*Just a note – we use the term “insane” a lot in this episode because we are talking about old ideas and texts, but we clarify later that this is a legal term and not a medical one.
I was talking with a listener in the past week and she said she wished we would talk a little bit more about how words and word choice mattered. And I thought that was such an important thing that we could spend some time on it today. So I thought I’d talk about two related things – definitions and word choice.
When I taught argumentation and debate, I often told my students that whoever defined the terms of the argument had WON the argument. Because being in charge of definitions gives you a LOT of power. It’s Orwellian in scope – literally. 1984 really delves into this. There are many ways in which one can argue by definition. One can try to formulate a definition, challenge a definition, or try to determine if something fits a standard definition. To do any of this you have to rely on precedent and context, authoritative texts and expert opinion, and colloquial use, as well. Definitions may be affected by technical issues or cultural values. These are important because many arguments are definitional – they set out a definition and argue that a thing fits that definition. Then they might describe the qualities that define that definition and argue how that thing has or fits those qualities and so it fits that definition. That sounds puerile, until we start to think about how it is applied. What is the definition of criminal and who fits it? What is the definition of life and when does it begin? What is the definition of man or woman and who gets that label?
So who defines the terms has a lot of power. I am reminded of Foucault and what he had to say about the field of psychology. Madness, Foucault argued, was about definitions. What was mad at one point in time was not mad at another point in time, and so people at different points in history were treated very differently even though they, themselves, may not have been that different. It’s just that the definition had changed.
In the Renaissance, literature portrayed the insane as people who reveal the distinction between what men are and what men pretend to be. Renaissance art and literature further depicted insane people as intellectually engaged with reasonable people, because their madness represented the mysterious forces of cosmic tragedy. At the dawn of the 17th century, there occurred “the Great Confinement” of insane people in the countries of Europe, the initial management of insane people was to segregate them to the margins of society, with other anti-social people (prostitutes, vagrants, blasphemers, etc.) into new institutions, such as the General Hospital of Paris.
The conceptual distinction, between the mentally insane and the mentally sane, was a social construct produced by the practices of the extra-judicial separation of a person from free society. According to Kenneth Lakritz Officially, the Confinement took aim at poverty and idleness. Foucault suggests that it was really a moral panic provoked by rural displacement, industrialization, and a new class of urban surplus labor. Whatever the reason, millions were locked away without any recourse. In turn, institutional confinement conveniently made insane people available to medical doctors who were beginning to view madness as an object of study, and so as an illness to be cured.
The Modern era began at the end of the 18th century, with the creation of medical institutions for confining the insane under the supervision of medical doctors. Those institutions were product of two motives: (i) the new goal of curing the insane away from poor families; and (ii) the old purpose of confining socially undesirable people to protect society. Although nominally more enlightened in scientific and diagnostic perspective, and compassionate in the clinical treatment of insane people, the modern medical institution remained as cruelly controlling as mediaeval treatments for madness. According to Lakritz, A central metaphor for Foucault is the Panopticon of Jeremy Bentham. Bentham, a British philosopher, was the founder of Utilitarianism and an avatar of instrumental reason gone wild. His Panopticon was a cunningly designed prison-never actually built-that permitted a few guards to observe a huge number of inmates. Bentham’s scheme relied on internalization: once prisoners know that someone may always be watching, they watch themselves. (Just as in George Orwell’s 1984, state terror is maintained even when no one knows whether the omnipresent telescreens are actually operating.)
So madness, or insanity, which is no longer a medical diagnosis but is a legal term in the United States stemming from its original use in common law, has been through a lot of different meanings, from a moral failing to a medical issue. And how we define it makes a big difference in how we treat it.
Next consider homosexuality. Until 1973 homosexuality was considered a mental illness. This shift is important. If homosexuality was a mental illness, then gay people were sick people who needed help. They needed treatment. Of course, if they were not sick, then it could mean that they were just immoral. Taking homosexuality out of the DSM did not mean acceptance. That would not come for a long time (assuming it has come at all) because if it can’t be treated it can be judged.
Gender dysphoria presents a similar challenge to the psychiatric community. Gender dysphoria, which some transgender people experience, is still listed in the DSM as a diagnosis. And at first blush this may seem very discriminatory and prejudicial. But this is a big move from the previous entry in the DSM, Gender Identity Disorder. According to GLAAD, the term “Gender Dysphoria” will be used to describe emotional distress over “a marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender. The key difference is that one is a disorder, and one is simply a diagnosis.” However, it is important to keep gender dysphoria in the DSM, so treatments for it, such as puberty blockers and hormone replacement therapies, may be covered by insurance. If it is not diagnosable, then insurance may well decide it is elective treatment and not cover any of it. So, here again, the definition makes a world of difference to people’s lives.
But it’s not JUST the definitions that matter. The very words we use to describe things matter, as well. The names we give to things will shape the definitions they have. The words and categories we apply to things matter. For example, what is the difference between an “illegal alien” and an “undocumented immigrant?”
Calling somebody “illegal” vs. calling somebody “undocumented” makes a big difference. “Illegal” connotes criminality, or “wrongness.” “Illegal” indicates the severity of the situation. But those who object to the term “illegal” do so on a number of grounds. According to Monika Batra Kashyap, it is legally misleading because it connotes criminality, while presence in the U.S. without proper documents is a civil offense, not a criminal one. It is legally inaccurate because it is akin to calling a criminal defendant “guilty” before a verdict is rendered. It is legally imprecise because it implies finality even though immigration status is fluid and, depending on individual circumstances, can be adjusted. It is technically inaccurate because it labels the individual as opposed to the actions the person has taken.
