A Crazy "Nested If" Fallacy

Earlier today I read an opinion piece in a local newspaper from Julie Anne Pattee who argues that it is not acceptable to call someone a "nutcase" or use any term that might refer to a mental illness or condition as a means to describe someone or something that may appear to be behaving differently than expected. As someone opposed to the seemingly ceaseless desire from various groups to impose limitations on how people may use language, the editorial was something I was genuinely interested in reading. The best way to understand someone's argument is to hear it out. Not only because of Rule 91, but because it's darn near impossible to have a valid reason to challenge an idea that you don't understand.

The editorial starts out by introducing a Lego Ninjago character named "Krazi" who is a one-dimensional antagonist that epitomises everything the word "crazy" might mean to most people. A children's book put out by Lego to sell more toys describes the character like this:

Krazi is well named because he is completely mad. He is extremely dangerous in battle, because he is totally unpredictable. One day he might fight ferociously for hours, and another day he may sneak away at the start of the fight and then come back and strike again later. He was almost left behind in the underworld, but he is too formidable a fighter not to have come along.

The Fandom link describes him in much the same way, stating:

Krazi is a being deemed purely insane, even more than any other known character. Likewise, he is prone to back-and-forth behavior, often switching between opposite routines without order, and falling into strange fits of madness, running around while screaming and biting trees. He is also incredibly destructive, taking it upon himself to smash entire mountains as a hobby. Either as a result of his insanity, dimwittedness, or both, Krazi is also prone to calling out phrases that make little sense, and is generally so wild and unpredictable that even Samukai almost found him to be too much of a wild card to utilize.

By all accounts, this character is quite literally crazy. If most of us were to be in close proximity to a person like this in real life, we would take immediate action to get out of the area immediately and call the police. If there are children -- related or otherwise -- in the area, most adults would do their best to remove them from the area as well. A person living with mental sickness or instability sees the world very differently, making any sort of active engagement dangerous without a lot of prior knowledge and experience.

By using a character with these traits, Lego is very clearly copying The Joker from Batman to create an easy "bad guy" for kids to play with. This is part of what upsets the author of the editorial. She writes:

As a culture, we've gotten so used to using words that refer to mental illness as negative that no one even bats an eye when we decide to turn our hatred of the mentally ill into a toy for children. Krazi is still a popular Lego character.

This is where she transitions from describing Krazi to stating her argument, but I find it an untenable stretch to suggest that having a character that is by all accounts literally insane is the result of "hatred of the mentally ill". Lex Luthor from Superman is insanely smart and, as a result, one of the wealthiest men in the fictional DC universe, but this doesn't mean that we hate intelligent people. Uriah Heep from David Copperfield was incredibly well read and could twist words to his advantage better than most, but this doesn't mean we abhor books2 or developing a large vocabulary. Cathy Ames from East of Eden is a remarkably beautiful woman who manipulates people, destroys lives, and murders just for her own amusement, but this doesn't mean we despise beauty. The list goes on and on, as most every great work of fiction has an equally compelling antagonist that has at least one thing going for them that we deem worthwhile, be it intelligence, creativity, beauty, or something else. To suggest that a character like Krazi was created simply because Lego hates people who suffer from mental illness is disingenuous. Worse, this potentially false presupposition results in something I call the "Nested If Fallacy".

The subheading to Julie Anne's editorial reads:

Our words matter because they are chains that lead us places. Stigma leads to prejudice which leads to discrimination, writes Julie Anne Pattee.

This is a Nested If Fallacy because it requires multiple "if" statements to be true before reaching the end result.

So, if a person associates evil with the mentally ill, then a stigma will develop. If a person has a stigma regarding mental illness, then they will be prejudiced against those with some sort of mental issue because they are seen as evil. If a person is prejudiced against a person with mental illness, then there will be discrimination because they are seen as evil.

This cognitive path can certainly take place in some minds, but to suggest this is going to happen every time a person is introduced to a fictional character that is -- again -- quite literally insane is a leap too far. It is the role of a parent to ensure their children have a balanced understanding that "not all crazy people are evil" just like "not all wealthy people are evil" and "not all creative people are evil" and "not all beautiful people are evil". The objective of this children's character is to act as a one-dimensional antagonist to be defeated by "the good guys", whoever they may be. Kids will not read this far into Krazi or even the more popular Joker from Batman.

