NSFW: I use swears/slurs in this post.
I recently got into a discussion with a few of the other bloggers on this site about insults and blog etiquette, particularly in light of ableism.
(Here’s a starting point if you’re not familiar with the concept. If you are interested in reading more on ableism or activism for mental health, I recommend the blogger Daisy Bee at Suicidal No More, who is a fantastic writer and incredible human being and Renee at Womanist Musings who has an seemingly endless amount of stamina when it comes to social justice and calling out bullshit. Neither of these blogs are of the ‘101’ variety so please be aware of that should you choose to leave a comment on either.)
To sum up the issue at hand: I think using the word “crazy” to insult people is somewhere in the territory of using a slur. I think it only works as an insult because it is relying on the stigmatized status of people with a mental illness. It’s an easy and nasty way to silence people, claim that their perspective is illegitimate, and dehumanize them. In future posts of my own I’m probably going to ask commenters to not use that word or similar words in this manner.
This is a controversial stance, though, even in the context of anti-ableism and anti-sexism. I invite others to think about this along with me. My own thoughts on insults and especially the word “crazy” have changed drastically in the past five years, and I expect them to morph further in the years to come. While personal insults might seem trivial in the grand scheme of things politically, I take the concept of “safe spaces” very seriously, even if they are ultimately ideals that are unachievable in theory or practice. (This is not to imply that others don’t take this seriously, but only to articulate my own priorities.)
Also please note: I’m not arguing that the word “crazy” should be stricken wholly from the English language. Also, in this context, I’m much less concerned about words with sketchy histories than I am with words that trade on current oppression to silence and insult people. However, maybe I’m wrong in thinking that I can make that division and at least temporarily avoid the slippery slope concern.
(much more after the jump)
Before I go any further, let me lay my cards on the table. Several years ago, I had absolutely no scrupples about throwing around words like “crazy” in this manner, especially on the internet. And, even though I’ve recently decided to take words like “crazy” and “gay” out of my insult vocabulary, that arsenal is far from empty. For instance, “bitch” is a word I have intentionally not given up using as an insult, for various reasons. I’ll still call people “idiotic,” or “childish,” without really batting an eye. Heck, when I’m searching for a choice insult/pejorative adjective I still will occasionally throw out “crazy,” “gay,” “lame”, or “retarded” before I even realize what I’m doing. So, this post is not coming from anywhere resembling a moral pedestal. I do think words can be used as weapons, but I’m not a verbal pacifist. More to the point, I’ll admit that in my day to day life I use insults all the time because they’re an easy way to disagree with someone without addressing the substance of what they say or because I simply want to silence someone by taking them down a notch. (This is pretty standard operation in many forms of online gaming, for instance.) In terms of using insults in dickish ways, I won’t deny the plank in my own eye.
Learning about aspects of kyriarchy (sexism, ableism, racism, classism, etc.) however, has made me much more aware of insults as linguistic and social tools that can be used to harm other people. I mean that literally; especially when they are oppressive, we can have visceral reactions to insults and slurs. We flinch. They can make us cry (yes, us, full-grown adults.) They can get our adrenaline and cortisol pumping. And on the non-physical plane, they can silence us, shame us, embarrass us, and dominate us. And yet, insults are really, really common in the culture I live in (I’ll call it mainstream American culture for lack of a more precise category.) Insults are even more common in lots of the subcultures I inhabit (online gaming, the internet in general, Boston public life, etc.)
More to the point: finding a strong insult that doesn’t trade on a marginalized and/or stigmatized social status is really, really, really hard to do. In fact, if anyone can think of one I would love to hear it. I think “immature” is the closest I’ve ever come to finding a really impactful insult that does not belittle some subsection of humanity, although it’s pretty close to the realm of “childish.” “Selfish” and “callous” are other good candidates, but they lack punch in a lot of contexts. They’ve certainly got nothing on “bitch” or “retard” or “cocksucker.”
