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The Problem with Language Policing

The problem with language policing: it can worsen stigma by triggering reactance

Patrick Corrigan has been my research crush for a number of years now. And what is a research crush, you might ask? I like how his mind works. He’s a psychologist and stigma researcher, with lived experience to boot. He’s one of the most prolific publishers in academic journals that I’ve ever come across. His perspective on stigma is focused on what actually works, and language policing is one of the topics he’s researched. All of the quotes in this post come from his article that’s cited below.

Where things get really interesting is that he’s shown that what actually works isn’t necessarily what makes people feel good in their advocacy. This particular article is a commentary rather than a research article, but he’s done the background work.

Language is a common focal point for anti-stigma campaigning, and it seems like it should be an obvious target. But we’re preaching to the choir when talking to each other; to effectively reduce stigma, it’s not about what feels right for us. It’s about what’s most likely to get that message received and internalized on the receiving end.

The issue of reactance

If you come across as nagging, the message likely won’t get internalized in a constructive way. In fact, it can lead to psychological reactance; the more you tell someone not to do something, the more likely they are to do the opposite.

Corrigan acknowledges that the use of words that are blatantly stigmatized, like “schizo” and “psycho,” is clearly problematic. However, he writes that trying to “fix” the issue by focusing on words is:

…fraught with unintended consequences caused by “word police”—advocates who identify the inappropriate use of terms related to mental illness and scold those who utter them in an effort to stop stigma.

Is it the words or the attitudes?

What’s really missing with a focus on words is the deep, persistent attitudes that underlie those words. It’s hard to suppress language, but even when it can be suppressed in controlled settings, that doesn’t necessarily extrapolate to changes in beliefs. Corrigan cautions that:

Instead, this policing of words might foster an incorrect sense of the ease with which stigma can be erased: that changing the words is enough. Unfortunately, changing stigma is a much more protracted and difficult task.

This is particularly relevant with structural stigma in large organizations, as token changes in language use may be seen as simple and sufficient. They may not realize, though, that there hasn’t been any actual change in attitudes as a result, which means nothing actually changes for people with mental illness within that organization.

While words can absolutely cause harm, prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behaviour don’t come from words; they come from stigmatized attitudes that are at a much deeper level than words that are used, and the words are chosen based on that.

Telling people what not to say can actually make them think more about that very thing you told them not to say, much like if I tell you not to think about a white bear, you’re far more likely to think about said bear than if I’d said nothing in the first place.

Language policing also runs the risk of people writing it off as political correctness. I wrote last week about the euphemism treadmill, and political correctness just keeps the treadmill spinning without doing anything to address actual problems that exist. My guess would be that the people who are the most anti-PC are also relatively more likely to have stigmatized attitudes about mental illness, and turning off the target audience isn’t likely to help matters.

Alienating the choir

There’s also the risk of alienating people who might otherwise support anti-stigma efforts by shutting down conversation rather than promoting it. Sometimes zealous anti-stigma campaigners start venturing into the territory of telling other people with mental illness what to say, but that’s not the target audience whose attitudes we actually want to change.

Apparently, some anti-stigma advocates have taken issue with the word “stigma,” although I hadn’t come across or noticed before. The argument is that it’s a form of labelling that blames the person who has been labelled. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has jumped onto this particular bandwagon, preferring the terms prejudice and discrimination.

Mental illness is another term that some people don’t want you to say, but when you start to get that ridiculous, you risk swinging the arrow the other way over to the “just depression,” “everyone’s a little ADHD,” and “he’s so OCD” area of minimizing actual illness.

Is there a better way than language policing?

Just because word policing doesn’t work very well doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be active in speaking up against stigma. But perhaps rather than focusing on words, we would accomplish more by addressing attitudes.

If someone uses the term “commit suicide,” for example, but the stigmatized belief they have about suicide is that it’s selfish, would it be more useful to target the language or to share a firsthand story of a suicide attempt that demonstrates that it’s actually not selfish at all?

I wanted to write about this because challenging language seems like a good idea on an intuitive level. But since language policing doesn’t appear to be a particularly effective way to get the anti-stigma message out into the world, perhaps we need to be more flexible and targeted in our approach. Because really, regardless of how satisfying an approach feels to the messenger, if it’s not sinking in on the other end, then we’re not really accomplishing a whole heck of a lot.

Reference: Corrigan, P. W. (2019). Beware the Word Police. Psychiatric Services, 70(3), 234-236.

