ASDA's Halloween Cock-Up: How Political Correctness Actually Went Mad

ASDA's Halloween costume was insensitive but the torrent of single-issue faux-trage that followed was even worse...
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ASDA's Halloween costume was insensitive but the torrent of single-issue faux-trage that followed was even worse...

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One of the best things about Twitter is also, coincidentally, one of the worst.

Unlike Facebook, which keeps you connected with armies of people you’ve spent the best part of your adult life trying to avoid, Twitter enables you to seek out like minds. These are the people who share your values and beliefs; the ones you wish you knew as more than just little square avatars and glib one-line descriptions. The downside is that, whenever something bad happens – a politician speaks out of turn, a brand makes some egregious social media error – these worryingly similar voices all blend into a single cacophonous battle cry of disgust. It can be wearying in the extreme to see your entire timeline engulfed in a torrent of single-issue faux-trage.

That’s not the end of it either. Once everyone’s aired their indignation, half of the people you follow begin to lecture the other fifty percent on how they’re doing Twitter wrong. “What about Syria? Spare a thought for fire service pensions. Don’t forget the bankers’ bonuses,” they bleat, as if none of us are capable of expressing frustration at more than one thing at a time.

That’s pretty much what happened this morning, when some eagle-eyed (and overly keen, if I’m honest) Halloween enthusiast happened upon an ill-advised costume on ASDA’s costume pages. The costume itself was a rather cheap affair, comprising a raggedy looking straight jacket, an over-the-head zombie mask with wild grey hair, and an unconvincing rubber meat cleaver. Apparently, twenty quid doesn’t go very far when you’re in the market for some seasonal fancy dress.

Ordinarily, this rather feeble ensemble would have passed unnoticed, displaying none of the originality of that overweight guy who stuck doll parts on his belly and went out dressed as Kuato from Total Recall. The problem was, the costume was listed as ‘Mental Patient’. Perhaps understandably, the mental health charities were outraged. Campaigners for disability rights were apoplectic, and Alastair Campbell took to BBC London 94.9 to complain: “We are trying to change attitudes towards mental illness... but we are still in the dark ages if some of the biggest companies in this country - Tesco, Asda, Amazon - think that it's acceptable to sell something like this. It's unacceptable on every level.” Except that it’s not. Not at all.

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Why The Media’s Portrayal Of Psychotic Disorders Is Mental

The murderous lunatic is a well-established horror trope. From Victorian monsters like Mr Hyde and Renfield, to contemporary bogeymen Hannibal Lecter and Michael Myers, he’s as much a genre staple as the vampire, werewolf or Republican President. Originating in an era when those with psychological disorders were incarcerated in brutal hellholes, the wild-haired inmate has endured, in spite of a gradual evolution in society’s understanding of mental health.

As the abuses of asylums like Bedlam became more widely known, the ‘criminally insane psychopath’ became an increasingly fictionalised construct in the horror genre – as representative of actual psychological disorders as Brundlefly was of molecular biology. As a society, we came to perceive the mentally ill as patients in need of treatment, rather than punishment. No longer the terrifying villains of horror fiction, they were victims themselves. Even so, in a literary/filmic context the psycho-killer is still a compelling archetype, and as ripe for trick-or-treat imitation as any other fictitious monster. The problem occurs, when people inadvertently blur the lines between the real world and the imaginary.

Consider for a moment one of the great fictional inventions of our time – the great Winterval myth. Lengthy articles have been written about this pernicious invention, perpetuated as an example of the evils of diversity and sensitivity training. In fact, there’s no such thing, but that doesn’t stop millions of people believing that the very word ‘Christmas’ has the potential to cause widespread upset. Because it gets misreported on a regular basis by a complicit press, the misperception grows, adding grist to the mill of anyone who voices the cliché that political correctness has ‘gone mad’. As a consequence, perfectly sensible people find themselves worrying that they’ll fall foul of the Winterval police, and make unnecessary concessions in their own language, in order to toe an imaginary line.

And that’s the problem with this Halloween costume controversy. Clearly, someone somewhere, in the interests of due diligence, has suggested that perhaps ‘lunatic’ or ‘madman’ might not be politically correct in these enlightened times. So, forgetting that they’re talking about something with as much social relevance as platform boots and neck bolts, they’ve tried to rename the costume in order to appear more culturally sensitive.

Making matters even worse is the fact that they’re also hamstrung by the perils of copyright infringement. They can’t even get around the issue by appropriating a well-known character name, which is why the other controversial costume is called ‘Psycho Ward’, when it’s quite clearly supposed to be Hannibal Lecter.

So instead, what we have is a well-established pop cultural reference (the deranged killer), combined with a more culturally sensitive description (mental patient), only for chaos to ensue. Imagine if an unofficial Freddy Krueger mask was simply labeled ‘burns victim’ so as to avoid a lawsuit from New Line Cinema.

Misunderstanding the significance of terminology, and the importance of context, is the real issue here. Proponents of political correctness, in its truest sense, need to do more to spread the meaning of the movement. It’s not about attempting to gag people, or curtail freedom of speech. It’s about sensitivity and empathy, and understanding the power of the language we use.

The people who named this costume ‘Mental Patient’ probably thought they were doing something positive, by updating the language to reference modern terminology. In trying to make a situation better, they made it ten times worse. As for me, I fully intend to celebrate Halloween this year, and I’ll be doing it dressed as my favourite photosensitive Eastern European asylum seeker.