The Power of Words to Shape Attitudes

I recently wrote a post called:  Do Major Tranquilizers Make Things Worse?  The post was based on a study by Drs. Harrow and Jobe in which they speculated that the high relapse rate of “schizophrenics” who stop taking their drugs may have more to do with drug withdrawal than the supposed drug efficacy.

Monica, at BeyondMeds, pointed out that these drugs should not be called tranquilizers because some of their effects (e.g. akathisia, tardive dyskinesia, etc.) are anything but tranquil.  And this, of course, is a good point.

I refuse to call them “anti-psychotics” because this name implies that they somehow target psychotic behavior, which is simply psychiatric-pharma spin.  They target all behavior.  Monica suggested neurotoxic chemicals which, of course, is accurate but overly inclusive.  Almost all the psychotropic products are neurotoxic.  I think I’ll go with neuroleptic – something that grips the nervous system.  It’s accurate enough and has a connotation of damage or harm.

In general, I try to be fairly precise with language.  For instance, I don’t usually use the term “mental illness” without putting it inside quotation marks. I do this to make the point that “mental illness” is not something real.  It is a fictitious construct.

Similarly for terms like “schizophrenia,” “bipolar disorder,” etc., the quotation marks, though a hindrance to easy reading, do help clarify the fact that these terms have no objective reference, i.e. they do not correspond to anything that exists in the real world.

But Monica’s comment has me wondering if I need to go even further. Consider the term antidepressant, which I don’t normally put inside quotation marks.  But in fact, we know from numerous studies, including some that were initially suppressed by pharma, that these products do not actually lift depression, but rather contribute to chronic depression.  So perhaps that term needs to be inside quotation marks.

Words are vehicles of communication, but they can also be powerful attitude shapers.  I never use the term electroconvulsive therapy, with its connotations of benign high-tech care.  I prefer shock “treatment.”  But perhaps I should be saying something like electrical destruction of brain cells.  It’s cumbersome but more accurate.

In the same vein, I never use the term medication to describe psychotropic products.  Instead I say drugs.  Psychiatric neurotoxins would be more accurate, but perhaps the general reader might not realize what I meant.

Psychiatry and pharma are aware of the connotative power of words, and they routinely use pleasant or positive sounding names to disguise the true nature of their products and “services.”  (More quotation marks!)

I suggest that we need to become equally vigilant and adept at finding words that convey the spurious nature of their concepts and the destructive effects of their activities.

Or to put it simply:  Let’s watch our language!



  • cledwyn bastardo

    Most people, including the critics, would just dismiss such advice on the grounds that it’s only words, even though the words psychiatry uses are indissolubly linked to violence and injustice.

    The ways in which we react to and act upon things are determined by the meanings those things have for us, and upon the explicit and implicit content of the labels we attach to percepts, specifically when the object of our perception is another human being or an institution.

    Psychiatric diagnoses are normative statements encoded in the language of descriptive statements, statements of scientific fact. Yet many critics use them uncritically.

    The beauty of making a psychiatric diagnosis, be it amongst lay people or licensed practitioners, is that it presents the biased opinions and value judgements of fallible observers as statement of facts, allowing people who hold these opinions to dismiss critics as “delusional”, “flat-earthers”, and often deprives the object of this pseudo-diagnosis of a counter-thrust.

    Through this misappropriation of the language of science and fact for rhetorical and propagandist purposes, organized psychiatry also polices thought, forestalling potential criticism although, of course, some of us see through this.

    It’s very true about what you say about the connotative power of words. Words such as “healing”, “hospital”, “treatment”, occasion pleasant emotional resonances, and emotions are influence thought (which is why in the grip of anger, fear, happiness, despair, people will think or believe things that in the cool, calm light of reflection seem absurd). Being told you have cancer is mainly so terrifying because of the emotion with which it is culturally charged.

    Yes, we do need to be careful of the language we use.

    Another big problem is the cultural degeneration of language in general, something Orwell prognosticated in some of his essays.

    Specialists and politicians have normalized the use of language whose function seems to be to obscure and encode meaning, to render in novel terms trite observations, and abstruse terms things that could be easily understood otherwise.

    Yet its main function is perhaps to subvert democracy through covert channels (not that we are living in a true democracy, as anyone au fait with the role of corporate power in influencing the political process will know).

    Now, I’m no fan of democracy, any more than I am any other form of government. The idea that the average person wants the responsibility of governing a country, is ludicrous, and the fundamental presupposition of democratic thought (namely, that reason, and nobility of thought and spirit, are to be found amongst the majority of men) strikes me as an inversion of reality. The average man is only interested in government in so far as it pertains to his interests, especially his financial interests, and his desire to persecute others and to make people conform to his own image, people having a better time than him or just different from him, which not only flatters his vanity, but also fills the void of his existence, an existence he has no more intelligible reason for living than does a blind-deaf, legless horse.

    Nevertheless, I do value free open discussion. Yet the language of specialists seems designed to preclude other specialists and lay people from influencing the issues relevant to different specialties, and also from engaging critically with the core concepts of a field, and to guard against incursions into what they see as their territory. On top of this, most people are so cowed by this kind of writing, or speaking, they just submit to the authority of the writer, so it is a handy means of obtaining submission to authority.