Welcome to Ableist Word Profile, a (probably intermittent) series in which staffers will profile various ableist words, talk about how they are used, and talk about how to stop using them. Ableism is not feminism, so it’s important to talk about how to eradicate ableist language from our vocabularies. This post is marked 101, which means that the comments section is open to 101 questions and discussion. Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.
“What’s your damage,” “what’s your problem,” and the accompanying “what’s your childhood trauma” are, it’s true, not words. They are phrases. But they are ableist phrases, so we are including them in our Ableist Word Profile series. All of these phrases are used when someone’s behaviour appears perplexing, erratic, or unexpected, and they are often used to silence someone by dismissing or belittling them. Fortunately, they are rather outdated and are rarely seen in common language usage, but they are still worth addressing.
These ableist phrases are interesting because they use the disability-as-objectively-bad shorthand to dismiss and marginalize people, using a form of disability which many people would argue is, in fact, harmful, which is a bit of a departure from the norm, in which all disabilities are blanketed with the “bad” status. People should not be traumatized, and the experience of trauma is not a pleasant thing. However, people who have been traumatized are not bad, and using these terms is extremely hurtful to them, whether it is applied to them or applied to someone who has not experienced trauma.
Trauma is a form of invisible disability. There’s no way to tell if someone has experienced trauma unless that person openly talks about it. As a result, when terms like “what’s your childhood trauma” are used in a group setting, there’s no way to know if you are directly hurting someone with your words.
The term “what’s your damage” uses “damage” as a standin for “trauma,” referencing the idea that people who have experienced trauma are damaged, broken, and in need of fixing. “What’s your problem” is another riff on this theme. For people who have experienced trauma and are going through therapy or are coming to terms with the need for therapy, hearing a slang term like this callously tossed out is very hurtful. It marginalizes and belittles the experience of trauma, reducing it to a slang term which is used to silence someone in discussion.
These slang terms can also be very triggering for a survivor of trauma, which is something to keep in mind; once said, it cannot be taken back, and it can cause pain for someone without the speaker being aware of it.
If the speaker knows that someone has experienced trauma and uses one of these slang terms, it is especially hurtful. It implies that a response is not valid because the person is “damaged” or has a “problem” and is therefore not worthy of respect and does not need to be taken seriously. In a literal sense, it is also asking a person with disabilities to explain a disability in personal detail, which is not something which many trauma victims want to do or should do.
“What’s your damage” and similar terms are ableist phrases which most readers should find easy to eliminate because they are so rare. But elimination requires an extra step; eliminating these phrases requires people not to come up with good replacements, but to actually think about the context in which these terms are used. They are usually used as a dismissive silencing tactic, sometimes in response to heated rhetoric.
Introspection about why one feels the need to lash out to silence someone in conversation may help people come to a better word or phrase to use, such as “I understand that this conversation is upsetting, do we need to take a break” or “I respect your point of view, but I disagree” or “I think that this conversation is becoming heated and it’s time to take a step back and regroup.”