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HANDS UP! IT'S THE WORD POLICE

August 21, 2017

I’m so crazy all of my jackets have arms that tie in the back. Severe depression is the centerpiece in my crown of mental illness, a mantle that’s bejeweled with anxiety, alienation, suicidal thinking, and a general trend toward antisocial behavior. I mumble so much I often find myself telling others to quit interrupting. Clinicians have diagnosed me with the evolving descriptor, PTSD. I just keep it simple and call myself crazy.

 

Of course, I’m not supposed to say "crazy" or "nuts" or "bonkers" or "psycho." These are the words that legitimize the stigma, I am told.

 

Nowadays we have a whole host of words we cannot use to reference people's behavior or mental conditions. An anal-retentive law student went and compiled a big list for our benefit. Words like crazy, daft, dumb, insane, spaz, stupid, whacko. Basically, all the words one might use to describe a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles or a jury duty summons.

 

As a writer, I'm more in love with ideas and the words we use to convey those ideas than one who views words as a constant threat. I get a lot of citations from the Word Police. People get so hung up on words but it isn't  the words that are good or bad: it’s the intent behind words. That’s why, as a society, we disallow extremely hurtful words and phrases. The people who use racial slurs and other degrading epithets are using them almost exclusively for bad intent, to subjugate and dehumanize. The motives to do so are always wrapped up in fear or mistrust of some out group. It's easy to bar the use of certain words because there's typically only one use for them, to oppress others.

 

But we also have a common language that includes words that aren’t intended to propagate oppression. A lot of people are conflating the hateful words of division with idioms, colloquialisms and the vernacular of everyday speech. Am I a lunatic for giving people the benefit of the doubt when they use words and phrases on the Word Police's no-no list? Even when we avoid triggering words, but simply express an unpopular idea the Word Police roll up, sirens blaring. 

 

A month back I responded to a post quoting the late, great Kurt Cobain. The quote was something to the effect of: wanting to be someone else is a waste of who you are. My response, predictably salty, was should we really take advice about waste from a man who abandoned his wife and child by shooting himself in the head?

 

I might’ve had a few beers before I posted that. Nonetheless, my intentions weren’t to bash anyone that's suicidal but to expand our thinking about suicide and its ramifications. We focus, often exclusively, on the individual's pain and suffering. We discuss how we're all alone and things will never get better and no one will even care if we're gone. We seldom discuss how our choice to commit suicide affects others. I did that in my own crass way. I wanted readers not to romanticize Cobain, the mythic rock god, but to consider the rippling consequences of his choice and maybe apply that lesson to their own lives when thinking of suicide. Really, this whole post is an invitation to think about choices in the larger framework.

 

Cobain wanted to stay an anonymous gutter punk in a thrift shop cardigan. Instead he made himself into a world famous musician who’d sold millions of records, earning himself a lot of money and adoring fans. But he wanted to be something he wasn’t, that disaffected gutter punk from Aberdeen. I don’t pretend to know what those pressures are like. But I  know exactly what it feels like to want to kill myself. I’ve thought about suicide for a long time now. I just can’t seem to muster that level of motivation and planning.

 

After I posted my Cobain comment I found out I am not allowed to call myself any kind of advocate. I learned I can’t even use the phrase “committed suicide,” now it’s “killed by suicide.” Sergeant Semantics and the Word Police were all over me. Shaming me. But again, what are the larger consequences of choosing to correct people in very public, condescending ways? I know my intentions. I am a member of a community of sufferers who’ve attempted suicide(s). In fact, I'm so depressed I stay up all night hating myself for sleeping twenty hours a day.

 

We live in a (mostly, partly, kind of) free country and each of us has the power to chose. But those choices always come with consequence. You can choose to write a ten page memo bashing women in tech and it has a consequence: you’re ass gets fired. You can choose to throttle discussions about mental health by policing every word we use and that choice has an impact, too. But is it the desired result? Or do the Word Police further contribute to the public’s misconceptions and distortions about the struggles of mental illness?

