I should probably start by saying that I’m quite fervently in favour of political correctness – I agree with Stewart Lee that it’s really just a form of “institutionalised politeness“. I think the fact that our language has got kinder and more accepting is an ethical achievement, and the fact that our language has got more nuanced, more specific, is an epistemological achievement. If we split “coloured people” up into Chinese, Moroccan or Quechua, their different cultures come more sharply into focus; while if we start dividing “mad people” up into those who are depressed, schizophrenic and so on, we are better positioned to develop treatments that are targeted at specific symptoms.
So when The Sun shrieked recently that 1,200 people have been killed by “mental patients” over the last decade, it didn’t surprise me too much to discover that this description was not just politically, but also factually incorrect – this figure of 1,200 refers to anybody who had suffered a mental health problem up to a year before the offence, only a minority of whom would be currently receiving mental healthcare at the time of the offence.
The desire of The Sun to stereotype people with mental health conditions is all the more stubbornly hysterical when you consider that it comes just two weeks after Tesco and Asda were forced by a public outcry to withdraw a “mental patient” costume. The costume in question appeared to be pitched as a deliberately politically incorrect joke, equating mental health conditions with a cartoon character that was somewhere between a zombie and a serial killer in need of a haircut, simultaneously the object of our worst fears and our scornful contempt.
Freud argued that the psychological purpose of most jokes is to act as a safety valve for the social and psychological pressures we experience internally. Jokes allow us to say the unsayable, by translating social taboos or private anxieties into a fiction we can explore at a safe distance from what we admit to be real. Jokes go “too far” when, like the “mental patient” costume, they reveal the author’s hang-ups a little too clearly for comfort. So it’s understandable that Mind’s response to the fancy dress costume was a reality check: fighting fantasy with facts, by tweeting selfies of people with mental health conditions, whose “costumes” were their normal everyday clothes. Here’s some examples.
When people use crude words or images to describe others (words that are both rude, and broad stereotypes), their language becomes a blunt tool that fails to understand its object while telling us more than it intended about its subject. This is why political correctness is now accused of making us all walk on eggshells: the prospect of wielding this delicate tool makes some people frightened of offending others, and other people frightened of exposing their own mindset. Am I supposed to say bipolar, or manic depressive, or something else, they think, or maybe I shouldn’t say anything? I wouldn’t for a minute blame this on that tired cliché, the thought police, since the only policing being done here is that person monitoring their own thoughts, measuring themselves against what they imagine to be society’s judgement, and then complaining about the cruelty of a judgement that originates inside themselves.
Nevertheless, the end result is the same: some people decide it’s safer not to talk about anything sensitive, like mental health. And we get stuck in a vicious circle, where the elephant in the room gets scarier because everybody is pretending it’s not there. This is why I think that, specifically in the area of mental health, there is a risk that ever more stringent standards of political correctness may further stifle public and private discussions, a risk that as people who are afraid of saying the wrong thing decide to play safe and say nothing, those who are suffering also feel safer saying nothing, holding everything inside rather than seeking help.
So what’s the answer? How do we find a language for mental health that is sensitive without being so fragile it disintegrates on touch? Through working at a research agency that specialises in reaching out to vulnerable people, I’ve interviewed people with a range of mental health conditions of different degrees of severity, and I’ve found the best approach is usually to emphasise from the outset that I am there to learn from them, that the conversation is happening on their terms. If I listen to the language they use to describe themselves, and repeat those names or phrases back to them, I hopefully allow my interviewee to feel that they are in control of the discussion. I’ve talked to one person who quite cheerfully described himself as “mad” and another who saw depression as an event that happened to him, that was external to him and did not define him.
If I’d just slapped a label on these people – whether or not it was politically correct – I would have failed to appreciate their different approaches to their own mental health. If you just ask people what they want to be called, you learn a lot more about them by observing their choices.