portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article reporting oregon & cascadia

homelessness | human & civil rights

Crazy Baiting: Ableist Hate in the Radical Community (Yeah. It's an Issue)

Are you the one who gets up in meetings and suggests that so - and - so be excluded, or not be allowed to join the group, or worst of all be ostracized because you think they might be mentally ill? Have you presumptuously "diagnosed" others with metal illness because they disagreed with you and/or you just don't like them? Have you equated "crazy" with "dangerous"? Do you use words like, "psycho, " "nuts, " "schizo," "crazy, " and "off the rails"? Then I'm taking about YOU.
Most people in the radical community can instantly recognize a racist slur. Most of us understand what a misogynist silencing tactic is. And thankfully, most of us now fall over the top of each other trying to distance ourselves from anything that could be considered homophobic. We call each other out left and right over the words we use in this regard.

But when it comes to ableism, particularly in regard to the so - called "invisible disabilities" of mental illness, the same people issuing "trigger warnings" over other issues and calling each other out over even minor transgressions are often suddenly hate mongers, generally without even so much as an apology. Why are words and tactics used to silence, discredit, and ostracize people with mental illness so prevalent within the radical community? This is our secret shame, and it's time to end it.

Ironically, even the various, noisy callings- out of the past few years have been shamefully marred with privileged slurs and ableist hate speech. Case in point: Recently, author and radical activist Kristian Williams was "called out" for suggesting that there may be unintended consequences and unexplored concerns behind radical "accountability processes." It was a very controversial fight, people chose sides, and it split the community.

Those who wanted Williams silenced also wanted to silence all of his many supporters. They did so, in part, by crazy - baiting anyone who disagreed with them, anyone who stood up for Williams. I watched in horror as some of the hardest working, most effective, and most dedicated activists in the NW were pelted with ableist slurs: words like "crazy, " "mad," "nuts, ""completely psycho, ""wasted and crazy, " "crazy and potentially dangerous," and "completely off the rails" are just some of the examples being wielded by people who should certainly have known better.

The irony here cannot be over - stated: People who had taken it upon themselves to police the thoughts, words, and writing of Williams saw no issue at all with their own use of nakedly hateful, ableist slurs.

Apparently, people struggling with mental illness - among the most oppressed in our society - fall so far outside the fold of who is considered "worthy" in radical culture that self righteous and self - appointed thought police did not even pause for breath before heaving these hate - laden slurs. I want you to think about that for a moment.

It isn't just in the insults slung against people with mental illness (or those merely accused of being mentally ill) where we see the mostly-unexamined privilege, hatred, and damage wrought by ableism. Ableism also rears its ugly head when people presumptuously appropriate the labels of mental illness to lightly make fun of their own behavior or that of others. For example, referring to one's cleanliness or attention to detail as being "so OCD" is offensive, dismissive, and insulting to people who actually struggle with this real, oppressive, and often disabling mental illness.

Similarly, referring to a change of mind as being "bipolar" or to a series of erratic mind - changings as being "schizophrenic" is equally hurtful, hateful, dismissive and awful. These are real conditions that you are almost certainly not qualified to diagnose, and the frivolous use of such terms makes light of the devastatingly disabling conditions of other people whose realities you cannot presume to understand.

Would you call yourself "paraplegic" if you're really just too lazy to get up? Would you call yourself "so diabetic" when you're trying to cut down on sugar? Would you make fun of people for having cancer or heart disease? Probably not. (And if you would, frankly you're an asshole.)

In fact, most of us would never dream of being so disrespectful toward prior with physical disabilities. Why, then, would you imagine it's all right to refer to someone's mental illness that way?

Even the Red&Black cafe, that bastion of radical culture, with it's "safer space" policies, has ableist slurs on its website: as of this writing, they are in the midst of a fund-raising campaign where the "tier two goal" is, in their words, "crazy in debt." (  http://www.gofundme.com/redandblackcafe).
How safe do you think a person with mental illness feels in the presence of such language?

I have attended meetings and been on radical list serves - more than I care to count - where people have self righteously pointed out the erratic behavior of others, either real or imagined, then presumed to diagnose them as being "crazy" (or some other epithet meaning mentally ill), and then cajoled everyone else to exclude and ostracize the allegedly insane person. That's really shameful and, if I may say so, it's gross. Sadly, it's usually been effective at excluding the intended target, who is often just someone the person making the accusations doesn't get along with. THAT is the sort of thing that should really be getting called out.

