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.

30 responses so far

30 thoughts on “Call Me Crazy, But…”

  1. QuiteDragon says:

    Generally speaking, I concur with most of what you have written. I believe that, however, there is a point which, while it underlies the entire question and the positions you take in your post, should be articulated rather than left to be “understood”.

    “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.”

    Much of the need for moderated speech (and, therefore, ethical positions) is based on the reality that many classes of persons have been historically kept in bondage (in some cases, literal physical bondage) and denigration in all senses: legal, social, and economic. *Many of these conditions still exist and are practiced, adversely effecting the freedoms, living conditions, and qualities of life for large numbers of people.* Furthermore, in many of us, the living memory of hate and bigotry is still extant. Leaving the burden upon the listener to “not be thin-skinned” is, in some ways, shifting the blame unto the victims. Moreover, it allows the speaker an “out” regarding acknowledgement of social responsibility to rectify prejudice which still remains.

  2. juga says:

    I think I would go further away from Elyse in the same direction you have gone. There is no “responsibility for civility” that is shared between the speaker and the listener. If the speaker chooses to be uncivil, that reflects on the speaker alone and either furthers or diminishes his point. He needs to take a view on that. If you accept that there is anything objective in “offence”, then there comes a point where the speaker is entirely or mostly responsible.

    Words can be offensive and hurtful but it is always in the listener’s control whether to be hurt or offended.

    That leaves the point of the use of words that may not offend the target, but which are distasteful or offensive to society in general. A British MP is currently being accused of referring to a policeman as a “pleb”. This is felt to be completely beyond the pale, although I don’t know how this sounds to American ears. Even if the policeman was not offended, the use of the word reflects very poorly on the speaker. He may have to take the consequences and resign. However, that is a political matter and doesn’t affect his right to use the word.

  3. ConspicuousCarl says:

    I think this issues is going to have to be broken up into different categories, depending on who feels insulted and why (target vs. collateral, personal insult vs. mere distaste, whether the speaker is effectively asked to change opinion or merely use a synonym).

    I don’t know what she hopes to accomplish by using “kirksy” as an openly-declared synonym for “crazy”. Single-word euphemisms only work until everyone figures out that you mean it in the same way as the original word. Remember “fracked”? Yeah, it got past the censors. But everyone knows what it means, and I don’t imagine that it would take very long for it to become “offensive” if any significant portion of the population started to use it in real life. It would be an especially fast transition if a few people started to use it to refer directly to sex. Would Elyse really feel better if one of the commenters told her to “take her kirksy PC ideas and go frack herself”? If the second half still bothers her, why does she think that a person with a psychological disability would be less offended by the first half (if there even are any such people who would have objected to “crazy”–I’m not sure if that has really been established).

  4. alchemy470 says:

    “Free speech Nazis”?

  5. Cornelioid says:

    One thing i’ve had to give time to sink in through these conversations is that i may not be as well-equipped to answer the question of how “close to home” these words remain as those who face them directly. For instance, while i’m exposed to crazy only in conversation and mass media with every instance benign, i would have to do some research or ask several aneurotypical people to get a sense of how much the word remains in use as a slur. My personal experience is at a disadvantage. So, my “habit” (it’s only happened twice) has become to just let the language drop out of use. I’m not worried that this kind of caution could be easily overextended, since there are only a handful of words with any such context behind them.

    (This context, incidentally, leads me to disagree with ConspicuousCarl, since the purpose of the contrived word kirksy is to capture a colloquial meaning of crazy without dragging its overtones along with it.)

  6. ConspicuousCarl says:


    Unless it was includes rules about usage (which nobody will obey) , it’s going to take on the same meaning.

  7. martian_bob says:

    Reading arguments about stuff like this always makes me think of the genetic fallacy, thanks for bringing it up Steve. I watched an argument flare up on a forum I frequent because someone had the temerity to insist that someone else’s opinion was “idiotic”. The assertion was made that “idiotic” was an ableist term, mocking both the original poster by tying him to the mentally handicapped, and the mentally handicapped themselves. Thing is, literally the only times in my life that I’ve seen anyone use terms like “idiot” in reference to that community is when I’m being reminded that the term used to be applied to them. If I’m feeling especially pedantic, I like to point out that “idiot” meant simply “an unskilled person” long before it ever meant “someone with an IQ under 25”, but that’s really beside the point.

