Opposing Sanism as a Rhetorical Tool

I believe we should strongly oppose using the phrase "moral schizophrenia" as a rhetorical tool for nonhuman animal advocacy. We should oppose this term as much as we would phrases like: "moral blackness," "moral gayness," "moral obesity," "moral poverty," "moral stupidity" or any other term that uses a group's identity, condition or experience as a means of conveying a message that something is — morally or otherwise — wrong or problematic.

Since first introducing the term in his book Introduction to Animal Rights, Gary Francione has popularized "moral schizophrenia" as a term used when discussing ethical contradictions with regard to nonhuman animals. Recently, Francione posted "A Note on Moral Schizophrenia" to clarify — or, rather, justify — his use of the term. In his post, Francione attempts to placate those of us who oppose the way this term targets people who are different mentally:

Some people think that by using the term, I am stigmatizing those who have clinical schizophrenia because it implies that they are immoral people. I am sincerely sorry—and I mean that—if anyone has interpreted the term in that way and that is certainly not what I intended.

But Francione isn't sorry, at least in the sense that he is still unwilling to acknowledge that the term is actually sanist (discrimination and oppression against people who have, or who are labeled or perceived as having, a mental illness) and oppressive. He essentially dismisses objections to how the term is stigmatizing. He claims, "To say that moral schizophrenia stigmatizes clinical schizophrenics is like saying that to talk about 'drug use spreading like cancer' stigmatizes cancer victims." (However, referring to drug use as cancer does encourage the hatred and oppression of drug users. Cancer, unlike schizophrenia, is a deadly condition. As such, the aim is to eliminate cancer from the body. Attacking drug use as if it is cancer does not encourage empathy for people with addictions, which is exactly why the U.S. does more to criminalize drug users rather than assist them in managing their addictions.)

Schizophrenia is not like cancer — we don't hear inspiring stories about people battling or surviving schizophrenia the way we do with cancer. Instead, people with schizophrenia are thought of as "crazy." Schizophrenia is something those who have it will live with throughout their lives, and for many of them dealing with the phobia — hatred, stigma, discrimination and exclusion — they experience is often the worst and hardest part of managing being different mentally.

Francione believes that since "Schizophrenia is a recognized condition that is characterized by confused and delusional thinking," this is sufficient justification for using the term to characterize situations where he thinks "we are delusional and confused when it comes to moral issues." But the term is actually a dysphemism — that is, a derogatory term used instead of a proper one.

If Francione wishes to say that there are existing contradictions in our moral beliefs, attitudes and behavior with regards to other animals, then he can simply say that. It's very common for authors and advocates on a broad spectrum of social justice issues to point out contradictions in what we say and do with regard to different groups. But, to their credit, most of these advocates never use the experience or condition of mental difference as a rhetorical stand in for those contradictions.

So why does Francione do it? While he claims it's not his intention to stigmatize people with schizophrenia, I believe it is exactly because the term is so intertwined with phobia and oppression that Francione finds it so powerful. That is, it is exactly because sanism works to define schizophrenia as something bad and those who have it as "crazy" that it seen as a persuasive tool. Francione obviously believes that confused thinking or delusions are inherently bad, which is exactly the problem with using this term, and exactly why it is so oppressive.

In Thinking Class: Sketches from a Cultural Worker (South End Press, 1996), Joanna Kadi recounts her fears when navigating being different mentally while speaking before an audience about her writing. She talks about the internalized fear of a phobic response from her audience that would identify her as a "crazy" person because of the hallucinations and voices she hears in her head:

If I wasn't so afraid, I'd be amused at the gap between their perception and my reality. Someone asks a question about my fiction. I say, "Characters show up in my head and start talking and I try to write it down. These characters are often gregarious and talk loudly. So far I like the characters who have arrived on the scene, except for some minor ones."

The audience perceives some radical leap of creative artistic energy on my part and is impressed. I consider a street person approaching any of these people and daring to speak about people in her head. The audience members would walk away as quickly as possible, after labeling the street person crazy. No audience member knows I've been labeled crazy and locked up in a psych ward. Would it change their opinion of my creative artistic energy if they did? But I can't know the answer, because fear locks up my lips.

