Friday, February 5, 2016

The Codification of a Slur

Words matter. What we call one another reflects on both ourselves and on those around us.

If I were to use a slur against you right now, how would it be read? First, it would speak to who I am--my values, principles, worldview--and then it would inevitably say something about you--your race, religion, culture. This has always been how we process information that underlies a slur.

Now think about the slurs that we don't allow in our culture, at least to the degree that we do not condone their use and often shame their users. Did the n-word come to mind? Of course it did. There are slurs that most of us think of as so heinous that even uttering them in an explanatory way may cause a visceral reaction. Slurs used against African-Americans, Jews and women tend to fall in this category for many Americans.

If we as a country have come to a place where we largely accept that these types of slurs are not acceptable, even slurs against Hispanics and the LGBT community are now widely denounced, why can't we jointly reach the conclusion that slurs against and in reference to the disabled are equally abhorrent?

I've written about the End the Word campaign here numerous times. The use of the r-word remains a blight on our society. But it's more than that one word. As I will explain, and as Leonard Hitchcock, a dear friend, did here, it's more than being politically correct, that oft-heard phrase in today's politics, it's about respecting every human being as just that--human. And in communities of developmentally disabled and mentally ill people, the r-word is not the only word that is offensive.

The United States, like many industrialized nations, has a dark history with respect to how it has treated the disabled and mentally ill. For generations, disabled and mentally ill people were locked away from the outside world, set up in self-sustaining communities in often remote parts of counties and states, where the fear of those inside would not have to be faced by the population at large.

This brings me to Idaho. Idaho was not immune to this heinous history.

For those not familiar, Idaho has long had state-operated psychiatric hospitals. They once went by names like Northern Idaho Sanitarium and Insane Asylum, Idaho Sanitarium for the Feeble-minded and Epilectic and Idaho State School and Colony. You may now know these hospitals as State Hospital North (Orofino), State Hospital South (Blackfoot) and Idaho State School and Hospital (Nampa).

State Hospital North, a state-run psychiatic hospital is located in Orofino. Built in 1905, the hospital has long been in Orofino, but not always a part of Orofino. Asylums, sanitariums and the like were closed communities. They had their own land to raise their animals for slaughter on, some had their own slaughterhouses, they kept up self-sustaining farms, they had housing for their staff and had burial grounds for their patients, continuing their seclusion even in death. However secluded, the often inhumane treatment of patients at those hospitals occasionally spilled out into the communities around them. In the 1940s, the Idaho governor's office undertook an investigation of the Blackfoot hospital after a series of patients died under mysterious circumstances, some quite violently.

Let's take a moment to discuss what is meant by inhumane treatment: Until pharmaceuticals were invented that could treat mental illness (and even afterward to a degree), medicine as a practice didn't always know how to deal with the developmentally disabled and mentally ill. Electroshock therapy, lobotomies, insulin shock, hydrotherapy and other extremely distressing treatments were used to attempt to cure illnesses, if not manage them. Perhaps the greatest reason that so many ghost hunting shows and horror flicks are set in asylums is because of the fact that for over a century, we treated these patients as if they were animals, nothing resembling human.

Beyond the medical treatments afforded these poor souls was the language in which we referred to them. 'Imbecile', 'retard', 'moron', 'lunatic' and 'maniac' were common both within the medical community and the general population. In fact, it has taken until the last ten to fifteen years for state and federal government to remove these despicable terms from code.

In the 21st century, I believe we as Americans have learned that groups who have historically been disparaged by a slur have the right to reclaim that slur and use it about themselves or others of their demographic. Whether they use it about themselves or not, that gives us no right to use those words about them, in reference to them or indirectly about anyone or anything else. This applies to the n-word as much as it applies to words like faggot, kike or spic.

To my point: The Orofino High School mascot has been the Maniacs for decades.  The mascot is a direct reference to the residents of the hospital, both in name and image. The mascot has hair standing on end and appears to be wearing a hospital gown as it "freaks out" in some way that apparently connotes mania. The issue of whether or not 'maniac' is a slur or not has been coming up in Orofino for at least 25 years. Never is it more at issue than now when, once again, Paul Shepherd (R-Riggins) wants a specialty license plate with the image of the Orofino Maniac proudly displayed on it. The legislation has been "toned down" by removing the term 'maniac' from the plate itself, but the image of the gowned maniac remains.

