Volume 10, Issue 9
In academic journals, legal judgments, university lectures and student writing, you will come across all manner of things described as "schizophrenic" - approaches, logic, reasoning, and other judgments.
An example from an academic journal: "the Australian schizophrenic approach to legal reform of the hearsay rule can be partially excused".
From the ages of six and fourteen, I watched my mother’s mental health deteriorate, and she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She was a single parent. Over time, her condition reached the point that she was increasingly abusive and incapable of looking after my brother and me. As a result, when I was in Year 9, he and I left home, and moved in with my older sister and finished high school living with her.
The weight of years of childhood involving watching my sole guardian and protector slowly become a threat to my own safety clearly wasn't intended by the author of the journal article the quote above was taken from. And yet, it brings up those painful associations.
Do I suggest that we have to excessively police our language, because of the chance that someone might be upset, because of their own experience, far beyond what we intended? No, I don’t. But I think we can do better than using the names of mental illnesses as throwaway language.
I am aware that this article comes at a juncture where issues of free speech on campus and ‘trigger warnings’ are often debated. Proponents of either side of these issues too often reductively attack and generalise the stance of which the other is coming from, ignoring the valid concerns of those they disagree with and doing a discredit to their own view. I don’t intend to play into that divisive discourse here, because this is a different issue.
It isn’t a ‘muzzle on free speech’ to suggest we should not offhandedly use terms like this in legal discourse. We should, as much as possible, be able to express any ideas we want, and perhaps to a more limited extent, express those ideas in the way that we want. But the use of ‘schizophrenic’ in legal language does not stem from a genuine attempt to express an idea – it stems from a desire to impress the reader with $10 words, to avoid language reuse, or because, the writer thinks that words like ‘inconsistent’ or ‘nonsensical’ will not suffice, even if they would. Language use such as this is not about putting forward a point of view: it is about as creative as hitting right-click on Word and pressing ‘Synonyms’ to bring up a list.
When it comes to disabilities, it is offensive to use the word ‘retarded’ even in colloquial discourse, so it certainly wouldn’t be expected in the law as a substitute for ‘impaired’. One would be shocked if we heard someone describe a judgment as ‘autistic’. So why should ‘bipolar’ or ‘schizophrenic’ be okay?
A minor adjustment to, or some self-awareness of our language use, would go a long way to respect the experiences of others.
Tim Sarder is a second-year JD student
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