It feels like I imagine a Black person feels when a racist calls him or her a “nig#er.”
How would you react if the father of a daughter fatally shot by a non-White person, in public, said in the days following the shooting:
“I’m not going to let this issue drop. We’ve got to do something about chi#ks getting guns.”
“It’s senseless that her life… was taken by a sp#c with a gun.”
“He was a nig#er that got a gun, and that’s part two of where we’re going with this.”
I think it’s pretty fair to say the public – and media – reaction would be one of outrage.
Replace “ch#nk”, “sp#c” and “n#gger” with “crazy people,” “crazy person,” and “crazy man,” respectively, and you get what Andy Parker, Alison Parker’s father, said on TV after her shooting.
Why do we not witness the same level of outrage when the media, pundits, politicians and victim families refer to the mentally ill with equally derogatory slurs?
If you look at the origins of the word “crazy,” you may begin to understand why this term is just as pejorative as the epithets sometimes used to refer to other minorities.
First employed routinely in the 16th century, according to the online Oxford English Dictionary11, the connotations of “crazy” then included “flawed,” “damaged,” impaired, “unsound,” “diseased,” “infirm,” “demented,” “cracked,” and “deranged.” Today, “crazy”’s contemporary, dictionary definition still includes the terms “having flaws or cracks” and “deranged.” Those are anything but neutral terms.
People who negatively judge or assume things about others, on the basis of their different skin color, are called racist. People who judge others on the basis of their different mind – minds which don’t conform to culturally-constructed definitions of “sane” – are guilty of an equally hateful form of prejudice: they are sanists. We live in a nation which tolerates every form of diversity except diversity of the human psyche.
Why does it matter how we talk about mental illness – and laws associating gun violence with it – following events such as Roseburg’s?
It matters because the prejudice this discourse fuels contributes to the ongoing discrimination and denied opportunities at least 14 million Americans experience today; threatens doctor-patient confidentiality; criminalizes the mentally ill; and increases the self-stigma, humiliation, shame and feelings of worthlessness the mentally ill internalize when we are talked about in language which portrays us as defective beings. (The Gun Control Act of 1968 literally refers to the mentally ill as “mental defectives.”) Studies have found all of the above has twice as large a negative impact on our lives than the mental illness itself12. In other words, it’s prejudice which fuels and makes permanent our “severe mental illness,” increasing our societal burden.
And that’s costing all of you tax payers more money.
The prejudicial rhetoric also matters because it leads to policies which erode our rights, such as lowering the threshold for involuntary commitment, as many states have over the past few years. Legal experts agree that gun laws which are based on predicting violence based on prospective, clinical assessments are a violation of civil rights13.
And the language we use matters because these resulting policies cost the nation more in the long run. Laws which threaten doctor-patient confidentiality deter treatment seeking, and that results – among other things – in more mentally ill landing in expensive, government-funded institutions or homeless shelters, and living off of SSDI – all paid for by your tax dollars. The policies being passed today also place a greater burden on our health care system – which comes at the expense of your health insurance premiums.
If you don’t care that you’re a bigot, fine. But I bet you care about what’s coming out of your paycheck, or how much you’re shelling out for health insurance. And it’s only going to get worse so long as the same, recycled banter that characterizes media coverage following public shootings continues.
President Obama – one of the few who appreciates the complexity of American violence, and who did not vilify the mentally ill last Thursday – lamented the “routine” media coverage and politics which inevitably follows mass shootings.
Douglass County Sheriff John Hanlin also called on the media to – God forbid – do the unthinkable: refuse to focus coverage on the shooter, thereby glorifying and sensationalizing him.
TV news and cable stations have aired Hanlin’s invocation repeatedly – and every time they do, his clips are sandwiched between coverage that digs up as much information as possible about the shooter and his background, giving that 26-year-old exactly the infamy the sheriff pled the media deny him.
That, folks, is “crazy.”
Responsible media coverage in the wake of mass shootings would start with two things: