I find it appalling that people still use words like “lame” as pejorative epithets. I’ve heard people whom I know otherwise to espouse egalitarian values on a large range of topics—people who would cringe at other kinds of discriminatory language—throw it around in regular conversation. This thoughtless, casual habit has to stop.
Allow me to get off my soapbox for a moment, and confess that I heard myself liberally pepper my lecture on the use of APA style with words like “crazy” and “insane.” In my defense, they were not used to describe directly the citation style in question, but rather to underscore to students the expectations around correct citation, e.g., “Nobody expects you to remember exactly how to cite every single source. That would be [insert casual insensitive word pejoratively describing mental illness here]! Instead, you have to know what categories of information you need to produce a correct citation, bla bla bla.” That is an accurate rendition of what I heard in my head after that appalling use of “crazy.” Why is it still ok to use these metaphors, when we have perfectly good adjectives to convey “terrible,” “awful,” “appalling,” or “incredible” situations?
The insidiousness of the concept of “political correctness” still haunts any attempt at ridding everyday language of discriminatory terminology. I do not mean to rehash the critique here, but only to underscore the power of this “straw man” argument, its endurance, and the ways in which it can hinder opening up our conversations on these entrenched uses of language that continue to hurt, render invisible, marginalize, and oppress people. In that moment in my class, as my mouth-and-vocal-chords assemblage was uttering the words, my brain jumped ahead to realize the harm I was perpetuating, but not quickly enough to prevent me.
I do hope it will stop me in future. I have become aware of other metaphors I was using in my teaching to underscore the foundational nature of a teaching-and-learning moment such as how to do a critical reading. I would casually say “this is the meat and potatoes of critical thinking,” before—again with my brain lagging behind a beat—apologizing to vegetarians and vegans, indeed to the diverse group of people in my class, for whom “meat and potatoes” does not evoke a stereotypical staple meal. Of course, it was also a good teaching moment for the application of critical thinking in examining our own personal and culturally-derived biases and assumptions. Who am I kidding?
In all seriousness, however, the use of “crazy” and “insane” as synonyms for “wrong,” “terrible,” “unusual,” etc. strikes me as even more problematic, because of how it serves to bury mental illness under a deeper discursive darkness. In spite of all the clever campaigns, we still have so much trouble accepting mental illness as a regular and legitimate aspect of our—everybody’s—lives that the least we can do is eradicate the casual use of these adjectives and others that do the similar work of marginalization and oppression.