This is Why We’re Always on about Language

I’m not linking to the original source because the specifics don’t matter. This isn’t about the individual people or the individual documents involved. This is just an example of how the use of ableist language harms disabled people. Sometimes our posts on ableist language are on the abstract side, so here’s something real concrete. The ableist language is “insane” used to mean “this is bad.” The disabled people are me and everyone else who has been abused and has mental illness.

Some context is necessary, though. The first quote is from the comments thread of a post on intimate partner abuse. More specifically it’s about the way people outside the abusive relationship contribute to the abuse. Even staying “neutral” or “not getting involved” contributes to the abuse: when power is unequally shared among people in a relationship, staying neutral is siding with the person with the most power. But much of the time people don’t stop with that much. They actively side with the abuser. (The reasons for this is a subject for another post. Graduate degree dissertations. Books. I’m headed in a different direction right now.)

One of the commenters expressed disgust with the people who’d taken the side of the abuser and ended the comment with:

How insane is that?

Here’s my reply.

It is appalling, frustrating, disappointing. It makes me want to cry every goddamn time I see it because I know my abusers are fine upstanding successful people and I’m fucked up and broken and poor.

It is not insane.

I am insane. I have had delusions and paranoia and hallucinations. There are parts of me I do not talk about ever because I am deeply ashamed of them: what’s wrong with me that this is in me? How can I be this fucked up? I spend every day working on not killing myself because the parts of me that hate me and want me dead never shut up.[1. Unfortunately, none of this is even exaggerated.]

I would like, please, to not have to be the metaphor for abusers and their abettors as well as their victim. I carry enough shame already.

This is why we talk about ableist language. It’s not because we hate fun. It’s not because we have no sense of humor. It’s not because we want to take people’s words away.

It’s because we shouldn’t have to be the metaphors for our own oppressions.

About kaninchenzero

Kaninchen Zero is a woman-focused social justice activist, queer, trans, poly, kinky, atheist, socialist, a gamer, happy in a legal interracial same-sex marriage in Texas, and nearly forty. She has an overlookable physical disability (she can walk but slowly, painfully, and with a limp) and mental illnesses she can't hide any more. Other blog-ish type stuff can be found at her LiveJournal, her Dreamwidth, and her Tumblr. Short-form fiction is mostly at her story blog. The official short form of her handle is k0, pronounced kaynull or kaynought. The avatar is her own drawing.

32 thoughts on “This is Why We’re Always on about Language

  1. Thank you for this. It’s been less than a year since I’ve decided to stop abusing the terms “crazy” and “insane.” It’s been difficult to do, even though I myself have mental illness. This is a really good reminder how important it is for me to continue working on my change in language, and a good example to use when trying to show how important it is to other people.

  2. I think it’s an uphill battle, and I have some trouble grasping the points.

    Though I do like this example – I am not an abuser, my diagnosis is not abusive.

    Even though I’m not fully sure of what I’m doing, I have been working on even my spoken language. “The Tiger Den was insane today!” vs “The Tiger Den was so crowded and noisy I couldn’t hear myself think.”

    So I’m calling things silly and ridiculous, because true insanity is not a puppy barking at a cockroach, it is not funny or a joke, and I am working to change that mindset.

  3. I just want to echo what Rosemary said. Because it is sometimes difficult, to erase these slurs from our language. They’re emedded into modern usage. But difficult is not an excuse for not trying. I used to be tempted to say ‘I have a mental illness and it doesn’t bother me…’ but I know that is so not the point. Thank you for continuing to educate about what the point IS.

  4. As always, thank you for speaking up so truthfully and eloquently.

    I’ve found since I’ve stopped using “crazy” in an ableist way, it’s become a really useful tool to cope – I’m a person who copes through very, very dark humor. I never apply it to someone who hasn’t used it in the same reappropriative way as I do, but it can be really comforting to just tell a close friend to be gentle because my crazy is acting up rather than dragging out an explanation and maybe exacerbating whatever’s going on. So when someone uses it in a perjorative way….ouch.

  5. I have a question about another example.

    I’m reading a book and the author is talking about potentially negative consequences of medicalization of peoples lives. And the line that trippped me up is like this – “Blah blah blah this could turn out badly blah blah blah.” (I’m paraphrasing.) Then the last sentance in the chapter after all that is, “Have we all lost our minds?” (verbatim – not paraphrased.)

    now on the one hand, okay that’s a common English language colloquialism. But on the other hand, having read the posts here on ablist language, I’m like, waaaaait a minute… Did she have to use that phrase? That’s like a derrogatory term for mentally ill, right?

  6. @K I always thought that meant not very bright. lol aspiest. But it’s either implying mental illness or stupidity, and the latter can be considered ableist as well, so either way, bad choice.

  7. It’s because we shouldn’t have to be the metaphors for our own oppressions.

    this is so beautifully articulated. thank you.

