on opposing sanism as a rhetorical device

At a recent  Critical Animal Studies conference  at Brock University, many of those in attendance were exposed to their own strategic ignorance: the unmarked and nonconsiered (to them) implications of words and discourse used. One of these was the term ‘standpoint’, a reference to Donna Haraway (and others) insightful standpoint theory. In seeking to address this, a term I have used in the past seems much more apt: situatedness.

In much the same vein, the term widely used by Gary L. Francione and others, ‘moral schizophrenia’, has implications that are unmarked and nonconsiered by those who are not subjugated by it. Those who are not labelled as mentally different, i.e. those who are considered mentally ‘normal’.

Rather than (re)outlining some of the issues myself, Ida at the Vegan Ideal has provided an overview. Once again, and this is a broader issue that continues to impact the efficacy of animal activism, Gary L. Francione is unwilling to accept that there are implications of one’s actions that exist irrespective of intent (nor that he is not stigmatised by the use of such terms as, for all intensive purposes, he is positioned as ‘normal’).

Below is the text of Ida’s post:

I believe we should strongly oppose using the phrase “moral schizophrenia” as a rhetorical tool for nonhuman animal advocacy. We should oppose this term as much as we would phrases like: “moral blackness,” “moral gayness,” “moral obesity,” “moral poverty,” “moral stupidity” or any other term that uses a group’s identity, condition or experience as a means of conveying a message that something is — morally or otherwise — wrong or problematic.

Since first introducing the term in his book Introduction to Animal Rights, Gary Francione has popularized “moral schizophrenia” as a term used when discussing ethical contradictions with regard to nonhuman animals. Recently, Francione posted “A Note on Moral Schizophrenia” to clarify — or, rather, justify — his use of the term. In his post, Francione attempts to placate those of us who oppose the way this term targets people who are different mentally:

Some people think that by using the term, I am stigmatizing those who have clinical schizophrenia because it implies that they are immoral people. I am sincerely sorry—and I mean that—if anyone has interpreted the term in that way and that is certainly not what I intended.

But Francione isn’t sorry, at least in the sense that he is still unwilling to acknowledge that the term is actually sanist (discrimination and oppression against people who have, or who are labeled or perceived as having, a mental illness) and oppressive. He essentially dismisses objections to how the term is stigmatizing. He claims, “To say that moral schizophrenia stigmatizes clinical schizophrenics is like saying that to talk about ‘drug use spreading like cancer’ stigmatizes cancer victims.” (However, referring to drug use as cancer does encourage the hatred and oppression of drug users. Cancer, unlike schizophrenia, is a deadly condition. As such, the aim is to eliminate cancer from the body. Attacking drug use as if it is cancer does not encourage empathy for people with addictions, which is exactly why the U.S. does more to criminalize drug users rather than assist them in managing their addictions.)

Schizophrenia is not like cancer — we don’t hear inspiring stories about people battling or surviving schizophrenia the way we do with cancer. Instead, people with schizophrenia are thought of as “crazy.” Schizophrenia is something those who have it will live with throughout their lives, and for many of them dealing with the phobia — hatred, stigma, discrimination and exclusion — they experience is often the worst and hardest part of managing being different mentally.

Francione believes that since “Schizophrenia is a recognized condition that is characterized by confused and delusional thinking,” this is sufficient justification for using the term to characterize situations where he thinks “we are delusional and confused when it comes to moral issues.” But the term is actually a dysphemism — that is, a derogatory term used instead of a proper one.

If Francione wishes to say that there are existing contradictions in our moral beliefs, attitudes and behavior with regards to other animals, then he can simply say that. It’s very common for authors and advocates on a broad spectrum of social justice issues to point out contradictions in what we say and do with regard to different groups. But, to their credit, most of these advocates never use the experience or condition of mental difference as a rhetorical stand in for those contradictions.

So why does Francione do it? While he claims it’s not his intention to stigmatize people with schizophrenia, I believe it is exactly because the term is so intertwined with phobia and oppression that Francione finds it so powerful. That is, it is exactly because sanism works to define schizophrenia as something bad and those who have it as “crazy” that it seen as a persuasive tool. Francione obviously believes that confused thinking or delusions are inherently bad, which is exactly the problem with using this term, and exactly why it is so oppressive.

In Thinking Class: Sketches from a Cultural Worker (South End Press, 1996), Joanna Kadi recounts her fears when navigating being different mentally while speaking before an audience about her writing. She talks about the internalized fear of a phobic response from her audience that would identify her as a “crazy” person because of the hallucinations and voices she hears in her head:

If I wasn’t so afraid, I’d be amused at the gap between their perception and my reality. Someone asks a question about my fiction. I say, “Characters show up in my head and start talking and I try to write it down. These characters are often gregarious and talk loudly. So far I like the characters who have arrived on the scene, except for some minor ones.”

The audience perceives some radical leap of creative artistic energy on my part and is impressed. I consider a street person approaching any of these people and daring to speak about people in her head. The audience members would walk away as quickly as possible, after labeling the street person crazy. No audience member knows I’ve been labeled crazy and locked up in a psych ward. Would it change their opinion of my creative artistic energy if they did? But I can’t know the answer, because fear locks up my lips.

The phobia and oppression that targets people with schizophrenia is merely perpetuated when we use their experience or condition to denote something as wrong or problematic. Francione may not intend to say people with schizophrenia are immoral, but his use of the term does nothing to alleviate the phobia and oppression experienced by people with a schizophrenic experience or condition. Rather, his appropriation of schizophrenia as a rhetorical tool clearly reinforces sanism and phobia of people who are different mentally. Unfortunately, Francione has no intention to stop using the term “moral schizophrenia when it comes to animal ethics,” and seeks only to justify his use through clarification. As long as this is the case Francione will be exploiting sanism and phobia of people who are different mentally as a rhetorical weapon for his own agenda.

We should avoid following Francione’s unfortunate example by instead questioning and confronting sanism whenever and wherever we encounter it. That is, when we encounter people using the term “moral schizophrenia” we should interrupt them, right then and there, and let them know that schizophrenia is not an appropriate term to describe something as wrong, problematic or contradictory, and that using this term in that way does in fact perpetuate the sanist oppression and phobia that targets people with schizophrenia.

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