Culling Our Metaphors

I find it appalling that people still use words like “lame” as pejorative epithets. I’ve heard people whom I know otherwise to espouse egalitarian values on a large range of topics—people who would cringe at other kinds of discriminatory language—throw it around in regular conversation. This thoughtless, casual habit has to stop.
Allow me to get off my soapbox for a moment, and confess that I heard myself liberally pepper my lecture on the use of APA style with words like “crazy” and “insane.” In my defense, they were not used to describe directly the citation style in question, but rather to underscore to students the expectations around correct citation, e.g., “Nobody expects you to remember exactly how to cite every single source. That would be [insert casual insensitive word pejoratively describing mental illness here]! Instead, you have to know what categories of information you need to produce a correct citation, bla bla bla.” That is an accurate rendition of what I heard in my head after that appalling use of “crazy.” Why is it still ok to use these metaphors, when we have perfectly good adjectives to convey “terrible,” “awful,” “appalling,” or “incredible” situations?

The insidiousness of the concept of “political correctness”still haunts any attempt at ridding everyday language of discriminatory terminology. I do not mean to rehash the critique here, but only to underscore the power of this “straw man” argument, its endurance, and the ways in which it can hinder opening up our conversations on these entrenched uses of language that continue to hurt, render invisible, marginalize, and oppress people. In that moment in my class, as my mouth-and-vocal-chords assemblage was uttering the words, my brain jumped ahead to realize the harm I was perpetuating, but not quickly enough to prevent me.
I do hope it will stop me in future. I have become aware of other metaphors I was using in my teaching to underscore the foundational nature of a teaching-and-learning moment such as how to do a critical reading. I would casually say “this is the meat and potatoes of critical thinking,” before—again with my brain lagging behind a beat—apologizing to vegetarians and vegans, indeed to the diverse group of people in my class, for whom “meat and potatoes” does not evoke a stereotypical staple meal. Of course, it was also a good teaching moment for the application of critical thinking in examining our own personal and culturally-derived biases and assumptions. Who am I kidding?

In all seriousness, however, the use of “crazy” and “insane” as synonyms for “wrong,” “terrible,” “unusual,” etc. strikes me as even more problematic, because of how it serves to bury mental illness under a deeper discursive darkness. In spite of all the clever campaigns, we still have so much trouble accepting mental illness as a regular and legitimate aspect of our—everybody’s—lives that the least we can do is eradicate the casual use of these adjectives and others that do the similar work of marginalization and oppression.

One thought on “Culling Our Metaphors

  1. I am posting this for Kristi L because once again blogger is causing comment-posting issues.
    In response to Dr. Margrit’s post on culling inappropriate metaphors out of our daily language, with a particular reference to words that are discriminatory towards people with mental illness.

    What’s wrong with using expressions such as “that’s crazy” or “that’s insane” in everyday speech? Is it discriminatory? I’ve used those expressions regularly in a number of contexts. Most often it acts as a bonding tool. “Wow, that expectation is crazy.” i.e. we’re all together on this one. “What she did is nuts.” i.e. we agree that there’s a major flaw in her behavior/character. “That film was crazy amazing.” i.e. that was so beyond good I can’t even describe it in day-to-day terms.

    I confess that I have used the terms “crazy” and “insane” in all of the ways I just described. I myself have a mental illness, specifically manic-depression, and I have suffered two manic-depressive psychotic breaks. And I get why people would get irritated about someone trying to curb their usage of these expressions. They have too much valuable social currency to give up.

    And that’s fine. But what people need to keep in mind is this: they are using the signifier for one of the most vulnerable populations out there to do their social and psychological dirty work. The concept “crazy” becomes not only a bonding tool, but also a site for projections of their internal fears. “I must be going crazy” etc. Its usage is entirely self-serving, and in a way that I think has far reaching social consequences.

    Case in point: when I was in grad school, one of my peers suffered a psychotic break. Several people who had contact with her went on and on about how traumatizing the experience was for them, and did nothing to help her. Instead, they got together and bonded by trying to alleviate their own anxieties. That’s the equivalent of seeing someone have a seizure on the street, doing nothing to help, and running away crying to others about the horrible thing that happened to you. My mother is a psychologist, so perhaps that’s why I saw the situation as a medical emergency and made sure she got to the hospital. I was already sick with a mood disorder, but my personal experience with psychosis was a couple of years away at the time. What I can guarantee is that the experience is not more traumatizing to the people in contact with the one suffering from psychosis. People who are having a psychotic episode are not ‘gone.’ Their personalities are still intact, and they are suffering endless horror that many don’t recover from. When I saw the first glimmer of psychosis coming on while I was in the middle of a manic episode, I thought, well, if I go crazy, I won’t know it. I’ll just be gone. That’s not the way it works. It’s severe trauma. And you respond to it emotionally the way that you would if you were really going through what you think is happening to you. Just imagine, for a moment, believing you’re responsible for the holocaust, and that you’re washing yourself with the remains of murdered human beings.

    But I digress. The point is, if you are going to use the expressions ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’, be conscious of what kind of social work they are doing for you. Know when you’re using them in a relatively benign way as a positive bonding tool, and know when you’re using the terms as a hook to hang your own issues and anxieties on, or bolster your social position or the glue together your social network at the expense of a population who has little recourse to defend itself against this kind of abuse. That is all.


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