  8. This is so exactly spot on, and your last sentence is one I’m going to carry around with me, maybe on little business cards or something, to pass out to all the people who give me evil looks or roll their eyes whenever I say “I don’t think that’s the appropriate word to use.” I have such a hard time articulating the argument, so I’m going to take this with me to remind me that I am not just being an overly sensitive bitch or a complete kill joy.

  9. A question about this word, “insane.” I tend to think the word has pretty negative connotations so I am very reluctant to use it even about someone who is medically classified as insane. For example, I might say that someone on trial for some incomprehensible misdeed is “insane,” but I would never describe my friend who is severely bi-polar as “insane.” But it sounds like this post is a call for using this word only as an accurate description of someone’s mental state, and not for other things (perhaps like the word “retarded?”). Am I reading this right?

  10. I stopped—at first so I wouldn’t hurt other people’s feelings, and then came to find it helped me as well. I keep having to assert to myself that I am not inherently bad, that I deserve to exist, that I am a good person. It is a pretty monumental task, considering it’s not just my inner thoughts but pervasive societal messages arrayed against me. The very least I can do is stop using the derogatory slang terms that imply people like me are irrational, dangerous, incomprehensible, cruel, illogical, not to be believed, untrustworthy, etc. And it really does help a bit.

    Thank you for writing this, and for calling out ableist language how you do.

  11. Oops – I rearranged some sentences and lost some wording – It was supposed to read: For example, I might say that someone on trial pleading not guilty by reason of insanity for some incomprehensible misdeed is “insane,” but I would never describe my friend who is severely bi-polar as “insane.”

  12. I so agree with the original post, and especially with the commenter above me. I’m trying hard to stop using those words that way. Sometimes I even stop myself using them about myself in a reclaimatory sense, because I often feel like to do that assumes that people generally understand that the terms are problematic in the first place. So they maybe wouldn’t see my calling myself mental as me choosing that term and owning it, but would think I’d used it in the throwaway, not-even-thinking-really sense that it’s often used.

    This is a complicated one all right….

  13. Thanks, y’all. Sometimes doing this kind of thing feels worse than thankless. Disability is a newish activism and the use of disability as metaphor for moral flaw is really deeply embedded. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how calmly or how respectfully I point out that use of ableist language is harmful (which is a kind of boundary-setting: “I’d appreciate it if you would try to not do this thing that harms me.”), the person on the other side perceives it as an assault and responds with anger and defensiveness and the rest of the handbook of wounded privilege.

    This being the pattern of every attempt to set any boundary in my abusive relationships it triggers the everliving fuck out of me. So it’s hard work. (I’m unfond of certain people’s–it’s no one here–suggestion that I’d be better not doing it. This is important to me and objectively. It helps me feel useful and valuable and that my continued presence in the world is not entirely negative.)

    I talk about myself a lot. (I’m trying to not apologize for that.) I wanted to say that I’m really glad y’all found this useful.
    .-= kaninchenzero´s last blog ..Re: Trust Me =-.

  14. hsofia: In short yes you’re reading it right. The use of words like “this is insane” to mean “this is bad” or “this makes no sense to me” is analogous to the use of “that’s so gay” to mean “that’s bad.” It doesn’t work without the assumption, shared by everyone involved in the conversation, that being insane is objectively a bad thing. While you personally may not use insanity as a synonym for some mental illness the word is widely used as a synonym for all mental illness and not to our benefit. I’d caution against establishing a hierarchy of mental illness where something like bipolar disorder is okay (except it’s not) but something else is not. Like the psychosis I describe in the original post. Psychosis is really bad, right?

    Regarding Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity:

    The definition of insanity for purposes of this defense in legal systems derived from English common law is very narrowly focused and is rarely applicable. The defense must prove (with affirmative defenses[1] the burden of proof reverses and the defense must prove its case rather than simply casting doubt upon the prosecution’s case) that the defendant was incapable of knowing right and wrong. There are widespread assumptions that this defense is used often and successfully, that all or nearly all defendants who use insanity or mental defect defenses are faking or exaggerating their conditions, that using an insanity or mental defect defense is cheating and a technicality, that people who are judged to be not guilty by reason of insanity skip out of hospital a couple weeks later having literally gotten away with murder.

    Thinking they are really clever some people like to criticize these perceived failures of the criminal justice system as “what’s really insane.” It doesn’t do us much good to have these beliefs that we can, by claiming to be mentally ill, get away with killing people. Especially with the false assumption that people with mental illness are violent being so prevalent.

    Actually I would like to see the stigma-carrying words for mental illness drop out of use entirely. This is my personal opinion and there’s a conversation among people with mental illness as to whether these words are reclaimable or not: My position is not the Official Word from the mentally ill community.

    [1] Except for the affirmative defense where the defense in a rape trial asserts that the victim consented to being assaulted. This is not treated as an affirmative defense for some reason in Rape Culture.

    .-= kaninchenzero´s last blog ..Re: Trust Me =-.

