Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Issues of Speaking Out Against Madness

Sad Puddle

This post isn't about mad scientists, but I'm going to start there, because I need it for where I'm going.

When you find mad scientists, you'll also find some non-neurotypical fans. It's not that there can't be problematic areas of the trope, but there are also some positive ones. The mad scientist is not in a story to show how tragic they are, what an inspiration they are for neurotypical people, or to be cured. They have a plan and they have an adventure trying to achieve that plan. They can build flying machines or try to take over the world. There are no limits.

This is why I don't mind a bit of mad science, as when it's handled well, I enjoy the wish-fulfilment of the trope.

On the other side, the trope can demonise being non-neurotypical (if always portrayed as a genocidal villain). It can suggest that anything a non-neurotypical person comes up with is inherently unstable, rather than simply being a solution no one else had thought of trying. And it does use the word 'mad', which can be a problem in itself.

This is why I understand when others can't read it, find it triggering, and would rather see the trope disappear.

The point of this mad science summary is it highlights something I wished didn't need to be said: we're not out of the woods yet when it comes to the representation of non-neurotypical people and the use of related words (mad, insane, crazy). It's a sensitive issue because the discrimination is still there, the words are still used as insults and the people it impacts still don't have the power to do a lot about it. Though some tropes and uses of the word can be seen as positive for some non-neurotypical people, they can still be hurtful to others. Discussing the topic means understanding why the hurtful things are hurtful, even if they don't push our own buttons.

We're definitely not at a point where casually using the words to mean other things won't be hurtful. You can argue for reclaiming in situations where it's by non-neurotypical people, for non-neurotypical people and about non-neurotypical people.... but the argument gets a whole lot less substantial if you're using mad to mean fluffy pink horses.

In other examples, you don't call someone a faggot and assume people will think you're likening them to a meatball. If your friend is always happy, you're unlikely to say they're such a gay person, without stopping to consider other meanings. And if you say someone is mad, there are layers to that statement too, because calling someone mad still is a way to disregard someone, justify institutionalising them and otherwise take away their rights. If you mean they are happyfun, you've added a rather dark layer on top.

But there's a lot less awareness of the use of words relating to non-neurotypicality. Even in communities that are open to discussing similar issues in regards to race, gender or sexuality, raising non-neurotypicality terms is often taboo. "Oh, everyone uses that. It doesn't really mean that. You're so over-sensitive. My best friend with an anxiety disorder said it was okay." All the arguments that aren't considered acceptable in other contexts.

This is why my social networks haven't been a happyfun place in the last few weeks, because it hurts to see some terms being flung around so casually, in a context that isn't in any way related to non-neurotypicality. I can understand slips in conversations, because I do it too. When you hear something said so often, it can come out, like it or not*. But when it's something planned, considered, and justified, that's when it cuts.

The big thing that hits me is not simply the word, as I have a generally more positive view of mad/crazy/insane than a lot of my friends. It's because this usage takes it away. There's no potential for reclaiming the word, or attaching it to a positive things, as might happen in a story of mad science, because this isn't about non-neurotypical people at all. It's saying, "So, you want to reclaim this word used against you? Tough cookies. I like this word, so I'll use it. Go get another for your identity."

There's not a lot I can do about that, because I don't have the power. I'm small fry compared to the people involved. So each time I see it come up, I feel a little smaller inside, because I'm too small to change anything. All I can do is feel sad and hope if it ever comes up again, someone might remember this post and use a different word.


* Which isn't to say you shouldn't consider your words in casual conversations. But generally, you say it and you're gone. Someone notes it and you say sorry. It's not going to be something I see everywhere I turn for the next few weeks.


Rose L said...

Thank you.

Alex Dally MacFarlane said...

Thank you for writing this post.

It's not going to be something I see everywhere I turn for the next few weeks.

This is one thing that has been bothering me about this: that it's not a slip-up in casual usage (I know I still need to work on my own usage of these words), but a repeated usage in big letters, with no discussion to frame it. Just the big letters and the excitement about it.

So each time I see it come up, I feel a little smaller inside, because I'm too small to change anything.


Again, thank you.

dogmatix-san said...

I don't typically give words like 'mad' or 'crazy' a lot of thought, although I do object when 'he/she's crazy' is used as a denigrating way of dismissing a legitimate problem that needs help.

I don't think I use these words much in typical conversation, but I will self-monitor just in case, and will try to stand up more if I hear them used around me (I am terrible with confrontation, so this may not always happen, but I will try.)

Polenth said...

Rose, Thank you for reading.

Alex, It's the official nature of it that grated too. There is a big difference to chatting to your mates and turning it into a project. I just wish someone had said, "Wait a minute," at the chatting stage, and thought up some alternative titles.

dogmatix-san, As far as battles go, I know I don't confront every use of a word, and I'm sure most others don't either. That takes a level of energy most of us don't have. I mainly focus on listening critically to how people speak (including myself), and trying to improve my own speech. Not just this specific situation, but other terms like lame to mean bad, blind/deaf as insults when someone doesn't see/hear something, and so forth.

I generally save commenting for more extreme examples, which is often the official stuff, as it becomes a barrier at that point. Like in this case, the anthology name has created a barrier to submitting for some people, which didn't need to be there. And I know some are worried it might be a barrier for their career if they admit it hurt them.

Rachel Swirsky said...

OK, I'm trying to figure out where we can circle common ground here. You wrote "There's no potential for reclaiming the word, or attaching it to a positive things"; I disagree, and think potential here is greater than w/ mad science.

When you say this "this isn't about non-neurotypical people at all" and that the opposing position is "So, you want to reclaim this word used against you? Tough cookies. I like this word, so I'll use it. Go get another" that leaves no space for mad people who disagree. We don't exist; it can't be about us; we aren't the speakers.

