The Language of Insanity in the Trump Era

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Merriam-Webster defines the word crazy as:

1a:  full of cracks or flaws; unsound
b:  crooked, askew
2a:  not mentally sound; marked by thought or action that lacks reason; insane
b (1): impractical (2): erratic
c:  being out of the ordinary
3a:  distracted with desire or excitement
b:  absurdly fond; infatuated
c:  passionately preoccupied; obsessed

and the word unhinged as:

“upset, unglued; especially: mentally deranged.”

I have always been fascinated with language. I constantly read as a child and would think very carefully before saying anything. For me, words have real power both in terms of communication and in terms of impacting how the speaker thinks. If you speak casually about certain topics, your attitude toward that topic is likely to be casual. The two are interwoven, but the more you speak casually or insultingly about something, the less likely you are to respect it.

So, when President Trump began his time in office, I was unhappy to see the ways in which his actions (and the actions of those associated with him) were quickly described. I have never heard the word “unhinged” as many times as I must have heard it in the past three months. Indeed, about one month into his presidency, I had to look the word up, just to see what it precisely meant because I felt people were using it in different ways.

There was also the brief period of time in which the latest fad was to diagnose Trump with narcissistic personality disorder, which eventually led to the man who defined the disorder telling people to cut it out, arguing that while Trump may be a narcissist, that doesn’t make him mentally ill.

The Problem With “Crazy”

I think the way in which most people use the terms “crazy” and “unhinged” to describe the behaviors and actions of other people is lazy and dangerous. And I say this being fully aware that I certainly throw around the word crazy all the time. But as I said before, words have power and if you are someone with an audience, you should respect the fact that your words will affect the way that others think. Sure, it is easier to call someone crazy or tweet the word crazy than to describe the reason why you think they are crazy, but it is more precise and thoughtful to avoid using the word.

Rather than tweeting, “President Trump is crazy to propose building a wall” or “Trump’s plan to cut NIH funding is crazy!” it would be better to say, “It is unreasonable for Trump to propose cuts to NIH funding when there is still so much research to be done on cancer.” And yes, I understand that twitter has character limits, but that’s what threads are for.

Beyond the laziness and lack of thought inherent in using shortcut words like “crazy,” it is also dangerous to use words in this way. Mental illness in our country is heavily stigmatized and a lot of the reason for the stigma and misunderstanding is the casual way our society throws around certain terms. People say the weather is “bipolar” if it’s hot one day and cold the next, but the reality of bipolar disorder is much more complicated. Crazy, although it has a variety of meanings, generally has an overall connection to mental illness or insanity.

Thus, when people villainize others and then assign terms like “crazy” and “unhinged” to them, they are, by extension, villainizing those who suffer from mental illness.

A More Nuanced Perspective

Yet, I have been thinking about this topic a lot. Through my own experiences with mental illness, I have learned to take the time to really think about things when they bother me. So, rather than just chide those throwing about the word crazy and getting angry with them, I questioned if I was just being overly sensitive.

For one thing, I think political correctness can go too far at times, to the point of being ridiculous or even unhelpful to the community it aims to help. (For instance, I’ve been fascinated by the debate between using autistic or autism recently.) Clearly, saying Trump has narcissistic personality disorder is different from simply calling him (or his actions) crazy. After all, crazy has many definitions and it is likely that using the word crazy in that sentence is perfectly fine.

In a strict sense of the concept of sanity vs. insanity, perhaps the actions people are labeling as crazy are inherently abnormal and not sane. Perhaps, “crazy” is, in fact, the correct word to use. But the casual referencing of the people and actions as crazy is what bothers me, not necessarily the word use.

I have this debate with myself a lot about people’s tendency to label mass shooters as crazy, which frustrates me. It’s similar to focusing on the shooter’s skin color or religion, rather than actually focusing on what may have driven him or her to carry out such an action. Yet, I can’t shake the thought that perhaps labeling a shooter as “crazy” or mentally ill isn’t inaccurate. It is fair to say that the very action of killing another person in cold blood is abnormal and not sane.

As I said above, I use the word crazy a lot. Before I began to come to terms with my bipolar disorder, I would throw other words like “depressed” and “bipolar” around a lot, too. But, I know that when I began to consciously say “I have bipolar disorder” vs. “I am bipolar,” it led to a shift in my own thinking.

As a society, we should strive to be careful in how we discuss those we oppose. Labeling them “crazy,” or “unhinged,” is an easy way out. It’s like saying there’s something inherently wrong with them and that is why they do the things we oppose. But, in saying that, you reinforce negative stereotypes that those with mental illness have something inherently wrong with them as well, something that makes them “bad.”

Written by Raven Payne

Recently awakened progressive in pursuit of truth in all things.

Raven Payne is an Editor and Writer for Progressive Army, and a member of its Editorial Board.

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SPLASH! News for April 19, 2017

The Language of Insanity in the Trump Era