TALKING ABOUT TALKING ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH – THE Q&A (PART 2)

 

Last time, I posted responses to questions I was asked during the Q&A on the night of my talk “Are We Mental?”.  Today, I’m posting responses to a couple of questions I was sent by email, from someone who was in the audience.  Their initial question was related to Slide 13, the one with the ableist slurs, but our conversation went on to other topics as well:

“Hi, I was at skeptics last night and actually had a question for you but didn’t ask because social anxiety (diagnosed by a medical professional!) and being in a group of mostly strangers don’t mix well. My question is what words/phrases should be used to replace ones such as “mental” or “insane” or any of the others on that slide?”

I try to say things like “wild”, “extraordinary”, “weird”, “odd”, “crappy”, “awful”, “ridiculous”; but sometimes for expediency and/or dramatic effect I do use some of the “forbidden words” 😉 it’s also very difficult to wean yourself off it when you’ve been using those words without any thought for years! You need to be ready to seriously question yourself. I actually had a conversation about this on the way home, re. whether there are certain types of humour that were always inappropriate. One person didn’t see a problem with jokes that demean, another did feel that certain jokes were so beyond the pale that people *should not* find them funny. I side slightly more with the latter (hear me out) because I can see how condoning crappy speech about minorities leads to a culture of “othering”, but I also know that we often find funny the things that are taboo, and we can’t censor people’s thoughts (and it might be harmful to try). A part of me screams “this is such a cop-out”, but I think a lot of the acceptability of words, opinions, jokes, depends on your audience, and how it is said. And what the potential for harm is. It’s so context-dependent that I feel every instance has to be considered on its own merits. This comes back to my final point in the talk: people really need to use their brains, and flex their empathy muscle.

“Hey, thanks. I guess there’s also a point to be made for how a word that has been adopted to describe a mental state or behaviour is associated with that state or behaviour. For example words like retard feel more off limits than words like mad and crazy in my view (of course maybe that’s just my shortcoming) because I think these days people get an image of a person with learning difficulties before an image of “slowness” when they hear retard but mad and crazy perhaps don’t inspire that sort of negative image in the same way (maybe they should and/or maybe it’s worse that they don’t?). And having “mad skillz” at something you’re “crazy good” at is generally intended to be positive – does that help redeem those words or is it harmful in a way similar to cultural appropriation?”

Yeah, I’d agree that some words have evolved in meaning so much that their original meaning doesn’t seem relevant. But context is really important, as you identify above – no-one ever uses the term “retard” as a compliment, right? But having “mad skillz” is a good thing, and to be a little crazy can mean exciting, wild. If you said someone was crazy while describing an unpleasant behaviour that they were doing, the word has different connotations. So perhaps I’d like people to be more aware of what it is they are actually saying.

Regarding cultural appropriation, I feel there’s a fine line to be trodden between appropriation and appreciation, which is almost completely dependent on context. I saw a really interesting local news item from Shropshire about Morris Dancers wearing blackface, which I will blog about next: Let Morris dancers wear black-face make up, say Shropshire Star readers.

Not really the same thing, but it does raise interesting questions about intent and interpretation.  There’s also the matter of people reclaiming a once-oppressive word for themselves: queer, nigger, crip, etc. But even that’s controversial, because of the powerful taboos surrounding that type of language.

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And then we talked about a whole other bunch of stuff with no relevance to my talk – which I’m not going to share here.  But please carry on the conversation in the comments below; I said we need to talk about mental health, so let’s do it!

 

3 thoughts on “TALKING ABOUT TALKING ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH – THE Q&A (PART 2)

  1. I think context and audience are really important as well as whether a joke is punching up or down, it’s possible to joke about taboo subjects without punching down and often funnier.

    • Yep. Completely agree. And taking ownership of off-colour jokes can remove the fear and pain associated with a subject. There is no blanket solution, we need to respect people’s intelligence and accept them expressing themselves in the way they see appropriate. We also need to make room for mistakes, and to learn from those mistakes. It doesn’t have to be about not saying this, or not saying that; we can preserve free speech by encouraging self-awareness and developing one’s own judgement.

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