On Insults

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.

44 thoughts on “On Insults

  1. I don’t have fully articulated/examined beliefs on the particulars of ableist language, as opposed to other forms of hostile language; please consider this reply an attempt to work through my thoughts rather than a statement of solidified belief.

    One immediate thought is that (for potentially social/cultural/temporal (or age related) reasons), the connection between a term like ‘crazy’ and the marginalised group of whom it is a descriptor might be (or be taken to be) more tenuous than is the connection for other terms, such as ‘gay’ (if used as a pejorative). So for example, more people will want to say of ‘crazy’ that “anyone can be crazy. It doesn’t describe a disability, but a particular failing of, say, rationality. That is exactly why it has force as an insult”. That is, more people will deny the connection between ‘crazy’ and the stigmatised status of people with a mental illness, than will deny the connection between ‘gay’ and the stigmatised status…

    This desire will be reinforced by the availability of positive uses of crazy – as a descriptor of things which are pretty cool, for example. Do similar uses of terms such as gay exist in the popular vernacular? Would this have a bearing on our conclusions?

    A further concern may relate to granularity. There seems a relevant difference between ‘crazy’ and ‘retarded’, with ‘retarded’ being more problematic. (Again, this may be way off base with the perceptions others have, if so, I would like to hear thoughts on how this comes about). Of the two terms, ‘crazy’ is generalist, and ‘retarded’ is specific to a type/kind of mental illness. (Is ‘crazy’ generalist? I have always taken it to be a general term, although it may not originally have been).

    I guess at the moment I lean towards disapproving of overt ableism, while disagreeing that ‘crazy’ instantiates such?

  2. My intuition is that “crazy” meaning “irrational” is actually figurative whereas if I say “They are literally crazy” that means they are suffering psychosis or have a mental illness. But now I don’t feel confident that everyone shares this intuition.

  3. I am incredibly offended by your use of the word ‘douchey’. You’re participating in the stigmatization of the female body. The word originates from disgust in a natural process of cleansing the vagina.

  4. I seldom see ‘literally’ used as a modifier, and had not thought of it as bearing on the issue… (Experience may vary by geographical location. For me, it is Australia and now NZ). So, I would expect to see ‘crazy’ used in both ways, and even then, to be (much) more commonly used in the figurative rather than literal sense. Hence the worries about the immediacy of connection between the term and the marginilisation you are concerned about.

  5. @MVelba – In regards to “douchey”, I agree it does come from such stigmatization, but I find the insult aptly fits with what a douche really is: An annoying, unnecessary product that serves no real purpose but keeps insisting it’s important and should be paid attention to. Also, since usually it’s men and not women referred to as “douches”, I don’t find this word nearly as problematic or domineering as “bitch” and I’m even willing to keep “bitch” in my arsenal for times when I feel deeply threatened.

    That said, “douche” is near the boundary of insults I feel okay about using, precisely because it still retains that element of stigma. And certainly, if you do have a strong reaction to that word and am offended, I apologize for prompting such a response. It’s a shitty feeling to get sucker-punched by these words or to feel like people are throwing them around carelessly.

    So I also regret if I gave the impression that I didn’t know what I was doing when I used the word. Every insult I used in this post, I did deliberately and with attention to it’s relationship to marginalized social groups. If you would like to say more on this, I am more than willing to hear an argument for why this word is particularly nasty and should be in the “do not use” category.

  6. @ NJM – I agree about “crazy” being used very often in the figurative sense (if that’s what it is.) I really don’t think a day goes by when I don’t hear someone use the word.

    As a small addendum to my contra-crazy argument, one thing I’ve noticed in my quest to strike this word from my vocabulary (as an insult) is that it has forced me to be more precise about what I say because I am tempted to call lots of things “crazy”. At first this whole project was annoying and felt restrictive and brought on feelings of shame whenever I failed to not use the word. However, I now like that I force myself to be more precise when I want to call something “crazy” or “irrational.” So in that sense, cutting out the word has actually (I think) made me more articulate, which I am grateful for. In this sense the project has been actually liberating because I now have found lots of words and phrases whereas I used to always just rely on this one term to do a lot of heavy lifting.

  7. Sorry, what are the reasons for using “bitch” as an insult? I really find the term pretty unpardonable.

    As for “a strong insult that doesn’t trade on a marginalized and/or stigmatized social status,” what’s wrong with “asshole”? It has a wonderful universality to it. “Jackass” is a bit old-fashioned but serves a similar purpose, unless one worries about insulting actual jackasses.

