Saying what I mean

I’ve been trying, not as successfully as I’d like, to watch my language, as suggested almost a month ago by Arwyn, a blogger I like very much. In brief, she asked readers stop using colloquial terms for mental illness (insane, crazy, nuts) as slang. It’s really hard to do, and so easy to rationalise as not being so important (seeing as everyone does it).

Initially I took the challenge somewhat nihilistically for that reason, but the idea stuck. And over the past few weeks I got to thinking about language, as I often do. In general, I’m careful about language, although moreso in writing than in speech. I try to think before I speak. I don’t swear that much. I try to be clear (but I often fail).

And when it comes to anything health-related, I have opinions. I dislike the possessive form of eponymous diseases: Alzheimer disease, not Alzheimer’s, because the disease belongs to the person who has it, not the person (usually the man) who first defined it (or decided to name it). I’m careful about not defining people by conditions or characteristics they have: it’s a person with HIV, not an HIV patient. I’m sure most people don’t think of these things day-to-day if at all, but they’ve been part of my work for long enough that they’ve affected how I speak as well.

And then there’s mental illness. Somehow, it’s accepted in our society to take these words, which mean serious, life-changing things for some people, and apply them to trivial issues. I hate how people use “schizophenic” when they mean “multiple personality disorder”, and when it comes to actual names of conditions I would never apply them to anyone or even anything. The slang needs to join them.

I think many people would dismiss this as too PC, but words mean things. And using fewer of them because we’re over-using some inappropriately leaves us all poorer. So for me, that means binning “crazy”, “insane” and “nuts” (they can join “gay”, “retarded” and “lame”) and saying “ridiculous” or “pathetic” or “tiring” instead. It means saying what I mean.

Is it in our nature?

Although some of the events of the past week or so have made me want to go back to bed and hide under the covers (out of embarrassment and denial), it’s impossible not to write about the race riots at Cronulla.

There’s the cringe factor, wondering what the rest of the world must think of us (and how it will affect our relations with them). There’s the element of fear, that this kind of sentiment is what led to the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, and other race/creed-based genocides. The fear that until it’s over, there’s no way of knowing how far it will go.

But beyond that, I have to wonder why this kind of thing happens. Psychology of mob behaviour is complex, and it can cascade quite unbelievably: see Mass hysteria at Melbourne Airport. But I’m not just talking about the actions; I’m talking about what makes a neo-Nazi, a white supremacist, or even what motivates a teenage boy to write “we grew here, you flew here” in permanent marker on his chest.

A letter in last week’s New Scientist, Born to be good, made me think. The letter is about cooperative behaviour in animals and humans (if you want to make a distinction); the author believes that moral behaviour is behaviour that strengthens the group. Critically, he describes the hunter-gatherer mentality as “cooperative, comradely, compassionate and, if necessary, self-sacrificing, as well as hostile to outsiders [my emphasis]”. Xenophobia is so ubiquitous; it has caused so much bloodshed and has hardly helped civilisation as a whole. But what if it’s an evolved trait; something that’s in all of us, and the only variation is the degree to which we use our rationality to disarm it?

It’s not a happy thought. It might just be enough to really make me want to go back to bed.