The phobia and oppression that targets people with schizophrenia is merely perpetuated when we use their experience or condition to denote something as wrong or problematic. Francione may not intend to say people with schizophrenia are immoral, but his use of the term does nothing to alleviate the phobia and oppression experienced by people with a schizophrenic experience or condition. Rather, his appropriation of schizophrenia as a rhetorical tool clearly reinforces sanism and phobia of people who are different mentally. Unfortunately, Francione has no intention to stop using the term "moral schizophrenia when it comes to animal ethics," and seeks only to justify his use through clarification. As long as this is the case Francione will be exploiting sanism and phobia of people who are different mentally as a rhetorical weapon for his own agenda.

We should avoid following Francione's unfortunate example by instead questioning and confronting sanism whenever and wherever we encounter it. That is, when we encounter people using the term "moral schizophrenia" we should interrupt them, right then and there, and let them know that schizophrenia is not an appropriate term to describe something as wrong, problematic or contradictory, and that using this term in that way does in fact perpetuate the sanist oppression and phobia that targets people with schizophrenia.

(Update: At Mike's suggestion below, I have edited this article by changing "disability" to "different mentally." I have also changed "ableism"/"ableist" to "sanism"/"sanist" as the latter more directly addresses the form of oppression discussed in this post.)

Re: Opposing Ableism as a Rhetorical Tool

Thanks for this, Ida.

As someone who has a good friend with schizophrenia, I too have a problem with the term "moral schizophrenia" and I too was unsatisfied with Francione's recent "clarification" or justification. I feel he completely avoided the point that critics, like yourself, have been trying to get across.
It's a shame because I otherwise find Francione's approach very insightful and compelling.

Thanks again.

It's good to have you back!

Re: Opposing Ableism as a Rhetorical Tool

Ida, thank you for addressing this so directly and clearly. I wasn't aware of Francione's recent post. Although the post defends the use of the term "moral schizophrenia," I feel like Francione is at least starting to have some real cognitive dissonance about it--some discomforting uncertainty. Otherwise, I doubt he would've felt the need to post a justification.

Re: Opposing Ableism as a Rhetorical Tool

Former Midnight Oil lead singer Peter Garrett has moral cancer!, and it is
incurable!
(He used to be a passionate anti-nuclear campaigner and
now he is a Member of Parliament in Australia who
supports the government's decision to mine more uranium
in Australia. So his moral beliefs mutated.)

My two grandfathers died of cancer. Does anyone think the above statement is offensive? What about this?:

The artist now known again as Prince stopped being vegan. He has moral AIDS. (He wasn't able to fend off people constantly objecting to his veganism.)

I used to work as a volenteer at an HIV/AIDS hospice.

Did Friedrich Nietzsche have moral clinical depression? Are vegans morally happy?

I have not yet formed an opinion as to whether the above metaphors are
offensive. 'Any opinions, reasons ?

Re: Opposing Ableism as a Rhetorical Tool

I would be opposed to these terms because each uses a group of people's condition or experience as a means of conveying a message that something is — morally or otherwise — wrong or problematic. For people with cancer, AIDS, or depression, as well as people close to them, these would all be incredibly insensitive.

I see no valid reason for linking these or any other conditions or experiences with something that is possibly morally questionable. One problem with this is that it implies that people with the condition or experience are inferior in some way.

It seems clear that in the context these conditions and experiences are definitely being used as a pejorative. If they weren't being used to express disapproval, then why use them? And if we can admit that they are used as pejoratives, then we must also admit that each is ableist for exactly that reason.

Another point to consider, it was once common to assume that if someone got a chronic illness it was because they were immoral and the illness was a divine punishment. Many people still think like this, and its particularly true with HIV/AIDS. This just-world fallacy is a contributing factor to why right-wing fundamentalists in the U.S. are opposing universal healthcare, or government social programs in general.

