18 Oct 2012

Disablism, mental health, and how to criticise anti-feminists

"I must admit I find myself on the verge of using mental health-related language in an awful lot of situations. But there are always other words to describe what you actually mean."

Laura Woodhouse, writing for The F Word blog

I started thinking about the politics of mental-health related terms of abuse ('Nutter' 'Crazy' 'Loon etc') yesterday, when someone pulled me up on my use of the word 'nutbag' in a blog post. I was using the term to describe right-wing extremists who wish to dictate what women do with their bodies, and it's probably not the first time I've equated anti-feminism with 'lunacy' of some sort. I was surprised to be pulled up on using this piece of 'disablist language', and as most of us tend to do when challenged, started feeling quite defensive. Hang on, I thought. I suffer from mental health problems myself, and have done pretty much all of my adult life (plus some of my teenage life too). Being a huge Alan Partridge fan, I often affectionately refer to myself as a 'mentalist', and laugh uproariously at any episode of 30 Rock which shows character Tracy Jordan's inability to come off his medication without going completely haywire, because it mirrors my own experience. If the term 'nutbag' doesn't offend me, after 8 years on medication, various episodes in therapy, and several humiliating interviews with Occupational Health where I have to assure a new employer that my depression doesn't interfere with my ability to work, why shouldn't I use it?

But when I thought more deeply about it, I realised I was pulling the same trick that racists, homophobes and sexists have been pulling for decades. Saying "I have mental health problems and I don't mind that term" isn't a million miles away from saying "My best friend's black and knows that me calling him [insert racially pejorative term here] is just me being friendly, innit!". Yes, I might not mind it when people use mental-health related language, just as a woman might be happy to reclaim the word 'bitch' when describing herself, or a gay person might reclaim 'fag', but that doesn't mean I have the right to assume that it's not going to hurt others when it's put out there in a public space.

That aside though, I think the more convincing argument for me is that equating deliberate misogyny and sexism, which is freely chosen by its propagator, with mental health problems that the sufferer neither chooses or controls, is not just offensive but downright inaccurate. Describing a senator who votes for women to have 8-inch probes shoved up their vaginas before they're allowed to have an abortion as a 'loon' lets that person off the hook by implying they're not in control of their decision-making process. And the scary fact is, they are. They know exactly what they're doing. To write their actions off as 'crazy' absolves them from responsibility for their deliberate, calculated, anti-woman actions. 

As Laura Woodhouse puts it, "It isn't "mental" that people are demanding justice for [convicted rapist] Ched Evans: it's disgusting, incomprehensible, upsetting. It isn't "crazy" to say that [anti-choice MP] Nadine Dorries cares about women's rights: it's ridiculous, naive, just plain wrong." And yes, to bury either of these acts under the language of mental health does mental health sufferers a great disservice, by putting their struggles which they did not ask for and cannot help, on a par with misogynistic actions which the perpetrator has freely chosen.

Mental health issues are still little understood, and often stigmatised. Even with great campaigns like these, there are still plenty of misconceptions about mental health conditions, and sometimes even scepticism as to whether they are 'real' (unfortunately this seems an attitude particularly aimed at depression sufferers, and in the past I have even experienced it from those closest to me which is especially heartbreaking). Just writing about my personal experience with it in this blog makes me vaguely uneasy - not because I'm in any way ashamed about this part of my life which makes me who I am, but because we all know how those looking to undermine women will immediately target their mental health to write them off as 'unstable', 'hysterical', and all those other lovely pejoratives that are only ever aimed at women. Admitting to mental health issues also makes one worry about future job prospects, and the possibility of judgment and ridicule. But if I really believe in ending the stigma, then I guess change has to start at home. So for me the change is both being open about my own mental health problems here, and thinking much more carefully about my choice of words in future. Because while I'm happy to call myself 'mental' in the privacy of my own home, publicly using that word to describe a woman-hating politician is dragging both me and my fellow sufferers down to their sub-sewer level. 

And we deserve better than that.

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