There is yet another way in which ableism, privilege and hatred have crept into the radical community, and perhaps this one is the most shameful of all. It concerns the way that people are treated in this community when they are experiencing mental illness, either acute or chronic. In Portland, I saw this most forcefully in regard to the treatment of people whose mental health was sapped and compromised as a direct result of torture and confinement that they suffered at the hands of the State. Yes, I'm referring to political prisoners.

A great many people who go to jail for their beliefs experience untold trauma in prison and come out suffering from depression, anxiety, PTSD, and even psychosis. One would think that these people would be welcomed back into the community with open arms and gratitude for the sacrifices they've made, and would receive the help and support they need from the friends, family members, and "allies" who remained on the outside all that time. This has unequivocally *not* been the case.

For the most part, radical activists experiencing crisis and trauma are either left isolated and alone in their time of need, or worse, are denigrated, harassed, dismissed, shit- talked and ostracized. "I was basically deserted, " said one long-time radical activist and former political prisoner who asked for anonymity. "I was in crisis and everyone could see it but no one would help. Instead, I was cut out of groups I'd bled for, denied so much as a couch to crash on, and treated like shit because I couldn't keep it together enough to suit all these self righteous fucks who hadn't done shit all this time."

Another, who also asked for anonymity as a condition for being interviewed for this article stated, "I've had to drag myself back together with no help from anyone and it wasn't easy. Everyone could see I was 'crazy.' It was the talk of the town for awhile. Everyone got off on talking about it like they knew something, shaking their heads and speaking in hushed tones about how 'nuts' I was. It was like they we're trying to pretend it was them and not me who was victimized. They all talked about it with crocodile tears and used it to exclude me from their spaces and groups. But no one lifted a finger to help. I couldn't even find a place to stay. After everything I did, all the work I put in, all the sacrifices I made while these people basically sat around and did nothing, now they're gonna sit around and judge me to make themselves feel better for having done nothing all that time? When I got out, they didn't just fail to help me, they made my life even harder than it needed to be. There's really no excuse for that."

And indeed, there isn't.

Any of us who have been around awhile have seen this dynamic play out. We can all recall at least one incident, and likely more than one, where someone was excluded from a group or a space after someone else posited that they are "crazy," "mentally unsound," "nuts," or any of a number of other slurs. Often the slurs come along with alleged "evidence" of the person's "insanity." Let me point out again: You, dear radical, are almost certainly not qualified to diagnose anyone's mental illness, and your attempt to do so, and to use such an allegation to exclude another, is shameful. This kind of behavior should no longer be tolerated in the radical community.

Even more often than the cruel exclusion of people actuary suffering from mental illness, such slurs and crazy baiting are used to discredit and silence people who may or may not even suffer from mental illness. We all know of at least one person who likes to label people who disagree with him or her as being mentally unsound and therefore not worth listening to. This kind of behavior is reprehensible, and it's time to end it. Speak UP next time it happens. Silence = complicity.

Diversity doesn't just mean "all the different kinds of people I like, agree with, and/or can relate to." It means ALL of us. I'm tired of the "diversity" label always being used to describe someone else's rainbow. It's time that mental illness stop being treated like the new leprosy. Time for people who struggle with it to stop being oppressed, hurt and ostracized in the radical community by people who should know better, often people very vocal and self righteous about diversity when it concerns. .. everyone else. Everyone but us, the "crazy" ones.

People with mental illness are oppressed, harassed, and abused in greater society every day, possibly more than any other group. The people I know whom I know to be suffering from the invisible disabilities of mental illness have ask faced job discrimination - often being fired for exhibiting symptoms of their disabilities. They've almost uniformly suffered from housing discrimination, with an astonishing number being forced into homelessness at least once. (Ever been homeless? It's NOT GREAT.) They've faced slurs, hatred, and a lack of support from every quarter. Police incarcerate, beat, shoot, and murder people with mental illness at an astonishing rate.

Isn't that enough, radicals? Do they really need or deserve your anathema and abuse too?! Do you really think it's acceptable to subject them to your privileged, ableist, hate -mongering slurs, ostracism, exclusion and silencing tactics too?! SHAME on you. Really. If you are one of the many "activists" who has ever used your ableist privilege to justify excluding, silencing, or shit- talking another human being, if you've ever heard yourself using slurs like "crazy, " "psycho, " "nuts," "off the rails," or etc against people to put them "in their place" and to buttress your own position, then SHAME on you. Check yourself.