Over the weekend, I read a lot of commentary about the debate over the health insurance bill in Congress. I also read rather a lot about the appallingly bad behaviour exhibited by some opponents of the bill. For those who somehow managed to miss it, protesters were calling Representative Barney Frank a faggot. They threw a brick through the office window of Representative Louise M. Slaughter. They referred to Representative John Lewis with a racial slur which I do not care to type. Vandalized the office of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. They held up signs threatening gun violence. People were openly calling for assassination of the President.
It was, to put it in a word, horrifying. It was disgusting. These people are reprehensible bigots who should be ashamed of themselves. I wish that conservative politicians had spoken out strongly to condemn their behaviour. Hate speech and violence are not rights guaranteed under free speech. If this is the level of discourse which we can expect from people who oppose legislation, this does not bode well. Moderate opponents of the bill were afraid to speak up this weekend because they didn’t want to be mistakenly lumped with the extremists spewing vile rhetoric. Political debate and discussion essentially shut down because you were either for the bill or with the people plastering hate all over Capitol Hill and points beyond.
There was a lot of anger and frustration this weekend. We live in angering and frustrating times. Frightening times which sometimes feel like they are spinning completely out of our control. When your life is turning to shit, you seek ways to control it, you seek means to make it understandable. And, for some, that evidently involves violently opposing the legislative process, often at the suggestion of others.
One thing these people are not: crazy.
I am crazy[1. I want to note, so that we are clear, that “crazy” is a label with which people may choose to self identify if they want. It is not a label which can be applied to other people, although if someone you know identifies as “crazy” you can ask that person if ou would like to be referred to that way. People who do not identify with this label and who choose to reject it are not bad people. They are not wrong. And they should not be pressured to adopt a label they don’t associate with.]. I have mental illnesses. I am insane. I am loony. Sometimes, I may even be bat shit crazy.
I am not these people.
My identity is not an appropriate analogy to use to describe these people. They are hateful, horrible, terrifying, reprehensible, bigoted, scary, extremists. Some of them may well have mental illnesses. But you can’t tell that just by looking at someone. And even if they do, it’s not an appropriate epithet to use as an insult; believe it or not, people can have mental illnesses and also have political beliefs. Differing political beliefs and, yes, differences in beliefs about appropriate methods of political expression, are not rooted in mental illness.
Here’s the thing.
Think about the words which you would use to describe integral aspects of your identity. Think of words which could be used, which you may use, to talk about things which are part of you. Now, imagine seeing those words used, continually, to describe people who are hateful. Nasty. Awful. Terrible. It’s not much of a leap to understand that people use these words to describe people like this because they think that people like you are horrible and scary and awful. Should be locked up. Should be denied the right to vote. Should be deprived of all autonomy. Should be killed. These are all sentiments I have seen coming from ‘progressives’ talking about people with mental illness and I have seen the same sentiments echoed in narratives about people who oppose the bill. Even progressives who oppose the bill are apparently batshit crazy, according to Nate Silver.
‘It’s just a word.’
It is not just a fucking word. It is part of who I am. I, me, right here, now, am crazy. I am a crazy person. Crazy. Crazy. Crazy. Crazycakes. Loony-Toons.
When I see people using my identity as a slur; when I see people referring to other people or things which they don’t like with words like crazy, insane, lunacy, insanity, loony, I am reminded of how unsafe the world is for people like me. How people who claim to care about social justice, who claim that being silent is part of the problem, are happily to carelessly erase me when it suits their needs. It’s a thread which runs almost continually through social justice activism. Activism is convenient as long as it does not involve any personal sacrifice or self examination, does not require the actual acknowledgment of other human beings. As soon as it does, there will be excuses, excuses, excuses.
‘I didn’t mean it that way.’
Well, what did you mean? What do you mean when you call someone who opposes a piece of legislation ‘crazy’? What do you mean when you see reprehensible behaviour and you refer to it as ‘crazy’? What do you mean when you decide that someone’s voice doesn’t count, that someone’s anger doesn’t matter, because that person is ‘crazy’? What do you mean, Representative Nunes, when you say ‘…people begin to act crazy‘ when writing off the bad behaviour of some protesters?
What do you mean when you take a term which people use in a reclamatory way to describe themselves because people had been using it in a pejorative way to describe people like them, and use it as an insult? As a go-to shorthand for describing someone you find despicable? What do you mean when you use it to mean ‘awe-inspiring’ or ‘provocative’?
What do you mean when you say that social justice matters to you, that you care about issues like ableism, and you casually use language which reinforces ableist social structures? And you do it over, and over, and over, and over again? Even after being politely asked to stop? Even after being not so politely asked to stop? What do you mean when someone says ‘I’m crazy, please don’t use that word to describe things you don’t like’ and you shut that person down?
There are other words. More appropriate words. Words which actually do describe whatever it was you meant—unless, of course, you really do mean to say that people/things you don’t like have mental illness and are disgusting and should be put away somewhere where you don’t have to look at them—and these words do not inflict harm when you use them. They are, for the most part, words which are probably already in your vocabulary. It shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to start using actual descriptors instead of turning to the nearest handy expression of ableism to say what you mean.
Related reading: On Language, Again.