  8. I agree with a lot of what NJM says at 1. I think the big difference between using “gay” as an insult (“that’s so gay!”) and using terms like “crazy”, “idiot”, “lunatic”, etc is that the primary meaning of “gay” in ordinary usage is as a descriptive (non-insulting) term for homosexuals. “Gay” more or less just means “homosexual” in most ordinary contexts. So saying “that’s so gay” carries with it a lot of negative implicatures about homosexuality that are difficult if not impossible to cancel.

    In contrast, it’s no longer acceptable to use “crazy”, “idiot”, etc to describe mental illness or disability. It’s completely inappropriate to call someone who is bipolar “crazy”. It’s completely inappropriate to call a Downs person a “moron”. And so on. And most people know this. If my friend says of her colleague “Oh, he’s a lunatic!” I wouldn’t for an instant think she’s attempting to attribute mental disability to him. And she wouldn’t need to clarify. I’d just assume she was hyperbolically describing his irrationality or idiosyncracy.

    In this sense, I think words like “crazy” and “idiot” are a lot closer to words like “wuss” (originally an anti-gay slur) and “funny” and “geek” (both originally ableist slurs). They have a lot of negative baggage in their histories, but that’s just not what they mean anymore.

    We have to allow that meaning can shift, change, and evolve. And while I think that paying attention to what we say and how we say it is really important, I worry that that close policing of language – e.g., asking people not to use words like “crazy” – is counterproductive. If we make people worried that anything they say will get them criticized, they probably just won’t talk to us.

  9. Stacey, with respect to what you say in 7, do you also think “irrational” is an ableist term?

  10. Stacey, I respect that you want to take a stand and raise a higher standard about able-ist language. That’s a good thing.

    At the same time, I’m uncomfortable with a unilateral decision that there will be a “language code” for anyone who wants to leave comments on your posts, especially when the code proscribes certain terms because you subjectively disagree with them, but allows other problematic terms because you don’t have a personal issue with them or aren’t quite ready to give them up. Can you see why, from a reader’s perspective, that looks inconsistent?

    If you as an individual contributor to the site, or the site as a whole, want to discuss intersectionality and language, that’s a broad and interesting topic. And if you or the site want to develop and post a commenting code that is consistent and logical and flows from a set of stated principles, go for it.

    But to say: I don’t like this one word so you can’t use it, but I feel free to use these other words that may bother you for the same reasons because I’m good with them… Hypocrisy is a difficult position from which to dictate others’ behaviour.

    Again, I’m working very hard to credit you for good intentions here. The execution however doesn’t seem well thought out.

    Perhaps leading by example rather than dictating very micro-specific language choices on the part of others might be more effective. Motes and beams and all that.

    I’m not interested in posting anywhere that maintains a list of proscribed words. I am a feminist and very concerned about intersectionality issues and ableism. I also do not and cannot support censorship.

    [Good luck with your good intentions. I won’t be back.]

  11. How about the song “Still crazy after all these years”?

    It seems to me that “crazy” is rarely about certified mental illness and can have positive and negative connotations.

  12. I’m inclined to agree with magicalersatz here. “Crazy” seems to be approaching the dead metaphor category. To call someone “crazy” with regard to their mental health condition would be to refer to someone who has really lost nearly all control of their mental faculties (as with “insane”). Someone with those kinds of issues deserves our sympathy and our assistance, but their condition is probably properly viewed as a bad thing.

  13. ajkreider, just to clarify: I don’t think it’s *ever* appropriate to use “crazy” to describe people who are struggling with mental illness. Just as it isn’t appropriate to call n gay man a “wuss” just because he’s gay – even if it’s perfectly fine to tell your friend he’s being a wuss if he won’t ask out a boy he likes. (In contrast, it’s perfectly appropriate to use “gay” to describe people who are sexually attracted to their own gender.)

  14. Sure, though I don’t think the wrongness of using “nuts”, “crazy” or “insane” for those with very extreme mental health issues is that beyond the pale. I think it’s based on an unseemliness associated with using what are usually pejorative words in a case that calls for caring. The situation has, in fact, reversed. Because in the past, being severely mentally ill was cause for mocking, we get mocking words like “crazy”. But since very few see very serious mental illness as worthy of mocking nowadays, using these words is inappropriate as applied to those cases. Thus the requirement of “literally” mentioned above. Part of the use of “literally” is to say that you’re not to take the word “crazy” in it’s mocking sense. I think this is probably why you very seldom hear “idiot” used with its traditional meaning. It’s just so hard to separate out the negative connotation (probably because many are unaware of the traditional meaning, and so the “literally” does nothing).

