[This post was originally posted at Hoyden About Town on May 4, 2007.]
This is my first personal post about being sick. A “coming-out”, to some of my online friends. And a whole lot of elaboration, for those who know I’m sick, but don’t know the details. It’s taken me ages to write, and I haven’t re-drafted it: here are my musings, in the raw.
I have moderately severe chronic fatigue syndrome, or something that looks very much like it. I first got sick two and a half years ago, quite suddenly. After a few months of feeling just a bit off, not bouncing back with my self-prescribed generic good-food-and-fun-and-exercise cure for tiredness, I suddenly crashed. Over the course of about two weeks, I crashed hard. I became unable to work, and daily living was full of what suddenly seemed to be insurmountable obstacles. I dropped things, felt off balance, walked into things, had large-muscle twitches, thermoregulation problems, I was suddenly blanketed in pain. My short-term memory came and went and I couldn’t concentrate on more than one thing at once, a huge change in cognitive function for me. Most noticeably, activity didn’t pick me up like it always had in the past. Before, if I felt a little off I could go for a bike ride or a swim or a choir rehearsal or a night out dancing, and feel invigorated by it. After, I’d walk a couple of blocks then flump down absolutely exhausted. This was the first time I’d ever felt like this, and it didn’t make any sense!Read more: Stop and think: invisible access for invisible disabilities
It is important to all of the contributors here at FWD that readers and commenters be able to provide feedback on the site . It’s also important to us that you can see the processes we use and know how we respond to that feedback and address it on the site. So even though we’re quite a new site, we’ve already received some valuable feedback which has caused us to make some immediate changes and wanted to share it with you in the interest of transparency.
When we announced the site going live this afternoon, we received some immediate feedback on the site’s blogroll and how it excluded an important perspective – that of women over 50. (I’m not identifying the person who provided this feedback publicly because I don’t know if they’d be comfortable with that – if they’d like to be identified, just let me know and I can swap it.) During the planning for this site, we had identified age as an important axis of diversity and made it our goal to include a range of perspectives on age and aging in our blogroll and our posts. We put together the blogroll fairly quickly and intended to continue to revise and supplement it as the site progressed.
HOWEVER – neither of those things were at all evident from the site or the blogroll, so the only way people could have known is with psychic powers. That is a failure of inclusion on our part, and we apologize for that. Many of us have experienced implicit exclusion from mainstream feminism sites on the basis of our disabilities, and sincerely regret causing that same feeling of exclusion to women over 50, bloggers exploring the issues of ageism, and anyone else who was offended or felt excluded. That was our bad, and it was bad.
Since then, we’ve been working on finding relevant sites that we can add to the blogroll and are planning to think and write more about the issues of age and how they intersect with both feminism and disability. Some of the site’s contributors are 40ish, but none are over 50 and I’m not aware that any of us focus specifically on issues of age, so that’s obviously an important perspective for us to seek out and make affirmative efforts to include on the site – not just saying “if you want to see it, write a guest post.” (Although of course if you want to write a guest post we’d love to have you!!)
This is not an appropriate time for me to talk about how ageism interacts with feminism and disability, because it’s obviously not an issue I have any business speaking on. But we will continue to be doing and research and reading and working to connect with older feminist disability bloggers to feature and include on the site.
This is what we hope the site can do – receive feedback, respond to it, and incorporate it into the site moving forward. While we certainly hope we won’t make too very many mistakes, it is inevitable that we will make some. Our committment to you is that when you raise them with us (and emailing is a great way to do it – either the author of a specific post or administrator [@] disabledfeminists [.] com for site-wide issues like this one), this is what we hope to do with feedback. If you take the time to identify an issue and highlight it for us, we owe you the respect of serious consideration of your feedback and a good faith effort to respond to it.
Read a Czech translation of this post, prepared by Vera!
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.
The word “cretin” is often used to describe someone of limited intelligence, often with the added connotation of being irritating. “That cretin didn’t change the brake pads properly, and now I have to resurface the rotors!” “That Bobby in accounting is such a mouthbreathing cretin!”
“Cretin” is an ableist word. It’s one which shouldn’t be used by people who consider themselves allies to people with disabilities. Many of the synonyms the dictionary so helpfully provides (idiot, moron, mongoloid, imbecile, fool, half-wit for example), are also ableist.
Let’s talk about the word origins of “cretin” first, shall we? The first recorded use of the word dates to the late 1700s, when it was integrated into English from an Alpine French word, crestin, in the sense of “a dwarfed and deformed idiot.” (Incidentally, who wants to play “spot the ableist language” in that dictionary entry?) The word appears to have its origins in the Vulgate Latin word for “Christian,” which may be, depending on which authority you believe, a reference to the suffering of Christ, the humanity of people with disabilities, or a fetishization of innocence, the idea being that people with disabilities can’t sin, and are therefore Christlike. Other authorities suggest that this etymology is wrong, and that the word may be derived from the same root for “creature.” No matter which etymology you prefer, the roots of this word are clearly rooted in ableist thought.
It’s not really clear which medical condition the Alpine French were describing, but English speakers used it to refer to people with hypothyroidism or iodine deficiencies, two problems which were apparently common in the French Alps. Cretinism, as it came to be known, was associated by members of the public with low intelligence, and as a result, people started using the word to refer to people whom they thought were unintelligent, even when those individuals did not have the medical problems the word was originally coined to describe.
