Enough “Crazy”

There are plenty of frustrating things about this year’s presidential contests. I’ll probably write more about some of them soon. Goodness knows, I’ve been writing enough about them on social media. I should formalize my thoughts on the matter somewhere.

For today, though, I want to talk about “crazy”. I want to talk about this habit we have of looking at politicians who say things that don’t conform to reality and writing them off as “crazy”. Mostly, of course, I want to tell people to knock it off.

If you’re among the people telling the world that Sarah Palin or Donald Trump or Ben Carson is “crazy” for saying what they do, why do you need to stop? Really, it comes down to many of the same reasons people need to stop calling religion a mental illness. It’s wrong. You don’t have the qualifications to diagnose someone, and that’s not how diagnosis works anyway. And it stigmatizes people with mental illness.

So let’s go through how this works in this case. Yes, calling these things “crazy” is wrong. Sarah Palin isn’t crazy. No, her words don’t make any sense if you want speech to map cleanly to the real world, but that isn’t what her people are listening for. The fact that what she says is one layer removed from reality isn’t a bug. It’s a feature.

The same is true for Trump. He isn’t saying anything real, but he’s telling his audience what they want to hear. It’s working too, because he’s still the front-runner in a race that was thought to belong to someone else. Anyone else. But there he stays. Carson? He was in second place when his “crazy” words were being reported regularly.

Beyond that, this is a strategy for the GOP. It has been for ages. This isn’t a bunch of people who’ve wandered away from reality at the behest of a neurological malfunction. These are people doing what has been proven over the last twenty-five years to work with their voting base.

That’s painful to acknowledge, but if we’re going to be about hewing to reality, we’re stuck with it. It’s ugly, but this is smart behavior from a Republican hopeful, not “crazy”.

I, on the other hand, am crazy. These things my brain does to me? They don’t help me. They’re not going to get me a party nomination for president or chosen as a VP candidate. They’re not going to build my political power.

They’re going to torture me. They do torture me. They get in my way. They make it necessary for me to fight cold, hard, painful battles to get reality back. Someday, I might lose.

So stop telling me and the rest of the world that the problem with Sarah Palin is that she’s like me. Stop saying the problem with Trump and Carson is that they’re like me. The things they’re saying are going to sell their books and their television shows and get them treated like serious contenders to hold world power. They don’t have to worry that they might die because of what they have to say.

They and their audience are perfectly capable of finding and embracing reality if they care to. They don’t care to. So stop saying they’re bad because they’re like people like me who work desperately hard to find reality and hold on tight. All you’re really doing is telling me that I need to stop existing. I already get enough of that.

Find a better word than “crazy” to say what you mean.

Enough “Crazy”

16 thoughts on “Enough “Crazy”

  1. 1

    “Having a mental illness” is not the only meaning of the word “crazy”. “Crazy” has many contemporary meanings, and the meaning of “having a mental illness” is not, I think, the foremost meaning people think of, nowadays. Though I respect your opion on the matter, I don’t think you can claim the word “crazy” to denote what you are, and then order the rest of the world to come up with a “better word” for what Trump and Palin are – while “crazy” suits their behaviour fine.

  2. 2

    I’m inclined to agree with Kilian above. Crazy is a word with many meanings, and only one refers to mental illness in a generic way. It’s similar to referring to someone as ‘nuts’ – it describes behaviour or ideas that are so far beyond what we find reasonable that there are few words to describe it. I find it more disturbing when people are diagnosed without a complete in person assessment by a psychiatrist (e.g. calling Trump a narcissist) .

    Personally, I and many people I know have some form of mental illness, but none of us would use the word ‘crazy’ to describe each other, other than in jest. I really think their behaviour and words can be described as crazy without stigmatizing us.

  3. 5

    @Kilian, two things.

    First: I consulted four online dictionaries, and the first definition in three of them is mad, insane, or mentally deranged. In the 4th dictionary this is the second definition. So yes, this is the preeminent meaning.

    Second: the next most common meaning in those dictionaries is “overly enthusiastic or emotional”. It indicates a serious departure from the normal, and it’s an extension of the previous definition, not a contradiction of it.

    If you think “the foremost meaning people think of, nowadays” is something else, show your work.

  4. 6

    When “crazy” is used to mean “divorced from reality”, as it is in the cases I’m talking about, yes, that is absolutely a reference to mental illness. What else would it be? And I don’t particularly care whether you think people using the word this way isn’t bad for you. I really thought we were well past the point where we used that line to argue that something isn’t bad for the person saying it’s bad for them.

  5. 7


    Religious people are also divorced from reality, yet we argue (and rightly so) we shouldn’t label them “mentally ill”, as they are not. So “divorced from reality” doesn’t imply “mentally ill”, and neither does “crazy”. Languages change, all the time. “crazy” started out meaning “diseased” or “sickly”, without any implication of a mental aspect. Later, it acquired the meaning “of unsound mind”, still without implying an actual illness. I’d say that the meaning of “mentally ill” is actually secondary, has always been secondary and is secondary to this day. I’m sad the word “crazy” is a trigger for you, but we can hardly ban or limit the use of each and every word someone takes offense at.