    Not sure that “literally a wuss” would ever make sense, where “wuss” is to be taken non-pejoratively.

  15. @justanotherfemalephilosopher – My reasons for using “bitch” are it’s an effective word. I don’t find it a good thing to do (It don’t see it ever furthering justice) but it’s the one ‘big gun’ I keep around for emergencies. In that sense, it’s very different from the the word “crazy” because I don’t think whipping out “Ya well you’re crazy!” is ever going to give me the upper hand if I find myself getting verbally harassed. I probably should have said that though. It’s not that I think “bitch” is less problematic than “crazy.”

    I guess I don’t like “asshole” because I don’t like using human body parts to insult humans. And the stigma of the ass is caught up with the stigma of being gay and being a woman (via the stigma of butt sex.). But you’re right that would be a good candidate when compared to all the other words we have to choose from. And let me say, I do use that word. I just don’t like how I feel when I think about what message I’m conveying when I use it to insult people. Along the same lines, I used “dick” a bunch in this post.

  16. @magicalersatz – Okay maybe I just have a weird perception on this but I feel like people use “crazy” to talk about people with mental illness all the time. True, it’s not how you reference them in polite company, but I’ve heard people say “Ya she’s literally crazy. She has pipolar or something.” Or “Did you see that crazy guy on the street? He’s probably off his meds.”

    When I started my ‘project’ I started just with “crazy” because I thought NO ONE actually calls people with developmental disabilities a “moron” or “idiot” anymore. But then I started to hear accounts of such things. So I’ve basically thrown in “moron” alongside “crazy” and I am currently teetering over “idiot.” (I might keep idiot around for reasons related to using “bitch” and because in my limited knowledge it seems like the lesser of many evils.)

    So in this sense, I think those three words above and in a separate category from: ““wuss”, “funny” and “geek””

    As for word “policing” I’m going to reject that phrase. I am a person. Who is blogging. I’m not “policing” anything. We’re not talking about blog policy. I’m not going to delete a comment JUST because it has the word crazy in it. I am going to request (on certain posts) that people not use a particular insult when responding to my writing. If people really can’t take 5 seconds to think of a better word than “crazy” then I can probably live without their comment. And honestly I find it a bit astonishing that no one has responded, “Wow are there people out there who are really hurt by the word crazy? I didn’t think that still happened.” but there’s a bunch of “Aren’t you inconveniencing people by trying to police their words?” I am much less concerned about the impact such a request will have on the neurotypical people struggling to think up synonyms than I am for the people who might be reading this blog and are really sick of seeing the word “crazy” being thrown around like verbal confetti in their daily lives.

    As for “irrational” I’m not sure if it’s ableist but I think it’s at the heart of how we marginalize a lot of people, so I think it’s a very loaded word that should be used with care. For isntance, as a woman who identified strongly with intellectual pursuits, this word has been particularly hurtful when people have thrown it at me. At this point in my life, I don’t care if people think I’m ugly or uncool or mannish. But “stupid” and “irrational” still hurt a lot. And I doubt I’m the only one who feels that way.

  17. @Anon – I’m a bit confused about your comment. Why do you insist that my future request is a “language code”? Also how am I “subjectively” disagreeing with this word? I just gave an argument for why I think “crazy” is basically a slur. If you disagree with me, address my argument, but please don’t brush it off as my “subjective feelings” on the matter.

    As for hypocrisy, ya I’m probably somewhat hypocritical in my conduct (see: my thoughts on “bitch”). I’m certainly not a saint who is willing to give up all insults. This stuff is hard and lots of our language is problematic. But I reject the notion that therefore we should all throw up our hands and not try to do anything, lest we be hypocritical and imperfect in our striving to make this blog a safer place. I’ve identified this one word, “crazy” that I find to be particularly harmful in ways that I don’t think a lot of people acknowledge and I find it’s not so hard to actually give it up as an insult. The idea that I’m engaging in “censorship” is actually laughable. There is nothing that a person can say that can’t be said without using the word “crazy.” Let’s at least be honest about what I’m doing; I’m asking people (when they respond to my writing) to take an extra ten seconds to find another word. That hardly counts as trampling on anyone’s rights, except maybe the right not to be inconvenienced?