Book cover: A Brief History of Stigma by Ashley L. Peterson

My latest book, A Brief History of Stigma, looks at the nature of stigma, the contexts in which it occurs, and how to challenge it most effectively.

You can find it on Amazon and Google Play.

Stop the stigma: Resources to challenge mental illness stigma

You can find more on mental illness stigma on the Stop the Stigma page.

26 thoughts on “The Problem with Language Policing”

  1. Excellent article. As a writer, how language is used has always been fascinating to me and I think I often don’t give words the true weight that they deserve. I saw a show recently about how people, when faced with incorrect assumptions, often will not change them based on how the person was introduced to the truth. I’m not sure truth is even what a lot of people are after. I think it’s safety. Anyway, nice way to get my brain going on a Monday morning.

  2. This really resonates. hearing people’s language can give you clues about their knowledge and knowledge gaps. So shutting them down is probably not very helpful in that regard.

    It’s like talking about white privilege: some people shut down as soon as you tell them they have privilege. Maybe our aim can be to explore beliefs and attitudes and maybe share feelings. It also helps if we don’t go into conversations assuming we’re right, they’re wrong. They probably feel similarly, and a confrontation can just entrench people in their positions. Meaningful dialog gives us all opportunities to hear, be heard, connect, and grow.

  3. Thank you. I get policed if I don’t use person-first language about myself. It just distracts from the conversation. It can be off-putting,

    I have heard of the arguments against the word stigma. I do believe we need to get at the prejudice and discrimination against us, somehow. Yes, it is much more complex than changing the language.

    Another Corrigan fan. I know him form his “Coming Out Proud- Honest, Open, Proud) course on self-disclosure.

      1. I don’t think it is the usage, it is what people understand. If you say we are stigmatized, not everyone knows what that means. Everyone knows prejudice and discrimination etc. I could be missing something.

        I don’t like “consumer” so much for that reason. Outside of people involved in mental health, no one knows what that means.

        As far as re-labeling, I don’t know if it made much difference going from manic-depression to bipolar disorder.

        I love that you are writing about this.

        1. I don’t like consumer either. How is it better to describe us based on the services we do or not consume rather than the actual illnesses that we have?

  4. Corrigan is a good crush choice, and I’ve found his work to be intriguing too. More than that, what he focuses on can actually be applied in real life. It has value in the every day and with the initiatives taken, for example by government when it comes to language use as you say. I think in some senses language, much like the statues being torn down in the UK, are more like symbols. It’s what’s behind the words that’s the real crux of the issue. It’s the beliefs, the judgements, the stereotypes that the person is holding that first led them to using such terminology. Those don’t disappear just because the words they used are no longer an option. I absolutely agree. Focusing on the language is only one part of the fight. You’ve covered this brilliantly, Ashley. xx

  5. This is a great article, and I want to weigh in (though I’m not sure how well my brain is working this morning.) One thing that struck me is whether the problem is one of attitude or of actual attention to words used that can be stigmatic. If not the attitude exactly, the “approach” is often the problem.

    Specifically, I refer to those who interrupt my train of thought to point out how a word or phrase I have used could be stigmatic to a certain group (whether the group consists of those who have mental health conditions, or those who are homeless, or any other group that is often stigmatized.) Akin to this is if I have published an article and a person commenting on the article only picks apart the word choice without giving me the idea that they actually bothered to read and understand the article as a whole.

    How those approaches relate logically to the actual need kinda clean up the language, I can’t say. But I do find they are pervasive, and tend to be conversation-stoppers. I’ll probably be thinking more clearly around the issue once I get out and get some exercise. (Rain rain go away).

    1. Yes, if someone is writing an article advocating for people with attribute [x], is that really a logical target? And certainly, there are some words that are clearly derogatory, but chasing after the words seems like it’s a bit too late in the process to bring about change.

  6. What a coincidence! My sister and I had this conversation a few weeks ago about language policing. She basically echoed your sentiments saying that policing the language does not equate to changing attitudes. We need to focus more on having conversations to change people’s attitude than on the language they use.

  7. You’ve hit the nail on the head with this one Ashley. I too would tell of a person with a mental illness, often using myself, and the struggles they’ve faced, not only in life but also with the stigma. It tends to have a lasting effect on the listener, more so than just saying something like “don’t say committed suicide, you have to say died by suicide.”

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