Can Rescuing a Word Reclaim Hope?

Everything I’ve ever done
Everything I ever do
Every place I’ve ever been
Everywhere I’m going to
It’s a sin
— Pet Shop Boys

“Mentally ill” is used so often for people who do bad things because we’ve lost access to the real word:



There is a reason for this. Evil has become over-used. When “evil” hides under every doily — as per my example from the Pet Shop Boys, above — then the word is quickly sapped of all power, and even meaning.

To coin a cliché, when everything’s evil, nothing is.

It’s time to reserve evil for when we really, truly mean it.

There is another reason we may be tempted to use “mentally ill”. It is othering: “I could never do anything like that, because that person is fundamentally different than me!”

However those who have been diagnosed with a legitimate mental illness are taking umbrage with the default assumption that a mental illness is behind mass violence. It sets up further fear and prejudice, which can cause massive damage to already compromised mental health.

Additionally, trained psychologists are telling us that despite our desire to give something this antisocial a label, mass-murderers don’t necessarily qualify as mentally ill.

“Mentally ill” is both too broad and too narrow.

(There are, I recognise, different definitions of mental illness being used by trained professionals than what is in the common parlance. Considering the sweeping implications of prejudice, labels and policies, perhaps it’s time to be responsible and precise with our language, over being witty, flippant or glib.)

So, evil it is, then.

Using evil is scary, because there is actually nothing holding any of us back from it. Like blowing through a red light, there is no cosmic or physical restraint.

After every mass shooting in the US, I’ve seen religious people claim that it’s because of the nation’s godlessness and embracing moral relativism. But very, very few people’s definition of moral relativism extends to mass-murder. This is once again irresponsible speech.

We each have impulses to be evil. What holds some people back, and causes others to act on them? That’s a scary question, because the answer is scary: not much.

We are each capable.

I can’t make policy for America. And obviously I can’t change its violent history or even its current culture. So I won’t try.

I will suggest something different: instead of futilely wringing our hands in fear, we need to really begin to formulate robust answers for what evil is (without overreaching), and how it applies to us.

And in order for that, we need a robust understanding of the value of life.

Relying on intuition & instinct isn’t working, and the inevitable shocked gasps, and predictable “thoughts and prayers” aren’t solving anything.

By “a robust understanding of the value of life,” I do not mean mere words and ideas — there is too much intellectualising going on already.

I don’t even mean action, exactly.

I mean lifestyle.

Live your life as a constant testimony to the value of life. If you’re living deeply, richly, as in-tune with the greatest human values you have available, that is a dream worth cherishing.

Certainly worth living for.

And, as the name of this blog hints at, perhaps even dying for.