CN: ableist slurs
This post is spurred by a recent post by my colleague Ania, which is a challenge to those of us within the community to stop using ableist language for one month. I recommend reading her post explaining why certain words are harmful to neurodivergent and disabled people and can perpetuate stigma against them.
Over the last few years, I’ve come to know many people who have disabilities, or identify themselves as disabled even if they don’t have official diagnoses. Ania herself has been a big part of my revelation on this topic. I have learned through exposure that terms which I used to use casually, like “retarded,” “stupid,” “lame,” and “blind” are subtly enforcing a culture which demonizes those traits.
Ania’s post sums this up better than I ever could, but what it comes down to is that using terms which devalue people’s intelligence inherently devalues them as human beings. As atheists, we (myself included) sometimes hinge our worth as people on our intelligence. “How can religious people be so blind?” is a common thought I’ve seen and had myself. “Christians are delusional,” is another one I’ve seen far too often, and in fact have made more than one YouTube video attempting to debunk.
Basically, as rationalists, we pride ourselves on our superior intelligence and sometimes make fun of people who fall prey to seemingly obvious fallacious thinking. We use terminology like “stupid, delusional, crazy,” to describe our incredulous feelings as to how people could possibly think those things.
I’m here to say that there’s absolutely no reason to throw disabled people and people with mental illness under the bus when we’re expressing our incredulity at the ridiculous ideas which others put forth.
As someone who lives with mental illness (specifically, depression/anxiety disorder and ADHD), I can say that using terminology like “crazy” and “delusional” has the unintended side effect of lumping me in with people who make bad arguments and equating their poor mindsets with my actual disabilities.
Religion does not equate to delusion, and off-the-wall racist remarks don’t equate to stupidity. (Looking at you, Trump critics.)
I have tried, especially ever since the Skepchick debacle that I’m not going to link to, to stop using such language when I’m describing ideas and mindsets which make no sense to me, or which seem so over-the-top that only using terms that evoke a visceral response can satisfy.
Honestly? It’s hard. It’s very easy to say that Trump is a lunatic, or that conservatives as a whole are delusional. It’s much more difficult to find specific terminology to describe your exact feelings, and some of that visceral connotation gets lost when you choose not to say they’re crazy. But it forces you to actually think about what you’re saying, and describe with greater specificity what you think is wrong with their arguments.
And I think it’s important to introspect on why terms like “crazy” and “delusional” create such a visceral response in ourselves. It’s because there is a long-standing stigma against neurodivergence, and an all-too-common dehumanization of people who live with those afflictions. These terms create the same effect in our brain as cursing, at least in my experience.
“This guy is a fucking lunatic,” makes the fun brain chemicals involved with cursing, and separates us from them in such a way as we can view them as less than full human beings. How could anyone who is a rational human being possibly hold these views? Well, they may be irrational, but that’s no reason to create a categorical difference in our minds which essentially renders them subhuman.
In short, there are deep-seated reasons why it feels so satisfying to call someone crazy when they hold views which are radically different from our own. It’s easy, and vindicates us as being Right, while they are Wrong. But there are unintended side-effects, and an implication that people who actually are “crazy” are so different that they might as well not be people.
I want to give a huge thank you to Ania for posing this challenge. I have already tried to expunge ableist language from my vocabulary (although I do reclaim “crazy” to describe myself on occasion), but I know that I, and others within our community, can always do better.