Re: Opposing Ableism as a Rhetorical Tool

Anon, I am unsure of the motivations behind your comment. If I had to guess, I would imagine that this post has challenged your beliefs and that you feel vulnerable -- that you are concerned that you may have acted or hold beliefs that may offend others. I see that you have a need for consistency in your beliefs and a need to act in a way that is in accord with your values, one of which is to not hurt others. I see that you hope to resolve the cognitive dissonance experienced as a result of reading this post.

My impression is that this comment appears to follow Francione's lead by drawing attention away from the subject of the initial critique -- the stigmatizing effect of the phrase "moral schizophrenia." I am not aware of any vegan advocates using the terms given as examples in the comment. The only people using those terms are religious extremists (moral cancer) and white supremacists (moral AIDS). Surely vegans don't want to be associated with those groups, so I'm not sure why we would want to use those terms in the first place.

Asking about cancer and AIDS does not take into account how mental illnesses are uniquely stigmatized as compared to non-mental illnesses. Horrible things have happened and continue to happen in mental wards and institutions, there is a lack of parity in insurance coverage, there are constant negative public portrayal of mental illness, and so on. Since Francione is talking about a mental thought process, the comparison to a mental illness holds a power that a comparison to a non-mental illness does not.

Francione opens chapter 1 of his book, "[o]ur moral attitudes about animals are, to say the very least, schizophrenic." Francione is directly using "schizophrenic" as a negative concept. The need to analogize to understand why this is offensive demonstrates how stigmatized schizophrenia is. Because that's the idea, right? If it's not offensive to say "moral cancer" or "moral AIDS," it's not offensive to say "moral schizophrenia."

I recently read The Colony by John Tayman, which documents the infamous American leprosy colony on the Hawaiian island Molokai, where people with Hansen's disease were forcibly exiled to from 1866 to 1969. These people's lives were ruined precisely because their medical condition had been linked to immorality in the Bible (through a mistranslation at that). To say "they treated me like a 'leper'" is offensive because being socially slighted has nothing in common with being forcibly removed from one's family and imprisoned on an island -- actually "being treated like a 'leper.'"

Similarly, talking about "moral schizophrenia" has nothing to do with actual schizophrenia. It does not take into account the stigmatization and challenges that people with schizophrenia face as a result of living in an ableist society. Someone who exhibits "moral schizophrenia" is not going to be denied a job or insurance or social status because of their "moral schizophrenia." Francione wants to exploit the power of this word without doing anything to lessen the stigma associated with having schizophrenia. Instead, he perpetuates it.

"Moral schizophrenia" obsolete

I was just reading a book review in which the person said, we "go through a type of mental gymnastics ('psychic numbing') which convince us that food animals are either not suffering, or we really are not eating an animal."

I'm not sure if those are the reviewer's words or the author's words, but either way, the phrase "mental gymnastics" jumped out at me as a vivid phrase that can be used in place of "moral schizophrenia."

Re: Opposing Ableism as a Rhetorical Tool

Thank you for this post. I find it troubling that after being made aware that the term "moral schizophrenia" stigmatizes people with schizophrenia, Francione defends using the phrase. I wonder if he was told that something else he wrote was offensive to a different marginalized group he would be so quick to defend it. I have been noticing that in many liberal circles while sexism, racism and heterosexism are unacceptable, ableism and anti-sex worker ( often wrapped in a miasma of "concern") is.

Re: Opposing Ableism as a Rhetorical Tool

I just came across this article and wanted to thank you for writing it. Also thank you for saying people with schizophrenia and not schizophrenics, it is only a part of who they are and saying schizophrenics robs them of their individuality. I have been diagnosed with bi-polar and hear people say bi-polars and manic depressives and it drives me crazy (full pun intended). I say I have been diagnosed with bi-polar instead of saying I have bi-polar because I don't see merit in a lot of psych diagnosis. You can't know that some one has a chemical imbalance based on thoughts and behaviour (especially when you ignore life experinces, world veiws, and past trauma and abuse).

The only critique I have is the use of the word disability, I know may people who do not see their mental health issues (schizophrenia included) as a (completely) negative thing and they prefer differently abled mentally or just different mentally. Just something you might like to keep in mind when addressing similar issues.

Thanks again

Mike