Part of me wants to simply say to myself, “Self, insults are immoral things. They are inherently malicious. And on top of that, most of them play into structures of kyriarchy. So just stop using them. And when you do use them, stop trying to morally justify them.” But I’m pretty sure that this thought is (at least in part) coming from a place of privilege. I don’t deal with verbal domination or harassment in my everyday life. And if I really wanted to, I could pretty easily insulate myself from most of the verbal domination that I am exposed to in various settings. But not everyone has that option. Some people are forced to deal with forms verbal domination on a daily basis, be it street harassment, a hostile work environment, a douchey family, or what have you. And sometimes–especially for some women?–words are the only weapons we have to fight back, and sometimes our options are to either fight back or to just to roll over and take it, which comes with its own psychological and social costs. So I’m not going to sit here and argue that someone who is getting verbally attacked should never ‘stoop’ to the level of insulting someone back. Using insults, however, when you already have (or are trying to gain) the social/political upper hand, is a whole other ball game–which is how I have come to my current stance on the word “crazy.”
Beyond the particular question of whether it’s worthwhile to deliberately stop using the word “crazy” as an insult, I see two broader questions falling out of this.
(1) The (more) personal: Given that things like ableism and sexism exist primarily on the structural and social institution level, how should our individual moral codes reflect values of anti-ableism, anti-sexism, etc? That is, at the end of the day, should we really care all that much about whether we use ableist or sexist insults as individual people? (This has an additional context for people who stereotypically are ‘supposed’ to be nice, polite, grateful, etc.)
(2) The (more) political: If I’m correct that words can be weapons, can such weapons be put to effective, subversive ends by groups of people?
As one possible instance, I recently came across the website, Not in the Kitchen Anymore, where a woman documents all the wonderful things people say to her on Xbox live when they realize she’s a woman. (LOTS of expletives, swears, and slurs, if you’re not already aware of Xbox live culture.) One thing I’ve noticed is that, when it comes to trading insults, the audience seems to play an important role in determining who ‘won.’ That echoes my own experience with MMOs and using insults to get people who are being dicks to shut up and/or go away. So there seems to be real strength in numbers in this regard. When she has her friends (her “clan”) backing her up, they are able to enforce a new standard of etiquette. People who ask her to show her titties get insulted and mocked until they leave the lobby. When she is by herself, it’s much harder for her to get the upper hand.
I want to end with an example besides a (coded as) white middle class woman (i.e the group I belong to), so I’m going to try to connect this discussion to a quote that I’ve thought a lot about since hearing it in the documentary Black Power Mixtape (which I recommend, as both entertainment and an important history lesson.) The quote is Angela Davis talking about violence. I definitely want to avoid appropriating the destruction of violence in order to bolster concern over insults, but there’s something about Davis response here that gets at the heart of what I want to term my ethical ‘conversion’ in regards to things like violence, insults, rudeness, etc. I grew up with a strongly pacifist, Christian-inspired ethical code of “turn the other cheek, violence is never the answer, be nice to everyone always, etc.” The realization that some people (potentially myself included) don’t have this option of eschewing violence and hostility because it has come knocking on their doors and shoved in their faces has made me reevaluate the worth of a lot of these mantras.
Also, I love that Davis is calling out the political and moral framework that goes into the question, “Do you, Angela Davis, approve of violence?”
I haven’t been able to find a transcript of this clip, but here the beginning and end of what she says,
“And then you ask me, do I approve of violence? I mean that just doesn’t make any sense at all. [She talks about the oppressive violence aimed at her community growing up, culminating in a bombing where her family/neighbors found the limbs of four teenagers caught in the blast. ] In my neighborhood, all of the men organized themselves into an armed patrol. They had to take their guns and patrol our community every night because they did not want that to happen again. I mean, that’s why, when someone asks me about violence, I just find it incredible. What it means is that the person who is asking that question has no idea what Black people have gone through, what Black people have experienced in this country since the time the first Black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.”
I also just realized I had recently read this quote by Veena Cabreros-Sud (quoted on the blog, Because We’re Still Oppressed) that is in a similar vein:
“I don’t like getting hit either, but what are you gonna do when someone grabs your tits? Meekly whisper you won’t stoop to your attackers level? and what level is that exactly? if that’s the way “women” react, how do we classify the elderly Filipinas […] They were the few who seemed to acknowledge, respect, and allow for “aggressive” forms of resistance instead of strapping on moral straightjackets for the nineties which we “women” must squeeze into. If that’s a woman, I’m not one. I am an animal who eats, sleeps, fucks, and fights voraciously – I assume a “good” woman does it gently and in the missionary position only.”
I apologize for not knowing more examples that pertain to ableism, since that’s what got this whole discussion going.