This assumption of who is neurotypical and who isn't, what positions can be held by whom, and who is "us" and who is "you" also assumes that all people who are mentally ill will be clearly demarcated in the conversation, which, in a world where there are strong cultural reasons to stay closeted, is a problematic assumption to make.

talekyn said...

Okay, I've reread your post a couple of times, and I finally understand where you're coming from. I won't claim the "non-neurotypical" classification for myself, as I'm only mildly depressed and on Zoloft ... and perhaps that's why I don't feel the sting of the words "mad/crazy/insane." I do have a follow-up questions, and it is not meant as an attack but rather as a way of clarifying my own understanding of the issue.

Have you (or anyone you're aware of) simply gone to John Klima, Seanan McGuire and the rest of the project creators and asked for a different title? Perhaps they did actually have other ideas, and perhaps their use of the word "madness" is not meant as a thumb in anyone's eye. (If someone has approached them, and they have refused to change the title, that puts a completely different focus on the issue, in my opinion.)

NF said...

So... The non-neurotypical people who are in favor of reclaiment DO recognize the fact that these words keep on hurting other non-neurotypical people, yet insist on the problematic usage. Thank you so much, your concerns are important, but frankly, my dear, who gives....

I think my next donation will go to a Kickstarter project with a little bit more empathic participants.

Polenth said...

Rachel, "This isn't about non-neurotypical people at all" refers to the anthology theme, which is nightclubs. Madness is used to mean chaos or fun, rather than mad people.

The person who has been the most, "Yay, madness!" on my Twitter feed has clearly stated that they're not, which is where the feeling of "So, you want to reclaim this word used against you? Tough cookies. I like this word, so I'll use it. Go get another for your identity." came from.

I'm not suggesting everyone fits in an identical category, and my reactions differ depending on the person. The issue of people in the project who are non-neurotypical, mentally ill, mad, or whatever their prefered label, is a different one.

I would defend your right to use the language you want you in your own spaces to the end of the Earth, but I think in public-owned spaces and official contexts, it's better to take the most conservative view. This means I don't use language that means a lot to me, as identifying as mad was a very positive thing, at a time when my differences meant daily bullying. But some of the blogs I comment on, if I said, "I'm mad," it'd hurt people. So I compromise. In my space, my rules. In their space, their rules. In official or public-owned space, conservative rules.

Basically, I weigh up the costs and benefits. When I consider whether the title in this instance means more than the hurt it causes, I can't answer yes. It's a title picked on a moment's whimsy, and if it'd been announced as "Glitterball", no one would have known any differently.

I'm not saying you're not who you say you are because we disagree. I realise this is not the view of those in the anthology I've heard from so far. I also realise the title won't change. This is more about having some space to talk about it, and perhaps giving some space for others in the same boat, because it's easier to get through things together. But as a suggested compromise, something helpful for me would be to retweet anthology announments from the official account as much as possible, as I have that blocked, so therefore wouldn't see it.

(Re: Twitter. From what you said, I took it to mean you are fine with mad to mean people, happytimes or chaotic things, which are the main areas of meaning I know about. This is what I meant by 'any'. If I've missed a definition you don't like, or I misunderstood, I apoligise... there just wasn't room in the tweet to list out the definitions.)

Polenth said...

talekyn, Someone queried it in the comments of the Kickstarter.

Arachne Jericho said...

Thank you for this post.

They are changing the title.

Polenth said...

Arachne Jericho, Thank you for letting me know. I was taking a Twitter break to get some work done. I'm not sure what to say. I'm surprised, in a good way.

The whole thing's been a shock for me, as I've been blogging for years about issues with few comments. People haven't agreed or disagreed. Just nothing. So I'm still reeling a bit, but I'm grateful people listened, including those who disagreed.

J.A. Grier said...

This is a very interesting post. It seems you and others have had some success, since the title is apparently going to be changed.

Your post is a good reminder that what is inoffensive to one person can be traumatic for another. I am a non-neurotypical writer, and also a self proclaimed mad scientist. I never would have taken a second look at the word "madness" in this title, if others had not brought it to my attention. I'll certainly be more conscious of the use in the future, and how it oppresses/liberates those of us with mental illness and other disorders.

Thanks again, and good writing to you!

Fictional Planet

prezzey said...

I've already thanked you twice, but third time's the charm, thank you!! :] Have a nice weekend!

Just one brief comment -

I spoke up against it on Twitter on the first day I saw it (I discuss it a bit in my post), I also remember Ekaterina Sedia directly asking them (likewise on Twitter) if the title could be changed, they replied with a firm no.

Polenth said...

J.A. Grier, Thanks for commenting and the Twitter follow!

prezzey, No problem. Someone has to be the target for all the death threats. :P (Not entirely joking there.)

The clarification about the Twitter stuff is needed, judging from some of the comments and questions I've got. I get the feeling that people aren't aware it was a long term thing. Kickstarters are about a month I think, and it'd been going on since the start. Someone would say something, and it'd be dismissed because the project had non-neurotypical participants. The implication was it was a post-insane-asylum world, so anything goes. It was a free pass for participants to do or say what they wanted. Which may not have been the intention of those running it, but it's how it went down, and it's why it was so wearing.

It wasn't a case of seeing a single use of a word and then having this reaction. This reaction came later, after all the above. And it's why I didn't cover the views of the non-neurotypical people in the project, because those views had already been covered throughout the Kickstarter.

This probably wasn't as clear as it should have been in the original, so I'm making it clear here. Hopefully that answers the outstanding questions I've had.