  18. I’ve come around on “retarded” over the years, thanks to the efforts of my wonderful fiance. I feel bad about having ever used it, and the process of thinking about that word and its connotations got me thinking about “crazy.” Having in the past been involved with several people who were suffering legitimate mental illnesses, I have to say, I have heard “crazy” used more than once in a seriously derogatory fashion, referring specifically to the person’s mental illness. This may not be the experience a lot of people have with the word, but it is an experience a not-insignificant-number of people have with it. That alone bears consideration – the ways that ableist language hurts is naturally invisible to those who aren’t hurt by it, so its suspect for those of us who aren’t suffering from serious mental illnesses to assert that the word is “not really used that way.” Even if it isn’t, most of the time, if indeed it is enough of the time, it retains the ability to hurt some people… a LOT.

    That said, I guess I still just don’t get the justification for keeping “bitch” in the vocabulary. The observation that it’s effective completely dodges the issue at hand. This is a word that very specifically connotes an unruly, unpleasant woman, and which is still frequently used to control and oppress women. Further, the current use is much more strongly connected to this specifically-sexist connotation than the current use of “crazy” is to genuine mental illness. As I noted above, even if “crazy” isn’t NORMALLY used to indicate actual mental illness, I think it is often enough to make the word questionable. By parity of reasoning, it seems “bitch” ought to come off the table as well, effective or not.

  19. How about “that’s crazy” or “that’s irrational” referring to statements or beliefs, but not to people?

    What’s your take on that?

  20. Further to magicalersatz: I did not know the history of ‘wuss’ – so effective has been its incorporation into the language devoid of that history. (Or maybe I am just too young and/or from a country which has appropriated terms like ‘wuss’ without their foundational content)

  21. Stacey, I get that you feel strongly on this subject, but it’s hard not to take umbrage at a passage like this:

    “If people really can’t take 5 seconds to think of a better word than “crazy” then I can probably live without their comment. And honestly I find it a bit astonishing that no one has responded, “Wow are there people out there who are really hurt by the word crazy? I didn’t think that still happened.” but there’s a bunch of “Aren’t you inconveniencing people by trying to police their words?” I am much less concerned about the impact such a request will have on the neurotypical people struggling to think up synonyms than I am for the people who might be reading this blog and are really sick of seeing the word “crazy” being thrown around like verbal confetti in their daily lives.”

    The issue for me certainly isn’t one of convenience. And I don’t see anyone else suggesting that the key issue for them is convenience. It’s not that I don’t care about ableist language. And it’s not that I don’t care that some people are offended by words like “crazy”. But as you’ll find very quickly if you talk about disability – or other sensitive topics – much, there is pretty much no way that you can speak that won’t offend *someone*. Some people are offended by the very use of the words “disabled” and “disability” (they prefer “differently-abled”). There’s no uncontroversial path to steer here.

    Why not just eliminate words like “crazy”, though, if they hurt some people and aren’t essential to how we express ourselves? The issue isn’t convenience. For me, at least, it’s that I think efforts like this – that is, efforts to remove words with objectionable baggage or connotations – are misguided and absurdly difficult to employ consistently. More importantly, I think they’re a way of limiting discussion. It’s easy to alienate people who might otherwise want to have a conversation with you if they feel like they have to be constantly guarded about what they say around you.

    Disability is something I care very, very deeply about. And I worry that extensive discussions about whether it’s okay to use words like “crazy” are alienating, and give disability studies a bad name to the causal observer (no the least because the arguments that words like “crazy” are ableist are often poorly developed and inconsistently applied).

    So I really don’t think I’m sacrificing other people’s wellbeing for the sake of my convenience if I think it’s okay to say “crazy”. I think I’m recognizing that no matter what I say, I’ll always offend someone. Given that that’s the case, I think that in deciding what to say I should consider the arguments for what is and isn’t offensive. And I just haven’t seen a compelling argument that “crazy” is offensive. I’ve seen reports that people find it offensive, yes. But like I said, if I always took those kind of reports as reasons to refrain from using words, then when it comes to disability I’d never say anything at all. And that’s no way to have a conversation.