    Anyhoo, the thread totally paid off when one of the anti-idiot camp said, “Why don’t you just use a non-ableist word like ‘dumb’ or something”. I legitimately laughed out loud.

  8. SARA says:

    I think the entire thing comes down to the speaker’s personal life view or sense of morality or perhaps I mean ethics. I think each person needs to define for themselves what is important. There is no universal, because for each person, different things are important. And it’s an important process to consider where you as a person are in that light.

    For me, intention is everything, both as a listener and a speaker. I can listen to most words people would find offensive on a word level and not be offended if the intention of the speaker remains benign.

    But if the intention of the speaker is to be offensive, they don’t need to use some hot word.

    There are people who go around looking to be offended. They take sentences with neutral or kind intention and use words like crazy, etc and turn them into an offence.

    The opposite is also true. I used to work with a VP who was a manipulative jerk. I couldn’t openly offend him. But he liked to pretend he was just a regular guy. So I would call him Mr. Nameofvp. My intention was the opposite of respect. Intention is everything. Words are just vehicles for it.

  9. Cornelioid says:


    I don’t see how. You seem to be predicting the future creep of a word’s meaning, namely that of kirksy. Why should we expect this synonym for “bizarre” or “extreme” to suddenly gain widespread use synonymous with “mentally ill”, while plenty of other words (like bizarre and extreme) have not?

    I don’t really expect kirksy to come into widespread usage, of course. But, for instance, i’ve started using silly and zany, which both just mean “absurd”, in place of crazy. I see no reason to suspect that, because i use these words pejoratively, they’ll take on the unrelated meaning of “mentally ill”.

  10. Quine says:

    Social agreement ethics is a difficult subject for exactly the reason Dr. Novella has stated, there is no objective way to test our conclusions. We do the best we can, and part of that is setting some standards based on context. In law we allow remarks to be make against “public” figures that would not be allowed against private citizens. There is a idea that if you are going to speak up in public, then you have accepted the obligation of hearing replies with a thicker skin than if you keep to yourself. At least in some places your family members are spared this obligation, but not always.

    In lieu of an explicit morality worked out by mutual consent, we have what has fallen our way by culture and the impact on that by centuries of religion. Only now are we starting to use brain science to get to what happens in our minds when we decide to do something that may or may not be seen as hurtful to another. That won’t answer the question of if we “ought” to continue to say these words, but at least we can learn about how it “is” that the hurt comes about.

    (I have written more about this in the context of atheist politics.)

  11. YHC Michael says:

    I think Steve hit upon some good points with the limits of bending over backwards with polite wording. You will never be able to avoid offending everyone, and the sort of people who claim “lame” is offensive are simply too demanding.

    What’s interesting here is that Steve inadvertently broke one of these rules by calling people with faulty brains “mentally retarded.” There was a political movement to wipe that phrase out of clinical settings and replace it with term “intellectual disability.”

    I can fully understand asking people not to call each other “retarded” but it’s problematic to change a legitimate medical term because it’s about a touchy subject. These replacements terms are designed to be vague and non-specific, and they will have to be replaced in a decade or so when people automatically understand what they are talking about.

  12. ConspicuousCarl says:


    I might be tempted to accept that if “crazy” were a clinical term being misused in a casual way. But “crazy” was based on a synonym for cracked and, as far as I know, was never a real psychiatric word. If you don’t like it’s current and past usage, I don’t see why a new word for weird/strange/irrational is going to do any better.

    Elyse is claiming that the actual intended meaning of kirksy is different. If anyone actually means to change the meaning of the various common phrases she listed, they should use an existing word with a definition people can understand upon hearing it. To think that the point will be made by substituting a fabricated rhyming word is just plain kirksy.

  13. DOYLE says:

    Spoken language is a reflexive expression conditioned by an individuals social world.You will always have to allow for vulgar,wreakless and colloquial
    speech .Dignity towards others always takes time to settle into the masses and those that are offended by trivial language are hard wired neurotics.

  14. devongarde says:

    suppressing crazy
    because crazy
    is presumed to mean crazy
    not crazy
    is crazy

  15. Cornelioid says:


    It seems like you’re disagreeing not with me but with Elyse. I don’t mind her promoting kirksy, but i won’t be adopting it since i already have adequate pejoratives handy. I don’t think either of her and my positions are premised on any clinical usage of crazy, although evidently it meant “diseased” before it meant “cracked”. Are you suggesting that kirksy will necessarily, or even likely, come into use as a slur against the mentally ill? (This is what i took you to mean previously.) This seems akin to suggesting that “if we rewound the tape, humans would evolve in pretty much their modern form”. Maybe that’s taking it to an extreme; but your synonyms of weird, strange, and irrational help me make my point, since they too have similar meanings but have not come into widespread use as slurs.

