Just Stop It: 7th Democratic Presidential Debate

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Andrew Pulrang

It took me longer than usual to write this post about Sunday’s Democratic debate. I thought I knew what I wanted to say shortly after the debate ended, but then I went to bed. I woke up the next morning to find two very different worlds of Internet comment about one aspect of what was, in general, a pretty good debate.

On the one hand, I saw a lot of anger and disappointment from the disability activist community about Sen. Sanders repeated use of ableist language in the debate, particularly words related to mental disabilities.

At the same time, I also saw a lot of pooh-poohing of the whole thing. It was just a joke. “Crazy” and “lunatic” are ordinary words everyone uses to describe irrational, inexplicable things. It didn’t mean anything. Lighten up. Quit shilling for Hillary!

Exactly how big a deal is it when a Presidential candidate most people at least respect uses ableist language several times throughout a two-hour debate? What if it’s the kind of ableist language that only about 10% of Americans even notice, or even know is considered ableist? Did Sanders commit fixable gaffes, or does Sunday night’s performance suggest something deeper about his views on mental illness and other disabilities?

First, let’s look at what we’re talking about here.

It started with a great question from the father of the girl shot by a Uber driver a month or so ago. He asked Clinton and Sanders what they would do to address gun violence in the U.S., and he specifically asked the not to cite or blame mental illness in their answers. When I heard this, I cheered, right there, alone in my living room. In kind of a reverse way, this man addressed a public policy issues that really means something to the disability community … the misguided tendency to blame gun violence on problems with mental health treatment. What a brilliant move to demand the candidates address more creative, valid solutions instead of leaning on that old mental illness standby.

While neither candidate explicitly tried to argue that point, however, Sanders used terms for mental illness three times in his answer. To describe the randomness of shootings, he said that, “Any lunatic tomorrow” could shoot someone. A little later he referred to people who commit mass shootings as “crazy.” And a third time he referred to a hypothetical shooter as “a lunatic.” Especially after that father had specifically asked them not to blame mentally disabled people, this rhetorical pattern rang out very noticeably. It reminded me of a slightly less vulgar version of Donald Trump calling mass shooters “sickos.” That’s not a good look for Sanders.

Later in the debate, Sanders mentioned special education to underscore the criminal harm caused by the Flint water crisis. Now, let me confess that I heard the tail end of this comment and missed most of it. I had to read about it later in extensive quotes from other sources. It also strikes me as perhaps the least obviously offensive or harmful of his ableist comments. He was talking about the children affected by lead in Flint, Michigan’s water, and spoke of bright, intelligent children who are now in “Special Education” because of the poisoning. This is a bit tricky, since there is a cause and effect here that is, in a very real sense, not only is a grave injustice, but a harmful and costly one.

Still, there are ways of talking about this without equating cognitive impairment with tragedy and permanent loss. It’s similar to campaigns that use wheelchairs to dramatize the horrible consequences of drunk driving. It’s a good cause, and a valid connection, but it leaves a bad taste in our mouths, unnecessarily.

Finally, near the end of the debate, when a moderator asked Clinton and Sanders if they felt ready to take on Donald Trump, Sanders made a crack about mental health as a way of insulting the Republican candidates. The joke, as I understand it, was that the Republicans are so chaotic, unruly, and irrational as to suggest they are in need of mental health treatment. Ha, ha, ha. Get it? Rimshot.

Actually, I do get it, but after so many other unfortunate instances of ableist language from the same candidate, the joke fell quite flat, and I began to wonder whether there’s something more here than the rhetorical habit of a guy who is progressive, but not that good at keeping up with the politics of identity and language.

I believe there are things going on here.

  1. Sanders has a habit of using words like “crazy” and “lunatic” to signify chaos and irrationality. Lots of people do it, but Sanders seems to do it a bit more than most. Maybe it’s because so much of his political identity is about pointing out what he sees as the irrationality of current American politics. He might say that it’s “crazy” that we don’t have universal health care or paid family leave. This could quickly damage his relations with disabled voters, but it’s easy to fix. Just stop using those words. Use other words instead that say the same thing.
  2. Ignoring the father’s specific rejection of mental illness as a frame to understand gun violence, and using not only mental health, but mental health services to joke about the Republican candidates takes things a step further. It suggests that this might be more than just an unconscious rhetorical habit.

Let’s be honest. Most people didn’t notice, and most people are skeptical of our negative reaction. Plenty of people who would never make fun of a wheelchair user or a deaf person don’t think twice about referring to someone as “a lunatic,” either for a laugh, or as a shorthand for dangerous unpredictability. Just because it’s common, doesn’t make it okay, but it would be foolish not to recognize that on the whole, “we are not there yet” in regard to ableist language of mental disability.

The problem is, we have been waiting, hoping, and advocating for more talk of disability in these debates. Then here, in one of the most impressive, substantive, diverse debates so far … it really was that good … the only mentions we get of disability at all are these completely unnecessary rhetorical face-slaps. On top of that, the funny looks and eye rolls we get when we complain about it make the whole experience even worse.

Sanders is a professional politician. He wants the top job in his profession. Like it or not, an essential function of a politician’s job is winning people over, and part of that is avoiding unnecessarily pissing them off. Donald Trump gets away with it, so far, because expertly pissing certain people off is part of his brand. It is not part of Sanders’ brand. Whether this kind of language is an old habit or a sign of something more, if he wants to succeed, he needs to stop it.

Stray observations (i.e., the actual debate)

Both Sanders and Clinton struggled with admitting past mistakes and well-intended but bad policies. Disabled voters are experts at thinking about the gaps between good intentions and the quality of actual results, especially in disability policy.

I found myself wishing that we might someday hear candidates discuss the disability experience the way they discussed racism for at least a little while. They weren’t perfect, but they both really seemed to be trying.

Anderson Cooper asked, “Why should people trust the government?” to fix the water in Flint. Again, disabled people could say a lot about relying on governments and organizations we don’t always entirely trust.