Thursday, January 20, 2011

One danger of labels: social misconstruance and the stigma cycle

Salutations, New Mad Nation.

First of all, I offer my sincerest apologies for uploading this rant a few hours late. I was distracted by many things that can make a person mad - most notoriously, my pending job search. Of course, I only have about 4 people who actually give a damn about my posts at present, so I'm sure you won't be too much deterred by my tardiness - but nonetheless, a blogger must have standards! (<-- ::completely outrageous statement::) At the very least I have to keep in good practice for when this blog does invariably become the sign post I dream it will be.

That preamble out of the way, let's dive into this week's topic: labels about "mental illness," how people fail to use them correctly, and the consequences of this failure.

To begin any discussion relating in any way to "mental illness," I must insist on my discomfort with the term; and I do promise that some day I will take it apart, piece by tiny piece, until society at large recognizes its uselessness. Until then, however, it is the language that people know and so, when analyzing social trends, it is a language we must use. People who decry "mental illness," I hope you will bear with my use of the term; people who believe in "mental illness," I hope you will bear with my use of quotations around it.

So then, what exactly am I Mad about today on the topic of labels and "mental illness?" Well, if you turn on the radio to your local rock station, and wait for a few hours, chances are you will hear Puddle of Mudd sing a song about how they are "the one who is a schizophrenic psycho." Flip through your pop and variety stations and you may have to wait a bit longer, but eventually you'll hear Katy Perry chide you (her boyfriend) for being "so bipolar." Actually, on a similar note, if you listen to your hip-hop/KDWB station for long enough, especially late at night, you may even hear an artist urge you to "get retarded in here." (The radio friendly alternative is "get it started in here," but we all know that isn't the artist's intent.)

Now wait...did I just compare using terms like "schizophrenic" and "bipolar," terms that people use very casually to describe things that are "crazy," to using the word "retarded," which is known to be hateful, hurtful, and downright stupid to do? Actually, I did. And though I haven't had the stomach to do the research for it, I'd be willing to bet that Puddle of Mudd and Katy Perry are not the only offenders.

Popular songs have a storied history of attempting to "speak the people's language," and this often takes the form of using slang, or in these cases, hurtful, idiotic slang. And when people hear their favorite artists using these terms in these casual ways, they get the clear impression that it's completely fine for them to do the same. I think this is especially true since radio edits have now removed words like "retarded" from songs, while leaving the terms "bipolar" and "schizophrenic." People believe the GODS OF RADIO will remove any offensive language, and everything left behind is safe, requiring no thought whatsoever. So they eat it up and spit it out.

Is the above going a bit too far? Well, perhaps - I do like to use hyperbole to illustrate my points. Which reminds me: the point. Why is it so bad for people to say these words in a casual setting? Oh, man....where do I begin?

I guess I should start with an example. As I have probably mentioned before, I am diagnosed with Bipolar Type II. If you knew there were multiple types of Bipolar Affective Disorder, pat yourself on the back! If you didn't, well, there's always time to learn. I'll probably talk all about it in another blog, but let's focus on my reaction when I hear someone use the word "bipolar" in a casual setting. Most frequently, this word is used to describe something rapidly switching between one extreme or another. Katy Perry uses it to describe her "Hot and Cold" bf. Casual observers use it to describe the weather lately, when it rapidly switches from cold and snowy to warm and sunny. But this is NOT what the actual diagnosis of "Bipolar" denotes. The rapid personality shifts of Katy Perry's bf are more akin to what you find in the outdated-nomenclature of "Borderline Personality Disorder," and the weather shifts are vaguely similar to the somewhat rare case of a "rapid-cycling" period of Bipolar, but only in an extremely abstract sense. So, when I hear this word, which has been so closely associated with who I am, be used to describe something so inaccurately, it tells me that people do not give a damn about my diagnosis or what it means, and are content to let that term mean whatever other thing they choose.

