“Retarded”, “autistic”, “bipolar” and other dangerous labels

“Retarded”, “autistic”, “bipolar” and other dangerous labels

Publication date: 26-03-2021

Updated on: 01-03-2023

Topic: Mental health

Estimated reading time: 1 min

Words can shape our plural and multiform identities. The labels with which individuals and groups are classified (“man” and “woman”, “heterosexual” and “homosexual”, “white” and “black”) allow human beings to orient themselves in social reality.

However, certain labels more than others contain judgment, derision, contempt, and represent ways to stigmatize individuals and groups, behaviors or affections. Expressions like “southerner”, “nigger”, “faggot”, “retarded”, “handicapped” populate our interactions, real or virtual, infest verbal aggression and online attacks, corrupt civil discussion and political confrontation: used as stones, they are accompanied by practices of discrimination, to the point of fomenting episodes of violence.

What is the role of such “labels”? Why is it common to use them as insults? What are the social consequences of this stigmatizing attitude? And above all, how to hinder it?

In this article reflect with us Prof. Claudia Bianchi, Full Professor of Philosophy of Language at the UniSR Faculty of Philosophy, President of the Degree Course in Philosophy, expert in theoretical issues in the fields of analytical philosophy of language, pragmatics and philosophy of feminist language, and Prof. Roberto Cavallaro, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Director of the General Psychiatry Operating Unit at the San Raffaele Hospital and President of the Degree Course in Medicine and Surgery.

Labels as tools for social control

“Labels and definitions influence what others expect of us, and how others will treat us: if we have been categorized as women, others will expect a certain way of dressing, behaving, speaking from us. Words tell us who we are and what we can become; how to love and who to love” argues Prof. Bianchi. “At the same time they tell us what we are not and cannot become; who we cannot love. In this sense, words can be conceived as instruments of social control. Tools that tend to project stereotypes onto us, sometimes rigid and suffocating – which have the power to imprison or reduce our uniqueness, to reduce our identity to a single component, be it gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, a disability, a psychic condition”.

Stigma associated with mental disorders

Regarding the mental condition, Prof. Cavallaro warns us: “Affixing pseudo-diagnoses (“autistic”, “bipolar”, “schizophrenic”...) as insults or easy debasement of behavior to mental pathologies is a phenomenon far from recent. Its origins have to do:

  • on the one hand with the ancestral “fear of diversity”, the core of the stigma associated with mental illness;

  • on the other hand with the countermeasure applied to try to “control” the situation by knowing itI know that behavior as..., so by naming it, instead of abandoning myself to a restless amazement in front of the unknown, I feel safer, as if I had a consequent plan to deal with it”.

In the era of very fast and uncontrolled circulation of terms and information, but also of haters and “keyboard warriors”, even the technical lexicon of psychopathology has been transferred into the common one and improperly used to qualify the behavior of others in a “do-it-yourself” with insidious outcomes.

Words can be poisons

On the role of labels, Prof. Bianchi reflects: “These have first of all the function of drawing a demarcation line between who is inside and who is outside the group: that is, they serve to label certain individuals as outside our group, to mark them as the other from us, to build a “we” and a “them”.

And they play a role in essentializing social categories: they communicate a negative message that seems to concern essential aspects of our targets, on traits attributable to their “nature”, to intrinsic characteristics, in some cases biological, in turn at the origin of moral or cultural differences. And they encourage us to share a negative perspective on those individuals, and possibly also to adopt discriminatory behaviors towards them”.

Words can be stones; words can be poisons. In his analysis of the language of the Third Reich, the philologist Victor Klemperer observes: “Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all

Stigma toxic effects

“In the psychopathological field, labels given daily online and offline are used more and more in order to legitimize personal judgments – continues Prof. Cavallaro – flaunting a vocabulary that is actually modest in appropriateness. The use of these terms generates subtle effects for several reasons:

  • the strength of the stigma towards psychiatric patients (weak, unwilling, responsible for their troubles or in any case “lost” to society, according to common declinations of the stigma in prejudice) accompanies a negative, expulsive characterization, and a judgmental connotation;

  • overexposure to an improper lexicon can trigger a sort of addiction to the terminologydamaging its impact and effectiveness when instead it must be correctly received in the course of delicate processes such as prevention, diagnosis and promotion of treatment.

All these facts can contribute to push away people who would truly need some treatment, even for problems that can be easily solved in most cases, since feelings of shame arise with respect to the labels and generate distrust in a trivialized psychiatry”.

Actions to stand against hate speech

What strategies are therefore appropriate to counter these behaviors?

Professor Bianchi suggests: “There are many strategies at our disposal to hinder hate speech, strategies that engage us as individuals or groups, as mere spectators or militants:

  • we can criticize and denounce;

  • argue and rebut;

  • ironize and make sarcasm;

  • support and amplify the struggles in defense of civil rights;

  • give recognition and value to the unusual identities of women and men, and their relationships.

Above all, in the face of hate speech episodes, we can choose not to remain silentnot to remain indifferentnot to become accomplices – more or less aware. As John Stuart Mill writes: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing” 

Prof. Cavallaro concludes: “In these cases it is useful to rely more on the humanistic values ​​of spreading culture than on the technical ones, reserving to the former the responsibility of involving civil society in the main cognitive elements about mental suffering to combat the stigma, and the dangerous desire to judge using the lexicon of psychopathology, and to the latter to a responsible and precise disclosure to promote its treatment”.

The development of this participatory process relates to the practical implementation of the “Third Mission” to which UniSR gives particular strategic importance, with the development of initiatives for civil society also implemented through our teachers and students.

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