On language and -isms.

This seems to be an on-going discussion of late, and since I’ve been talking with many friends about it, I have a heightened awareness of (in particular) the ableism inherent in so much everyday language.

I’m astonished at how many people who would never dream of using ‘gay’ as an insult, who see the awful sexism of derisively stating “you do x like a girl”, are oblivious to how ableist it is to label something as ‘lame’ or ‘crazy’.

More than anything else, I’ve really struggled to remove words pertaining to mental health from my everyday language. It seems to permeate so many concepts and situations that I’m now amazed I didn’t see it before.

“Work has been crazy today”

“This queue is mental”

When I find myself reaching for one of these phrases, I stop to think what it is that I really mean; is it that the situation is out of control, chaotic, unreasonable? Is it inherently negative, or simply not as expected?

The interesting thing is that, whilst these examples are all of generally negative things, everyone I have spoken to about this will vehemently deny that they mean anything pejorative when they use these words. But can we really argue that there is no negative connotation around these phrases, when we never declare a happy incident to be ‘crazy’?

Language is always an evolving thing, and I think that there is something damaging to labelling negative situations with words that are also objective descriptions about people and their experience. If the argument is about reclaiming words, then it is only ever up to people to whom the words apply to decide whether they want to reclaim them. Just because we do not mean to cause offense, does not mean that we will avoid triggering a negative effect in someone.

In the end, words come to mean what we use them for, so by labelling negative situations as ‘crazy’, I cannot see how you could avoid holding a negative association if you were to interact with someone with mental ill-health.

The only possibly original thought I can add to this discussion links directly back to my previous post on measuring proxies; that what we intend is affected by what we do. I worry that in research, if we allow our questions to be defined by what we can easily measure, we run the risk of re-framing our arguments and aims in the context of those measures. With language, I think that if we repeatedly describe situations as crazy, we end up redefining the word in our mind, with a possible end result that we actually think a negative situation is equivalent to mental ill-health.

Edited to add:
A couple of people have mentioned elsewhere some examples of ways that we use ‘crazy’ in supposedly positive ways (interestingly, there are contrasting views on whether this is ableist or not). Some examples:

“We had a wonderfully crazy weekend together.”

“That party was crazy.”

“It was a mental gig last night!”

I’m inclined to fall on the side that this is still a problem, dehumanising as it is. It’s still using language that can be (and is) used against people to subjugate them to the supposedly normal masses. It’s still describing things that are necessarily out of the ordinary, with the insinuation that some people are therefore not normal and not okay*.


*Now I personally don’t aspire to normality and I think the same will apply to most of my personal friends, but I think we’re privileged enough to make that choice and assertion, whereas too many people are labelled as such without having the option to choose.