Well and so, if we lived in a society where labels didn't mean so much, I might not care. But we don't live in that society - we live in one where my diagnosis is permanently attached to me as surely as a "pre-existing condition" on my medical records. And even if I had a friend who DID know what my diagnosis meant, and "was just using the term in a different context," or whatever, there is still the disquieting sensation that these words are being used to make observed phenomenon into villains. "OH MY GOD, the weather has been so random this week! It's like, totally bipolar or something." The preceding suggests a disdain for the weather so profound that a "mentally ill" term must be used to describe it. People are using a mental health diagnosis to indicate that the weather is at fault. Even if a person "knows better" than to assume that an actual diagnosis has anything to do with this casual use, it is still linking this sense of negative responsibility with the term; this sense of outright wrongness, this sense that anything that is "bipolar" is obviously a problem that can be blamed for whatever is going wrong.

Hey man, did you ever stop to think that the weather might only be acting that way because of all the goddamn smog the city has been throwing up at the sky lately? Give the weather a fekking break!

It's just that, when you actually are "Bipolar," it kind of hurts to hear people using the very same word to describe something immature, irresponsible, or downright hated. It kind of makes you feel unwanted, regardless of what people may say about their intentions - it reveals a deep-seated preoccupation with the "insane," one that is used to amplify feelings about situations. Essentially your existence becomes reduced to a superlative, in the moment that that word is used. It's usually a very dismissive feeling.

I am not a superlative, I am a person, and even the things that have earned me my diagnosis are far more complex than these casual uses imply. You want to describe the weather as Bipolar? Show me a weather pattern that spends all of its money (for sake of argument, we'll say precipitation) because people thought some rain might be nice, but then completely drowns an entire county, and then feels so bad about what it just did that for the next several months to a year, you never see the fekking sun again unless you move to a different state. Don't talk to me about some pleasantly surprisingly shifts from sun to snow.
But more to the point, don't forget the fact that Bipolar is just as much a response to external stimuli and is NOT to be blamed as a characteristic of someone inherently random or untrustworthy. That's what your weather-description implies...and frankly, it kind of hurts.

I have little to zero personal experience with the diagnosis "schizophrenia" so I am hard pressed to give a similar first-person viewpoint on how the term is interpreted, but I can only assume it is similar. Aside from those who are deeply lost in the veils of mental decay that "schizophrenia" causes, (and I am not convinced that there is a disorder called "schizophrenia" actually responsible for this, but for the sake of argument, we'll continue as such), it is very possible for those with the diagnosis to lead happy, healthy lives. In fact, the experiences of such a life might offer exciting new perspectives on things; possibly very important perspectives. But such a life is undoubtedly filled with challenges. And it can't be made any easier by having people like Puddle of Mudd continuing to stigmatize the word "schizophrenic" by associating it with sub-par grimy south-rock "angry crazy."

I hear people use the term "schizophrenic" to describe anything that is "out of control" or "dysfunctional" or "not working right." Especially objects/events. Rock concerts...malfunctioning computers. How are these things even remotely similar to the actual experience of schizophrenia? Do people even know what that experience is? Why are they so insistent on using these words that are totally inaccurate? Honestly, I suspect laziness. They are too lazy to break out of this destructive habit and find new words, words like "thrilling," "ridiculous," "completely frustrating," or even the vague "crazy" which has been more or less detached from any real meaning - although that would be an interesting topic of discussion.

The thing that boggles my mind about this whole process the most is how frustrated and defensive people get when you call them on this subject. You'd expect (well, before accepting how doomed humanity is, anyway) a reasonably intelligent person to respond, "Oh, that's offensive? I guess I didn't realize it could be interpreted that way. Hey man, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be a jerk." Instead you get "I don't see what the big deal is, it's not like I think the computer is medically schizophrenic, obviously..."

Right, and it's also not like you think your boss not giving you the promotion is actually an act of homosexuality, and it's also not like you think your favorite athlete missing that great score at the end of the game qualifies him for mental retardation, but if you're a mature human being you recognize that using the words "gay" and "retarded" as slurs to demonize human failure or frustration IS WRONG.

