Actions speak louder than words, or so the saying goes. As someone who often spends far too much time thinking about such things, I sometimes find myself wondering if actions and words are really very different. Both are forms of communication which actually do things in the real world. If I pick up a hammer and drop it on your toe, that does something. If I then turn to you and say that you are a waste of space, and it’s your own fault that the hammer landed on your toe (because you were in the way), then that also does something.
We have intentions when we say things. We expect our words to achieve something. Indeed, there are many philosophers, sociolinguists, and other academics, who have put a good deal of effort into determining what words do, and how they do it. John L Austin, for example, is a name especially associated with speech-act theory. This theory emphasises various aspects of speech, and one of them is the actual effect that words have, whether it is the effect of persuading, inspiring, frightening, or making something else happen.
These observations are particularly relevant to me as the author of a book related to mental health care. In my writing (rather than speaking, in this case), there are (at least) three things that were going on. Firstly, there was the actual act of sitting down and writing, i.e. turning my memories and reflections into a novel. Secondly, there was the issue of what I intended my words to do, i.e. my aim of drawing attention (in an entertaining way, hopefully) to past institutional practices that I understood as unjust. And thirdly, there was the actual effect that my words had on the people who read them.
But what is probably far more interesting than any of that, is the use of words in mental health care itself. If we say that actions speak louder than words, we are in danger of ignoring just how powerful words are. One of the things I included in my book, Delivered Unto Lions, is a form of words I remember very well from my time as a teenage mental patient in the ’70s. That form of words went something like this: ‘You are not being punished; this is just a consequence of your actions.’
Naming a disciplinary act as a ‘consequence’ rather than a ‘punishment’ was, no doubt, intended to do something. My guess is that it was an attempted form of behaviouralist conditioning – i.e. you already know the consequence of putting your hand in the fire is a painful burn, so therefore you don’t do it because of the inevitable result; in the same way, the consequence of (for instance) running away is confinement with all your clothing removed, so therefore you learn not to defy institutional authority, because that too has an inevitable result (or so you are conditioned to believe). Consequences, after all, are things that happen naturally, whereas punishments are deliberately imposed.
It is also very interesting how people with mental health conditions get labelled, because, of course, labels are also words which do things. I’m currently reading a book which tells the story of someone’s experience of borderline personality disorder (which I will review here in due course). But the expression ‘borderline personality disorder’ itself represents a form of words with an effect. Some people see these words as having a judgemental effect, as they paint a picture of someone who’s very self (personality) is faulty, existing on a ‘borderline’ between ‘normal’ and ‘psychotic’ functioning. For this reason (among others), there are alternative words that have been suggested to describe this condition, such as ‘emotional instability disorder’ or ‘post traumatic personality disorganization’. As such, these alternative names do alternative things, whether good or bad.
Stigma continues to be a major issue for current and recovered sufferers of mental health problems. The words we use can speak just as loudly as any actions. By their strength, words can feed the power of stigma, reinforce prejudice, and prolong suffering; or by their strength, words can reduce the power of stigma, challenge prejudice, and help alleviate suffering. Words, as well as actions, do things in the real world. Perhaps we should be more careful in the words we use so that we make sure they do the right things.
Delivered Unto Lions by David Austin is published by CheckPoint Press
For more information visit www.davidaustin.eu