The Diligent Circle

Sanism in Media and Discourse

Content warning: This article discusses ableism and sanism with mentions of eugenics and murder.

We have a major problem in media and English discourse in general. It's not a new problem; it has plagued our language and very culture for centuries. Chances are, you – yes, you – are regularly using language which attacks mentally ill, mentally disabled, and otherwise neurodivergent people every day without even knowing it.

Ableism, defined (according to Merriam-Webster) as "discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities", has become a reasonably well-recognized term in recent years. A far less well-recognized term, one which doesn't even appear in the dictionary, is sanism. Sanism can be defined as a subset of ableism: ableism directed specifically against those who are mentally ill, mentally disabled, or otherwise neurodivergent. It's a problem that often isn't talked about when people discuss ableism overall, and the problem runs so deep that well-intentioned people are spreading and reinforcing sanism every day.

Lydia X. Z. Brown maintains a very useful Ableism/Language page on their website. This page thoroughly lists a lot of ableist language, including sanist language that is so often forgotten in the discussion about ableism. we won't be repeating that work here; instead, we'll be discussing what the sanist language used every day actually implies, what that says about societal attitudes, and what to do about it. We'll be focusing on a choice selection of terms and phrases, but please understand that this is not exhaustive and substituting one sanist term for another does not make a statement any less sanist. For suggestions on what language you should use, we refer you to Lydia X. Z. Brown's page above.

In addition to language, portrayals of neurodivergent people and other common sources of sanism, or actions motivated by sanism, will also be discussed. This is a matter not only of the language we use, but the way that we think. It's about the sanism which we have been raised with from birth and how it influences our thoughts and behavior.

To start, let's look at perpetuation of the idea that some people are more "intelligent" than other people: terms like "stupid", "dumb", "idiot", "imbecile", and "moron". All of these terms have varying sanist origins (the weirdest one being "dumb", whose meaning of "lacking intelligence" was actually borrowed from German, where the word "dumm" was used to mean "lacking intelligence" due to ableism against mute people). All of these terms represent the same basic idea, however: that those with "more intelligence", a social construct that today generally refers to those with a higher measured IQ, are superior to those with "less intelligence".

This belief is not, despite what many believe, based in science. There is no objective way to measure "intelligence". IQ originated as a measure of academic performance for school children so that a school could get a metric for which students needed assistance with learning the material. Unfortunately, the measurement was later picked up by eugenicists who believed that some people were genetically "smarter" than other people, and ever since then IQ has been used as yet another attack on people who think differently.

Most commonly, someone saying that someone is being "stupid" or is an "idiot" actually means that they're being foolish or reckless. By using terms like "stupid", you subtly perpetuate the idea that only people society deems "unintelligent" do foolish or reckless things, which is false. Any person, regardless of so-called "intelligence", can do foolish or reckless things, and language used should reflect that.

Similarly, it is commonplace to use casual language to attribute evil, irrationality, malice, and negativity in general to mental illness. A simple and common example is when a bad situation is described as "crazy" or "insane", or when someone doing evil is described as a "lunatic" or a "psychopath". This language is all over the place; once you start to notice it, you will see it everywhere. It's in news, it's in entertainment, it's in politics, and it's even in names. Here is a very, very incomplete list of the kinds of casual use of sanist language seen all over the media and societal discourse:

All of these examples are sanist by nature, and needlessly so. The basic sentiments they are trying to express do not require putting down mentally ill people. For example, they could be reformulated as follows:

So that raises an important question: why do so many people use sanist language attacking mentally ill people in instances like these? I wish I could say that it is merely because of carelessness, but there's a deeper issue at play here: many people legitimately believe things that are sanist, even violently sanist. Think about this for a second: what kind of person commits violent crimes? Chances are high that you would associate violent crime with mental illness. Your brain has likely been conditioned to think that mentally ill people are a danger to society, unable to stop themselves from committing heinous acts. The very existence of the so-called "insanity defense" is a direct result of this attitude. Chances are high that you see mentally ill people, especially people with things like schizophrenia or antisocial personality disorder, not as people, but instead as monsters and predators.

To be clear, this is not your fault. Society has conditioned you this way and has conditioned everyone this way for a very long time. But it's an idea that we all must deprogram from our brains, because this idea is unscientific and directly leads to discrimination against innocent mentally ill people. It also leads to evil people being held less accountable than they should be. The fact of the matter is, most mentally ill people are not evil (in fact, mentally ill people are much more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators), and most evil people are not mentally ill or in any way neurodivergent.

So what can you do? Well, the most important thing is to pay attention to what you're saying and why you're saying it. Whenever you get an urge to describe something or someone as "crazy", "insane", "stupid", idiotic", "dumb", or any other sanist term, think about what base assumptions you are making about neurodivergent people when you say that, then replace that sanist term with what you actually mean to say. Again, Lydia X. Z. Brown's Ableism/Language page is a fantastic reference for what words can be ableist and what better terms you can use instead.

If you are responsible for working on media, whether that's video games, articles on the Internet, or anything else, consider going through your work and seeing if you're expressing any sanism in that work, then scrubbing it. Treat sanist rhetoric the same way you would treat any other bigoted rhetoric: don't use it unless you have a very good, educational reason to and are prepared to properly handle the topic of sanism. You don't have to educate people (though that can be a nice thing to do as well if you have the means), but by setting a positive example, you can subtly help to make the world a better place, not just for neurotypical people, but for all people.