  22. To follow up more specially on what you say in reply to me about language use – I agree that people do still sometimes use “crazy”, etc to refer to mental illness. My point is just that the dominant usage of these terms isn’t to refer to mental illness (contra “gay” for homosexuality), and it’s increasingly socially unacceptable to use them in that way.

    I just don’t think you can draw the hard and fast distinction you want to draw here between, say, “crazy” and “funny”. You do still sometimes here ableist usages of “funny” – as in “that kid’s a bit funny”, “he’s a bit funny in the head” – which evoke the original usage of “funny”. Similarly for words like “freak”. But just because you can use a word in a way that’s ableist doesn’t mean the word itself is ableist. In any case, it looks like if your argument for eliminating “crazy” is good, it should also work for “funny” (both have ableist origins, and can currently be used in ableist ways, and both can be offensive.) If you think this is a good reason to think “funny” is ableist, then I think we’re off on the slippery slope.

  23. @magicalersatz – You say convenience is not the issue here, but then you say, “More importantly, I think they’re a way of limiting discussion. It’s easy to alienate people who might otherwise want to have a conversation with you if they feel like they have to be constantly guarded about what they say around you.”

    If I am weighing “someone feeling unsafe/unwelcomed because in my posts people are throwing out an insult linked to their social identity” vs “someone feeling unwelcomed because I am asking them to watch what they say when deploying insults” I don’t see how the latter concern rises above the level of convenience. I myself have felt this kind of “alienation” before when people have called me out on ableist/sexist/racist language. And *every* time (so far) it turned out that me feeling attacked and unwelcomed was really my privilege rearing its ugly head and interpreting the protection of others as an attack on me. It was me feeling entitled to the words I was used to using. It was me being pissed that people were asking me to inconvenience myself for the sake of their feelings (which I doubted were sincere).

    But when I sat down, took a few deep breaths, and thought about what it would be like for someone who might feel genuinely upset and attacked by these words (even when not directed at them), and how much effort it would take me to try to stop using them as insults, the choice seemed clear that what little respite I can offer from a daily onslaught of microaggressions by not using these insults is worth the annoyance on my part to rework my vocabulary. Even if I’ll never be perfect and I’ll probably always be at risk of saying something offensive to someone–I should at least try with the words that I’m pretty sure are hurtful to some people who are already dealt a crappy hand (i.e. social marginalization).

    If the day comes that I hear someone talk about how upsetting it is to hear the word “funny” being thrown around in casual conversation, I will consider reevaluating my use of that word. But I’ve heard enough testimony from people identifying with the word “crazy” and being upset at its derogatory usage to conclude that it is worth retiring as a casual insult.

  24. @swallerstein – It probably depends on context. With irrational, it seem fine to say “that belief is irrational” because we’re probably just saying that the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises. Saying “that idea is crazy” is starting to get into murky territory even if only because it’s vague. Do we mean irrational or abnormal or goes against common sense or careless or something only someone disconnected from reality would believe?

    I myself have been trying to not use “crazy” in this context, and even to think about what exactly I’m saying when I call ideas “irrational”, but I think there’s something important going on when we distinguish an action or idea from a person. Right, so if someone says “You’re crazy!” or “You’re being crazy!” that can be a lot more hurtful than saying “What you’re saying is irrational” or “I know you are a reasonable person, but what you just said was crazy.” I guess it’s the essentialism issue.
    (I’m thinking a lot about J-Smooth’s video in this regard: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0Ti-gkJiXc)

    But there is still that sense of using crazy to mean “something you don’t want to be associated with” which devalues anyone who is associated with craziness. I guess I would want to ask other people how they feel when they hear “crazy” being used to describe ideas. For instance, I really respect the blogger Jen Daisybee so when she reports that she’s upset by a coworker saying, “If it doesn’t make sense to do it, then it’s CRAZY!! THAT’S THE DEFINITION OF CRAZY!! AND WHY WOULD YOU DO SOMETHING CRAZY??!!” then I take that as a point against using “crazy” even when not referring directly to people. (Her post is here: http://www.suicidalnomore.com/2011/05/on-being-crazy-in-world-that-belittles.html) I’m starting to get tired so I apologize if any of my points here are sloppy or incomplete.

  25. Stacey:

    Thank you very much for your thoughts. I deal with someone with diagnosed “mental health” issues on a daily basis and your input is appreciated.