 

There’s prejudices. And I think if you can take a prejudice to it’s most ridiculous degree and make somebody laugh with it then it’s not a prejudice anymore and eventually you wipe it out -Freddie Prinze

 

The other day I responded to a young woman I follow on IG whom I like very much, or at least I like her mental health content. She put up a “Mental Disorders Are Not Adjectives” post. The point was to call out people who use language such as, OMG my OCD is coming out again! I said maybe we need to build bridges with an outside world that misunderstands us not shame people into using PC language. Criticizing people and censoring them is not the same as gaining allies. Her polite  response was “how can someone know if what they say is hurtful if they have never been told?”

 

Fair point. Again I would ask her to use the power of choice. Most idioms have been around  a long time and while some might have started as a degradation, present day speakers aren’t necessarily intending to diminish the humanity of others when they use a figure of speech. As an example the word “gourmand” entered the language in the 15th century and for a long time it meant a glutton, a pig, a sloppy overeater. It was clearly an insult. The meaning of the word has shifted, however. Today a gourmand is someone who enjoys good food, an epicurean, a gastronome, a gourmet. 

 

What the Word Police fail to appreciate is the elasticity of language. Some choose to see the colloquial use of a phrase like OCD as an insulting appropriation of a genuine hardship a group of people suffer. I see it as a point of buy-in by the larger public. People appropriating OCD into their own lexicon are giving the  community a branch of commonality, not spewing an insult. Clearly, every speaker does not suffer the genuine disorder. But if a speaker is imagining for herself what that condition might be like in some small way and relating to it with her own language, then isn't she putting herself in league with those of us who do suffer. Isn't that an indication of progress and acceptance and understanding? 

 

One  can chose the less charitible interpretation. One can climb to the moral high ground and call out common phrases as insults. One can complain that people who do not suffer OCD have no clue what it's like then follow up with a demand that everyone stop diminishing the  pain of OCD with casual usages. Or people can chose to embrace the elasticity of an acronym that the world is slowly  coming to understand and accept as a debilitating disorder.

 

Getting upset when a person uses clinical language as vernacular says more about the stages of our own healing journey than the speaker’s intent to cause harm

 

As I said, I’m crazy and I've been so for a long time. That’s my story and no one can take that away. Yay me. I call myself crazy. If you like, you can call me crazy, too. I am at peace with my mental disorders. Those demons are far worse than any off-hand phrase used without the intent to do harm. But my choice to import harmful intent and see the common language as an enemy places me in a different position. It places me in the role of a reactionary and a victim. I'm no longer an equal participant in the wider discussion, I reduce myself to a victim of words and phrases. I'm not responding to intent but reacting to basic  language. That is not a position of empowerment.

 

Choosing to correct people who use everyday words and phrases that are on my personal no-no list makes me inflexible and unaccepting. What are the biggest changes the mental health community demands from the outside world? More understanding and acceptance.

 

People with mental illness endure constant marginalization. They've been maligned and misunderstood for a very long time but it’s not the bias imbedded in colloquialisms doing it. It’s the prevailing attitudes and stigmas relating to issues of mental health. Once those perceptions change, the meanings of the words themselves change.

 

The Word Police charge that the public's attitudes are seated in their offensive language. And this language legitimizes stigma and so we need to police these bad words. I think it’s a simplistic assessment of both the problem and the solution. These attitudes go much deeper than casual language and are instead rooted in an ancient fear of mental illness. For thousands and thousands of years humans have been deeply conditioned to fear madness and hysteria, the ultimate unknown. But now with modern science we are starting to see these illnesses and injuries for what they are. And more importantly, we are starting to see stable and effective treatments for previously uncurable conditions. Bipolar people can lead normal lives. Severely depressed people can lead normal lives. Psychos like me can lead normal lives. This has never happened before, not in 10,000 years. Sufferers are moving from being a feared and mistrusted out group to a part of an inclusive society.

 

Perhaps the most prevailing stigma burdening people with mental illness is the belief that we’re totally unreasonable and irrational. How are we fighting that stigma? Is it by engaging in humble, authentic ways? Or through a marked inability to cope with the common language and a demand that the entire lexicon change just for us? 

 

 

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