From here, the article continues and the author makes the case that using words that describe various types of mental illness are slurs that should be stamped out, much like how people stopped calling each other "retard" or "Corky"3 to mean "idiot".

[…] It's still normal for the weather and the stock markets to be described as schizophrenic. Every time something bad or unfair happens to one of my friends, they'll tell me it was "just insane."

How would either of these statements lead to the development of a stigma or prejudice? If someone were to say "It's really hot outside" does that mean the weather outdoors is sexually attractive? Or would the inverse be true so that "He has a hot body" means the person in question is running a fever? People regularly use language to describe situations without speaking in a derogatory fashion about any person or group of people. If we were to impose a new set of rules to refrain from using words that are -- or could be -- perceived as diminishing to people with a mental condition or illness, we would need to encourage everyone to start reading books in order to expand the common lexicon that we all use when communicating with each other. The Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 words that are currently in use plus another 47,156 obsolete words. Of these, the typical English speaker knows somewhere around 20,000 and uses a decent portion of them regularly. With this in mind, let's imagine we changed some sentences from derogatory to "inclusive":

The weather is absolutely schizophrenic today.⇢ The weather is quite erratic today.4

The checkout line was just insane today.⇢ The checkout line was highly irregular today.

Yep, we certainly have a large enough selection of everyday words available for these two situations … so long as we don't mind speaking like Vulcans.

Personally, I would be in favour of seeing people use a wider range of words when describing situations or people because we hear the same adjectives over and over and over again to the point where the meaning of the word evolves into something else. This is certainly the case for the word "crazy", which I generally perceive as meaning "with a great deal of energy" or "very positive".

We went to a crazy party the other night.⇢ The get together we attended was incredibly fun and we partied like it was 1999.

Tom got a crazy deal on a 65" Sony TV.⇢ Tom bought a 65" Sony television for a very good price.

When we call someone a "nutcase," what we really mean is that we shouldn't take them seriously.

Indeed. Not everyone should be taken seriously in every situation, especially when emotions are involved. This isn't a slur that denigrates people with mental health issues, it's a warning to others based on current or past experiences with the "nutcase".

Words make worlds, as the saying goes. Using inclusive language isn't some kind of pointless, politically correct obsession. It's actually the necessary first step toward creating a fairer, more equal society for all of us.

Incorrect. Societies cannot be fair or equal because life isn't fair equal. People can scream and shout for the dispossessed to their heart's content, but this will not change the fact that some people are born more intelligent than others, or more creative, or more beautiful. Some of us will struggle with mental health issues. Some of us will struggle with addiction. Some of us will struggle with physical impairments. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't aim to ensure that those who seek to be members of society can participate, but it does mean that we should not enforce rules that are ill-defined and constantly changing.

Language evolves. Today "bombastic" means pompous, verbose, periphrastic, and the like5. Who is to say that it will not mean something seen as derogatory to people with mental illness who scream obscenities on busy street corners next month? If this happens, should we stop using this word to describe politicians who are all talk and no action because it might offend someone? Nested If Fallacies can happen like this, too.

If a word might lead to a stigma, then it should not be said. If a word is changed by modern culture to mean a word that is perceived to lead to stigma, then it should not be said. If a classification of words, such as adjectives, can be hijacked to mean a word that is perceived to lead to stigma that becomes prejudice that evolves into discrimination, then it must be eradicated.

Maybe it's better if we just don't say anything at all.

  1. Rule 9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't. Julie Anne Pattee, the author of the editorial, has lived with experience of severe mental illness, and was a mental health care research assistant and consultant in Montreal. She knows a lot more about mental illness than I ever will.

  2. Well … a lot of people might abhor reading books, but we generally don't hate the object itself.

  3. Corky was a character on the TV show Life Goes On in the early 90s. He had Down Syndrome, but was high-functioning enough to be relatable to people who had no experience with the condition.

  4. Earlier versions of this sentence tried the words "unstable", "erratic", and "volatile", but these could also be misread to appear as derogatory towards people with mental illness.

  5. Sort of like this rather long rant against compelled speech.