You Must be Mental

_70132437_psychotescoIn the run up to Halloween there has been recent criticism thrown at retailers over offensive Halloween costumes. One of these costumes is a blood splattered orange boiler-suit, with the words ‘psycho ward’ stuck on the back. The other is a straight jacket, also blood splattered, and includes a plastic meat clever. Both cost £20 and, apparently, cause offence.  

A number of mental health charities were quick to criticised the retailers for the outfits, claiming the costumes promoted a negative attitude towards mental health. One leader of a mental health charity called the costumes “breathtakingly offensive”, and claimed they “added stigma” to mental health. Alastair Campbell also jumped aboard the offended bandwagon, calling the costumes ‘offensive’, and showing that attitudes towards mental health are “in the dark ages”. More worryingly, the government also condemned the retailers, with the Health Minister Norman Lamb writing a letter to Tesco and Asda detailing his disgust towards the costumes.

As a result of the controversy, the costumes were withdrawn from sale, and both Tesco and Asda formally apologised for any offence caused, along with donating money to mental health charities. 

Now, as someone who has a history of mental illness, I’m amazed these costumes can cause such an outcry. In fact, I’m amazed anyone can claim they are offended by a costume at all. The link between the two is superfluous and weak.  

Under the same logic, surely, Romanians should be in uproar over Count Dracula costumes, and the RSPCA should be criticising Halloween decorations which feature black cats, for both, using the above logic, generate a negative attitude. Will we see Larry, the infamous mouse-catcher from 10 Downing Street, criticising supermarkets for including black cats on Halloween decorations, claiming the association with witchcraft is offensive? 

Of course not. Why? Because the horror genre has a strong relationship with psychology and mental illness. How many of our favourite horror films and stories feature mental illness? How many of our favourite villains are psychotic or have escaped mental institutions? And yet there is no outcry over these, but somehow two costumes cause stigma? 

Secondly, being offended is not the same as being harmed, and therefore does not warrant any consequence. Being offended does not mean harm was caused. Surely in an open society such as ours, our right to freedom of speech includes the freedom to dress as we wish. This should include Halloween costumes, were any observant person at such a time would see many people in similar costumes, or in fact, far worse.  

That is not to say that people do not have a right to criticise, or even claim something is offensive; such a thing is and should rightly be covered by freedom of speech. But what is not justified is to demand something be done about it. 

The purpose of this article is not to attack the mental health charities for their outburst, for in an open society they should have the right to express anger at which they find offensive. What I am attacking here is the assumed power the charities have to force the companies to take the costumes down. I find it abhorrent that Tesco and Asda should bow to pressure from a small group and withdraw the items, which ultimately reduces our freedom of choice as consumers. 

Although Tesco and Asda were not forced to  withdraw the costumes, they knew it would be a PR disaster if they did not. But why? Surely the only thing they should be concerned with is consumer demand –  if there was no demand for the costumes, then it would make sense to remove them. But not because they gained criticism.

Lastly, when Alastair Campbell wrote his article criticising the retailers, he argued that we need an environment where people can feel comfortable talking about mental health. And rightly so, but the knee-jerk reactions such as those above do not lead to such an environment. Rather, it creates an environment where people feel uncomfortable to discuss such issues, for fear of being offensive. Ultimately, if mental health charities really want mental illness to lose its stigma, they should understand that the issue is not beyond the limits of free speech. 

ProfileTony Marriott holds a BA in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from the University of Hull and an MSc in East Asian Business from the University of Sheffield. He is preparing for his PhD starting in 2014. His interests include development economics, political economy, and individual freedom. Outside of libertarianism, Tony is a tubby real ale drinker and avid fan of horror, cult cinema, and heavy metal. 

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