Saturday, September 18, 2010

Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity

I love that Jon Stewart is parlaying his celebrity into political action. I think a rally to counter Beck's and Palin's is long overdue and I think Stewart, from what I know, is as good of a leader as any.

I'm less thrilled about the name.

You could even say I'm angry.

The implicit message behind the "Rally to Restore Sanity" is that individuals influencing America's current political climate are "insane." Crazy. Wacko. It's Stewart pointing at a picture of Beck and circling an index finger around his ear. And it pisses me off.

No one in Stewart's entire machine thought twice about invoking the experiences of an entire group of people who are already oppressed and using them for their own purposes. This kind of language only serves to reinforce the existing and damaging stigma against mental illness. It both pathologizes the lack of critical thought characteristic of Glenn Beck's particular brand of bigoted conservatism, in some ways removing personal responsibility from individuals who choose to adhere to that political ideology, and fails to actually address the flaws behind it. At the same time, it reinforces that crazy is universally a bad thing. Crazy needs to be eliminated to fix America.

And what about the 26.2% of Americans who experience a diagnosable mental illness in a given year, Mr. Stewart? You're telling one out of every four people: your experiences and opinions are not valuable. Your experiences are worth less than mine. That's a terribly progressive message to be sending.

How difficult would it have been to title the event differently? "Rally to Restore Reason"? "Rally to Restore Common Sense"? Probably not terribly taxing.

(Why am I posting about this here? Because if 26.2% of Americans experience mental illness in a given year, probably half or so of those are women. I can't fight for women's rights unless I fight for all women's rights. For more on how mental illness and disability in general are a feminist issue, I recommend this post at The Curvature, this post at The Gimp Parade, and the archives at FWD/Forward.)


  1. First, just let me say I like the blog overall, but a few counterarguments to your post-

    1) Stewart (as well as Colbert) can not and should not be held to the same standard as Beck, et al. Stewart, as he has repeatedly stated, is an entertainer. Beck is sincerely trying to contribute to political discourse. Stewart isn't running for office, or suggesting policy recommendations, or telling politicians how the country should be run. Beck, on the other hand, very much wants to be taken seriously. He has a vision of how this country should be and is trying to win supporters. Stewart's job is just to point out the hypocrisy and absurdity of people like Beck.

    2)I'm not certain I agree with your assertion that those suffering from mental illness are "an entire group of people who are already oppressed." In many countries the mentally ill are protected from discrimination. The Americans with Disabilities Act has been law since 1990. The UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has been ratified by 91 countries and became effective in 2008.

    3) Not to sound too harsh, but I find it a little hypocritical that you would take issue with the phrase "restore sanity" and then link to a blog "The Gimp Parade." I know many people who would find that title far more offensive that the name of Stewart's rally.

  2. I'd just like to point out that your nominated statistic - 26.2% of people with a mental illness - isn't really relevant. As I'm sure you know, "mental illness" is a very broad descriptor and includes people that have things like clinical depression and anxiety disorders. While these things are, of course, very serious, they really have little to do with the word "sanity". Many people with mental illnesses are not "insane" and the word does not apply to them. Perhaps you might consider not painting all people with mental illnesses with the same brush in order to prove a point, in doing so while simultaneously criticising Jon Stewart for using them as a vehicle, you're at risk of hypocrisy.

  3. Karl, regardless of Stewart's role (as entertainer or political agitator) he is perpetuating ableism in a public way and therefore is eligible to be called out. The existence of the ADA and UN Convention do not negate the ableist attitudes held by the majority of Americans; mental illness is tremendously stigmatized. In the case of the Gimp Parade, "gimp" is being used in a reclamatory sense.

    Alex, although "insanity" and "mental illness" are differentiated legally, they're treated as effectively synonymous by the vast majority of laypersons. While Stewart may mean "sanity" in the legal sense, the vast majority of people--myself included--treat insanity as a synonym for craziness outside of an explicitly legal context, making "sanity" an inappropriately loaded word choice for the rally title.

  4. How is he promoting ableism? His target is not the mentally disabled but the frothing-at-the- mouth conservatives. These are people who believe Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim whose health care plan is the second coming of Hitler. These people are so detached from reality I don't see how we can use any other word than "insane" to describe them.

    Stewart is simply pointing this out. His target of shame is and always has been fairly obvious. It's satire for goodness sake.

    But perhaps I am wrong, perhaps this does promote ableism. But where does it end? Can we never use the words "insane", "crazy", "nuts", unless we are describing a person positively diagnosed with a mental illness?

    Stigmatization does not equal oppression. I'm not sure if you have any statistics on Americans view of the disabled. I couldn't find any, but I'm confident that the passage of the previously mentioned laws show that majorities of Americans and citizens of 91 other countries have no problem giving special rights and privileges and the disabled. This hardly sounds like stigmatization.

  5. Monica,
    I don't think you understand what I meant.

    Firstly, my comment wasn't questioning your assertion that his use of the word is inappropriate. No further explanation of that is needed.

    Secondly, I wasn't talking about the difference between "insanity" and "craziness". I was talking about your use of a statistic - namely the incidence of mental illness - to back up your point. I believe that this is inappropriate. The majority of people with a mental illness are neither insane or crazy, they have other types of conditions (as mentioned above).

    So where you write:
    "And what about the 26.2% of Americans who experience a diagnosable mental illness in a given year, Mr. Stewart? You're telling one out of every four people: your experiences and opinions are not valuable. Your experiences are worth less than mine. That's a terribly progressive message to be sending"

    This is meaningless hyperbole. Clearly Jon Stewart is not saying that the experiences and opinions of people with clinical depression or anxiety disorders are worth less or not valuable. This is because him restoring "sanity" has nothing to do with these people, ie. the majority of sufferers of mental illness.