    With regard to responsibility, QuiteDragon makes a good point. “Shared responsibility”, with which i agree, does not imply “equal responsibility”. MroyalT wrote a confluent comment at Camels With Hammers that has stuck with me since. I’m not equipped to argue their point, but i did find it persuasive.

  16. etatro says:

    Alchemy: I think by “free speech Nazis,” he meant people who bully and harass with language and then hide behind “free speech” when their ideas (anti- whatever: homophobic, racist, sexist) are called to question.

  17. jre says:

    Arguments that we must avoid hurting others with words rest on the assumption that verbal injury is analogous to physical injury — and specifically so in the case of someone who is easily offended or injured. This is the “eggshell skull” doctrine, under which you take your victim as you find him. If your victim happens to be particularly sensitive, well, that’s just the way it is.

    In many cases, this is eminently sensible. However, I think there are instances where we may invoke what might be called the big, whiny baby exception, viz.:

    “Absent specific knowledge of plaintiff’s unusual sensitivity, there should be no recovery for hypersensitive mental disturbance where a normal individual would not be affected under the circumstances.”
    Daley v LaCroix, 384 Mich 4, 13; 179 NW2d 390, 395 (1970)

  18. HHC says:

    I’m good.

  19. SimonW says:

    “Cretin”, intended as insulting. Despite doing a lot of voluntary work with thyroid patients I’ve only met one person with severe congenital hypothyroidism, and although severely disabled he was clever enough and confident enough to describe himself as a cretin with a wry smile, thanks to modern medicine. I wonder though is it insulting to people from Crete?

  20. Thadius says:

    I dislike the idea that words are powerful or, that they have the power to hurt people. I dislike this idea because it misuses the word “words”. Words are arbitrary symbols made up of vocal sounds that are culturally agreed upon to represent some meaning for the purpose of communication. “Crazy” or any other “offensive” word is really nothing but an object, with no intrinsic meaning at all. Because of this a word cannot hurt you, or act upon you in any way. Can a pile of rocks offend you?
    So…what is causing people injury when words are used? Well it is what those words are intended to be symbolic of, and what they are perceived to be symbolic of, IDEAS. When a word like Crazy is used in a way in which its meaning is different than the “mental illness” definition it (in the mind of the sender) is a completely different word, it may mean beyond belief. A young person may witness a peer performing a complicated skateboard trick with a high degree of difficulty and low probability of success and exclaim: “wow, Sam you are crazy!” This message will most likely be sent and received between the two with no ambiguity, however a third party with different symbolism for the word crazy may be offended. Using the mental illness definition of the word s/he may think that the youth is putting the others mental faculties down, perhaps in jealousy of the others “sick” moves. Now the third party has the right to be offended by anything s/he finds offensive, no one can tell anyone what to think or how to react to anything, but should anyone care that s/he is offended?
    That depends on how the observer values the characters in the situation. If causing any harm to anyone is unacceptable, than yes we should care. If that is not a concern then no we do not care. Reality is that all instances are somewhere in between. Rarely do serious people intentionally use words to cause harm and in those cases it is apparent and is judged as an action. Conversely you cannot guarantee that no one will be hurt by innocent words.
    So should we walk on eggshells, censoring our every word? This would, in my opinion, stifle our ability to communicate. Words are tools, they are powerless w/out being assigned meaning. A chainsaw causes no offense by itself, it can be used to cut down trees or carve beautiful sculptures. It only becomes offensive when a guy wearing human skin for a hat uses one to cut co-eds up. In conclusion: Don’t ban the chainsaws; we would miss out on all the wonderful eagles carved out of dead trees at the public park. We just need to keep our co-eds safe and at home.

  21. Thadius says:

    I would also like to point out that the idea that one could possibly take all responsibility for the possible offense that anyone could take with any word one said is implausible. I would even say that the idea is synonymous with a squirrel attempting to sexually reproduce with its stored food supply.

