What makes a word offensive? Is it the word itself? The sequence of letters, or is it the meaning that is attributed to it?

Is it the history of the word, or the intention with which it was said?

There are many fellow mental health advocates that I come across who propose that the words, ‘crazy’, ‘mental’, ‘pagal’, ‘crack’ etc. should be avoided as much as possible in the conversation that we have. This belief is so widespread that when a movie titled ‘Mental Hai Kya’ came out the Indian Psychiatric Society put out a statement asking the filmmakers to change the title of the movie. I have written in the past about the reservations I had about the particular movie and how they were largely unfounded. The movie wasn’t as bad or as misrepresentative as many in my field had feared it would be. Yet, the pressure was such that the filmmakers decided to change the name of the movie to ‘Judgemental Hai Kya’. This seemed to satisfy a lot of people but I was still confused.

“How does it change what the movie shows?”

Changing the name of a movie is not going to change the content inside it and what worried me the most about the movie was how it would represent people living with mental illness, not the words that they used to describe them.

In the last few days, I have been asking myself, “What is it that makes a word offensive?”

In India, ‘mitha’ (translates to sweet) is used as an insult for men who show feminine traits or for gay men but does that mean ‘mitha’, in whatever context it is used, is always offensive? If so, it is about time we started closing down the sweet shops which have “Mitha” written in large words on their doors.

Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?

“Mitha” as a word simply means sweet but when we use it as an insult, when we use it to offend some people – it becomes offensive in those contexts. Many times we make the mistake of thinking that words have meanings of their own. Words have no inherent meaning. It is the meaning that we have decided to give it.

Take the example of another word – ‘boogaloo’. If you talked to some person in 2010 and asked them what boogaloo means, they would probably have no idea. Many people reading this in 2021 may not have any idea what it means either but the fact is that in some neo-Nazi circles, ‘boogaloo’ is the code word for civil war.

Of course, it is hard to take this proposition seriously. Why would anyone choose such a ridiculous word for an idea as radical and dangerous as civil war but then, isn’t that what the point is? If someone takes you seriously, you can easily pass it off as a joke. At other times, you can use it with the intention of talking of civil war.

Words have no meaning of their own unless we put it in a context.

Yesterday, I came across some well-meaning people having problems with the use of the word ‘crazy’ in a video.

“Think of those who are psychologically challenged!” they declared from the moral high ground of a groundhog.

“I used to like this page but I am never going to engage with them ever again.” They continued. Their sacrifice is truly only dwarfed by those of Bhagat Singh. It is so good to have such brave people in our midst, standing up for people who cannot think for themselves.

Seriously though, its idiotic.

My sisters, regularly make jokes about me being crazy when we get together. We make jokes about how I have been certified as crazy by so many psychiatrists that I might as well make it a part of my name. They are, of course, referring to my experiences with clinical depression, but they aren’t doing it from a position of hatred, or disgust or repulsion. They are doing it just because. ‘Crazy’ in this context does not offend me at all.

Of course, if someone were to call me ‘crazy’ or ‘mental’ as a means to insult me or show me down, in those contexts it would be offensive but that doesn’t mean I would ask people to permanently stop using the word ‘crazy’ around me.

This is the mistake that many people in my field continuously make. Many of us try to work on the superficial instead of taking the deep dive into the systems behind it. Telling people to not use ‘crazy’ in their vocabulary may work in making sure that some people (around 10%) who suffer from mental disorders will not have to hear the word but will it change the mechanics behind the insults that the mentally ill have to face?

‘Crazy’ will be replaced by another, then another then another. It is a never-ending chain.

If you really want to help the society understand mental illnesses, mental health and more, you don’t have to do it by claiming moral superiority. You can simply do it by informing people about the contexts and how the same word can have different meaning in different contexts. It is more helpful to convince people that people who go through mental illness are not crazy than to tell everyone that we must completely stop the use of the word itself.

You cannot put out the fire by removing the smoke. You cannot change an outcome without changing the mechanics that lead to it.

You cannot improve the life of the mentally ill by stopping people from using certain words.

Change requires more than that…a lot more.  

What do you think? Is crazy an offensive word? Should it be?

Let me know in the comments!