It’s also interesting that Amanda W suggested “uneducated” to replace “retarded”. Since level of education is linked to income and social class, using the word “uneducated” could be considered classist.

    My point here is that if you trace things back far enough, pretty much any word used to insult or discredit a person or idea is based on negative societal attitudes towards oppressed groups of people (women, the disabled, working-class people, queer folks, etc.). This is a cross-linguistic phenomenon– one of the basic German words for stupid is “doof”, which originally meant deaf. “Verrueckt” in German and “loco” in Spanish are used in much the same way as the English “crazy”. Eliminating insulting terms which in their PRIMARY meanings refer to oppressed groups of people– like “retarded” and “gay” (as a synonym for stupid or worthless) is a worthwhile goal, but correcting people on their usage of “lame” (which is hardly ever used to refer to the disabled anymore) seems more like an etymology lesson than sensitivity training.

    If you were to try to purge all of these words from your vocabulary, you’d be left with a handful of fairly weak adjectives like “ridiculous”. It’s unfortunate that language works this way, but tearing out your hair over it is kind of stupid. (Wait a minute– “stupid” is related to the word “stupor”, which refers to an intoxicated state and thus demeans people who struggle with substance abuse problems. Here we go again…)

  120. Kate
    Kate June 19, 2008 at 9:01 pm |

    BRD

    The idea that we shouldn’t risk hurting others, and the idea that we should try to encourage self-determination and having a voice. I am not sure about how one would tackle this, but it seems that protecting folks while helping them build their own defenses might be a reasonable strategy.

    I guess I see self-determination and having a voice and respecting the potential impact of what could be seen as insulting language as two sides of the same coin.

    Let me frame it this way. If someone were to call me, let’s say a “chick”, in a way that where the intent was not clear to others but the impact to me was hurtful and harassing. My feminist values give me the self determination and the voice to stand up and say, “You can’t call me that. Whether it was meant as a joke or an insult or it was just a synonym for woman I would get to have the right to decide what the impact was on me and I would get to have the voice to speak up stop it. No one would find it acceptable for the person who called me a “chick” to say he was “helping me out” by “giving me a thicker skin”, because the intent of the action (even if it was to be “helpful”) doesn’t matter, it is the impact that matters.

    I’m not naive enough to think crazy and insane are going to disappear from our vernacular. I do think these discussions are important, though. They give us a window to view what is really going on in society.

    One of the reasons my sister is dead, and tomorrow is the three month anniversary of her suicide, is that she was not an equal citizen because she was disabled. Teachers, professors, doctors, just about everyone wrote her off because she was “a crazy person” or “just another psycho”. Crazy and other synonyms for mental illness are often used to dismiss people. We all need to think about the impact of that, what happens when we dismiss people without thinking about it?

  121. Lottie
    Lottie June 19, 2008 at 9:30 pm |

    Kate,

    I am deeply and sincerely sorry about your sister’s tragic death. No words are sufficient…

  122. belledame222
    belledame222 June 19, 2008 at 9:57 pm |

    What’s a good shorthand substitute for describing another person’s thinking as fundamentally at odds with reality?

    Pinko Punko suggested “emu,” which I happen to like a whole lot, for several reasons; but I dunno if it’s gonna catch mainstream any time soon.

    an online community used to use “frootbat,” which I suppose still has traditional connotations akin to “bats in the belfry” and so forth; still, I always did kind of like it. (I always pictured the vampire bat from that one classic Bugs Bunny cartoon, having first tried to attack and ultimately flapping around in a confused daze after a good session of Bugs’ taunting). variations: ‘bat, frootarian, particularly “wtf?” wank described as “delicious froot,” that sort of thing.

  123. unrelatedwaffle
    unrelatedwaffle June 19, 2008 at 10:52 pm |

    Unfortunately, all pejorative language has pejorative connotations. There are no truly biting, incisive insults that are not, oddly enough, insulting. It’s only natural that words that are being used to negatively describe a person are hurtful. If you’re the kind of person who is insulting someone else in the first place, the language assumes that you have accepted the burden of the pejorative vernacular. Honestly, try to think of an insult that isn’t insulting. It seems ridiculous, once you try.

    Even words like “stupid” or “illogical” are linked with people who are outside the norm, people that, as idealists, we don’t want to marginalize anymore. Unfortunately, language forms without heed to these sensitivities, and we have to work with what we’ve got and understand the limitations.

