Tuesday 21 May 2013


Tennis chums at Oxford: Feldman standing second from left; Cameron standing right

In the late 1970s I decorated my Parka jacket with a "The Who" logo as a bit of jokey retro chic and recollect being shouted at across the street by somebody who must have been a greaser or rocker - "Spastic mod!" was his satirical cry. You don't hear the word "spastic" used as an insult much these days in polite society. In fact it isn't used as a neutral label either for cerebral palsy: hence the Spastics Society long since became "Scope".

It really isn't acceptable to use physical disability labels for offensive purposes and even quite potty-mouthed people steer clear. It isn't just rude - there is now a sort of taboo.

No such taboo attaches to mental illness labels. Thus the alleged use of the term "mad, swivel-eyed loons" by Lord Feldman (or possibly the Prime Minister himself) has certainly landed him in trouble - but not for insulting people with a mental illness but rather for insulting his fellow Conservatives.

What should we make of this and what, if anything, should we do about it?

I don't think it is simple. I doubt I would use those particular words but ordinary, decent people frequently refer to somebody like a politician on the telly who is making bad judgements (or maybe somebody they just disagree with!) as "crazy", sometimes "mad" or even "bonkers".

I notice that most people with a mental illness, including thoughtful and liberal-minded people, also use such terms casually. And some (but much fewer) also use such words to refer specifically to mental illness which I guess is their privilege. When Hafal was being set up and we were looking for a name for the new organisation there was serious consideration, led by a minority of more progressive service users, to adopt a startling name like "MAD" (I think this was going to be an acronym but can't remember what it stood for) or suchlike as a way of moving onto the territory of discrimination and somehow neutralising it (rather as some gay people have adopted the term "queer").

Looking at the twittersphere this morning I see that many people with a mental illness are commenting on the "loons" issue. It is noticeable that not much offence is being taken but rather there is a lot of humorous commentary, for example taking mock offence at people with a mental illness being compared to Conservatives. I think this is rather well judged and reminds us that the only people who can effectively counter discrimination are the people who are affected, not bleeding-heart Guardian-readers who are liable to make the wrong judgements on these matters.

Just for the record I was never a mod (too young) and I don't much like The Who although I did once possess a badly scratched LP, one half of the double Quadrophrenia album which somebody must have left in my room when I was a student - pretentious rubbish mainly.