Language is primary to how we feel. Words can transform us emotionally. They can change our perception and even affect us physically. I am a conservative. I voted for Donald Trump. Stop, just pause for a moment and sense not what those words make you think, but how they make you feel. Some may be fist pumping. Some may be lunging for the unsubscribe button. But just take a moment and stay with me.
I’ll say it again. I voted for Donald Trump. Close your eyes and turn your focus to the feeling of your breathing. What’s going on in your body? Does it feel good or bad? Or perhaps you feel nothing at all.
Such is the power of words. They can transform us, inspire us, repel us and define us. The words we hear and, especially, the words we speak to ourselves in our internal conversations, set our moods and instigate incredible physical feelings in our body. These words don’t have to be big ideas. They can be simple like, “I voted for Donald Trump.” Something that simple can make you feel a wonderful sense of camaraderie or it can make you ill.
Labels may be the most powerful words. Slap a label on someone and suddenly everyone thinks they know everything about that person. Enough, at least, to judge them. Even if they know nothing else about them at all.
“Trump supporter” does this as powerfully as any label you can slap on someone. It is defining and divisive and for many people it is all they need to know about someone. I don’t want to get into politics. I do want to get into the fact that the assumption of someone’s politics can lead people to leap to the conclusion that a person, that person with a label, is mentally ill.
People on the right should not be pigeonholed, because just like people in any large group they are an amazingly diverse bunch.
That’s how a lot of people think about anyone to the right of center these days. They don’t know them; they don’t even try to understand them. They just declare them crazy.
People on the right should not be pigeonholed, because just like people in any large group they are an amazingly diverse bunch. There are conservatives and traditionalists and libertarians. There are Christians and nationalists and conspiracy theorists. Perhaps the only things they truly share in common is that they believe people have an underlying moral status shared equally by all and that, given a fair shot, people are responsible for their own success or failure.
Right now everything opined by people not on the right is the demand that diverse individuals categorize themselves by one factor and one factor only: whether or not, this week compared to two weeks ago, they are still Trump supporters. If they say no, they’re still deplorable but maybe there’s hope. If they still are they must be batshit crazy.
It’s fascinating that this removal of individuals into a prison of stigma is being facilitated by calling many on the right mentally ill as if no other explanation is available; as if it’s not even worth carefully investigating why they adhere to the values they insist upon; as if dehumanizing them and denying them their self-determination is even remotely fair. Right now in this entrenchment over politics all that matters is that the opposition is neutralized–and nothing neutralizes a person like labeling them mentally ill.
I’ve fought through years of stigma and pre-judgment based on the fact that I have, and am open about having, bipolar disorder. Now I have to fight that fight again based solely upon who I voted for.
I’ve fought through years of stigma and pre-judgment based on the fact that I have, and am open about having, bipolar disorder. Now I have to fight that fight again based solely upon who I voted for. And the gravest injustice of all is that to some people I know that vote is explained only because, yes, I am crazy after all.
But the right is not crazy and it has not lost its mind because it is not monolithic and it has no collective mind. These are individuals with personal motivations making informed decisions about the world and how it impacts them and their families.
Pause again and close your eyes for a moment and see how that makes you feel. That will tell you more about yourself and your tolerance for ideas than it will tell you about people on the other end of the political spectrum.
People on the left who read this are likely raging, shouting to themselves, “Informed decisions? With what information?” Those on the right are now scratching their heads wondering what all this is about. After all, the people on the left are the ones who are crazy.
This is what happens when you label someone. It makes it easy to dismiss them. It is brave and it is compassionate to see the whole person. But who has time for that? There are points to score and fights to win. Unfortunately, ideology has pushed the individual off the stage and we watch it posing and dancing and chanting and seducing.
A group can’t be crazy. Only individuals can be. Until you truly know an individual, if you label them unhinged you are as guilty of perpetuating stereotypes and prejudice as you accuse them of being.
Then only soulless, vacuous, pointless ideology can win. We end up defining ourselves by what we are against, not by our own potential. Stigma rules. People with mental illness have been fighting this fight their entire lives. Now that everyone is cutting everyone else down by declaring them crazy, I fear that battle against stigma, that battle for acceptance as individuals with individual gifts and potential, has been lost.
George Hofmann is the author of Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, their daughter, and two poorly behaved dogs.