Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Mad about the insane use of "crazy", and why I like Alice in Wonderland

People on the political left have often thrown psychiatric labels at right-wing policies: George Bush was “crazy”, the Tea Party movement is “insane”, Toronto’s mayor-elect Rob Ford is a “lunatic” and those who voted for him are “stupid”. This came back to bite the left when Jon Stewart lumped them in the same boat as the far right, both accused of being the two poles of “crazy” that requires society to “restore sanity”. These psychiatric terms—labeling people who deviate from social norms as mentally ill and then dismissing them—not only depoliticize issues and buttress the status quo, they also reinforce the oppression of people with psychiatric disabilities.

So not helpful...
     I always thought calling George Bush  “crazy” was politically lazy, reducing US foreign policy to the intellectual shortcomings of one man. Bush policies were not “crazy”, they were an expression of the contradictions of US empire: facing an economy in decline but a massive military, the US turned to its strategic advantage. How shocked people have been to see a “sane” Obama continue Bush’s “crazy” wars. The problem is not psychiatric deviance, it’s imperialism.
     With the left caught supporting a president who continued disastrous wars and bailed out the banks but not those losing their homes, it’s no wonder the US has seen a right-wing populist backlash—with Tea Party rallies in the streets and the return of the Republicans in the House. The backlash is definitely right-wing and racist, but it is not “crazy”.
     Similarly, when Toronto’s mayor David Miller attacked striking workers, and left councilors were silent, they opened the door to a right-wing backlash that catapulted Rob Ford into office. Ford articulated a right-wing populism that spoke to people’s anger and misdirected it towards each other rather than at the corporate system responsible for the recession. He is not a “lunatic”, he is the local face of global austerity. He is certainly racist, homophobic and pro-privatization, but he’s not “crazy”.

      The problem of using psychiatric labels has finally come back to haunt the left with Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity”. Stewart showed that besides depoliticizing issues, the focus on “sanity” serves to reinforce the status quo by pathologizing those who deviate from social norms—which can be applied to the left just as much as the right. As a result he lumped anti-war groups like Code Pink—who correctly accuse the Bush regime of war crimes—under the same banner of “crazy” as right-wing Tea Party protesters who liken Obama to Hitler. Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin shot back, arguing that loudly opposing war is not irrational, but she also relied on the issue of "sanity":
“So let’s get this straight: people who were so horrified when the U.S. invaded Iraq that they joined millions of others to protest are not sane?... It was because of this insanity that we began to interrupt the war criminals during their public appearances, shouting — yes, shouting — for an end to the madness. It was because of this insanity that we put fake blood on our hands to represent the hundreds of thousands of innocents who died as result of their lies...Jon Stewart says he wants to restore sanity to Washington. So do we.”
     The derogatory use of "madness" not only buttresses the status quo, it reinforces the stigma of other groups labeled “crazy”. Would the left tolerate Stewart calling the Tea Party “gay” in a derogatory way, and launching a “Rally to restore straight”? A blogger recently posted an article “Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's rally to keep ableism alive”, explaining the problems of Stewart’s focus on “sanity”:
“'Crazy' and 'Insane' are words used to describe people with mental disabilities. When someone uses these words in a negative context, to describe a person or idea they disagree with, to put someone down, or to try and make some political point, it is ableist and it harms people with mental disabilities.”
     The recent experience of the political left is a glimpse into the history of madness.

     With the rise of capitalism, people who could not fit into narrowly-defined norms of labour productivity, either because of physical or psychiatric differences, became pathologized. Since then mad people have been subjected to diverse methods of “restoring sanity”, such as institutionalization, electroshock, and “the chemical prison industry” of Big Pharma.
    At the same time, labels of mental illness have been more widely applied to any groups deviating from social norms. In the 1850s slaves who fled their masters were pathologized as suffering from “Drapetomania”, while women who disobeyed their husbands were institutionalized for “hysteria”. Until the 1970s homosexuality was considered a mental illness, and being transgendered is still labeled a “gender identity disorder”. Dissidents in state capitalist regimes in Russia and China were also labelled mentally ill and institutionalized. 
     Too often Hollywood has reinforced the stigma of mental illness, with “crazy” villains whose evil nature is rooted in their psychiatric deviance—from Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, to Hannibal Lecter, to various Batman villains (all of whom have at one time or another been incarcerated in Arkham Asylum). A noted exception is One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which famously depicted some of the repressive conditions of psychiatric institutions. This film was made in 1975, during a rising movement against the oppression of mad people.

Toronto Mad Pride, 2007
     There has been a long history of resistance to psychiatric oppression. In the liberation movements of the 1960-70s there was not only Black Power, Red Power, Women’s Liberation and the Gay Liberation Front, but also the Insane Liberation Front. These days, a Mental Health Consumer/Psychiatric Survivor movement continues to fight against economic and social discrimination, demanding peer-run services, and challenging stigma. This does not mean rejecting medicine like the anti-psychiatry movement, but emphasizing choice and self-determination. Toronto, along with other cities around the world, enjoys Mad Pride Week every year, as a “great opportunity to witness the creative potential of madness, as well as learning about the challenges faced by survivors”. As a blogger with mental health issues explains:
"Mad Pride is a movement quite like Gay Pride, it started from a need for a stigmatized segment of our community to be given respect and equal rights… We need to join the Crazy, the Sane, the lay person and professional to come together to break down the walls of hate, fear, stigma, and stand up for Mad Pride…Because we are all a little mad!”
     This year there’s also a mainstream film celebrating madness: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Besides featuring an empowered, independent female character, Tim Burton’s film is also refreshing in how it deals with madness. Through the character of the Mad Hatter, the film treats madness not as deviancy in need of suppression or forced correction, but as a different and legitimate form of expression. When the Mad Hatter worries “Have I gone mad”, Alice reassures him by saying “I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret: all the best people are.” The key to Alice vanquishing the Jaberwocky is her ability to embrace all her experiences that would otherwise be dismissed as “crazy”—a cat that smiles, a rabbit with a watch, etc.
     As we build campaigns against right-win and reactionary policies, it’s important not to reinforce the stigma of oppressed groups who are also fighting for a better world. This means rejecting the derogatory use of “crazy” and “insane”, and instead building alliances with our mad sisters and brothers.


  1. Its insane how much everyone is accusing everyone of being crazy.... oops.

    I am certainly someone who wants social change and does not abide stereotypes about madness but uses these terms.

    As I have been attempting to use these words less I realize how challenging it is to find a more accurate vocabulary for my concerns.

    However, the word ludicrous comes to mind. That's a new favorite. And using accurate words to describe issues makes us stronger debaters as well.

    Rather than "war is crazy", how about "war is extinguishing it is so polluting to the earth?"

  2. I think we often feel helpless and inarticulate in the face of massive injustice. As Andrea suggests, we grope for words, because nothing we can say adequately expresses how we feel. We call war and other horrors "crazy" because they seem surreal, impossible, outside of reality.

    I dislike the use of these words because they suggest these people and events are aberrations, when in fact they are all too common. I have similar objections to expressions like "failed US policy in Iraq" or "botched" or "mismanaged" invasion - when in fact the architects of that invasion have been successful beyond their wildest dreams.

    You've given me a good perspective on this, another reason to try to make my language more precise.

    I have felt the effects of mental illness in my own life, both as a child growing up in a "crazy" household as and an adult among people I love who cope with depression, trauma and suicidal thoughts. And I want to stand beside people who struggle to have their very real health issues - physical *and* mental - taken seriously.

    So you've given me a lot to think about. I don't know if I'll be able to stop using these words, but I'll try. Thanks.

    [PS: I've been trying to post this comment for a week!]