It's time everyone realized the same is true of other categories of humanity. Depressed, bipolar, schizophrenic, and OCD should be added to the list.

"But R, what if I'm someone with a diagnosis? Can I make jokes about other people with the same diagnosis?"

Ah, interesting question! This leads me into the overall moral of this particular rant.


You don't get to make a joke about something being like something else if you hold privilege over the group or concept you are lampooning in the process. PERIOD.

White people should probably never make jokes about black people unless in extremely specialized circumstances; straight people should follow the same observance with gay people; men with women; etc. etc.

And if it's not clear, then err on the side of caution.

A common come back to this from people in a position of privilege is "But all humor comes at someone else's expense." The biggest danger here is if that expense is fallacious. Let's look at jokes that a privileged person could make: a rich man might choose to mock his fellow rich men by saying "Oh yes, we'll tee off for a half course at 10...and meet you at the bar at 3," jokingly implying that it will take a whole 5 hours to finish 9 holes of golf (substitute a bigger number if necessary, I don't play golf). This is humor at someone's expense, but is playing off something that may be true about the fellow, that he is a slow golfer, and coming from people of approximately equal privilege; especially if there is a retort to the effect of "Yes, and I'll be happy enough if there's anything left to drink!" implying that another of the fellows is an avid fan of alcohol. See, slightly mean, but all in good fun because these things are amongst people of equal privilege, are more or less harmless, and are BASED IN TRUTH. If, instead, they were to start making jokes about how their wives ought not to be golfing with them, but instead making lunch in the kitchen, we would have jokes that were not only against a less privileged group, but based on something completely sexist and therefore untrue. This is totally unacceptable.

Imagine if they started making jokes about how black people should go back to being their caddies! Oh wait, you don't have to, that still happens. Feck. And they claim this is okay because "it's all in good fun," "we don't actually think this," etc. etc. Some hipsters do this too, by the way, which is really shocking. To those hipsters, pay attention here: you're doing the same thing that my rich relatives do when they golf. Check yourself carefully now.

Which brings me back to the topic of this post and Madness in general: social misconstruance. Even if YOU know that calling the weather bipolar is completely inaccurate, do all of the people around you know? Do all of the people they go and repeat the joke to know? Chances are they do not. Chances are they may have a vague idea but subtle impressions are being reinforced about how bipolar really is as simple as rapidly changing your mood for no apparent reason, which is almost totally inaccurate and misses some of the much more important themes and sub-themes of the diagnosis.

Why is this misconstruance dangerous? Not only does it reinforce stigma against people with a diagnosis by demonizing the term "bipolar," but it makes it much more difficult for a person who actually has the diagnosis to come out about it. I remember trying to be very open about this diagnosis when I was in college, but after being repeatedly met with awkward blank stares and a few "Oh so is that why sometimes you're quiet and sometimes you're like 'WAUUUUUUUUUUUGH?'", I gave up pretty quickly.

(By the way, the answer to the above question is not "yup, that's my bipolar alright," it's, "no, that's because sometimes people are quiet and sometimes they are loud. It's called reacting to a situation.")

You see, when faced with things like that, and basically being asked to explain the chief modality of your existence, it gets pretty tiring. When you have to correct misconceptions already in place by people like Katy Perry, it gets even harder. And when you get frustrated by the process and don't want to talk about it, people's misconceptions usually get reinforced even more. So, we have a "cycle of stigma." You just feel even MORE ostracized, and their ostracizing assumptions grow even stronger.
It's kiiiinda like this.

What's the answer to this problem?

As I've mentioned before, it might be nice to start with asking popular artists not to be so damn ignorant with their use of the terms. They certainly aren't helping.

If anyone has any other good ideas, I'd love to hear them.

Katy Perry, your list of jack-hole sins is very long...I'll be giving you a proper analysis soon enough. But next week I'll probably dive into "mental illness" in full.

Thanks as always for your attention, everyone. Feel free to leave comments and suggestions.

To the New Mad Nation, I bid my Fondest Salutations.

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