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‘Bipolar’ as a Slur

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Rajya Sabha member of Parliament and economist Subramanian Swamy recently said that since Priyanka Gandhi is “bipolar,” she is unfit to be in politics and her “illness” makes her unreliable, unpredictable and unstable. Without going into the veracity of this claim, what it reveals about the speaker and the larger society he appears to represent merits consideration.

First, should someone represent others in the public eye when they are evoking a stigmatising, potentially disabling identity label against another person? Is this an ethical act? Second, is a mental illness diagnosis at any point in a person’s life a lifelong indictment that renders them incapable of accomplishing anything ever again, especially in politics? Third, is mental illness a permanent feature of someone’s life, wherein there is no chance of recovery or cure?

Philosopher Miranda Fricker’s notion of “identity prejudice”which she first mentions in her book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing—is a label of “prejudices against people qua social type.” Fricker uses this notion to explain why certain kinds of people suffer from a loss of credibility because they belong to a group seen as having a devalued identity. Consequently, when such persons represent themselves, their word is taken as less credible, because of the prejudice and stereotypes that their identity evokes in the listener’s mind. The notion of identity prejudice goes hand in hand with the idea of “identity power,” a form of social power directly dependent upon shared social–imaginative conceptions of the social identities of those implicated in the particular operation of power.

Assuming that Swamy was trying to evoke the stigma and prejudice associated with mental illness against Gandhi, perhaps he hoped that this public naming would, in fact, amount to public shaming.

I would also like to evoke the framework offered by Aristotle to analyse the rhetorical value of a claim, and how it can be understood better. Aristotle discussed the idea of “ethos,” which means the character of the writer/communicator who is presenting an argument. The audience must be convinced that the author is an authority on the subject and, as such, merits attention. Swamy is not known for his expertise either in disability or mental health. By what stretch of imagination his statement even merits consideration should be a question concerned citizens must ask. And why should any media group record such a statement, without analysing its meaning or its own responsibility, and then release it to the public?

Additionally, I would like to draw attention to the recently legislated Mental Healthcare Act of 2017, which states, “[N]o person or authority shall classify a person as a person with mental illness, except for purposes directly relating to the treatment of the mental illness.”

Swamy’s attitude also contravenes the provisions of the Mental Healthcare Act, which mandates that

[P]ast treatment or hospitalisation in a mental health establishment though relevant, shall not by itself justify any present or future determination of the person’s mental illness … The determination of a person’s mental illness shall alone not imply or be taken to mean that the person is of unsound mind unless he has been declared as such by a competent court.

One may also see this statement as a blow to the larger community of stakeholders in mental health, who work tirelessly to bring into the mainstream, people who may otherwise waste away in the blind alleys of mental illness, and the disability it produces for many.

In response to the second question raised, in 2010, Jenell Johnson wrote about the Eagleton case in the United States (US), which took place in 1972. The then Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern briefly chose Senator Tom Eagleton as his running mate for vice president. However, soon after his selection, Eagleton withdrew after revelations of his having been treated for depression surfaced. According to Johnson, a mental illness diagnosis, no matter how long ago, whether minor or severe, can become a permanent identity disfiguration, and in the Eagleton case possibly suggested his weakness and instability, based on pre-existing stereotypes.

That brings me to the third question. Perhaps in India there is a misplaced idea of the permanence of mental illness or psychiatric patient-hood. However, there is enough evidence to show that mental illness is not always a permanent phenomenon. In a large number of cases, people can be successfully rehabilitated while being on medication, or even accomplish complete recovery going off medication. In the US, concepts related to recovery have taken centre stage in mainstream psychiatry from 2000 onwards. A recovery orientation is already part of mental health policies in the United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Australia, New Zealand and other countries.

Finally, with regard to victims of mental illness, no matter what privilege they may appear to come from, each person is vulnerable, capable of being deeply hurt, and deserves inclusion.

Prateeksha Sharma

Faridabad

 

 

Updated On : 26th Feb, 2019

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