Ableist Slurs Of The Mentally Disabled (UPDATED)

June 18, 2008

Jill just posted something at Feministe that, for reasons that will be obvious, has me thinking very hard:

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.

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.

I think I really need some guidance from my readers on this one, so please give me your thoughts. And if any of my readers who has personal experience with mental disability would be willing to weigh in on how my use of these terms makes them feel, I would really be grateful. Anyone who would prefer to post anonymously about personal experiences, feel free to just make up meaningless names and e-mail addresses.

UPDATE: 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.

22 Responses to “Ableist Slurs Of The Mentally Disabled (UPDATED)”

  1. akeeyu Says:

    Jeez, as a crazy person, I’d rather be called Crazy than Mentally Disabled.

    Terms that bug me in common use (when not applied to actual mental illnesses): Psychotic, Schizo, Bipolar.

    Not so much: Crazy, Nutbar, Bugfuck Crazy, Loon, Ann Coulter (as a slur, I mean. Ann Coulter as a person drives me nuts).

    Keep in mind that I’m only one crazy person, and as such cannot speak for my fellow Differently Sane folks, so…hey.

  2. Fixer Says:

    Call ‘em like ya see ‘em, pal. That’s why I come here.

  3. r@d@r Says:

    LOL akeeyu re: “differently sane” – i like that.

    speaking as another of the differently sane, when i’m speaking pejoratively of someone i think has a major problem that is leading them to cause harm to others, i get really specific with the diagnostics. for instance, i call the “sick fuck rightwing scumbags” you mention sociopaths.

    there’s nothing wrong with people trying to unplug other-ism from their speech. what is more insidious and harmful is the unspoken assumptions about what “sickness” and “wellness” is, and how much that perspective comes up in job interviews, performance reviews, disciplinary actions, etc.

  4. ecogeofemme Says:

    After a friend of mine suffered a mental illness that ended in suicide, I’m much more careful about how I use that sort of language. However, I think words like “crazy” and “insane” are so pervasive that they now have little meaning. Consider too that you probably wouldn’t actually use the word “crazy” to describe someone suffering from a real mental illness.

    On a related note, I’m tired of people talking about their sanity all the time. Like, I need a vacation day to preserve my sanity. I’m sure they won’t go insane without a day off. I know it’s hyperbole, but I think there are more interesting words available.

  5. BiophysicsMonkey Says:

    I’ve been following that thread as well, and while I can see where Jill and some of the others are coming from, ultimately I come down on the “pro crazy” side of the issue.

    I think crazy has been detached from the specific referent of the mentally ill and used as a generic term for “irrational”, “out of touch with the facts”, “wildly wrongheaded” & etc for a very long time.

    I would contrast this with “retarded”. In most progressive circles there’s pretty general agreement that retarded is inappropriate as an insult and this is precisely because it is still very clearly referring to people born with certain conditions. As an insult, it relies on denigrating those people in order to denigrate the insultee.

    Whatever its origins, I just don’t think that “crazy” operates in the same way.

    Also, there is no alternate term that does the same job. The various suggestions made in the thread all fail because they are just generic name calling and don’t capture the specificity of calling something “the craziest f*cking idea I’ve ever heard”.

    I understand the impulse behind the original post, but it’s a matter of where you draw the line (even Jill agreed that language policing can go too far). If there were really a large outcry by people with mental conditions, then I might change my mind, but there hasn’t been. I don’t think we want to impoverish language purely because some terms have questionable remote origins.

    That way lies madness…


  6. For some reason, I kept on our refrigerator this Letter to the Editor printed in The Guardian on 6 Jan 2004 from Dr Eric Chivian, Asst Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School – also co-founder of Intl Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, 1985 Nobel Peace Price recipients:

    “If a patient came into my office warning of imminent attack on the United States with weapons of mass destruction without there being any evidence whatsoever that this would occur, and saying that we had to strike first and ‘take out’ all those who were a threat to us as a first step toward world domination, I would diagnose him as suffering from paranoid and grandiose delusions and perhaps as psychotic. And, fearing that he constituted a potential danger to himself or others, I would commit him to a psychiatric hospital for a period of evaluation and treatment.”

    “I suspect that some of my colleagues with licences to practise psychiatry in Washington DC are struggling with the decision to exercise their clinical, ethical, and legal responsibilities to protect the public now that the US Congress has failed to do so.”

  7. Anna Says:

    Here via your comment on Feministe.

    I don’t talk about being mentally ill in my space because I’m already dismissed as being “crazy” for my wild and wacky desire to write about social issues and hold people accountable for being jerks.

    It’s like I don’t talk about being raped because that will totally be the “reason” why I’m a feminist.

    It gets tiring knowing that I can’t do certain things because people will write be off as “crazy”. Seeing crazy passed around both as a descriptor of us crazy feminist types and as a way of dismissing their opponents, the way I’m constantly dismissed by my “friends” for my silly desire to see a more egalitarian system makes me even more tired.

  8. Zuska Says:

    Put me in the camp that says words like “crazy” and “lunatic” are okay to use, but something like “retarded” is not, as an insult. I don’t like when people use words like schizo or bipolar to diagnose someone’s behavior.

    I do think there is a need for words to describe the, well, wackaloon sorts of behavior and thinking that politicians and other opinion leaders display.

  9. Lottie Says:

    (via Feministe)

    I had so much to say about this that I wrote about it at my blog too.

    Call me crazy, but I’m totally not offended.

  10. visionaria Says:

    (also here via Feministe)

    I think that, if anything, it at least opens this up as a discussion (to those who are open to that anyway).

    Lately I’ve been looking at my own vocabulary more closely. I’ve tried to cut out retarded and gay because those are really the big ones that I think people use too loosely.

    I hadn’t really considered crazy before. As I said over at Feministe, psycho, schizo & the like I don’t use because I think they are still too attached to actual medical conditions.

    Crazy is tricky mostly because I usually use it in a positive way (as in “did you see Battlestar Galactica last night? that episode was craaazy”). Even when it’s used negatively, it’s still something out of the ordinary more than anything else.

    I agree though that it doesn’t hurt us to try to find other words to use. If you go searching and still think that “crazy” or “lunatic” is the way to go, then so be it. But at least give the others a shot.

  11. larue Says:

    Enuff of the PC, already.

    I’m all FOR PC, but PhysioProf, this is too much.

    Crazy is crazy, it’s fucked up loon fuckin batshit crazy and likely emerges from bipolar, psycho and schizo fucking numnut idjit’s with evil on their minds and then they AIN’T crazy, just fucking evil.

    If we offend others with this slang, well, too bad, the criticism of our usage of it, it’s just got to stop . . . sides, they are all batshit crazy and won’t even know.

    And yes, I’ve been around and seen mental illness, in all its forms.

    There is a reality between the way we use our language, and the issues surrounding REAL mental illness. They are NOT related.

    Harumph.

  12. Interrobang Says:

    Count me as another person who sees the current usage of “crazy” as being synonymous with “irrational,” and there are lots of reasons why someone might be irrational, many of them having absolutely nothing to do with mental illness. Also, generally if I say someone seems like a psychopath, I’m using the term in the psychiatric sense, although IANAP. (But if you project the ethos of a psychopath, I might say, “Gee, you seem psychopathic.”) Are we going to make that kind of thing an issue now? If so, I might as well hang it up now, because in setting that kind of rule, you’ve effectively prohibited me from thousands of useful descriptions…

    However, while we’re talking about the subject of words wrongly being used as pejoratives, can I mention “spastic”? Can people please stop using “spastic” to mean some sort of vile insult? I actually am spastic — my muscles are rigid, and an able-bodied person’s flexibility is a pleasant daydream for me. It’s not weird, scary, creepy, gross, or even disturbing; I’m just stiff, fer fuck’s sakes.

