Several More Points About an Ableist Term

Trigger warning: I use the ableist term “crazy” over and over again in this post, I hope to make my point. I also employ some misogynistic slurs, also to make my point (I hope).

So over at adulting on tumblr, the blogperson (and I admit I only skim adulting when it comes across my dashboard, when I read my dashboard, which is intermittently) wrote a post about a scary incident on the MAX light rail (in PDX, where I also live, and I have had very similar experiences on MAX, and I totally sympathize with the fear of those situations). She referred to the person acting in a threatening manner as “crazy.” A reader sent a message asking that she not use crazy as synonymous with “violent/threatening,” and she replied with  “I don’t consider or use the word “crazy” as synonymous with “someone who has a mental illness,” but I know others do and I don’t want to contribute to that. What is a better word for “frightening/unreasonable/alarming/acting in ways not consistent with normal human socialization” that doesn’t have that same effect?”

1. You just came up with several synonyms that are more accurate to facts that you know, do not diagnose (or appear to diagnose) a person you do not know with a mental illness you would not be qualified to diagnose anyway, and do not contribute to stigma against folks with actual mental illnesses.

2. Most people I know do not consider “crazy” to be synonymous with “has a mental illness” either. They usually use it, when used in a negative way, to mean “angry” or “unreasonable” or “oversensitive” or “mean” or “scary” or “threatening” or “acting in ways contrary to common social norms.” Where do these connotations come from? I’d argue they come from the idea that people with mental illnesses perceive reality incorrectly, and therefore we cannot interpret their behavior according the normative perception of reality, i.e. OUR perception of reality. Hence, I would argue that it is, at root, an ableist term, since it implies an inherent unreasonableness/inaccuracy-of-understanding that stems from association with actual mental illnesses . (I do not support the idea that mental illnesses usually result in the inaccurate perception of reality, by the by. It is negative cultural stereotypes to which I refer).

3. I volunteer at a crisis line. Some people I volunteer with like to argue that one would have to be mentally ill to commit acts of violence against others. I disagree, and anyway there is no diagnosable mental illness whose criteria are “feels entitled to be violent and/or threatening towards women/people.” This man was yelling about how he was going to kill the person who allegedly maced him. This need not be a result of delusions, (i.e. mental illness), this is a sadly common outcome of a culture that tells men women are objects, women should do what they say, and women who fight back “deserve” whatever those men feel like meting out. It’s also the cultural tropes that make men feel like it’s okay to force women to listen to them on public transit, even when they clearly want to be left alone. To call that “crazy” is to denormalize and dismiss the person who did it (even if you’re not saying they’re actually mentally ill, but just that they were acting unusually outside of accepted social norms for MAX behavior), rather than situating it in its proper context, our culture of aggressive entitlement and gendered violence. He may have been unusually in his choice of venue and his sheer volume, or in some other particular, but this, sadly, sounds to me like many things callers on the crisis line have told me their abusers have said at home at high volume when they are displeased.

3. Being on drugs is not the same as being mentally ill, even if you knew for a fact that he was on drugs. (This is more for a commenter.)

4. If you want a catch-all term, you probably won’t find one, because hey! the reasons you were scared by his behavior were many and specific. “Crazy” is used as a catch-all term for everything from an intensifier (crazy-good cupcakes!) to awesome (that party was craaaaazyyyy!) to busy (the road was crazy at rush hour!) to threatening (there was this crazy guy on the bus that she wrote about on adulting) to unreasonable (he’s crazy, he expects me to finish complex tasks in 5 seconds) to actually mentally ill. Does crazy actually do any specific work for you in your story? No, except as it buys into the premise that threatening and scary people probably are scary and threatening because they don’t perceive reality like all us (totally safe neurotypical people), which is hella ableist stereotyping! That’s really what it means, when applies, as you said, to people not acting in accordance with general social norms – something must be wrong in your brain for you to perceive this as appropriate behavior. So while you may think you are using a “different” definition of crazy, you’re really not. (If I’m misinterpreting you, and you have some definition of crazy that is magically not referential to mental illness, I’d love to hear it.)

5. The obligatory shock-value example: some people defend their use of crazy with “language changes over time, I don’t use crazy for actual mental illnesses, and sometimes I use it in the positive sense, so it’s not ableist when I do it.” Um, no, it totally is! Think about how you would react to a white person saying of the n-word “language changes over time! It’s a positive word now. Anyway, I never used it to oppress anyone and it’s totally not used negatively by anyone these days.” Um, white person, you do not get to decide what language is hurtful and not, and who gets to use oppressive language that, I must point out, has both a long history and an ugly present of oppressive usage! It is the people doing the reclaiming who get to decide who and how and why!

6. Not only is “crazy” used in ways that reinforce stereotypes of people with mental illness as overwhelming violent, it is also commonly used to deny and dismiss people of marginalized groups (like women pointing out sexism, for example) when they bring up their lived experiences of marginalization. (e.g. Oh, that bitch is just crazy and oversensitive, don’t pay any attention to her.)

7. “Crazy” is lazy! Look at all the words we can use, instead of using “crazy” every third word. My favorite, when most folks around me would use “crazy” in the so-called “positive” sense, is “wild.” Ridiculous, awesome…when challenged to find another word, you found many! Think about what you’re REALLY using “crazy” as a stand-in for, and how widely that varies according to the situation in which you use it. Give those other adjectives some exercise. They’re more specific and accurate.

The other day at work (and I work with adults who have developmental disabilities), one person I work with attempted to tease another by calling him “crazy” in a playful, affectionate tone. It triggered him big-time and he responded by becoming a bit physically threatening towards her. Clearly it was a word that had been used to deny, dismiss, and marginalize him in a lot of very damaging ways that still evoke strong feelings. It has been used to silence, deny, and dismiss me on numerous occasions as well. Many many folks who have diagnosed mental illnesses have courageously shared their stories and insights and activism, and have stated very clearly that the casual proliferation of “crazy” into everyday conversation has hurt them. When someone says “hey, this language is used to oppress me,” the response shouldn’t be “well, I don’t believe that it needs to be oppressive, if only you define it like me, but sure, educate me about what I should use instead.” The response should be “I’m sorry, I’ll try to do better in the future.” You have fingers and Google and thesaurus.com, you can do this!

To be clear, person who writes adulting, I have no personal grudge or personal feelings about you at all, other than i think your tips are generally good and applicable to my process of becoming a Responsible Adult(TM), and well expressed. This topic has been on my mind a lot lately (see this post) and it has become a serious issue for me, precisely because of the word’s ubiquity and the common reaction of “well I don’t mean it in an ableist way.” (INTENT IS NOT MAGIC, INTENT IS NOT MAGIC, INTENT IS NOT MAGIC, ASKDJLDKFGJSH). My strong feelings are for the injustice of oppressive terms, and for the people who are hurt by them, not for any specific individual to whom I have spoken about this issue. I know it is difficult to examine one’s privilege as a neurotypical person (or even a perceived-neurotypical person who acts in accordance with accepted social norms in public), and moving out of the habit of flinging the word “crazy” around is a seriously challenge (again, due to its bizarre ubiquity). Still, Allyship 101 is Own. Apologize. Stuff down the defensive urge to ‘splain (and then: Think about that stuff. Understand. Empathize. Advocate).



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