  26. @Stacey: Your last example is I think illustrative of the issue here. That is, Jen’s co-worker takes the term ‘crazy’ to be a term that is *not at all* about people with underlying and widely stigmatised conditions. I think this reading of the term is widely held (and becoming more so?)

    (Paraphrasing): The definition of crazy is doing a thing it makes no sense to do.

    Offence is taken when crazy is used for the above purpose.

    I… don’t know. I want to say that there is nothing wrong with crazy in this context. I want to say the connection between the stigmatised usage of the word and the modern-context usage is tenuous at best. (And non-existent in the eyes of many/most?) I want to say that given the opportunity, you can find someone who will take offence at anything, that you are going to have to draw lines, and that you can probably justify drawing the one on language use such that you can still say crazy.

    You ask how others feel about the use of crazy describing ideas? I feel like it is a really useful word, which accurately and simply captures a concept (that of an idea being nonsensical, roughly) while simultaneously expressing a disapproval of the concept. What I don’t see is any connection to the historical context of the term. That historical connection is what motivates the worries with it. Unless we get some reversion of the term to its roots, that suggests to me that it will become less problematic over time?

  27. I think magicalersatz’s comments show clearly that drawing some line between ablest speech and merely colloquial speech employing former insults is at best a doubtful enterprise. I hope this blog won’t get consumed with such efforts. We just cannot police each other’s speech; the language is way too fluid. Or if we want to do so, then I think the project is vast, and, if it is to be done really well, vastly serious.

    That does not mean that we cannot object to forms of speech. But I think that if someone calls someone lunatic or crazy in a way we think is objectionable, we cannot use that to induce self consciousness about speech in everyone. “Fuck you too” is a quicker response, and probably does more good. Or, since actually that offends against “be nice”, let’s just agree on a short way to send the message. FY2?.


  28. I’m in agreement with Anne J. I love this blog, but there seem to be more posts that urge a kind of censorship that is genuinely subjective and well beynd the ‘be nice’ injunction.

    Personally, if I find language offensive, but recognize that perfectly decent other people might not, my first response is to explain why I find it objectionable. Someone might persuade me to change my mind, I might change their’s, or no change may take place at all.

    Even the third result is preferable to foreclosing on conversations by making everyone overly self-conscious about their word choices or driving them away from the blog.

  29. Stacey, I don’t think you’ve quite engaged with the point I was trying to make at 25 above. The issue is not one of alienation of the non-disabled vs. offence of the disabled. Not all disabled people will be offended by the term “crazy”. And some disabled people – for whom discussion of disability issues could be deeply meaningful and rewarding – will be alienated by policing of language. I’ve heard reports like this, verbatim, from several disabled friends. “Yeah, I went to that blog but all everyone was talking about was what words it’s okay to use. Whatever, I don’t care.” I’d hazard a guess that, for most disabled people, the most salient issues to them aren’t ones of language-use. And so we do genuinely risk alienating friends, peers, and allies with endless discussions of it.

    How should one speak? What are the guidelines? Well, in a simpler world, we could follow a simple rule:

    Don’t use terms or phrases that others will find offensive or hurtful

    But as I tried to point out, following this rule (in our messy world) just doesn’t work. Nearly everything you say will wind up being offensive to someone. So we have to make decisions, we have to pick and choose.

    Yes, “crazy” is offensive to some people with mental health difficulties. No one is questioning that. But other people with similar mental health difficulties embrace the term, and find efforts to eliminate it frustrating. See, for example:


    So it’s not like there’s so univocal position espoused by people with mental health difficulties. And it’s thus deeply misleading to couch this debate as one between those in a position of privilege and those who are marginalized. It doesn’t divide up neatly that way.

    In the face of discrepancy and disagreement like this, we’re still left with the questions “what should we say?” and “what should we ask others to say?” Because the situation is complex and language is so fluid, this is where I think we look for arguments. What is the – compelling, non-slippery-slope-inducing, consistently applicable – argument that “crazy” is offensive? And what I’m saying is that I just haven’t seen the case made.

    The stakes are high here. Curtailing peoples choice of language is a serious matter, and like I said, it risks alienating *the very people we want to talk to*. Not to mention that every time a discussion of minority issues gets sidelined into a debate over terminology, a white male banker gets his wings. So I’d argue that we should proceed with caution.

    Anyway, that’s it from me. I doubt we’re going to come to agreement on this issue, and I’m not sure further comments from me will be useful.

