choose language carefully

Language is a tool for imparting ideas and desires to one another. A living language like English has so many twists and turns in with many words not only being polysemous but also being used in a metaphorically descriptive way rather than relating to any normative use.

If you were to tell me the traffic was crazy today, I wouldn’t think for a moment you had been giving it a psychological evaluation. Even if you told me your child was crazy, unless you elaborate further, I also wouldn’t think you meant the psychological diagnosis of being insane.

In many circumstances, the context can be extracted and the impact of words can be lessened, especially when we know the people saying the words. I will be a lot more forgiving of the people I know using certain words as I understand their intents better than some stranger on the internet.

This is the first point about choosing language carefully. If you’re discussing things with someone that doesn’t know you, your intentions are unknown and your message may be lost if you’re terminology is overly broad or offensive, even if you don’t mean it that way.

But let’s backtrack a moment, I want to tell you about what first got me to really examine my language use.

Man-Sized Tissues

You may remember a few years year back there was this big hoo-ha about Kleenex and their ‘man-sized’ tissues. There was never a problem with it historically but suddenly it was the focus of everyone’s attention.

At first, I didn’t understand why. It seemed like there was suddenly an attack on anything ‘man’ and it didn’t make sense to me.

When it came to these ‘man-sized’ tissues I had always put it down to:

  1. Men are generally bigger than women
  2. Men are generally more pathetic than women when we have colds.

There is actually some science to back up the reasons why this is too. In short, premenopausal women are less affected by (have more resistance to) the rhinoviruses that cause the common cold than men. The man-flu is actually a real thing. That doesn’t mean women don’t suffer, of course, in fact, my wife gets colds much worse than me.

Anyway, I saw this attack on the tissues as a bit silly and a big waste of time and energy that could be poured into bigger problems.

I then engaged in conversation with a few people in our debate group, and there was a common feeling from both women and men that this was excessive.

However, there were a couple of people in the minority with a different point of view which we discussed over a few days, and my mind was changed on the choice for a rebrand.

To summarise the points it was essentially:

  1. Using the word man in a way that is positive e.g. bigger = better then flips it to women = smaller = worse.
  2. It doesn’t matter if that wasn’t the intent of the company, there are some that feel genuine harm by the term, and changing it would reduce harm and cause none.
  3. Do I really care what a product is called?

Ultimately, I don’t care what the product is called. It could be extra extra large, it could be Jason Momoa sized, it could be Starship Enterprise size, Galactic Sized, it really doesn’t matter.

If we can reduce harm without causing any harm to people, surely that is what we should do? It doesn’t matter if the company didn’t intend the harm, it doesn’t matter if I think it is silly, the fact is there is some harm being caused and it costs the people nothing to fix it, and the company can easily absorb the costs.

Re-evaluation

This realisation caused me to re-evaluate the way I use language. I am far from perfect with the way I say things, but I do try much harder to consider my words and phrase them in ways that do not affect others negatively. Prior to this point, I thought I was already using my language carefully and in a more sensitive way than when I grew up. For example, at school we learned to use “gay” in a derogatory way, and whilst I never meant homosexual by the term, I understood the impact using my language could have on a friend or colleague that was homosexual if I said “That’s so gay” and worked to modify my language to “that sucks” or similar, and if I ever slipped up apologised and explained what I meant.

This is a problem with getting comfortable in a position. I had thought that because I had examined my language and worked to eradicate the negatives I was always careful with my language. We see this all the time, how many people have used critical thinking to reach a rational position and then just assume they are rational and good critical thinkers by default? We always need to keep re-assessing ourselves. ALWAYS!

Psychological Terminology

This also caused me to reevaluate my use of psychological terminology in conversation. I was already somewhat careful due to my own experiences as well as that of others combined with people using terms like depressed far too glibly but I realised again that I was still using terminology in conversation, especially with religious people, that could cause stigma against mental illness.

I’d moved past the bad meme “religion is a mental illness” but I still used terms like deluded.

My intent wasn’t to use these terms as if I was giving a psychological diagnosis of someone, but my intent didn’t matter. Especially on a public space such as Twitter, there are people that watch, and even if the person I am speaking to understood my intent, others might not.

By using terms that can form part of a psychological diagnosis in a negative way, we are [hopefully] inadvertently passing a negative judgement on mental health issues. This can cause stigma against mental illness, making people view those suffering in a negative light and those that are suffering less likely to seek help they need.

There are perfectly acceptable synonyms we could use too. Instead of saying someone is deluded using terms like; mistaken, mislead, naive, ignorant etc. are probably more appropriate.

Again, we have a situation that which by changing our language slightly we reduce the harm caused, and it doesn’t hurt anyone in the process.