    In fact, I submit that by conflating all sufferers of mental illness, you're doing them a disservice. I'm sure the members of my family with depression and my friends with anxiety disorders wouldn't appreciate you questioning their sanity by associating them with Jon Stewart's totally unrelated (to them) chosen title.

  6. Hmmm...I guess, then, Alex, that this hyperbolic statement means that people with depression or anxiety disorders never have their children taken away from them by having their disorders overblown by courts or non-custodial parents or grandparents? I guess they never have their insurance cut or their benefits slashed because they deigned to have a picture on Facebook that showed them not crying in bed, but having a day that made them happier.

    I supposed that a depressed person has never lost a job or been told that they are not allowed to be a parent because their "mild" disorders make them such horrible people that no one should be around them. Or that they should "just buck up" and stop whining because things just can't be that bad. Oh, yes, people with those mental illnesses must just have it so easy that no, Stewart could be doing them no harm whatsoever, or hurting them in any way by making what is already a precarious situation for them worse. Nuh-uh. I guess it isn't like they are never listened to, never have their opinions heard about their own care, are never shoved into homes against their will, never forced to give up their own independence, never ever dismissed, never raped at almost twice the rate of non-disabled people, never brutalized by those meant to take care of them, never left alone for dead or Their lives are so damned easy. We never write letters to decision makers to be told ADA! ADA! ADA!

    And Karl, your assertion that the ADA and the UN whatever protects these people? Would be laughable if it didn't mean people died because of such ignorance. As if these are some kind of invisible walls that keep people with mental illnesses from being mistreated or exploited, not only in the ways above, but also by being allowed to work for wages as low as a quarter an hour -- legal in states such as Iowa -- or that it doesn't keep them from being medically sterilized by their caretakers, family memebers and presumed loved ones. The ADA isn't really so much law as a suggestion that people be nicer and comply with certain things if they can and it isn't too much trouble. Those statements that PWD with mental illness are Oh! So! Protected! make me laugh. I could trot out a list of the dead so long... but it hurts and it makes me cry at the vulnerability that people like you are just willing to dismiss.

    Yes, let's argue that Stewart is just an entertainer (an argument that works when he is telling Tucker Carlson to stop riding him because his show comes on before the one with puppets making prank calls, but not so much when taking on a political machine head on), and Colbert plays a character that most Republicans aren't clever enough to catch on to... but that doesn't hold them not guilty of harming PWD with their fame by attributing ableism to it. Excuse it all you want, but it sure walks like a duck.

    And FYI: Not all PWD are "suffering"... some of us are just living... We just resent being used as metaphors when people really mean to say that someone is making an arse of U.S. politics.

  7. I've been ticked off about this "rally to restore sanity" and about the general language used by commentators and folk on the left in general (Rachel Maddow is really horrible about ableist language, for ex). It's nice to see that I'm not the only one who objects to it.

    ps to Karl The ADA is a step in the right direction, but people with disabilites are far from being actually protected from discrimination.

  8. Thank you, Karl, for letting me know that just because people see who I am as virtually synonymous with irrational, unthinking, evil I'm not actually oppressed. Thank you for letting me know that just because people look down on me, pity me, and down right fear me because of who I am doesn't mean that I'm not a first class citizen. I had been laboring for so long under such delusions that things were different. I wish someone had told me sooner.

    [triggery stuff follows]

    I wish someone had told my professor that when he bullied me into dropping his class because he felt that my disability was "distracting" and he didn't really think I could reason anyway.

    I wish someone had told my old special education teacher that when she abused me and told me that my pain was a lie because "people like me" can't understand pain.

    I wish someone had told my old abuser that before he exploited my disabilities to kidnap me away from my family and groom me for prostitution against my will.

    I wish someone had told the man on the bus that before he targeted me for attempted rape due to my vulnerability as a disabled woman.

    I wish someone had told the police that before they dismissed my case and dismissed me because I'm just some crazy woman.

    I wish someone had told the security guard that before I watched him chase an ill man out of the building only to return claiming to have caught and beaten him.

    I wish someone had told the crowd that before his story was met with applause.

    I wish someone had told me that before I realized that what happened to him could easily happen to me.

    I wish someone had told the nameless masses who shout insults at me as I try and live my life or who's quiet whispers behind my back remind me that in this world my very existence is unwelcome.

    I wish someone had told the John Stewarts of the world that before they went off to undermine my humanity and make such mistreatment acceptable.

    Finally, I wish that someone had told the Karls of this world that before they stroked their privilege so much that they could tell us that they know more about our experience as disabled people than we do.

  9. I am a huge Stewart/Colbert fan, but that doesn't mean they can do no wrong: with so many other, more apt and less discriminating word choices, I'm disappointed that they went for this one. Thanks for bringing it up (and defending your position in the comments as necessary ;) )

  10. The word "insane" has multiple meanings. It doesn't only refer to people with mental disorders, it is also a synonym for "irrational" and "foolish". If it were ambiguous as to which meaning of the word "insanity" Jon Stewart was referring then perhaps I would agree that you have a case. However, I think it's pretty obvious which meaning of the word he's using, and this is overkill. Really, people, calm down. Words that originally refer to one thing can eventually evolve to have multiple meanings. Society recognizes "insane" and "crazy" as words that also describe general absurdity. I use the word "crazy" to describe an abnormally busy day of work, it doesn't mean I am upset because mentally ill people may have entered my store and therefore say I had a crazy day. It's understood, and accepted, and it's not offensive.