  30. I’m not sure why it is, but language discussions often become rather not-nice. One of the most important things about our “be nice” rules is not making assumptions about people’s intentions and folks seem to lose sight of that. So let’s all try to remember that proponents of Stacey’s position may not be fascists who seek to monitor every aspect of our lives and that opponents may not be people who just don’t care about the disabled and are too lazy to reflect on their own language use. In fact, I’d say there’s a great deal of evidence that most of the people in the discussion above, on both sides, are genuinely concerned about both the well-being of the disabled and free speech. And willing to take the time and effort to discuss this fraught topic.

  31. For what it’s worth, the people I know with serious diagnosed “mental health” issues
    would probably be more offended and feel more attacked by the use of “irrational” to characterize their statements than by the use of “crazy”.

    “Irrational” seems to speak from the heights of established Reason and to exclude them from it, to marginalize them from the community of reasonable agents, while “crazy” is more horizontal and does not partake of expertise or emanate from an imaginary Community of Reason.

  32. “@MVelba – In regards to “douchey”, I agree it does come from such stigmatization, but I find the insult aptly fits with what a douche really is: An annoying, unnecessary product that serves no real purpose but keeps insisting it’s important and should be paid attention to. Also, since usually it’s men and not women referred to as “douches”, I don’t find this word nearly as problematic or domineering as “bitch” and I’m even willing to keep “bitch” in my arsenal for times when I feel deeply threatened.”

    Stacey, that’s some pretty strong cissexism there: trans women who undergo genital surgery require douches as part of their post-operative care.

  33. Sw, what an interesting analysis. I think, though, that a part of the discussion isn’t about using ‘lunatc’ to describe mentally ill people, but rather using it to describe very ill-advised actions. Does that usage insult or marginalize the mentally ill people who used to be described as loonies, say?

    People who were here on the blog some time ago may remember someone who would be severely critical of some of our speech for employing ablest terms. I tended to agree with Jender’s insightful view that whether or not we understood, we didn’t want to use terms that cause pain to disabled people.

    The problem arises with the question of who decides. We were told that discussions about rhetorical moves silencing people were offensive to people who were hearing-impaired. I spent hours and hours trying to track this down, including ordering recommended sources from amazon. There may still be sources out there which explain this, but I couldn’t find them. And, of course, the hearing impaired are not literally silent, nor need they be silenced.

    Once one starts to look at the evolution of words, their quite radical shifts in meaning, and so on, one could get very uncomfortable when a discussion about some topic is transformed into a discussion of some possibly abelist terms that were employed in the discussion.

  34. Anne:

    I think that one of the worst things for people who are diagnosed as “mentally ill” is being judged by the Tribunal of Reason and Science to be Suspect/not worthy of not taken into account, Suspect/not worthy of being taken into account in their behaviors and opinions and being.

    The Tribunal of Reason and Science is staffed by experts (doctors, social workers, psychologists) and by those who parrot what the experts says and you need to be certified as an expert.

    “Crazy” is different, since anyone can use “crazy”. If I say to the person diagnosed as “mentally ill” that their opinion or behavior or way of being is crazy, they can answer back that my concern with conventional social status or with perfect teeth or with being on time or with keeping up with what the media says is even more crazy and I am silenced. We are then equals.

  35. SW: I agree. There are some occasions when one’s very informed opinion counts for nothing. Psychiatry has too often been one of them. It really is a very awful experience to have power determine what can be said to be true.

    This can happen in academia, most sadly. Not only do women and minority men experience this, but in addition there’s a phenomenon called “mobbing” where this occurs. I’m constructing a post on that.

  36. @Rachel McKinnon – I apologize for my cissexism there – I didn’t know douches were useful for women in that regard. Thank you for calling me out on that.

    @magicalersatz – Thank you for those links. I’ll want to read through them to see if that changes things. Along that line, if anyone knows of any other blogs or articles (or even physical resources) dealing with this issue, the more the better. And on a further note, I will always welcome further comments from you, even when we are in deep disagreement.

    @Jender – Thank you for helping to keep me on track in regards to the kind of community and atmosphere we are trying to foster.

    Also in general, I’ve taken to heart the comments that people don’t want this blog to be a place where we try to sort out “acceptable” from “unacceptable” language above and beyond the “be nice” rule. I accept that I have loved this blog for what it is for a long time so I have no desire to push against that consensus. I’m still a bit unsure of what to make of the fact that people don’t think I should be making requests that for my own posts that people refrain from using certain kinds of insults, but I do understand the very valid points people have made that which words end up being hurtful to people with marginalized identities is not a neat and simple division. And I know that we all have deep concern for reducing the harms of oppression and have devoted a lot of our time and energy towards thinking about ways to do so.