Recent example:

One thing I did find shocking recently, is the person who had changed my mind about the ‘man-sized’ tissues was using psychological terminology in a derogatory way and when Luke aka @BeardedHeretic_ pointed out much of the same things discussed so far, they doubled down, spoke about their intent, and it being other peoples problem if they took offence or thought they were using their terms differently.

This doesn’t encapsulate the whole conversation, just a small portion.

The thing is, people don’t always get the context right and people do think when you say delusional, crazy, insane etc in reference to some people’s behaviour you ARE saying they are mentally ill and this is where we have things like “religion is a mental illness” sprouting from. People will assume to know your intent because they will assume it is the same as all those awful memes and catchphrases many of us atheists use. Your intent doesn’t matter, there is harm being caused by your words and even if you think your intent is pure and people should know what you mean, there are other words and phrases you could use to accurately describe your position without causing harm. Is that upsetting to you? Have a Momoa-sized tissue.

Is Religion or Theism a Mental Illness?

No. No more than atheism is a mental illness. Some theists are mentally ill, most are religious, and some are secular. Some atheists are mentally ill, most are secular, and some are religious.

Why Is Religion/Theism Not a Mental Illness?

To answer that we have to ask what is mental illness?

Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.

What is Mental Illness – Accessed 27/06/2022
https://psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-mental-illness

So does it fit that?

  • Religion is a list of doctrines, practices and rituals. That doesn’t fit the diagnosis. It isn’t a health condition.
  • Religion doesn’t prevent you from functioning at work or in family activities
  • Religion can have benefits in bringing society together and working for a good cause.
  • Holding false beliefs is not a mental illness, we all hold false beliefs. Were you mentally ill when you believed in Santa or the Tooth Fairy? Did looking forward to Christmas cause you any of the problems mentioned above?
  • Holding false beliefs in the face of evidence still doesn’t make you mentally ill. Again, look at all the people who claim atheism only has one definition and when they are provided evidence to the contrary they maintain their belief in there being only one definition. Are they mentally ill?
  • No one has definitively proved there are no gods or that religion is completely false, even if certain claims have been shown to be so. Whilst I feel I have justification to believe no gods exist, I wouldn’t say that we can claim without a doubt that any religious person is holding a false belief.

Even in instances where studies have shown that those with fundamentalist values might have impaired functioning in the prefrontal cortex which results in a lack of cognitive flexibility and openness (e.g. This story) it’s not talking about mental illness, and even if it was it only applies to 1/5 of the variation in fundamentalist ideals among fundamentals veterans, not even all fundamentalists let alone all theists. It’s also an incredibly small case study, so even if the numbers were more significant I wouldn’t guarantee the results yet, not to mention no control group of fundamentalist people with no brain injury. The story isn’t a particularly good representation of what the study said, let alone the study not being particularly exhaustive. People really shouldn’t use stuff like this to hit theists over the head.

Both atheists and theists need to stop throwing around this whole mental illness thing as well as stop using terminology related to psychological diagnosis in their conversations online.

It’s great to see that there are plenty of atheist YouTubers now saying this sort of thing, some with degrees or passions for psychology and others who have just come to realise this is a bad take.

Here are some I recommend below:

First is a video from Shannon Q (@Shann_Q0)

Next, we have Luke (@BeardedHeretic_) doing a Stream with Dave (@TrolleyDave1971) and @PhilipMuller last November:

GM Skeptic (@gm_skeptic) Briefly covers this off too in a stream a couple of years ago in a video about ‘4 Things atheists should never say’

And Matt Dillahunty (@Matt_Dillahunty) has a great video on this topic too:

Offence and Understanding

I don’t think offence alone is always enough reason to change behaviour/language. If someone was offended by anyone eating mushrooms because they don’t like the smell, that is clearly a them problem. They shouldn’t expect no-one to eat mushrooms because they don’t like the smell, but they could explain it to their friends who could avoid eating mushrooms when they were around.

I think, though, we shouldn’t be so resistant to someone informing us of issues with our language or behaviour and, on the other hand, those that are offended should be more willing to accept an apology and understand that people are often ignorant of why something is offensive.
I don’t think we can really choose to not be offended, but we CAN choose what we do with it.

If we all start working together on these issues then perhaps we’ll have a greater understanding of all humans, instead of expecting everyone to live and thinks as we do.

Summary

People quite often use terminology in colloquial ways or in private language between peers, this is a natural effect of living language but when we are holding these discussions online we should really consider our words more carefully. We see the same sort of thing when people are Misunderstanding The Null Hypothesis and Knowledge whilst being unwilling to consider better terminology. Some even get quite irate at the suggestion they need to re-examine their language.

This is, in part, why I try and address these topics as blog posts as generally online people are somewhat in a more defensive mode, and if they can read things and reflect in their own time then perhaps it might sink in better.

To that end, here’s some of the latest articles in the CMT and BAA series I have been working on which aims to dispel: