Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Mental Illness, Metaphor and Stigma

This BBC article highlights some concerns regarding the use of mental illness related terms in a metaphorical sense, usually in jest. The concern is that in using the terms to describe undesirable properties of people, phenomena (such as the weather) and other such things. It's a very valid concern. Language works powerfully at the level of assumption.

This is an issue that is no doubt going to polarise people into two camps. That will mean that the debate is bipolar, since it will have two poles. On the other hand, perhaps some of us will ourselves be in two minds about it. That would mean that a point of separation or cleavage, also known as a schism, would have occurred in our mind, which in ancient Greek would be phren as in phrenology. One who possessed a schism in his or her phren would no doubt have to be called a schizophrenic even if the term had not been thought up by Paul Eugen Bleuler in the study of hysteria and various related disorders a hundred years ago. The origins of the word are covered here.

The problem is, these mental illnesses have been understood and studied for only a very short time and the language used to describe them has generally been around much longer. The two halves of the word schizophrenia come from ancient Greek and, as I have demonstrated, putting them together makes a lot of sense in some contexts. With words like bipolar, that has been done long before the disorder came to be described by science.

Bleuler's understanding of schizophrenia was no doubt very different to how schizophrenics would like to be perceived today. Though he did argue against the idea that it was a form of dementia, highlighting examples of where intelligence was enhanced, not impeded, in his time the disease was seen as hereditary, leading to the forced sterilisation of sufferers in some places. Because the understanding of the condition to which the term referred at the time of its coinage was so different to what we mean by it today, we could say that the word possesses not one meaning, but many. Each time the meaning of a word changes within the field of study to which it is central, it leaves behind offshoots, because people who heard it, learned its meaning and started to use it as part of their own vocabulary do not necessarily follow the change in meaning or definition. The word doesn't just enter into our language culture once, but many times. Schisms develop between its meaning in popular culture, its meaning in science, its meaning among patients and practitioners. Some groups claim the right to take ownership of it and wrestle over it with others.

The term schizophrenia the latter use of the term as described by the Oxford Dictionary, to which objections are being raised, has been around for quite a while in scholarly literature. It was used by Lacan and by Jameson and many others. Given this, I don't think the dictionary has any choice but to include it. Jameson's 'Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,' for example, uses various condugations of the term

The word bipolar means having two opposite ends or sides. We describe a magnet as a bipolar magnet. Anywhere, human or otherwise, where we wish to describe this property, the word is used. Our BBC article uses the example of calling the weather bipolar. Though there is no evidence one way or another, it is quite possible that people have been calling weather bipolar, because that is sometimes an apt description, since it may alternate between extremes, since a time long before the disorder was recognised.

I have a great deal of sympathy for victims of stigma. When I hear, for example, school children calling something they don't like 'gay' I get very annoyed with them. I accept that there is a need to give language and perception the odd tweak to ensure that discriminatory assumptions are not preserved in its meaning after they have been successfully combated in other spheres of communication. However, the examples in the BBCs are article are less clear cut than that. Perhaps some of these people need to pause a little and think about whether there really is any stigmatisation going on or not.

Just remember: if language had a mind, it would be schizophrenic.

No comments:

Post a Comment