On Language, Again
(Textual note: “ou” is used as a neutral third person pronoun in this text, by preference of the author.)
Hello everybody! It’s your friendly neighborhood Language Police Officer1 here, to write about language. Again.
The response to the Ableist Word Profile series has been, well, tremendous. Some readers are telling us that it’s their favourite feature, and engaging in the comments in all kinds of exciting ways. Other people are not so excited about it and it’s become a rather controversial series as a result. So, let’s discuss the issues which come up on those threads today, shall we?
There are a couple of themes which seem to come up over and over again in the comment threads on posts in the Ableist Word Profile series, and I’d like to break them down a bit, because I would rather not see them come up in the future. And, for those of you who are trying to get people in your own lives to modify their language usage, deconstructions of these arguments may be helpful.
- “I don’t use this word this way, so it’s not bad.”
- “You can’t tell me what language I can and can’t use.”
- “But it’s not used in that sense anymore, so it’s ok.”/”You’re focusing too much on the origins of the word, not the modern usage.”
- “I’ve never heard this word used this way.”/”In another language, this word doesn’t mean this.”
- “Are you telling me that I’m lacking in intelligence because I didn’t know about the origins of this word?”
- “My friend with a disability uses this word, so it’s ok.”
- “I don’t agree that this word is ableist.”
- “The feelings of people with disabilities and advocates are not as important as my right to use this word.”
- “The alternatives you suggest just aren’t as strong.”
So, here’s the problem with this argument: It relies on the idea that your personal definition of a word overrides the one decided upon by society, or the generally accepted meaning known by most people. Let’s say that I decided that all cars are going to be called “hatboxes.” I’m probably going to encounter some pushback when I talk about taking my hatbox to the dealer for repairs, offer someone a ride in my hatbox, etc. This is because I’m using a word in a way which society doesn’t generally accept, and it confuses people. This issue is taken to a whole new level in the case of exclusionary language, because while you may think your word use is appropriate, it is upsetting to others.
If, for example, you grew up thinking that a slur was an appropriate word to use to describe a particular group of people/type of person, and were gently informed that this was not the case and replied “but I don’t use this word pejoratively,” you would probably encounter some resistance. Because even though you may not mean it in that way, other people read it that way.
You’re right! I can’t. All I and my fellow contributors can do is present information about the origins and roots of words, why some people feel that they are offensive, and ask you to examine your language use. I’m not saying that you must stop using particular words, I’m not saying that if you stop using them, ableism will magically go away, I’m just saying “hey, here’s some information you may not have known about the origins of a word and the way in which it is perceived.”
You are, in fact, allowed to decide for yourself about how you want to use language. But, being aware of the fact that some people find certain language offensive, you might choose to use your words more carefully, in the interests of good faith communication which does not marginalize people. Just like I don’t call someone “fat” unless I know that ou identifies with the fat acceptance movement and views “fat” as a neutral adjective or even a positive thing, because I accept that some people find this word offensive and pejorative, and I prioritize their feelings and experiences over my desire to use this word2.
Well, actually, in a lot of cases in the Ableist Word Profile, these words are still used in this sense, and some are retained in diagnostic terms. And, furthermore, in the case of many of these words, even if they aren’t in active use, there are people who are alive who remember the original sense of the word. There are people alive who had this word used against them in a diagnostic context. There are people alive who were institutionalized, oppressed, forcibly sterilized, etc because of how these words were used. There are people who would be alive today if ableism didn’t exist. Which is something to keep in mind.
And you’re right, we do focus on word origins. Because origins are important. We have to get at the roots of language to see how it evolves. And, in the case of ableist words, these roots are in ableism. The reason that these words are effective insults is because of ableism. Hence, when people use them, they are reinforcing ableist culture.
Wait. Are you telling me that the experiences of all people are different? Because that’s a huge part of this website. It is entirely possible that you haven’t heard an ableist word used in the context we are writing about. No one’s denying that. It’s also possible that you heard it used that way, but didn’t realize it.
As for foreign languages, well, they’re foreign languages. We would love to have profiles up on ableist words in other languages, but until we do, it’s not appropriate to translate and decide that we must be wrong because the word we are discussing in English doesn’t mean the same thing in another language. Just like if we put up a post on an ableist word in, say, Spanish, I’m not going to plunge in and say “well in English it doesn’t mean that or carry those connotations, so you are obviously wrong.” (By the way…seriously, bilingual readers? If you are interested in doing multilingual content for us, please let us know!)
No, we’re not. If you didn’t know about the origins of the word, now you do, and you can decide for yourself about whether or not you want to keep using it. Lack of knowledge has nothing to do with “intelligence.” A lot of assumptions are made in our society about the value of intelligence/certain kinds of intelligence, and we try to avoid that here, respecting the fact that people think, process information, and operate in different ways. Thus, we don’t view one particular kind of intelligence as more valuable than another, and we also don’t think that people are somehow inadequate because they don’t know every little thing about the English language. You cannot be held responsible for something you do not know.
