This editorial was inspired by my noticing a distressing occurrence: use of “crazy” in a political context, usually to describe or characterize political viewpoints. Even more distressing, it’s been cropping up a lot in progressive spaces, which is a general collection of political and social viewpoints that I identify with.
Let me get a few things out of the way first, since I’d rather not this discussion turn into a Derailing for Dummies checklist, and I’m not feeling up to yet another ableist rehash on depression or mental illness in general. I’ve seen those that have a mental illness close to me get labeled by others as “crazy,” in contexts ranging dismissive to fearful to outright hostile. I’ve been referred to, sometimes affectionately, sometimes dismissively, as crazy as well. So when I see this term tossed around in online, it feels personal to me. Derailing, belittling comments like “you’re taking this issue too personally” are not productive because this is a personal issue for me.
In addition, I am not telling people which words they can and can’t use. I may think that there are ways you SHOULDN’T use a word, but of course, free speech blah blah blah americacakes.
I am also not saying that you have to fall in lockstep with me, and agree that the usage outlined is ableist in any way. I do hope that this will help you with some reflection upon the ways in which the language used is is informed and influenced by ableist thinking and perspectives.
As a self-identified liberal, I’ve heard the epithet “loony left” used by conservatives to describe those they disagree with. “Crazy liberals”, “insane leftists” and the like. Sadly, I’ve been seeing the use of ableist language like “crazy” used to denigrate people who aren’t mentally ill (not that it’s really right, in my opinion to use that as a slur against them either) more and more often in the liberal blogosphere and other progressive media. I first noticed it at Amanda Marcotte’s Pandagon blog, with a category tag called “bat(expletive) insane”. It also has cropped up a lot on Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo (TPM) is a great media outlet covering progressive issues. The about page mentions is has been “lauded as cutting edge, must-read, original and highly-respected…”, noting Time Magazine’s praise as “…the prototype of what a successful Web-based news organization is likely to be in the future.” Unfortunately, TPM delivers a lot of the news and social commentary with an ableist slant. Some headline examples via Google:
“Crazy 101”, about the history textbook revisionism going on in Texas
“Crazy Aunt, Unleashed”, about Sarah Palin
“Postcards From the Crazy”, about Frank Gaffney
“Meet the Crazy Caucus”, lists Republican congressional representatives with “crazy” viewpoints, implied to have a caucus
That’s just a handful of the most recent examples available. And looking at these most recent examples, there is a clear pattern of “crazy” employed to describe viewpoints or people TPM doesn’t agree with, or to describe viewpoints TPM feels are racist, bigoted, or offensive. However, none of the examples above critique those viewpoints or engage the speakers in a a meaningful way. They are labeled “crazy”. Merely applying the label is seen as criticism in and of itself, so no further discussion is needed to explain the veiwpoint, or why the label applies, or just why these people should be excluded from political discussion.
After Rand Paul won the Kentucky Republican congressional primary, I have seen a lot of people describe him, or the views he holds, as “crazy”. From everything I’ve been able to gather Paul favors the what he calls the “freedom of private business”– so much so that he appears to believe that anti-discrimination and equal-access laws are things that interfere with the freedom of private businesses. I am not a Rand Paul apologist, or supporter. I’ve outlined my thoughts on his policies and record here and here. But I have issues with him being labeled as crazy, or cartoons depicting him as the Mad Hatter.
In my opinion, calling Paul “crazy” without further clarification– essentially letting the label begin and end there– is just a lazy way to dismiss his ideas without actually doing any heavy lifting. It’s a free pass to dismiss someone’s ideas without actually having to engage with them. Rand’s ideology has a lot to criticize. His belief that the rights of private business should be placed above civil rights preserves institutional ways of being that keep racism and discrimination against people with disabilities in place insitutionally- ways that wouldn’t have any check against them at all without a larger force like the government backing it. Putting business before anything else can’t help but color his views and actions on everything from ‘net neutrality to immigration. These are all important issues to raise, and important discussions to hold. Is everyone in those discussions going to agree on everything? Of course not. Calling Paul “mad” or “crazy” and just ending it there sidesteps having to talk about why his ideas or policies are harmful and makes those complicated issues invisible. It also raises the implication that those discussions shouldn’t even be had because it should be obvious that the person or the views being dismissed are not just wrong, but laughable.
Conor Friedersdorf made a keen observation about the people and policies disregarded as “crazy”:
“These are contentious judgments. I hardly expect the news media to denigrate the policies I’ve named, nor do I expect their Republican and Democratic supporters to be labeled crazy, kooky, or extreme. These disparaging descriptors are never applied to America’s policy establishment, even when it is proved ruinously wrong, whereas politicians who don’t fit the mainstream Democratic or Republican mode… are mocked almost reflexively in these terms…”
So it looks like there’s a lot of use of the word “crazy” to refer to anyone outside of mainstream politics. And THAT usage in that context shows such language is used to further marginalize and disregard ideas or people that don’t match with common or popular political arguments out-of-hand. To me, this is further proof that the subtext of terming a person or “crazy” is “shut up. go away. you don’t matter.” Funny, that is pretty much the same message conveyed to people with mental illness when they’re called “crazy” or “loony” or “insane”– pick your favorite synonyms.
This selective usage of these labels demonstrates why I feel that “crazy” shouldn’t be used in a political context. It’s a lazy way out for for anyone who doesn’t want to engage with policy issues or a person on a level of substance. It also reinforces the marginalization of and disregard for people with mental illness.
Seeing progressive organizations and progressive writers– places and people I identify with and respect– fall back on marginalizing people with mental illness to score some easy points on unpopular politicians is disheartening. It perpetuates ableism.