Sep 24 2012

Call Me Crazy, But…

Elyse over at Skepchick has written an interesting commentary on the use of potentially hurtful language, such as colloquial use of the term “crazy.” Her conclusion:

That maybe, if someone tells me that a term hurts them, I don’t get to decide whether or not I’m actually hurting them. I know they’re hurt. My only decision is whether or not I want to keep hurting them or not. Usually, the answer is no.

The comments range the spectrum of opinion from full agreement to complete disagreement. I do agree with Elyse that this is a fascinating discussion, partly, in my opinion, because there is no objective answer. I would like to offer my opinion and explore some angles of this issue that were not addressed by Elyse or the commenters.

Taking an ethical view, there appear to be several legitimate ethical principles at stake with the question of using potentially offensive language. One principle is that of nonmaleficience – the directive not to inflict evil or cause harm to others; in this case the harm is psychological due to offensive language. Another principle is that of personal liberty, in this case freedom of expression. These two principles appear to be at odds with respect to the question of offensive language.

Many of those defending the position that offensive language should be avoided at all costs appear to be making what philosophers call a deontological argument – that the ethical principle to avoid harm amounts to an absolute duty. Deontological arguments, however, are problematic, especially when different ethical principles clash.

In my opinion, there is no simple rule that you can apply to such situations. There is no way around making an (often complex) individual judgement that is laden with personal values. In other words – there is no scientifically correct or absolute answer to such questions. The best you can hope for is an internally consistent logical position.

As an example of the above principles at work, let’s say that someone takes offense and is deeply emotionally hurt by a work of art on public display. (It may offend their religious or ideological beliefs, or they may find it offensive to some aspect of their identity). What should prevail in such situations – the artist’s freedom of expression, their freedom even to deliberately offend segments of the society, or the right of individuals not to be offended by works of art they may happen upon in a museum or publicly on display? As an author, did Salman Rushdie have the right to write a book that was profoundly offensive to a large number of Muslims?

Applying all this specifically to the question of language, there is another aspect of this discussion that I feel is critical background and that is the nature of human language itself. Humans tend to reason through analogy. (This is related to our strength at pattern recognition). There is even a phenomenon psychologists called “embodied cognition” in which we begin with a simple physical concept and use that to help us understand and think about more abstract concepts. Therefore certain attitudes may be “warm” or “cold,” an argument is “weak,” authority figures are physically “above” their underlings, etc.

Combine this with the fact that word use evolves over time. So individual words may start their life with a specific physical meaning, then get applied to a more abstract concept, which can evolve over time to be very different from its original meaning. One dramatic example is the use of the word “hysterical.” I don’t think many people would take offense if I said I thought a particularly funny joke was hysterical or that someone was hysterical with laughter. The word, however, has its origin in the notion that some women’s mental illnesses were the result literally of the influence of their uterus, hence the older (but still used) meaning of hysterical as emotionally out of control. If, therefore, I characterized a woman who was upset as hysterical that might be seen as dismissive and sexist.

So – is “hysterical” offensive or not? Well, it depends on context. Arguing that “hysterical” should be deemed offensive based purely on its original meaning is an example of the genetic fallacy – judging something on its origins rather than its current use.

I would argue that because of the two effects of embodied cognition and the tendency for word use to creep over time,  it is problematic to require that our everyday colloquial speech be purged of any words that can potentially have negative connotations. If I use the word “sinister,” for example, am I insulting everyone who is left-handed?

Applying all of this to some of the recent examples discussed in Elyse’s post and comments, is it “ableist” to use the term “crazy?” I don’t think there is any simple objective answer to this. I reject the absolute criterion that if someone feels hurt that by definition it is offensive. I think we can apply other criteria to evaluating whether or not requesting not to use a specific term is reasonable.

In my opinion, the term crazy has developed some specific meanings that have drifted significantly from its origin of “mentally ill.” One can be said to be “crazy in love.” Often the term is used to mean that an idea is extreme, or exceptionally out of the ordinary. It is an established and benign part of the vernacular.

Using the term “retarded” to mean stupid or silly is different. That one is still too close to home, and its use seems insensitive to me. It is intended to mean, in an insulting way, that someone is like a person who is mentally retarded.

I was recently told that use of the term “lame” is also abelist. I have thought about this, and just don’t buy it. Using the term “lame” to mean a performance or work that is the result of poor talent, skill, or effort is a completely benign use of the word that is sufficiently removed from the original meaning of having a physical disability. I also don’t think there is another world that has the precise connotation of “lame.” In the case in question I substituted the word “weak”, but isn’t that just another example of embodied cognition? Is calling a bad idea “weak” an insult to people with muscular dystrophy who are physically weak through no fault of their own?

In the end I think it is ineluctable that there is a subjective judgement involved in which terms are offensive and which aren’t. There is a spectrum from fairly universally regarded as genuinely offensive, and so inoffensive that they are useful as mocking examples of excessive political correctness. But just because there is a spectrum does not mean there aren’t words that are reasonably considered offensive. Offensiveness is in the eye of the beholder.

It is quite a separate question,  however, as to whether or not it is ever appropriate to use words that are potentially offensive to others. Here we are all left to our own devices, morals, intentions, and personalities. Some may be deliberately offensive as part of activist speech or artistic expression. Others may find that it is useful, even necessary, to vigilantly avoid any potentially offensive terms (such as in mass marketing, politics, or certain professional relationships).  While still others may find that everyday social situations call for a reasonable attempt to avoid clearly offensive language or terms, while not obsessively censoring everyday colloquial speech.

Looked at another way, if we grant that there is a responsibility to civility if we desire to function in society, where does that responsibility lie? One premise of Elyse’s stated position is that the responsibility lies entirely with the speaker.  Rather, I would propose that there is a shared responsibility. You can make a reasonable argument that speakers should make an attempt to be aware of the effect that what they say, including their word choice, has on others. I would also argue that people should make a reasonable attempt to not be thin-skinned, to not take offense where none was intended, and to accommodate for the vagaries of everyday speech.

As with many things that involve a moral judgment, there are no hard-and-fast rules. Rather we might strive for a reasonable balance of considerations. Too far to one end results in the “political correctness police,” while too far the other way results in “free speech Nazis.”  If you feel offended at either of those terms, well, perhaps that was my intent.

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