On Twitter, I have been discussing the use of mental health terms in political speech with the journalist Beatrice Bray. In recent weeks, Guardian cartoonists Martin Rowson and Steve Bell have both used the term ‘psychotic’ to describe political figures in negative terms. Beatrice says this is wrong and that is marginalises people who are actually clinically diagnosed with psychosis.
On the one hand, I think this is a case of ‘useful’ political correctness. First, I’ve said before that a respect for names and labels, of people, groups or cities, is one of my tenets of useful and persusive speech. Free speech campaigners always reserve the right to offend… but when we do, we are usually referring to the right to offend the people we are talking about! What Beatrice is complaining of in this case, is that other people – those with an actual mental illness – are the ones being hurt in the cross-fire. And I have sympathy with her contention that the ‘hurt’ caused is a very real social marginalisation, rather than just ‘hurt feelings’.
On the other hand, I cannot shake a feeling at the back of my mind, a sense that Rowson and Bell and others who use mental health terminology, are in fact using the words as metaphors.
Often, the term employed as a metaphor is not always used properly. ‘Spastic‘ was often used to convey mental deficiencies when in fact it refers medically to a motor/physical illness; and schizophrenia means delusional and disorganised, not split-personality.
However, I think Rowson and Bell are at least getting their metaphors straight. They seek to describe the Conservatives’ policies as being dangerously out-of-touch with reality. They reach into our vocabularies for a word that describes such trait… and often, the word ‘psychotic’ fits the bill. We all know that David Cameron does not actually have a clinical mental illness… but the term seems the perfect metaphor for his political tactics (as least to a liberal lefty).
So, while many will consider the word extreme, they nevertheless know that it is an accurate metaphor for the concepts under discussion. Does that necessarily translate into harm against people with a clinical psychosis? Thoughts and opinions welcomed.