Friday, 21 March 2014

Unravelling Sane Privilege

It is increasingly common to see calls for people to check their privilege. This is apparently hard for some to understand, but at least most have some semblance of the fact that our society is generally racist, generally sexist and generally hetero-normative, and that we should bear in mind when we speak to each other that our prejudices and privileges have in impact on our worldview. Our society is sanity-normative too, and this is more difficult still for us to get to grips with. Being "mad" in some sense is something that we generally take to be undesirable, and the existence of mental health services is testament to the fact that society seeks to limit the misery and misfortune which accompanies experiences of psychosis, mood-disorders or "personality disorder". Hoping to affect an improvement in the lives of people with mental health problems should not, however, spill over into the assumption that everything about such individuals is a "deficit" to be fixed, or a "vulnerability" to be managed.

With the rise of identity politics as a lens for thinking about mental health, the languages of anti-(hetero)sexism and anti-racism have been finding their way into the discourse of "mad-chat" too. What does it mean for their to be a "sane" or an "insane" identity, especially when it seems so hard for us to pin down a hard distinction? Just as race, gender and sexuality can become concrete (even sometimes unwanted) identities in spite of considerable fluidity, so too can one's identity as "mental-patient" or "sufferer". Medical histories hang over us, and mental health histories follow people into domains of their lives they had never anticipated. Such individuals acquire "mad" identity. Unlike people of "sane" identity, the question then arises-do I embrace this, or minimise its significance?

If white-privilege, male-privilege and straight-privilege can act as blinkers to participation in online debate, then so too can "sane-privilege", speaking from a position of comfort and failing to consider the ways in which your ideas or suggestions have missed the point or caused offence. As a straight white male who is training to be a psychologist, I am a prime candidate for this sort of oversight, and I have probably made my fair share of blunders in conversations on Twitter where the comforting boundaries keeping professionals and academics safe no longer pertain.

As an exercise in checking my own sane-privilege, I had originally intended to do my own version of Peggy McIntosh's "Unpacking the Invisible Backpack", but I discovered that someone else had already done that much better. Instead, here are some additional ideas about what it might mean, specifically in online discussions:

1. Sane-privilege is communicating only in the set of academic-linguistic rules we have learned in our professional or academic training.

2. Sane-privilege is being able to get angry and express it, without having it taken for a sign of problems with our mental health.

3. Sane-privilege is the freedom to exhibit erratic, playful, explicit or irrational behaviour in online social forums, without the assumption that it is undesirable and beyond our control.

4. Sane-privilege is the freedom to pontificate about whether disorders really exist, drugs or therapies really work or whether ideological positions are or are not superior to others, and not have our hearts sink because the outcome of these debates matter deeply to our well-being.

5. Sane-privilege is the presumption that you can tell other people what else they can try to help them with their mental health and that they should give a damn.

6. Sane-privilege is presuming to tell someone that even if they are sometimes knocked clean off their feed or chased into bed for days at a time by their own state of mind, they do not have an illness.

7. Sane-privilege is presuming to tell someone that even if they spend happy hours conversing with heard voices, or fervently arranging the cosmos into divine and self-referential order, that they do have an illness.

8. Sane-privilege is presuming to tell someone how significant their history of abuse should be to them.

9. Sane-privilege is telling someone how they could redirect their overwhelming desire to self-harm, in a way that won't disturb other people.

10. Sane-privilege is deciding which risks in a person's life are acceptable and which are not.

11. Sane-privilege is the ability to get as drunk, high, sleep-deprived or wired as you like, without it being assumed that you are "relapsing".

Calling out privilege should never be just a silencing tactic. In the contested field of power, dialogue is our only way to proceed. Social media has been excellent for this, putting greater numbers of people on a more equal footing than has been possible previously. It will often make us uncomfortable, especially those of us who are professionals used to speaking in particular languages; but this discomfort is to be positively embraced as part of the ongoing agitation and uncertainty that necessarily accompanies human affairs.

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