In response to concerns that using the mascot is offensive to those with mental illness as well as those who work with the mentally ill, the comments have been a bit hard to wrap one's head around. The state hospital in Orofino? They apparently are "proud of their maniacs" and don't have a problem with the plate. A local councilwoman said that it is positive representation of the community. Thankfully, some don't have the same position. For instance, the Idaho Council on Developmental Disabilities "opposes the legislation because of the stigmatizing effect the word 'maniac' has on people experiencing mental health issues."

The entire reason Orofino High School wants a specialty plate is to raise money for a district that is strapped for funds. Isn't there a better way of doing this than portraying a segment of the population in this way? The answer is yes. I personally believe there is.

A place we can look to for a similar example of people grappling with language and what words we choose to use to refer to an entire race of people has to do with Native Americans. In the last few years, Americans, particularly football fans, have been confronted with the question of whether or not a team in the National Football League should be allowed to use both an image and a slur against American Indians as its mascot. For years, fans of the Cleveland Indians have protested the same thing. My own team, the Atlanta Braves, faces all kinds of scrutiny, rightly so, for the Tomahawk Chop, prior use of the character Chief Noc-A-Homa and a logo featuring a screaming Indian. There are few instances of collegiate or professional teams willingly changing their mascots to suit the world we live in. Florida State, rather than ditch the Seminoles mascot, asked the tribe itself for permission to continue its use. There is a lot of work to be done and it will be years before we see real change.

There is hope for high schools, however. Adidas has offered free design assistance and money for new gear if high schools will phase out their mascots that feature Native American imagery. I took it upon myself to personally reach out to Adidas to ask if they would be willing to expand the parameters of this program to include a mascot like that of Orofino. Not only could Orofino benefit from this in a monetary way, schools like Salmon High School where they are the Savages could also apply. Wouldn't the free design help and money to replace their sports equipment be just as useful to their districts as whatever dollars they could raise from a specialty plate? I realize that the Adidas money, or similar money from an organization with the same intent, is a one-time infusion whereas the plate money would be ongoing, but there has to be a way to continue bringing funds to a school district that needs it in exchange for the kind of goodwill teams would create in the community and the state with a more appropriate mascots.

Why does this matter? Why does a single word matter? Please consider three things:

First, in 2010 the Idaho Legislature and Governor Otter finally removed words like 'mentally retarded', 'idiot', 'feeble-minded', 'lunatic' and 'mentally deficient' from Idaho Code. Even in 2010, there were 73 laws that had outdated and deeply painful words and phrases that represent long-since abandoned thinking about the developmentally disabled and mentally ill. Those references forever inked in Idaho Code went back as far as 1908 when the state hospital system was beginning. Why then in 2016 would we want to insert 'maniac' back into Idaho Code, in word or in reference to this image? Why would we want to go backward when we don't have to?

Secondly, the dark and distressing history of psychiatric hospitals in this state and the words once used to describe the patients there deserve your careful consideration. While I do not doubt that the current community respects and is proud of "their maniacs," that has not always been the case. When we use the term today, without ill will, remember that we are not speaking just of the current patients at the hospital in Orofino, we are speaking of the patients throughout the history of that hospital. We are speaking of those that led secluded, lonely lives, shunned by society and treated horrendously by both family and those that were entrusted with their care. We're speaking of the men and women who were stared at, beaten and abused, treated as animals and left to die in these hospitals. In the beginning, these patients were brought by train to Orofino and housed in tents. At the height of demand, 600 patients would be housed in a building intended for 450. Their illnesses were treated with isolation, extreme temperatures like ice water baths, lobotomies, insulin shock therapy and straight jackets. When the people of the town would drive by the hospital in horror, fear or curiosity, they would point at the patients and call them maniacs. There was nothing loving in the way that word was used.

And finally, ask yourself this: If they were the Orofino Retards or OHS Feeble-minded, would you be okay with having that on a state-sponsored license plate? Of course not and neither should we be okay with the Maniacs.

The legislation introduced by Rep. Shepherd has been approved in the House Transportation Committee and will go to a vote.

1 comment :

Patricia Jensen said...

Thank you for your insight and for your words against what the symbolism of words has done to Orifino. Or maybe it was the water?