Tag Archives: agency

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The Rise of the Mental Health Lexicon

 Some clinical terms function as rhetorical shortcuts that are meant to be dismissive.

Language within a culture flows and changes like a river.  One of the more interesting transformations over the relatively short period of the last 30 years has been a clear increase in the use of mental health labels in everyday discourse.  What was once clinical language has become commonplace in ordinary conversation.  We now use terms that once had a clear diagnostic function seen, among other places, in discussions of the President’s fitness for office. Writers from nearly every quarter wonder if he is “paranoid,” “driven by conspiracy theories,” “compulsive” in his use of Twitter, “delusional,” “manic,” “narcissistic” or a “sociopath.”  Indeed, mental health experts suggest Trump really does fit the clinical definition of the last label.  But I suspect that some of the other mental health terms have different rhetorical functions.  We also see there terms even in ordinary settings.  In my line of work as a professor even students who cut classes may well be described as a potentially suffering from a chronic mental health problems rather than bad judgment.

Clinical language has several interesting applications.  One is to use a label that allows us to more or less dismiss another person for not meeting the general tenets of social competence.  This heavy stigma is one reason that mental health labels used to be uttered in a whisper.  The truth is that Trump easily offends our understandings of how an ordinary and empathetic person should relate.  But its a more of a satisfying blow to weigh him down with language that flirts with the borderlands of the insane.

Using the lexicon of sanity makes it possible to offer a faux diagnosis that allows us to take a person less seriously. 

Some of this is harmless and simply part of the constant flow of language. But the use of mental health terminology as a rhetorical device has another subtle consequence.  Using the lexicon of sanity makes it possible to offer a faux diagnosis that allows us to take a person less seriously.  In a nutshell, the language tends to deny the person the rights to full agency.  Think of “agency” as the idea that we are fully in charge of our lives: capable of making of managing our own affairs.  Illnesses of all sorts can be crushing blows to what we take to be our birthright of self-control. In some form or another an illness takes charge. This is why we give a person a pass if  we hear about their debilitating headaches or hypertension.  No moral judgment is made.  Similarly, it would be cruel to fault a person for having a malignant tumor.  Mental health terms can do much the same, but the pass is converted into a slight. The effect of using the lexicon is to devalue a person’s basic social capabilities: their capacities for acting within reasonable norms. Now, of course, many of us proudly proclaim our “attention deficits” and “compulsions.” But more of us are willing to accept them as excuses.

If we tell a friend we are “depressed,” they might find it easy to urge us to “snap out of it” or “cheer up.”  But a person with clinical depression is not so easily advised. Their condition may be less in their immediate control. We often assume that a drug will do what they cannot do for themselves.  This is mostly good.  But the downside is the patient’s seeming loss of agency.  We see them as not being able to help themselves.

All of this is a reminder that we naturally seek an advantage over those who fail to measure up.  Rhetorical maneuvers involving clinical terms can foreclose the necessity to deal with a person and all of their complexities.

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The “Tragedy” Euphemism

A rhetorical “covering” that allows us to miss important truths helps none of us, especially those who will lose their lives in the next mass shooting.

It’s an axiom of communication analysis that meaning resides in the receiver.  Words can be what communities want them to mean. Even so, when a term creates more fog than clarity, it overuse needs to be noticed.

The reporting in our national media has been calling the shooting deaths in Las Vegas “tragic,” as if the fates had some role to play in the bloody event. We are far too comfortable hearing man-made catastrophes like this massacre described with a term suggesting loss and grief, but deflecting the subject of agency.  The label is apparently meant to give an event the emotional gravity it it due. But its widespread usage lets Americans off the hook too easily.

Here’s what I mean. Americans love euphemisms. “Taking one’s own life” sounds slightly softer than “suicide.”  We ask directions to a “bathroom” when we need a toilet. These are perhaps harmless ways to moderate our language  to preserve the sensitivities of others. Yet we really must get over the kind of Victorian ‘covering’ of awful events that happens when a term effectively maintains a cultural blind spot. Regarding the event in Las Vegas, arguing direct culpability by a single innocent citizen may be too much. But no high-functioning society tolerates the kind of gun accessibility that exists in the United States. If one result is a “new normal” of deadly and routine mass shootings, then we all collectively bear some responsibility. The neutralizing euphemism of “tragedy” dims a light that needs to shine brightly into the dark corner of rampant gun violence.  Las Vegas is a less a tragedy than a  mass murder. It was domestic terrorism as a bloodbath.

To call an event “tragic” strips it of a focus on agents and means.  That’s a change from the oldest meaning of a tragedy, which was a theatrical form designed to let us witness flawed figures whose actions brought about their own demise. Think of Macbeth, Hamlet or even modern narratives of Richard Nixon. All have been rightly portrayed as participants in their own undoing. But we undo this emphasis on direct culpability by ignoring destructive and enabling social norms, giving ourselves unearned comfort in a term of compassion.

Of course the victims and families directly involved are justified in talking about their altered lives as a tragedy. But journalists have a duty to be more clear-eyed. A rhetorical “covering” that allows us to miss evidence of a culture that won’t change helps none of us, especially those who will lose their lives in the next mass shooting.