What the Hell is a Microaggression?

Content/trigger warning: saneist slurs (censored)

It feels like an appropriate day to discuss a particular way in which saneism rears its ugly head. Let’s talk about microaggressions and how to deal with them.

What the hell is a microaggression? Simply put, a microaggression is the casual degradation of any socially maligned group. It’s a fairly new term, coined in 1970 by a psychiatrist and Harvard professor named Chester M. Pierce. “Microaggression” originally meant the crappy things that Pierce witnessed happening to Black Americans at the hands of non-Black Americans. The aforementioned crappy things were comparatively mild; not hate crimes, but obviously motivated by racism (intentional or unintentional). “Microaggression” has since been adopted as a term for small, casual acts that harm any oppressed group. While microaggressions can take several forms, in this post, I will be discussing one particular common microaggression against mentally ill people: saneist language.

I used to have an even stronger reaction to saneist language than I do now, believe it or not. I’m Autistic as hell, so for the longest time, I had no sense of when it was appropriate to tell someone they had committed a microaggression or how extremely to react. (Black-and-white thinking. It makes life interesting.) This became awkward for me quickly, because microaggressions against mentally ill people are everywhere. I have songs in my iTunes with “ps*cho” in their titles. I constantly hear people describe viewpoints to which they do not ascribe as “cr*zy”. I check my Twitter and see people calling a certain immoral orange Cheeto politician a “l*natic”. I used to see this and, well, fly off the handle. I wouldn’t just call people out; I’d get furious. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with anger. I think I have every right to be pissed off at language that reminds me that my brain is used as a slight. And as much as certain factions crow that being angry will never solve anything when attempting to affect social change (even on a small scale), anger can be a powerful motivator. And if some NT isn’t going to listen to me because I’m upset at being reminded that I’m perceived as a subhuman insult, that’s their problem. What was my problem, you ask? It was that I would be too angry and I would let that anger cause me to insult the people I was trying to correct. That is never, ever okay. So key point one of reacting to microaggressions: don’t sink to the other person’s level and use insults. Yes, even if they’re being a saneist ass on purpose. It’s wrong.

Key point two: Like I said, it’s okay to get mad—anger can be a powerful motivator—but it’s not always effective to show as much anger as you feel, especially if you’re as much of a towering crankypants as I am. (Well, towering in the metaphorical sense only; I’m actually shorter than Carrie Fisher was. I used to laugh at how she would sit on chairs oddly because otherwise her feet would dangle, since I also sit funny to avoid foot-dangling. Gods I miss her. What were we talking about?) Recently, I have begun correcting saneist language in a small, tight voice that contains plenty of restrained anger. People tend to be intimidated by the fact that I’m upset, but also relieved I didn’t actually explode. Restrained anger tends to be the way to go in certain social situations, especially if the conversation is already quiet and low-key. And if my Autistic ass can figure that out, it must be really true, right?

Key point three: try to be brave. Even I, someone who is so motivated by rage that bravery doesn’t really come into the equation, know that pointing out when someone has hurt you can be absolutely terrifying. It can be especially terrifying if you feel like you have to reveal that you’re mentally ill in order to bolster your point that saneist language is unacceptable. You may be concerned about how they will react; it could be worse than the original microaggression. (Note: being brave doesn’t mean putting yourself in unsafe situations. If you can’t call someone out because it is dangerous to you, please, stay safe.) It can also be terrifying to ask a person acting saneist to stop if the person is someone you care about. You might fear losing them. You might fear them caring less about you. But consider this: if you ask someone saying unacceptable things to stop and explain your position, they also might listen. And if they don’t, you tried, and you did a good thing. And if the person really cares about you, then they will most likely listen.

Key point four: I mentioned this briefly during key point three. Try to explain why the microaggression is wrong. A good explanation for why saneist language is wrong is “it is used to deny rights and humanity to mentally ill people, so it’s hurtful”. Emphasize that while somebody may not intentionally be denying rights and humanity to mentally ill people, the use of the language is still harmful because words have power and meaning. It sucks, but that’s the way it is. If they keep hitting you with the intent argument, try the foot-stepping counter-argument: if you accidentally step on someone’s foot, you may not have done it intentionally, but you should still get off their foot, apologize, and try to avoid further foot-stepping.

Key point five: think about who it is you’re talking to when asking someone to stop it with the microaggressions. I’m absolutely terrible at this, but I’m trying to get better. Are they someone who will respond well to jargon? Would they prefer layman’s terms? Will they only listen if you get angry, or do they admire an argument delivered calmly and coolly? If you consider questions like these before asking someone to change their language, you may get a better response.

Key point six: some people are lost causes. They don’t want to listen and they never will, at least to you; they have to make a point of standing their ground. This doesn’t mean you should give up trying to spread the word on how saneist microaggressive language has an impact on how mentally ill people are perceived and treated, but it does mean that there might be times when you should conserve spoons and say “Well, I guess I’m not going to convince you” and disengage with someone who’s acting like a willfully ignorant douchenozzle.

Why does this matter? How will all of this help destigmatize mental illness and dismantle saneism? Shouldn’t you have bigger goals than getting people to stop using a few words, Mara? Well, I think correcting microaggressive language is a actually good place to start when it comes to my big goals. But what do I think will solve microaggressions? Well, first people have to know what words not to use. But my long-term hope is that once comparisons to mental illness are no longer used to describe things that are illogical or evil, mentally ill people will be seen as less immoral, less frightening, less Other. My most long-term goal would be that NTs see mentally ill people as people to the degree that it is repugnant to use a comparison to mental illness as an insult.

If you’re still with me after this fairly long entry, you might be wondering what exactly constitutes saneist language. On that front, I think I will defer to Autistic Hoya. They have covered saneist and other ableist language more eloquently than I could. http://www.autistichoya.com/p/ableist-words-and-terms-to-avoid.html

Today’s Carrie Fisher quote is one I mentioned in my first entry, but it’s of great help to me when I’m scared to call out saneism even though I want to: “Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.” I’m very, very afraid today. But I will do my best to keep my fear from halting my mental illness advocacy.

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