  15. K, you asked about “Have we all lost our minds?” You’re right; it is ableist. It’s ableist on a couple of levels. Both are in use and neither really has primacy over the other but surfacetext has to be linear (a limitation not shared by subtext) so I’ll start with the mental illness subtext.

    The images invoked–deliberately–by use of stigma-carrying words are of disordered behavior: people in pajamas and bathrobes shuffling around hospitals, a child banging xer head against a wall, a room where the walls are covered with disturbing words and images, serial killers. Arkham Asylum. Bedlam. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Se7en. Silence of the Lambs. Calvinball without the cute. Only a person whose choices were made based in delusion or dementia would make these choices.

    The other subtext is of stupidity. The images invoked this time are of developmentally disabled persons and people with conditions like Alzheimer’s Syndrome and spongiform encephalopathy. These people are foolish, ignorant, ineducable, forgetful. They likewise make bad decisions.
    .-= kaninchenzero´s last blog ..Re: Trust Me =-.

  16. Thanks again, K0, for making the effort. It’s helped me understand the issue better.

    I thought I “got” this, and yet in the past week alone I’ve heard myself labeling all sorts of disliked or nonfunctional or uncomfortable behavior as “crazy.”

    It’s because we shouldn’t have to be the metaphors for our own oppressions even though we are so well trained to do that.

  17. Thank you so much for writing this! I admire your honesty immensely.

    I’ve been doing my absolute best to purge all ableist language from my usage. “Insane” and “crazy” are two of the hardest for me, I will admit to my shame. I banished “lame” easily; “that’s just insane!” seems to friggin’ linger and it drives me starkers.

    Having read this, I will redouble my efforts. No saying it and no even thinking it. That’s a promise to you and me.

  18. For everyone who’s said something about having a difficult time removing problematic language from xer vocabulary, I can only say: Solidarity, siblings!

    I have been working on my vocabulary and the attitudes and assumptions that go with it for decades. (Literally decades.) I am still working on that. I don’t think I will ever stop working on that. I rather hope not. If I did stop it’d mean (to me) that I gave up, not that I’d achieved perfection.
    .-= kaninchenzero´s last blog ..Re: Trust Me =-.

  19. Thank you so much for the post, and thank you for extra encouragement in the comments in striving to banish problematic language from my vocabulary.

    I have a related question, to anyone who might have a useful idea, I work with teenagers and at present am working hard on “We will not use terms that describe how some people are to be derogatory about something.” I’m hoping to get them to understand WHY we’re not using these words, rather than to just have them avoiding using them in front of me. But, being teenagers, they seem to need some throw-away insult word of the moment. So, are there any ideas for a word to substitute?

  20. gwyn_bywyd, some of the things I say (for example, when I’m driving and another driver has done something scary) aren’t exactly appropriate for a person working with younger folk to be teaching them. I’d be surprised if they didn’t already know the words, but that’s not real relevant.

    Things I say that are appropriate in settings where the saltier language I often use mightn’t be: Ridiculous, ludicrous, outrageous. I love “appalling.” Words related to decay: rotting, festering, maggot-riddled, pestiferous. I’m not sure why I decided it was a pejorative but I use “individual” as one. I use some words that are often used as endearments in sarcasm: cookie, cupcake, sunshine.

    I reserve honey and sweetie and baby for use in earnest; I am a Southern USian lady. Punkin and puddin’ are for my youngest cat. Now y’all know something embarrassing about me. 🙂
    .-= kaninchenzero´s last blog ..Re: Trust Me =-.

  21. @gwyn taking a completely standard word like ‘wheel’ and appending swears around it works famously. I’m not sure that anything starting with ‘fuck’ is what you’re thinking :p but ‘fail’ works almost as well.

  22. k0 – Oh bless your heart! *ducks*

    I’ve been using ridiculous a lot as a substitute for “insane/crazy.”

    My mom’s favorite – no idea where this came from – “This sucks green donkey dicks!”

    Always green.

  23. “ridic” is perfect slang-insult. Also “incredible.” And I had a friend once who had a perfect backhanded-tact reply to anything that deserved the snark: “Stunning.”

  24. My word! What tremendously creative insulters you mob are!

    Among the (many) reasons that I don’t know that I’m what parents _want_ to be working around their children is that I would much rather a teenager call someone a fuckwheel (Magnificent!) than use fag as an insult.

    I think I’m going to set the children the challenge to create a new insult – inspired by some of your wonderful suggestions – and see if they can get it to go viral in our (quite small) town.

    Hopefully this will appeal to them. It certainly appeals to me! Thank you all so much!

  25. Gwyn – do report back to us, please?

    Creative insults are the best.

    I remembered another one this morning as I fought with a cold pill package – fuckstick. Failstick?

  26. Gwyn, failtastic, fustilarian (means scoundrel), and shitstain are some of my favorites.

  27. I have so much love for you right now. And I quote you, and the rest of this blog’s commentators all over facebook and twitter all the time. <3

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