Call me Nuts, but PC Language Cripples us

September 2004

The other day some readers took me to task for speculating that a certain prominent person had been “off his meds” when he called Olympics champion Myriam Badard a pitiable single mother. Hurtful, stigmatizing, and discriminatory toward the mentally ill, they wrote. Shame on me. I ought to know better.

I guess I ought. And now they can report me to the government of Nova Scotia, where a body known as the Anti-Stigma/Discrimination Working Group is trying to stamp out media bias toward mental illness. It is running a contest encouraging alert citizens to collect examples of such bias, and it’s even offering a $2,000 reward. A partial list of biased words includes “maniac,” “madman,” “fruitcake,” “madness,” “mental hospital,” “nutcase,” “raving lunatic,” “kooky,” and “you’re off your head.” The work “schizophrenic” is biased when used metaphorically. Unbiased writers should not refer to mental illness as an “affliction” or call someone who has it a “victim.” That might leave the impression that mental illness is a bad thing.

Let me say right up front that some of my best friends are persons who have sometimes been off their heads. Despite my rude references to meds, I would not survive without them, and there is no more enthusiastic advocate of the modern pyshcopharmaceutical cornucopia than myself. I’m all for destigmatizing the curse (oops, condition) of mental illness. And yet, I am extremely schizophrenic about this project. Call me crazy, but I think Nova Scotia has gone completely off the deep end.

One problem with our effort to sanitize the language of all that might offend is that it leads to lunatic results. Just ask the music reviewer at the Los Angeles Times. Last month he reviewed an opera by Richard Strauss, which he described as “ a glorious and goofy pro-life paean.” A diligent copy editor replaced the controversial term “pro-life’ with the inoffensive “anti-abortion.” This resulted in not one but two embarrassing corrections explaining that the opera has nothing to do with abortion.

Education and social work are the fields in which the language police are busiest. My favourite example is from a new college textbook on human development that includes this statement: “As a folksinger once sang, how many roads must an individual walk down before you can call them an adult.” This gruesome effort is some educator’s attempt at a gender-neutral makeover to the classic folksong Blowin’ in the Wind. In the original, it goes, “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?”

I owe this gem to Diane Ravitch, a leading U.S. expert who has made a specialty of studying this nutty but unstoppable trend. In her book The Language Police, she lists more than 500 words that are routinely deleted from textbooks and tests by educational publishing companies and government education departments. They include “landlord,” “cowboy,” “brotherhood” and “primitive,” ─ words that might offend feminists, multiculturalists or ethnic activists. The forbidden list is growing fast. “Fireman,” “handyman” and “hostess” bit the dust long ago, and are now being joined by “addict” (replace with “individual with a drug addiction”), “cancer patient” (replace with “a patient with cancer”), and “yes man.” New York State education officials have gone so far as to banish all words that include the hateful letters m-a-n ─ including “mankind,” “man-made,” “man hours” and “penmanship.”

The elderly are another group we must not offend. They are touchy. I know this for a fact. Whenever I mistakenly refer to “little old ladies,” wrathful women of a certain age are on to me like fleas on dogs. Never mind that I almost am one myself. They won’t hear of it.

It is no longer proper to refer to anyone as old, no matter how long-lived they may be. According to The Bias-Free Wordfinder, a reference book for journalists and educators, persons are not to be described as old or even elderly. Even “senior citizens” is out. The preferred term is “older person” or “older adult,” which, alas, is so hopelessly vague as to be almost useless.

Canadian education suffers from similar censorship. Ontario’s education ministry insists that all textbooks must incorporate the principle of “diversity.” Who could object to that? But what this means in practice is that everyone is depicted as exactly the same as everybody else, no smarter and no dumber, no richer and no poorer, no better and no worse. Diversity is good, so long as real differences, which might be awkward, are ignored.

It’s probably a good thing that we no longer call Tiny Tim a “cripple.” But “a young person with a disability” seems to lose something in the translation. So would King Lear without this madness and his suffering. Mental illness is a special kind of hell. Why deny it? And without the rich vocabulary and metaphors of madness, what a scrawny and impoverished (oops, disadvantaged) thing our language and culture would become.