Why would we run this series at all, if we thought that everyone knew already? We’re running it because we recognize that people don’t know and might appreciate being better informed about language origins! And because some people even find it interesting to explore word origins!
This is called tokenizing. It’s also a form of the availability heuristic. And it’s not a good way to argue, because this series is about generalized perceptions, not individual experiences. It’s about how ableist words are used to oppress people with disabilities as a group, not about how our opinions about word usage override the opinions of individuals. If someone with developmental disabilities identifies as retarded, for example, that is that person’s right, and we are never going to police identity and reclamatory word use.
We are also not saying that individual people with disabilities are not allowed to use words we have profiled in the AWP. One, because this series isn’t about “allowing” people to do/not do anything, and two, because it’s not our business to tell people how to self-label. People can use these words in a reclamatory and empowering fashion and we think that’s awesome.
It’s also important to think about this “friend” uses the word. Someone with a different gait who uses “lame” self-referentially might be deflecting, self-deprecating, or might genuinely identify as lame and prefer to have this word used to refer to ou gait. Does that mean you should refer to all people with different gaits as lame? Or, that you should use “lame” as a pejorative when you know that it’s a word your friend uses to affirm identity? Or even that you should use “lame” to refer to your friend?
That’s fine. Really. You can weigh the information provided in the post and the comments and still come away feeling that the word under discussion is not ableist. We aren’t here to tell you what/how to think. Really. We encourage independent thinking.
But, here’s my question: Knowing that a particular word use hurts someone, would you continue using it around that person? I make modifications to my language all the time to be respectful to people who have informed me that specific words/constructions hurt them. I don’t have to agree with them to do this, I can privately think that they are being completely wrongheaded, but I can respect their position, modify my language, and not try to argue. It’s not an immense hardship, and it’s a decent thing to do.
All experiences and feelings are valid. Even those which you disagree with. In this particular space, we center the voices of women with disabilities because they are so often silenced, marginalized, and ignored. Thus, this particular argument is going to be frowned upon to a high degree.
You can disagree with someone, while still respecting that person’s opinion as valid. You can believe, for example, that “weak” is not an ableist word, but when someone says “when this word is used as a pejorative, it hurts me,” that person’s experience is valid. That person is saying that something you are doing is hurtful. Since that person is a member of a marginalized group, that person’s experience overrides your opinion about whether or not a word is acceptable to use. It does not override your right to use it, but it does mean that when you use it, you do so with the knowledge that you are hurting someone.
Well, ok, for starters, those are jumping off points. We’re not running a thesaurus service here. Those are meant to jumpstart a conversation about alternatives to ableist language, not to lay out the law on the alternatives everybody should use.
But let’s talk about this, the strongness argument. It goes like this: “I need a really bad word to use here.” So, ok. Sometimes people do terrible or extremely upsetting things and you want a strong word to describe that. I respect that. But here’s the thing; when you decide to use an ableist word to do that, you are reinforcing ableism. (Just like using sexist language reinforces sexism, etc.) Because the reason that ableist language makes such a great “really bad word” is because of ingrained cultural values about disability. The reason that the alternatives don’t seem as strong is because, well, they don’t rely on commonly held social attitudes to generate a pithy insult.
If we didn’t live in an ableist society, calling someone an ableist term wouldn’t carry any strength and force. It’s the ableism behind the term that makes it strong. So you’ve got a choice: You can decide to stop using words which are hurtful, recognizing that sometimes it is really hard, or you can decide to keep using those words, recognizing that this contributes to the perpetuation of ableism.
Here’s our contributor Amandaw on this very issue:
Maybe there isn’t a replacement for certain problematic words and phrases. Maybe there isn’t another word or phrase you can use instead, or another way to express the same thought.
Consider that maybe that is an acceptable loss compared to reinforcing a culture that beats, rapes, institutionalizes, and kills many people based on exactly those concepts. (Source)
This concludes our presentation of common objections to discussions about ableist language!
It’s important to stress that no one is telling you how to speak, which language you should use, that you must agree with the assertion that particular words are ableist. What is being asked of you is to explore word origins with us, and to look at how other people may perceive a word, even if you personally do not perceive the word in the same way. If you take this information into account and decide to keep on using that word, that’s fine. Just be aware that, by doing so, you may hurt, marginalize, or upset people. And that those reactions are entirely valid.
- Hey, if people are going to call me that, I’m gonna claim the label. Now give me my badge and gun! ↩
- This is not an invitation to discuss whether or not “fat” is a bad word in the comments, I’m merely using it as an example of a word which is used in an insulting context as well as a reclamatory one. ↩