    @Numenaster: I checked the Merriam Webster, and it has “mad, insane” as second, the first being “full of cracks and flaws”, which etymonline lists as the 2nd meaning in history. The order in which dictionaries list their meanings does not say much about the prevalance of that meaning. The Oxford Dictionary has “mad” in first place, but gives the example “Stella went crazy and assaulted a visitor” – which can hardly be said to refer to mental illness. Also, “mad”, like “crazy”, has denoted a very generic sense of “out of ones mind” without implying actual mental illness historically.

  6. 8

    Kilian, I see you found the one major online dictionary which didn’t use “mad” as the first definition. Well done you. You are mistaken in thinking that the order of definitions is insignificant. Dictionaries aim to put the most likely definition first, other than apparently Merriam-Webster. The first definition they gave is the oldest, and you can trace the development of the concept pretty clearly.

    From EtymOnline: 1570s, “diseased, sickly,” from craze + -y (2). Meaning “full of cracks or flaws” is from 1580s; that of “of unsound mind, or behaving as so” is from 1610s.

    The original Old Norse verb krasa means “shatter”. The adjective describes a thing which is shattered or broken, or about to be. Then the adjective becomes applied to people, and settled down there as firmly as “non compos mentis”, which means the same thing. There is no daylight between “unsound mind” and “mental illness” in ordinary non-medical usage. Prove me wrong.

  7. 9

    It certainly doesn’t help people with mental illnesses to have to carry around all kinds of cultural baggage in addition to dealing with the heavy burden of their actual illness. This cultural baggage ranges from the idea that people with mental illnesses must be dangerous or violent to the idea that mental illnesses aren’t “real” illnesses and that they can be easily swept away by a few lifestyle changes. While I don’t expect that people will stop calling misleading political rhetoric “crazy” anytime soon, it is worthwhile to point out that it has nothing to do with actual mental illness.

  8. 10

    I have given a lot of thought to this subject, and I’m still not sure where I stand. Obviously it is generally a good idea to give credence to those who find a word offensive or distasteful. So I think it is pretty clear that one should not use racially-charged words, like the n-word, or gender-biased words, like the b-word or the c-word, or ableist language, like the r-word.

    Fortunately, for all of the above words, there are plenty of good replacements for all their various uses. The r-word, for instance, can be easily replaced by much less offensive words such as “stupid,” “idiotic,” or “hare-brained” without any major loss of effect or change of connotation. So there is basically no cost to adjusting one’s vocabulary to eliminate the r-word from regular parlance.

    On the other hand, “crazy” and its synonyms see use in many diverse situations. “These muffins are crazy good!” “The boss went nuts when you were late to the meeting!” “Traffic is insane tonight!” “I’m not too crazy about that movie.” “The oven is insanely hot!” “That idea is totally bonkers!”

    I’m not saying that the use of these terms isn’t problematic in any or in all of the above examples. I remain undecided at this point. But clearly there is a difference between, for instance, calling a person crazy, calling an idea crazy, or simply using crazy as an adjective to mean “multiple standard deviations removed from the mean.” I don’t think that all uses are equally unacceptable, and many uses would be very difficult to replace without losing some amount of meaning. And while I agree that Trump is probably not crazy (he is, as you point out, merely pandering to a demographic), it is hard to know what else to call his most rabid, xenophobic, ignorant, racist supporters.

    As someone who suffers from multiple mental illnesses, including chronic depression, I simply can’t see taking offense to a variety of uses of the term “crazy.” Of course, my own experiences are not universal. However, I do agree that the term “crazy” is problematic, and I tend to avoid using it and its synonyms to describe people. I once chastised my friend in the navy for using it to describe all the women in his class. “Crazy” also suffers from being a gender-biased term, which could be the subject of a whole ‘nother blog post.

  9. 13

    springa73, I’d like to see your definition for “crazy” as applied to misleading political rhetoric.

    I was referring to the definition that Stephanie was talking about in comment 6 – “crazy” being used to mean “divorced from reality”. I wasn’t very clear about that, unfortunately.

    I think that one problem is that “crazy” is used to mean both “mentally ill” and “divorced from reality”, which are somewhat related but still quite different definitions. Many mental illnesses don’t involve being divorced from reality, and lots of people can be divorced from reality about certain things without having any mental illness. The two definitions have become blurred together.

  10. 15

    Never use “crazy” when assholish, asocial, reactionary, fascist etc are also available and actually more accurate.

    I’m not even opposed to using “crazy” in certain situations, but not when referring to people. A crazy night out is different to Sarah Palin is crazy.

  11. 16

    They may or may not be mentally ill (not my place to diagnose), but I’m pretty sure the disconnect between Republican policy and reality is entirely unrelated to the mental status of the potential candidates. Granted, Republican policy positions don’t exactly help on that front, and may well lead one to gibbering insanity.

    The Great Old Ones are running the GOP?

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