I try very hard not to get political in any particular direction on IOI since I don’t want to alienate anyone. I am going to do my best to keep from taking a side here and just stick to the issue, but I am sure my personal bias will underly what I write. I want to talk about language; specifically, pejorative language. This is language which expresses contempt or disapproval, but there’s more to it than that. It’s about how the feelings are expressed. Pejorative language belittles the person. It’s hostile, disrespectful, and can be abusive. I am happy that people are paying more attention to language.
I have always had a problem with the word “retarded” used as an insult. Now it’s not even a clinical term, which is even better. When I was younger I was told that I was too sensitive for complaining about the word. But I was called “retard” all through grade school, and it hurt. I don’t know my IQ, but it’s not low enough to have fit that category even when it was proper to use. But I was shamed for my reaction instead of the person using the term being reprimanded.
It’s not just that word either. People use mental health diagnoses pejoratively in other ways too: “I’m so OCD!” “That’s retarded.” “That’s gay.” “Are you bipolar? You’re all over the place!” “He’s so Schizophrenic!” “What a psychopath!” You get the idea. We use diagnostic terms and other characteristics of people as insults. We are making human beings the butt of jokes and insults.
Mental illness is invisible. While you may be able to see evidence of symptoms, you can’t see the illness itself. If you walked past me on the street you would certainly see my walker, but not my Depression. I know it’s cliche to say that people with mental illness are everywhere, but it’s true. So at the beginning of a semester if I’m hanging out with a new group of classmates and one of them starts using these terms, they are communicating so much more with their words than just the ones they speak. They are telling everyone present with a mental health diagnosis that they aren’t safe. I don’t believe for a moment that this is their intention. If you asked that person, they’d probably say that they’re extremely loving and compassionate, and would never set out to hurt someone.
So now let’s get back to the issue of the present political climate. Now that group of friends I want to hang out with is my church congregation, my coworkers, or my recovery fellowship. These are all places that have meaning to the members, and it’s important to be part of the group. In fact, there may be negative consequences to being ostracized. So someone says something about a particular candidate. It may not even be that bad. But then the next person piggybacks on it, and what they have to say is more of a direct insult. The third person uses an actual pejorative term. I am going to be expected to join in. I may feel that what they’re saying is wrong, but I am between a rock and a hard place. Even if I agree that the candidate is awful, I can’t comment on the language they’re using in a way that feels safe and comfortable. If I disagree with them, then I’m really in hot water. It worries me greatly to see people in positions of power use pejorative language. I believe, even if it’s on an unconscious level, it gives implicit permission to others to do the same.
I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard, “This is America, I have free speech. I can say what I want,” or some variation on that. First, that’s not what the First Amendment actually says. Here’s the text: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” See? It’s not that I can say what I want, when I want, where I want. It’s that the government can’t put me in jail for saying I disagree with them. To put it another way, I can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater without there being consequences…unless there really is a fire, but that’s covered in the PTSD blog entry! I can’t issue a threat to an elected official without people in suits showing up at my door.
You are certainly able to say anything that comes to mind. It doesn’t mean you won’t be accountable for what you say. I want to make one more really important point before I sign off: Words mean things. They can hurt someone. Something else I was told when I was teased as a child is that “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me!” Not true. Words can and do hurt people. I have written before about how mean my Depression is to me. If someone were to come at me in a mean way when I am in the midst of a depressive episode, it really could put me in danger.
Please choose your words carefully. Everything out of your mouth doesn’t have to be sunshine and roses, but think about what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. There are very few things in life that are more important that our relationships with other people. Disagree, but do so in a way that’s not going to cause harm. State facts, and then describe how YOU feel. After the election, a lot of people are going to be very happy, and a lot of people are not. But no matter what, we still have to go on with our day to day life together. So let’s not make messes we’re going to be cleaning up long after November 8th. So now I have two words for you:
U.S. Const. amend. I.
U.S. Const. amend. I.