When Your Casual Ableism Stabs Me, I Bleed

Discussions about language, reflections of cultural attitudes in language, and how we use language get complex. Some discussions seem to miss the point, becoming more about generating lists of ‘bad words’ that we can call people on to make ourselves feel superior, while others become overly reductive. Others are ignored and shoved to the side, frustrating those who want to advocate for thoughtful changes in the way we use language, to ensure that we say what we mean, mean what we say, and choose words with deliberate care.

Over time, persistence and dedication in conversations about language have had an effect. In parts of the US, for example, there are a handful of racial slurs that are considered verboten — white people in my region of California, for example, don’t use the n-word, regarding it as racist. Likewise, there are some communities where the r-word (r#tarded, though r#dskin is being more seriously discussed as well) is not considered appropriate, and where people will push back when they hear it.

But there are, of course, scores of other words people use casually and without thinking, and among them are various synonyms for mental illness. Crazy, insane, sick, etc. These words are used in a variety of ways; some people, like me, self-identify with them. Others mean them as complements and expressions of awe; ‘that was a crazy stunt, dude!’ Most commonly, though, I see them used in a derisive fashion, often in a way that’s meant to target something a specific person is doing.

Crazy congressman tries to ban abortion. An insane man bothered me on the train.

The thing is, the thing is, when people say things like this, it bothers me. Not because I am simplistic or reductive enough to think that they are assigning mental health diagnoses to random strangers (though sometimes they are — see ‘crazy guy on the train’), but because they are stating that they think mental illness is bad. They’re using mental illness as slang and convenient metaphor for ‘bad thing that I don’t like,’ for ‘person who made me uncomfortable,’ for ‘incident that was totally bizarre and possibly gross or unpleasant.’ In this framework, mental illness is a shorthand.

It’s a shorthand that makes me, as the reader or listener, cringe. And it’s something I am inundated with constantly. I see it in the headlines of sites I write for, and I grit my teeth every time I see it, knowing that I’ve explained how it upsets me and I wish people could learn to use their words instead of writing quick, slangy heds for pageviews. I see it in my inbox constantly, between press releases, listservs, and sometimes my own friends describing people, situations, and things as ‘crazy’ or ‘insane.’ I encounter it in casual conversations when I’m out in public.

It’s everywhere, and every time I hear it, it’s like another little poke. An individual instance of someone saying it isn’t something that causes me to fall to the floor in a miserable ball of oversensitive PC twaddle, but it is a little pinprick. And since I encounter dozens and sometimes hundreds of these pinpricks every day, these microaggressions, they start to become raw. They chafe. They irritate me. When more are added on, they find it easier to penetrate that raw, sensitive skin, to get through the layers of the epidermis to the good stuff, and eventually I start bleeding, a slow, oozing trickle that sometimes feels like a flood.

I’m supposed to be strong and just ignore this kind of thing, some people tell me. It’s not that big a deal. It’s just a word. Get over it. But it’s not really possible to do that when this word, this ‘harmless’ word, is built around making people like me the bad guys, the gross thing, the toilet paper on the bottom of your shoes. And it’s even harder to do that when I know how this language is weaponised, how it reflects not just cultural attitudes, but policy and beliefs. With every careless use of a mental illness metaphor to describe something you don’t like, dominant culture is reinforced just a little bit more.

Mental illness is bad. Mental illness is a problem to be fixed. Get rid of the crazy things. Don’t take insane people seriously. EXTERMINATE. You’re like Daleks, the lot of you, rolling around judging the world by means of a narrow and simplistic rubric of good and bad; annihilate what you don’t like so you can take over the universe. Except that instead of lasers, you have pins that you use to poke endlessly at your stuffed dolls, because that’s all we are to you. We’re not real people, we’re things. Or at best, we’re ‘not like those other crazy people, you know, the insane ones.’

My stomach gives a little twinge every time I see mental illness used as a casual, simplistic metaphor that everyone is supposed to get. And it twinges again when I see it being used by someone I used to respect, someone I perhaps used to call a friend, perhaps even someone I trusted. For if this is what my friends think of me, I am honestly afraid to know how my enemies conceptualise me and people like me. If I am an object of casual metaphor to my friends, I must be something my enemies really despise.