Sanewashing—It’s More Widespread Than You Might Think

“Sanewashing” is a technique of reframing a crazy idea, movement, or persona as moderate or “sane” and “reasonable.” Remember the call to “abolish/defund” the police? Sound crazy, right? Who will be in charge of public safety if we abolish the police? Sanewashers want to save the idea come in and clean it up. “We don’t really want to abolish or defund the police,” the sanewasher says. “What we really want is to reform policing.” (It appears that concept of sanewashing was coined in reference to the defund the police movement.)

What’s wrong with reforming policing? Nothing. We’ve been reforming the police for decades (and we have been quite successful at it). That’s not the real purpose of the the sanewashed version. Sanewashers are abolitionists interested in weakening public safety who want to make sure that the audience perceives the idea as reasonable and not crazy. Sanewashers make the crazy sound normal. (In my essay Disordering Bodies for Disordered Minds, I reference sanewashing throughout, I just hadn’t yet learned of the term.)

Jesse Waters interviewing Doreen Ford, moderator of /r/antiwork who is sanewashing a communist-anarchist tendency calling for the abolition of work

Once you know about the practice of sanewashing, you start to see it all around you. Sanewashing and similar strategies have been a general trend in our society since the 1960s, at least in a big way. The term can be expanded to include rhetoric defining down deviance (what the defund the police tendency harbors at its core) and normalizing mental illness, to take two obvious examples. We also see it in campaigns to normalize obesity, cutting, and other extreme acts of self-harm. One may expand the scope of the term because the angle of sanewashing is to accuse those who challenge a desired mode of existence of misrepresenting that desire. So the desire to pursue a diet that makes one unhealthy is redefined in such a way as to portray the norm that stigmatizes that desire as discrimination rather than a check on self-destructive behavior.

To be clear, I am not talking about efforts to destigmatize criminal or psychiatric labels or health conditions. Rehabilitation depends on reintegrating lawbreakers into society. Successful treatment of mental illness depends on reducing alienation of those who suffer from such illness. Obese people need medical attention. I am a big proponent of destigmatization and helping people get the help they need. Rather, I am talking about a strategy that denies criminal behavior, psychiatric disorders, and so forth are actual things or things that cause actual harm by redefining those things as normal and even laudatory. The idea that depolicing society is not harmful to public safety is a dangerous one if put into practice. Indeed, just the idea that the police should be defunded because the police are racist against black people has promoted criminal violence by demoralizing a segment of the population.

What explains sanewashing? It’s in part consequence of cultural relativism and postmodernist thought. The idea that there’s no truth or that there are multiple truths, each dependent upon one’s own subjective perspective, is corrosive to normative action. This is a manifestation of anarchy. The denial of a shared reality with objective physical, natural, material, and normative structures that exist or have evolved to protect members of society from harmful behavior presents obvious problems for freedom and reasonable expectation of safety and the preservation of the social order that guarantees liberty and rights.

This is not an argument for the status quo. Anybody who follows me know that I am a proponent of identifying problems people face and overcoming them. The social problems that concern me are too many to identify here, but a good example is my advocacy for the decriminalization of drugs and prostitution. I believe that individuals should have the right to determine what they do to their bodies. That’s the default position. But there are limits. I do not support, for example, the surgical removal of ears on the grounds that the person seeking such a procedure suffers from a pathological loathing of ears. If the person wants to remove his ears, it may be difficult to stop him. He might get a sharp knife and sneak off into the woods. But we can surely stop surgeons from harming people with psychiatric disorders by criminalizing ear removal without a legitimize medical reason. As I explain in Disordering Bodies for Disordered Minds, mental illness is never a legitimate reason to mutilate a person.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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