Crazy Talk

Aug. 19th, 2009 12:57 pm
[personal profile] dysprositos
What do we* mean when we call someone or something (usually an idea) crazy?

Well, sometimes we mean dangerous to other people. And sometimes we mean irrational, illogical, overly emotional, invalid, or incoherent. And sometimes we mean out of touch with reality, unfounded, erroneous, unsound. And sometimes we mean nonsensical, silly, foolish, ridiculous, or half-baked. And sometimes we mean it’s out of the norm for what we’ve come to expect, or exhibiting unusual or erratic behavior. Sometimes we mean there’s a flaw in a person’s thinking, or in a person’s morality, or in a person’s worldview, or in their research, or in their behavior, or in their ability to self-inhibit or conform, or in their desire to. (Usually it's some combinations of the above.)

And sometimes we actually mean exhibiting symptoms characteristic of a diagnosable mental illness. But how often do you find yourself reaching for “crazy” or “psychotic” or “off one’s meds” when what you really mean is “utter bullshit” ("that’s crazy") or “angrily unreasonable” ("wow, Lydia was acting crazy") or “too clingy and demanding” ("my psychotic ex-girlfriend") or “disagreeing with me” ("you’re crazy if you think that") or “morally bad and dangerous to others and proud of it” ("Bush is crazy") or “non-conforming” ("loony Luna Lovegood") or “a bit lightheaded” ("sorry, it’s a crazy day today")? As crazy (unlikely, unbelievable, implausible) as it seems, I do it all the time.

And what effect does that have on (and how is it caused by) the beliefs of the speaker and society in general about mental illness? How does it affect the assumptions you make about mental illness, how people with mental illness are treated?

More specifically, if mixing up letters when spelling something out is “dyslexic", organizing clothes in spectrum order or washing hands often out of a concern of hygiene is automatically “obsessive-compulsive", anyone who commits rape is “a sociopath", and displaying different facets of your personality in different situations is “schizo” (which is doubly inaccurate, as schizophrenia does not manifest itself as multiple personalities), you’re “traumatized” by watching a more risque movie than you expected, and whenever you feel a bit down in the dumps you’re “depressed", how does that affect the diagnosability and societal understanding of people who actually have dyslexia, OCD, sociopathy, schizophrenia, PTSD or other psychological trauma, and clinical depression? I mean, sure you're dyslexic, but don't we all mix letters up sometimes? You don't need medication for OCD; just think about something else! A good bowl of ice cream always cures my depression--you should try it! This is roughly equivalent to a straight guy assuming that, because people keep calling him "gay" for wearing insufficiently masculine clothing or drinking the wrong brand of beer or liking women or whatever, he is now qualified to give blowjob tips to actual gay men. Yet people keep doing it--because the language we use does shape the way we think about things.

*And by "we" and "you" I mean "I and people who use 'crazy' casually".

(Spillover from a comment made in a Language Log discussion. I have more to say on the subject--watch this space. And, as always, if there's fail in this post, please let me know.)
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