    If anything, I’m possibly regretting that I included the bit at the beginning of the post about “crazy” specifically, since I’m beginning to think I might have invited unnecessary controversy with that part and drew attention away from what I thought are the more important issues overall–the stuff at the end of the post about various ways that language (and even aggressive use of language) can make spaces safer or more fraught.

  37. These blog discussions sometimes . . . there . . . interesting.

    To take a slightly different stance. Most of the time a word like “crazy” adds little to a discussion, especially to blog discourse. It is an appeal to emotions or emotional persuasion that I find empty, not something that improves the worthiness of a point of view. For example: “that statement is crazy,” says something like, “how dare you make that [ridiculous] statement.” But if the statement was sincerely made by another individual who believed it was okay or factual, then the point in response should be to show *why* that was a bad statement, why others find that statement to be problematic. I, for one, do not want to have the person ashamed to remake the statement simply because they were shamed by others for doing so. Instead, we want for dialogue to ensue about why their statement was problematic or factually wrong, or whatever the case may be, so that individual gains a new understanding or understands the opposing viewpoint.

    To plug it into a specific example. “Akin’s statement was crazy,” is to cast aspersion onto Akin, which is fine, he deserved it. Such a statement would be unifying “our side” against the bad thoughts, bad judgements, bad logic of an individual in power who is creating problems for society. With all that said, if we decide that “crazy” is problematic, all it was in this example was a unifying insult anyways that can surely be made otherwise. If the statement is instead about what someone on this blog said, “Your [Stacey’s, e.g.] comment was crazy,” well then there are better ways to interact.

    Granted not all our lives are parcel to philosophical discussion, and maybe other arenas need unflinching, gratuitous responses, but much of the talk on blogs is an exchange of ideas. If the word is unnecessary and it is in the realm of being problematic, then what is the harm of stating so and asking people to find better means of expression? Such censorship does not have to be overbearing, just occasional reminders that people at this blog once decided that we would try to find better ways to express the thought that a statement did not make sense or that an individual is an *****.

    Unless of course Stacey’s thoughts about the connotations and implications of “crazy” are wrong. But isn’t that what such forums are for. Anyways, I found them persuasive enough. I am trying to imagine if I ever use the word, or if I will again during more non-reflective speech.

  38. Stacey, this post has prompted such a great discussion, and it’s really been making me think about contexts where I do and don’t feel comfortable setting rules about use of language.

    For instance, I sometimes do training sessions with university colleagues which include discussions about disability, discrimination and reasonable adjustments/accommodations (and often have participants who don’t speak English as a first language). At the beginning, I say something like,

    “People often feel anxious about discussing disability, because they’re worried about using the ‘right’ words to describe things, and they’re worried they’ll get it wrong and offend people or disrupt the discussion. Now, I do think the language we use is important, because it carries implications about our attitudes to things. [I point people to a handout they can read later.] But it’s not the only thing that matters, and for the purposes of this session, it’s more important that we’re able to talk openly about the questions and issues that arise. So I hope we can all agree to set aside our worries about offending people or being offended for now…”

    This does mean that if people use terms which are widely regarded as offensive in the course of discussion I won’t challenge them unless I feel very sure they intended them to be offensive (in which case, I’ll challenge the intention, rather than the particular word use). And I hope that strikes a reasonable balance between excessive censorship and allowing a free-for-all in humiliation.

    But that’s in a context whose entire and explicit purpose is promoting disability equality. If I were teaching students logic, and someone used terminology widely recognised as offensive in constructing an example, I’d question the terminology used and ask them to suggest a different example. In that context, it’s my job to make sure all the students can safely concentrate on learning about logic without feeling marginalised and unprotected.

    Now, I realise this post is (in part) about a term whose is offensiveness is contested, and in both these cases I’m only really dealing with terms that are very generally accepted as offensive. But I think my point is that the context of the discussion and the shared (or not shared) goals of the participants really seem to matter – it’s not just about the particular words being used. And that must be even more the case with terms whose offensiveness is contested, right?

  39. I agree that it’s been a great discussion, and I think I and others have a better grasp of some impprtant issues.

Comments are closed.