Yesterdays headline in the London Free Press was: “Luka Magnotta lawyer to seek insanity defence”
Only the London Free Press could screw up simple terminology.
The term insanity is still used in the United States but I expect a Canadian newspaper about a Canadian citizen in a Canadian courtroom to be referenced using current and Canadian terminology. To do otherwise is irreverent and irresponsible. The London Free Press wouldn’t have the audacity to refer to races in a historical context. This example is stigma incorporated.
“Insanity” is not considered a medical diagnosis and has not even been considered a legal term for over two decades so I find it difficult to pull anything informative out of this sensational use of words. In short it is a journalistic joke as it lacks factual flavour. The use of pejorative and offensive terms has no place in public periodicals. It is unnecessary and damaging. We only arm attitudes when we revert to old terminology in any way but most especially in a public way.
“On September 16, 1991 Bill C-30, “Proposals to Amend the Criminal Law Concerning Mental Disorder”, was tabled. Bill C-30 brought about numerous changes and created a whole new system for managing mentally disordered accused under part XX.1 of the Canadian Criminal Code. Bill C-30 was responsible for:
Creating new terminology: “a mental disorder” replaced “natural imbecility” or “disease of the mind”, and “not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder” replaced not guilty on account of insanity.”
The London Free Press says: “Lawyers for Luka Rocco Magnotta will ask a jury to declare the defendant not criminally responsible by reason of insanity.” Wrong. Lawyers are using provisions in the criminal code to determine if Luka Magnotta can be found Not Criminally Responsible on account of a mental disorder.
As further evidence of the incompetence of the London Free Press they insist that Luka Magnotta “is the latest high-profile Canadian murder defendant to seek a not-criminally responsible verdict.” Unless the London Free Press has some way around lawyer-client confidentiality this statement is less than hearsay and likely a fabrication. It is also a contradiction with the headline itself. We are told his lawyer is seeking this defence but also that Luka Magnotta is seeking the defence. Which is it? My guess is Luka Magnotta is unfamiliar with this specialized area of the law and is allowing his lawyer to act in his best interests as is usually the case. The Free Press insinuates that Luka Magnotta has conspired with his lawyer to form this defence. His lawyer is acting on his behalf not likely at his direction. Not Criminally Responsible defendants are a very small group of offenders who in no way exploit the legal system but are in fact prone to abuse by it. Luka Magnotta is presumed to be sane and to have been sane at the time of his offences and it is up to the defence to prove otherwise on a balance of probabilities.
Many individuals involved with this aspect of the law are unable to inform their legal counsel of anything, let alone a possible defence. Not Criminally Responsible in my case was not a chosen defence, it was a defence of default for me. I was incapable of any defence. The courts and medicine intervened to protect justice and my mental health. People who are unable to appreciate the nature of their crime, specifically the fact that it was criminally wrong and probably morally wrong are usually unable to appreciate the complexities of the law.
Today we have a comprehension of the power of words and the disrespect and attitudes they entrench. This terminology was once used to describe people with mental illness and mental disabilities and is therefore historically accurate but it is not socially acceptable presently or currently accurate. It is sensational and label driven. The term insane branded all patients including those with learning disabilities. In the past insane was not intended to be derogatory but can only be considered so today.
It should be noted that we take care about the language used to describe race or intellectual disability but we are less careful in describing individuals with mental illness. I can hear the cries about political correctness and language police but if that is your argument you haven’t taken the time to consider the lives of those affected by such language. The argument against political correctness held no water for minorities and it shouldn’t for any disability.
This headline is as offensive as reminding readers of how we used to refer to African-Americans. To further the insult it is not even correct. This insult is truly ignorant. Would the London Free Press call attention to individuals of different ethnicity who have over the past century been called many things? We no longer call these individuals anything we like.
You can call me oversensitive, off the wall or anything you like but don’t even come close to associating the individuals I have shared my life with as insane. They are not. They are ill; they are mental health patients and consumers. Insanity or insane is derogatory and insulting when used by others, it is also dehumanizing and entrenches unhealthy attitudes. I find it telling that such a reference is embraced when it comes to mental health.
We risk reawakening and highlighting misconceptions in individuals who feed on headlines. I believe many find the brunt of their information and knowledge from such sources. We don’t have to worry about those who are knowledgeable, for they do little to feed stigma. The people who perpetuate stigma have as a foundation of knowledge the very things the London Free Press is holding a candle to.
We combat racism by not tolerating any of it, in any form, on any occasion. References to mental health that are stigmatizing are no different. The corpse of old terms will never smell good and in fact spreads its putrid perfume on us all when it is waltzed with.
I have used the word insane to describe myself and it is my prerogative to do so, just as African-Americans refer to themselves with words they would be offended by others using. It is a way to remove the power from such hurtful speech. Insanity is not only draped in the derogatory but it also has a hopeless flavour to it; some incurable nature.
I am in no way inferring that Luka Magnotta is Not Criminally Responsible any more than I would say he is guilty or innocent. I leave those determinations up to the people appointed to ensure justice prevails despite my personal perceptions and opinions. The London Free Press seems to have other motivations. If Luka Magnotta is in fact Not Criminally Responsible he is not insane. He would be suffering from a mental disorder at the time of his offence. Further, there would be as much promise of recovery and rehabilitation as in any other case. It is not a hopeless or permanent state.
I realize it is not the mandate of the London Free Press to combat stigma but is the responsibility of every journalist to refrain from perpetuating stigma. If this article was a historical reference to “African Americans” we would be appalled and someone would be delivering papers instead of writing in them. The fact that our sensitivities do not extend to those affected by mental illness is stigma itself.
Stigma is a major barrier for individuals in need of mental health services. Casual language used to describe mental illness is often negative and I believe the London Free Press owes the one in five Londoners affected by mental illness an explanation if not an apology.
I have no short term expectation that people will stop using stigmatizing terms but if we are to start, a community newspaper is a good place. I would recommend a more honest and frank dialogue regarding mental illness so we can move beyond the stigma.
People will call me over sensitive but this is not some attempt at political correctness. It is a legitimate attempt to ease the debilitating stigma attached to mental illness. Language evolves and I see no better place to start than in a newspaper. Is it sad or sadistic that the London Free Press clings to terminology found in musty manuscripts? The use of the word insanity implies that all individuals found Not Criminally Responsible are dangerous. This myth serves no one and migrates to all individuals with mental health difficulties.
The London Free Press is using this terminology to be sensational rather than accurate. I take exception to being mislead and though it makes for good press it is a disservice and an insult to all who are affected by mental illness.
It is a euphemism treadmill where the language that is acceptable today may eventually be perceived as an insult but it is still necessary to continue on the path as a form of respect for those affected. Just because “African-American” may eventually fall as an insult does not give license to cling to and promote the terminology of the past. I see this progression for what it is…progress.