  22. Jared Olsen says:

    A very salient topic given the recent outrage by many Muslims over the YouTube ‘film’ that so offended them. Apparently it was purposefully inflammatory, but the reaction by some extremists (“All those who insult the Prophet should be beheaded” etc.) was ridiculously OTT. You might say this is an extreme case, but these things are always informative.

  23. BillyJoe7 says:

    “I wonder though is it insulting to people from Crete?”

    Why would a Cretan be insulted?

  24. BillyJoe7 says:

    There are those who are so thin shinned that almost anything you say will be taken as an insult. Then there are those who aren’t really insulted but think they should. And then there are those who simply choose to be insulted. Frankly, I can’t be bothered with any of them. In my opinion, free speech and freedom from being insulted are incompatible. I choose free speech.

  25. etatro says:

    I think of lot of this is personal and cultural history. If someone had an overbearing mother who always accused him of being lazy & was teased for being ugly as a dog throughout childhood — then being called a lazy dog by his spouse who wants him to clean the gutters might have a particularly stronger sting than it would for other people. You never, ever know what histories people bring to the table when you communicate with them. If the man in my example explained to his spouse how much that particular insult stings him & why, the spouse could react by not caring or could adjust her language to not be so insulting. Even though the insult wouldn’t even register on most other peoples’ offensiveness-scale. You adjust because you care about the other person and you have a genuine interest in continuing to communicate with them. Maybe he needs to work out his childhood issues and maybe they shouldn’t follow him for so long into his adult life. That’s something to point out or work on; but being dismissive and uncaring will neither achieve that objective nor allow for future effective communication. The same holds true not just for intimate relationships like spouses, but also professional & cultural. You never know what historical baggage people bring with them. This applies culturally — my freshman year of college, I said to a new friend, “Dude, change the channel. … Dude, what’s up with …whatever? …etc” After about a week, he explained to me that, where he was from, using the word “dude” was an insult & why — when to me, it was sort of a brotherly slang that you use to address peers. I learned from that & adjusted, it’s not too hard. (In my old age, I do realize how stupid that sounded, too).

  26. ccbowers says:

    “Frankly, I can’t be bothered with any of them. In my opinion, free speech and freedom from being insulted are incompatible. I choose free speech.”

    I prefer the way Steve characterizes this issue (it characterizes my perspective as well as I could have), rather than your false dichotomy. This is not really a question of free speech, nor is it a question of freedom from being insulted. Only at the extremes does your characterization apply. Most communications in which offense can be taken are in between, in which both parties can contribute to this. That doesn’t mean that an individual doesn’t have the ‘right’ to offend others, but it may result in consequences (such as the excercise of free speech right back at ’em).

  27. BillyJoe7 says:

    I guess I should have been clearer. I was speaking in reference to public discourse about moral, ethical, religious, and philosophical issues. Not conversations between husbands and wives and between friends and aquaintences.

  28. evawes1 says:

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article Steve.

    For me, the really important part of your article was this:

    “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.”

    I totally agree, but I hadn’t thought about it in those terms before: the mutual responsibility we have when we communicate with each other.

    I usually came at it from the perspective of “You can be offended by my words, and I won’t deny that you’re offended, but it doesn’t mean I’ll try to never offend you”. And vice versa if someone is offending me (although I admit I probably get more worked up than I should when someone says ‘get over it’). I much prefer your way of characterising it.

  29. Hey Steve,

    A few months ago, when discussing Marshall Applewhite, the leader of the Hale Bop cult, Heaven’s Gate (I think), you referred to him as looking “crazy”. I think you said that you could just see he was crazy from his eyes.

    Now, I understand we all make short-cuts of language when speaking informally, but I was very tempted to write in (for the first time), to highlight that I felt this a particularly dated and crass term to level at anyone, especially for a man as educated as yourself.

    I feel that the catch-all term is is comparable to calling someone something like a witch! I know I’m exaggerating, but I wonder if you agree that it would be beneficial if society as a whole, could attempt to get to a point where people recognise a cognitive deficit in someone’s character without writing them off as “being crazy / mad”.

    I realise this takes education, which some have no inclination to acquire, however if we could try to reduce the use of such emotive words, I feel we would be on the road to a better acceptance and understanding of mental deficits.

    Would very much like to know your thoughts.


  30. BillyJoe7 says:


    Have you ever been confronted by a sociopath?
    I have, and I quite understand what Steve means.
    It’s the eyes that send that shiver down your spine, that leaves you wondering if this is your last day on Earth.

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