  13. phledge Says:

    I suggest being okay with using words that are not part of the standard medical lexicon–hi, we don’t call our patients “crazy,” we call them “depressed/psychotic/demented/dissociated people“–and not being okay with words that are still part of diagnosing actual disease–spastic, retarded, para/quadraplegic, etc. It might not be 100% accurate (we don’t use “lame” but it still seems to ruffle feathers), but it appears to cover most bases. For what it’s worth I fucking love the term “wackaloon.”

  14. WereBear Says:

    Wackaloon works well for me too. Even though I like loons, the bird. I don’t think the birds mind.

    Crazy comes from “crazed,” the pattern of cracks on pots improperly glazed and fired. Crackpots, in other words. And everyone knows what that means.

  15. Whee Says:

    Americans are so touchy. We try to be so PC all the time. It’s a BLOG. It’s not peer-reviewed, it’s not in front of Congress, and ordinary people know that “nuts” doesn’t automatically imply “mentally defective.” You can say whatever you want. Freedom of speech, y’all.

    Of course, if you do feel guilty or BAD about the words you use, then choose other words. There are lots at Urban Dictionary.

  16. hysperia Says:

    Hey Whee, in general, I don’t think Americans are “touchy” at all about the language they use. People seem to feel quite free to say anything at all that they want. I don’t think this is about freedom of speech. Of COURSE you can say pretty much what you want, you nutbar (oops); the issue IS about wanting to know what people find offensive. I think. Not sure because I’m mentally defective.

    And, as for what I think about the rest of the conversation, personally, I’m not offended by “crazy”, “mad”, “nuts” and so forth. But I don’t much like it when someone says that a person “should be committed”, as committal is a truly serious, difficult and painful experience, for the committed and the committee. And once, I was in the comments at a blog and someone said that the person who was the subject of discussion had likely “gone of his meds”. That pierced pretty deep, but I didn’t have the guts to object.

    And in fact, I don’t like the term “mental illness”. The illness isn’t really “mental”. Maybe “emotional”. Chemically imbalanced? lol The whole thing is though, so called mental illness takes you to a whole different level of stigma with respect to able-ity. I don’t want to pull rank or anything, but surely it’s true that there are a whole slew of illnesses you can admit to without too much fear of ridicule (not all, I know) whereas people are pretty universally reluctant to admit to “mental illness”. With good reason. So, thanks y’all, for noticing.

  17. Weezy Says:

    hysperia, tell me you’re not an american!

  18. hysperia Says:

    I’m not an American.

  19. bill Says:

    I have major depression, and words like “nutbag” and “loon” don’t bother me at all. To me, these are general terms that have long since been robbed of any specific connotation or connection that might give offense — in contrast, as others have noted above, to words like “retarded”. Calling some sick right-wing hatemonger “crazy” is decidedly not the same as diagnosing him/her at a distance and trying to equate my illness (or any other) with that kind of behaviour.

  20. Brynn Says:

    First of all, unless you have mental illness, you are not in a position to say whether words like “crazy” are ableist slurs or not. I have bipolar disorder, and I consider the words ableist. They’re highly pervasive, true, but they’re ableist nonetheless. And I know a hell of a lot of other mentally ill people who feel the same way.

  21. Anonymous Says:

    Sorry for posting on an old thread, but I am in agreement with Brynn on this. I have been diagnosed with quite a few mental illnesses and I find these words ableist (as do many others who have been diagnosed). And I don’t think it’s as removed from mental illness as people on here think. One example is that the misconception that people diagnosed with a mental illness are inherently violent and/or dangerous is still very common and this is often perpetuated by the language we use.

    You can complain about it being too PC or whatever, but is it really that much work to try and cut offensive words out of your vocabulary? Personally I think it’s better to make the effort so others feel respected and included if you don’t that’s your call, but you might be alienating people from your life and movements as a result.


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