    Just as we have seen with sexist vocabulary, we won’t be rid of these offensive terms until we live in a society that holds no offense. It is not the WORDS “retarded,” “crazy,” “dumb,” “blind,” “deaf,” “crippled,” “foolish,” and “insane” that cut, but the intentions and privilege of the utterer.

  124. Anna
    Anna June 20, 2008 at 8:28 am |

    I always find it “amusing” that there are folks out there who think that because I tell my friends “No, I don’t find it funny when you say ‘men are like parking spots – either taken or handicapped’” while I’m sitting with my disabled husband (ha ha ha ha ha) that I’m not actually doing anything else about ablism in our society.

    Are there bigger fish to fry? Sure. Am I frying more than one fish at a time? You betcha.

    I fight much harder on these issues than my husband does, not because I somehow magically care more than he does, but because I *can* – and he can’t. Assuming that someone who has a disability is able to do more but just doesn’t care is ablist. (Something he points out to me when I get frustrated about this because I *wish* he was out there more with me on this fight, but he just can’t be.)

  125. amandaw
    amandaw June 20, 2008 at 4:39 pm |

    So we can now add to the list “You can never completely get rid of ableism in language, so it’s useless to even try” and “It’s not the word that’s the problem, it’s what the word signifies,” which, well, thanks for the update, I didn’t know that. You are telling this to the people who ARE actively working to fix what the word signifies — the shit attitude of most of the world against the disabled and the actions it translates into — why?

    Also, I included the list as a starting point for discussion, not as a 100% recommendation. And I’d remind people that saying “being deaf doesn’t mean having a lower intellectual capacity” isn’t helping matters either; the idea of intellectual capacity being important and good is an ableist construct itself.

    Ableism is one of those things that really seems to get under people’s skin, because it challenges something that pervades so much of their lives, and they’ve never really been forced to think about it before.

    But apparently I’m contributing to the death of the feminism and legitimacy so, there you go.

    I don’t know. These threads always depress me. It always comes down to: “we’re concerned about issues of social justice, but oh no — you’re going too far. sorry, we have to stop here” where “here” is always “anything that isn’t middle-upper-class white gender.” I expect better of people. I guess I should know better than that.

    PS I’ll write it here like I did at Shakesville, I simply cannot understand why sites like Jezebel have so much legitimacy in the mainstream online feminism community, considering they’ve devoted multiple posts to mocking people with invisible disabilities and feel no shame for it. If you’re going to associate yourself with that (and by “you” I mean “the feminist populace,” not “Jill” or “Feministe”) at least own it for what it is.

  126. r@d@r
    r@d@r June 20, 2008 at 4:57 pm |

    some dreadfully PC swarthmore kids i used to know universally applied the term “hurting” to anything and anyone undesirable. there was something poignant and compassionate about it; and yet you really didn’t want somebody to tell you that your personality or your taste in music or clothes was “hurting”.

  127. romham
    romham June 20, 2008 at 7:48 pm |

    i think this quote from that 2nd link you gave Jill, was interesting “Just throwing this out there, but, fighting a PC battle against a ubiquitous adjective like “crazy” is probably a lost cause. • A trans woman was held down and beaten by two Memphis cops after she objected to being called a “faggot” by one of the cops. One of the cops was fired and the other was suspended.” so this person doesnt get why words can matter so damn much, but wants people to remember how silly and PC theyre being about it all by hilighting these more important things going on, like a woman fighting back against the cops calling her a faggot? all academic wankery aside about what words are apparently ok and which ones are being blown out of proportion (is that what people really think? sheesh), doesnt this seem a bit odd?

  128. William
    William June 21, 2008 at 1:32 am |

    the idea of intellectual capacity being important and good is an ableist construct itself.

    Really? You know, abliesm is a problem, but it is naive to believe that we live in a world where everyone is equal. The fact of the matter is that, even if all of the bullshit baggage our society comes with went away, some people are simply better equipped to do some things than others. A man with no fingers or toes will never be a great pianist, a woman with no legs will never win a gold medal in the forty yard dash, and someone with an IQ of 60 (barring a language barrier or a terrible administrator) will not earn a PhD. Intellectual capacity is important and good. Would your life be the same if you didn’t have the ability to appreciate great literature? What if you didn’t have the capacity to concentrate long enough to think in depth about the world around you? Is there no qualitative difference between not being able to live independently and being able to?

