Ableism is akin to racism and sexism but instead of skin color and sex it’s about people with disabilities.
Ableism devalues people with physical and mental disabilities. A common example is when someone says “That’s r*tarded.”, meaning “That’s dumb.” (which, of course, is another ableist term). This is widely considered to be problematic language.
But the language I want to discuss for this post involves things like “That’s crazy!” or “That’s insane!”, meaning “That’s ridiculous!” The standard argument is that these terms, like the r-slur, serve to devalue and further stigmatize people with mental conditions like schizophrenia.
I haven’t really talked about this publicly a whole lot but I have been diagnosed with various sub-types of schizophrenia over the years. I think the most recent diagnosis was something like “brief episodic psychosis”. It’s a long story I need to write up sometime, but needless to say: I am a certified “crazy person” and have a very real and personal connection to the concept of “insanity”.
With that said, I personally have no problems with phrases like “That’s crazy.”
Mental Metaphors and Ableism
There is good reason to think metaphor is at the heart of human cognition. Mental metaphors are especially important to everyday human life and the conversations we have with each other. We talk about ideas as objects and the mind as a container. Ideas can go “over” our heads, we can “hold” an idea “in” our mind, we can “turn” a memory over, etc., etc. The physical world of concrete action serves as a metaphorical landscape out of which we sculpt our thoughts about the world and how we communicate our inner life. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson are famous for elucidating how this works in books like Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind & its Challenge to Western Thought.
On the flipside, the mental life itself can serve as a powerful foundation for generating metaphors of its own. More specifically, I tend to think that metaphors surrounding normal/abnormal cognition function are integral to how we tend to think about the world. Phrases like “That’s crazy” work so well to mean things like “ridiculous” because the possibility of our mind losing connection with reality is a well-known phenomenon and makes possible a sense of things being so fantastic as to be unreal, a ridiculous break from our expectations. “That touchdown was crazy!” “The ending to Inception was so insane.”
When is “crazy”-language problematic?
One of the ways ableism shows itself is when we use “crazy” to stereotype groups of people e.g. “bitches be crazy”, which is not only misogynistic but also ableist insofar as it’s using “crazy” with a negative connotation as “irrationally emotional”.
But how is this all that different from watching some crazy stunt on youtube and saying “woah – that flip was crazy!”? I think the latter is less problematic insofar as it as basically saying “this stunt made me question my sense of reality” rather than the former, which is saying “women are irrational” which is not only false but actively harmful to a whole group of people who have historically been harmfully stereotyped as being too emotional to partake in the life of a citizen.
Another way “crazy”-language goes wrong is when we use popularized conceptions of, e.g., schizophrenia, to explain violent behavior like when someone says “I don’t know why he shot all those people – he was just crazy!” In this example, they’re not just saying “The situation was ridiculous” or “The situation violated my expectations of reality”. Instead, it’s saying the behavior can be explained by appealing to a condition like schizophrenia, a false explanation which is definitely harmful (people with schizophrenia are, in fact, more likely to be victims of violence).
Is it even possible to split the difference between “good” and “bad” usages of “crazy” language? Maybe we should just take the safe side and eradicate all usages of the term because if we’re not sure of the possible harm we should just not use the language at all.
But I think the quest for perfect language is difficult to achieve. To eradicate all ableism is difficult because so much of our language depends on unconscious body and action schemas involving “normal” human function.
Seeing Is Believing
Consider the schemas involving visual metaphors in the English language:
“I see what you mean.”
“She is a visionary leader.”
“Could you shed some light on that for me?”
The examples are endless. But all of these are arguably based on blindness metaphors in the same way that “crazy”-language is based on metaphors involving disabilities involving psychic breaks with reality.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to educate people about ableism and remove problematic terms and phrases from our public vocabulary. The problem, however, is always going to be two-fold: defining the boundaries of acceptable use and running up against practical limits on removing “primary” metaphors from language.
Primary metaphors are the so-called “building blocks” of our cognitive life and are formed through our basic embodied interaction with the concrete world.
As it happens, being able to see is the statistically normal embodied interaction with the world and we can see this in our language and thought (no pun intended). That, of course, says nothing about the moral value of blind persons and their unique way of being-in-the-world. But in my opinion trying to eradicate the “seeing = understanding” metaphor from our language completely is a Sisyphean task.
I think the same holds true of some aspects of “crazy”-language, especially the connection between “ridiculous” and “crazy”. That also seems Sisyphean. What seems more tractionable is things like saying “that person is such a schizo.”
But when someone says “I am crazy about her” to mean “The amount I love her is ridiculous”, I personally am not bothered by it partly because I believe it would be nearly futile to try to remove that powerful set of metaphors from our normal conception of reality. It doesn’t mean we should not try to excise our ableism – it just means we have to pick our battles wisely.
Ableism and the Politics of Perfect Language
But here’s the rub: maybe other people who have also been diagnosed with a “crazy” disease like schizophrenia do care? I never want to invalidate how other people feel about language use: just like I am not bothered by some aspects of “crazy”-language maybe some people are and that’s just that.
So this post is not about giving able-bodied people license to just start using ableist language willy-nilly. I am not here to generalize a prescription for all language use. I don’t believe I have that kind of moral authority. But what I am doing is trying to give an explanation of why I personally have not exercised “crazy” from my vocabulary as a synonym for “ridiculous” in everyday language.
In the end, I believe the quest to make our language and thought more in line with our values should be about the ways we consciously speak and think about ability and disability. Often our unconscious minds are just jerks and usually brimming with implicit bias. Eradicating that is difficult – it’s literally out of our conscious control.What we do have control of our own conscious thoughts (that’s why they’re conscious!). And I believe it is these thoughts that serve best as grounds for assigning moral responsibility, especially insofar as our conscious beliefs inform the actions we take that may or may not actively harm others.
And of course I am against ableism just like I am against any other form of discrimination. But the quest to remove some metaphors from our language and thought faces steep hurdles. Which is of course not an argument against trying it anymore than the difficulty of eradicating racism is a reason to stop trying eradicating racism. But I think that the amount of mental effort allies take sniping at each other about removing metaphors from language could maybe be used more productively engaging in educational efforts about the actual nature of what it’s like living with mental illness.
I dunno. Like I said, I am not generally in the business of making sweeping normative claims of any kind. So I could totally be wrong about the utilitarian calculus involved in removing certain metaphors from our language. But I at least wanted to open a dialogue on ableism and “crazy”-language.. I am open to hearing the opinions of other “crazies” like myself.