There are also moral issues with the term illegal. The term scapegoats individual immigrants for problems that are largely systemic. The term divides and dehumanizes communities and is used to discriminate against people of color. It creates an environment of hate by exploiting racial fear. The term affects attitudes toward immigrants and non-immigrants alike, most often toward people of African, Asian, Central American, and Mexican descent. The term impacts the way young people feel about themselves and their place in the world. The term increases the American public’s tolerance for daily violations of human rights. It is a code word for racial and ethnic hatred.
As Shahid Haque notes, “When one refers to an immigrant as an “illegal alien,” they are using the term as a noun. They are effectively saying that the individual, as opposed to any actions that the individual has taken, is illegal. The term “illegal alien” implies that a person’s existence is criminal. I’m not aware of any other circumstance in our common vernacular where a crime is considered to render the individual – as opposed to the individual’s actions – as being illegal. We don’t even refer to our most dangerous and vile criminals as being “illegal.”” But the counter argument to that is that the term “undocumented is not robust enough to describe the situation. Those who have entered the country without the appropriate papers have committed a misdemeanor and civil offense (not a criminal one) and it should be noted.
The terms “alien” and “immigrant” are also important. An “alien” is foreign, perhaps dangerously so. And alien is unknown, not like us, and an outsider. The word literally means unfamiliar and disturbing. But “immigrant” is somebody coming here for a better life. America is a country of immigrants. Immigrants are maybe poor, but also brave, and the story of America. There is a huge gulf between an “alien” and an “immigrant.”
So the terms “illegal alien” and “undocumented immigrant” are very different and say a good deal about the speaker. They also send very different messages. They aren’t just different words; they have different definitions. It is somewhat beyond just a different connotation. The words we use make a difference in how we define things.
Sometimes terms change over time to better describe a situation or thing. Consider the difference between “secretary” and “administrative assistant.” A secretary is clerical, and their role involves tasks such as transcription, typing up documents, copying and call handling, and often supports the administrative assistant. Whereas an administrative assistant is more of a decision-maker and will typically work independently, covering the responsibilities of a secretary while having the responsibility of projects. The most prominent difference is that an administrative assistant will supervise other team members. They will also have responsibility for arranging conferences, reviewing reports, memos, and submissions. Some administrative assistants may even be tasked to prepare statistical reports. You will note this change is a very gendered one. Historically, secretarial work was women’s work. It was considered a pink-collar job. As women entered the work force and took on more responsibility, and demanded more recognition for their responsibilities and accomplishments, it became necessary to distinguish between a secretary and an administrative assistant. It is becoming more and more common for either a woman or a man to hold either of these titles, as well, so both women and men are demanding titles that describe their duties.
Let’s also consider the evolution of terms for women who elect to be full-time mothers. There was a time when they were called housewives. Actually, that term dates back hundreds of years and was popular in America until the mid-1900s. But at that point the public decided it implied drudgery, efficiency, sanitization, and (most importantly) serving the needs of the husband. In the middle of the 20th century the term “homemaker” became popular. It stressed that those who stayed home were doing more than just cleaning the house for the husband – they were meeting the physical and psychological needs of the family. It was a more respectful term. It was a more active term, and, progressively, it was less gendered. A man could “make a home” as effectively as a woman could. A homemaker was doing work. They were creating something. They were fashioning a healthy, happy, loving place for the family. Then, in the late 80s and early 90s the term “stay-at-home-mom” (and more rarely “stay-at-home-dad”) came into fashion. What’s interesting about “stay-at-home-mom” is that it shifts the emphasis of the woman’s life onto the children. While “homemaker” was a generalized term about creating a home, a “stay-at-home-mom” has one focus- the children. This shift in names probably mirrors a shift in American parenting. Numerous books, editorials, and blog posts have been written about how in the last generation American parents have become much more focused on their kids than parents before them. Parents of the last few years spend more time with their kids, they think more about their kids schedules and their activities – raising kids has become much more of a full-time job. We have seen the rise of helicopter parenting. So perhaps it makes sense that linguistically over the last 100 years we have seen the shift in “women’s work” go from wife to home to kids.
So the word choice and definitions of terms and cultural contexts are all bound up. And this can have an impact on somebody legally, medically, educationally, psychologically, professionally, or any number of ways.
This is kind of part of a theme of a few of our episodes recently – language has power.
But we know this. You don’t have to take a rhetorician’s word for it. Psychologists will tell you that your words can make or break a person. There is such a thing as verbal abuse. It is speech that decreases self-confidence and adds to feelings of helplessness. According to Kellie Holly, verbal abuse can cause fear and anxiety, depression, stress and PTSD, intrusive memories, memory gap disorders, sleep or eating problems, hyper-vigilance and exaggerated startle responses, irritability, anger issues, alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, self-harm, and assaultive behaviors. It can also cause physical symptoms such as chronic pain, migraine and frequent headaches, stammering, ulcers, spastic colon, and frequent indigestion, diarrhea, or constipation along with many stress-related heart conditions. Language is THAT powerful. It can change a life.
But it can also help people in their growth and how they experience life. For example, if you praise a child for how smart they are they may feel good about themselves for a while, but then may not deal well with challenges. When they are met with something they cannot immediately figure out they may think, “Well, I’m not smart enough for this” and shut down. But if you praise a child for how hard they work and how impressed you are with their efforts, they are more inclined to work through problems and be willing to face challenges. So the way we talk to people makes a big difference in how they experience the world. That’s not just some pie-in-the-sky rhetorician talking. That’s science.
So, as we have noted before – words matter. But not just in big political issues. In the most personal, intimate, and minute ways. Because language shapes the world in which we live in ways that we can’t possibly understand. So, please, be thoughtful of what you say and to whom you say it. You are shaping somebody’s life.