  129. amandaw
    amandaw June 21, 2008 at 9:35 pm |

    Read the words I actually wrote. I did not say the idea of intellectual capacity being a factor in one’s life path is an ableist construct. I said that the idea of intellectual capacity being Important and Good — I meant as in determining the worth of a person, though I can see how that might not be obvious — is an ableist construct.

    I’m not going to bother with your questions at the end. Don’t feel like having to explain why hatred is hateful. Sorry.

  130. Kakalina
    Kakalina June 22, 2008 at 1:51 pm |

    I can see your point, but using words such as moron, crazy, dumb, etc. doesn’t bother me too much (probably because those words never applied to my abilities personally). What does bother me is the use of the term “disability” which suggests that I am unable to operate in modern society. As countless people have proven, this is incorrect. My personal preference is the term “differently enabled” if there must be a term. I really don’t think there’s any need for language like this which defines a few people as able and most as disabled.

    On a related topic, people seem to be frantic about how autism is growing more common. Autism isn’t the lack thereof of a properly working brain, it’s a restructuring of the brain which differs from the majority. Most are able to operate in this world with comparable skill, thought many require lifelong assistance to varying degrees. But the point is that we’re treating them as disabled when the truth is that they are differently enabled to react to circumstances which differ from the current norm.

    Big difference. And I’m not joking.

  131. Lindsay Beyerstein
    Lindsay Beyerstein June 22, 2008 at 8:03 pm |

    One of the great conceptual advances of modern medicine is the realization that people with mental illnesses aren’t crazy–they’ve got brain disorders, or scars from emotional traumas, or learned maladaptive behavior patterns.

    Newly diagnosed people often that they feared that they were going crazy but were reassured to learn that in fact, they were experiencing symptoms of a disease.

    Modern medicine didn’t disprove the existence of craziness. The world is objectively full of craziness. And there are some people who habitually display more than their share of crazy behavior–sometimes in good ways, sometimes not.

    Some of crazy behavior is caused by mental illnesses, but it’s not as if the mentally ill account for the bulk of the craziness in the world. Racism causes way more craziness than mental illness, as a glance a the headlines on any given day will confirm. When I say that things are crazy at work, my assessment has nothing to do with mental illness and everything to do with frenetic activity.

    I don’t see what’s wrong with calling crazy things “crazy.” Because “crazy” isn’t a euphemism for mental illness or a slur against people who have mental illnesses. It’s a descriptor of thinking or behavior. Some of the behaviors that are associated with mental illness get criticized more (whether as crazy, or dangerous, or disgusting, or whatever) because our society has prejudices against people who are different. If you’re from a disadvantaged group, you’re more likely to be judged harshly for anything you do, regardless of the facts. So, women who assert themselves are apt to be unfairly labeled as “hysterical,” just because they are women. That doesn’t mean that the designation “hysterical” itself is problematic in all cases. It means that prejudices can influence how we judge people.

  132. scamps
    scamps June 23, 2008 at 4:18 pm |

    As someone with a mental illness, this is so stupid it makes me wanna weep blood. If you’re so weak that you crumble into a bundle of neurotic offense at a reminder that you’re crazy, you have bigger problems than someone using certain words.

    I hope you also realize that people with mental illnesses (along with basically ALL people) are different from each other and are affected by different things. I’m bipolar, agoraphobic and autistic, and yes, I DO get bothered with some of the words that are used so casually. I’m just naturally a sensitive person (and I know how to deal with that), and a lot of the words remind me of the torment that I went through growing up. I hate hearing my fiance say “retarded” and having flashbacks about being treated as such on a daily basis as a child (when in reality I have a genius IQ but my mind is basically just trapped within itself). But I don’t think that this makes me a terrible or weak person. Everyone has triggers and even just pet peeves. I’m sure there is SOMETHING that people do that grates your nerves.

  133. whatsername
    whatsername June 23, 2008 at 4:51 pm |

    I’ve been doing the same thing since reading that post, Jill.

  134. Feministe » Crazytime!
    Feministe » Crazytime! June 24, 2008 at 1:56 pm |

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