By the 20th century, the medical community was abandoning this word to describe an actual medical condition, since it had acquired such a pejorative connotation, although the word can sometimes be seen in some medical texts. The continued use of “cretin” in English speaks to the ingrained ableism in the language, and also to ideas about intelligence and elitism which are very common in many people. The judgment of intelligence as a value which can be quantified, and the idea that people with lesser degrees of “intelligence” under objective testing are unworthy, are distressingly common. (They’re going to come up again and again in this series, too.)
So, what can you use instead of “cretin”?
Well, the first thing you need to do is examine the word the setting is used in. Let’s take the two examples above.
In the first example, our speaker is bemoaning the actions of a careless mechanic who failed to do a job properly. Surely, in this case, words such as “thoughtless,” “careless,” or perhaps “poorly trained” would be a better fit. “That thoughtless mechanic didn’t change the brake pads properly, and now I have to resurface the rotors!”
In the second example, the context is a bit unclear. Not knowing the speaker, we don’t know if Bob from accounting works slowly, is a bit pedantic when it comes to processing reimbursement claims, or what. It becomes necessary to examine what it is about Bob which so infuriates the speaker. That examination may uncover other words which would be not only more appropriate, but more accurate.
I happened to be standing in line at Big National Chain Bank the other day when all sorts of things started going awry for the tellers. First, one had her computer crash. Then, the other had what seemed to be some sort of problem with a cashier’s check which involved a lot of furtive muttering and consultations with the other tellers. The third teller had a customer who appeared to be depositing approximately eight million checks into four million different accounts.
So, I realized I was going to be there awhile. The people in the line behind me (including the man who first tried to cut in front of me because he “didn’t see me,” because I guess being fat really does make you invisible), started grumbling and grousing and complaining. Which always seems odd to me. I mean, sure, no one wants to stand in line at the bank, really, but I fail to see how moaning about it is really going to help.
And, while I was standing there, I had a sudden flash of awareness. I thought, “man, this would really be uncomfortable and unpleasant for someone with a disability like chronic fatigue syndrome.”
See, the thing is, the bank is totally accessible in terms of the letter of the law. The doors are wide and ramped, there’s a counter low enough for customers in wheelchairs to use. But I started looking around as I was standing in line, and I realized that the bank actually has a lot of accessibility problems. Like no chairs in or around the area for the line for people with disabilities to use while they are waiting, which means that someone with a condition like fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue might walk in the door, see the long line, realize that they will have to stand in that line for a prolonged period of time, and either grit their teeth and suffer because they need to get their business done that day, or leave, making the effort of the trip a total waste of time and energy.
Like a floor which is kind of rough, and while probably navigable with a wheelchair, might catch a walker, a cane, or an unwary foot. As if the flooring isn’t bad enough, there are random rugs which also represent a tripping hazard. And that low counter with space for a wheelchair? There are two chairs crammed right in front of it, which means that a wheelchair user can’t just roll right on up to it and get down to business.
And what about the narrow doors into the carrels the bank uses for private business? I’m not positive a wheelchair would fit through one of those, and once inside, it would be difficult to maneuver. And, of course, there are chairs wedged every which way from sideways in all of those carrels, and the chairs would need to be moved to accommodate a wheelchair user, someone with a walker, a scooter user, someone on a ventilator, someone who needs supplementary oxygen.
It was an important flash of insight.I’ve always been interested in accessibility, but it was only recently that I started making the leap into examining spaces to assess them for accessibility from an actual usability perspective, not just a legal one. And, from there, to think beyond “wheelchair user” and to start thinking about people with other disabilities. Disabilities I would not have thought about if people weren’t writing about them and sharing their experiences with me.
And, you know, as a society, we are doing a pretty crappy job when it comes to making even basic accommodations for people with disabilities. Like, say, making sure that sidewalks don’t randomly end. Or making doors wide enough. Or keeping bathrooms on the ground floor so that people can access them. Or making counters low enough for wheelchair users, older adults with severely bent spines who cannot straighten up, or people with dwarfism. Putting up grab rails where they are supposed to be. We can’t even comply with the law when it comes to accommodation, and the law is woefully shortsighted.
Accommodation is not just about complying with the law. It’s something that needs to be thought about from a lot of different angles when designing and laying out spaces. Clearly, this thinking is not going on, and this means that people with disabilities are forced to ask for accommodation. Sometimes, they are forced to ask a business to just comply with the law, and they aren’t even requesting that people think outside of their own bodies for a moment and consider ways in which they could make the lives of others easier. People with disabilities should not have to be asking business owners to do this. Business owners and members of society should be able to figure out how to make spaces accessible; they should be able to evaluate a space and ask, not only “is this space legally compliant,” but “how would this space be to use, as a person with disabilities?”
We need, in short, more awareness.
Originally posted at this ain’t livin’.
Moderatrix note: This post is the love child of my coming to terms with a need and actual want of pills.
When discussions arise of disability, especially, it seems, of invisible disabilities, someone will almost always jump in and start harping about Big Pharma and how they have certainly invented our illness or disorder just to sell us or get us hooked on some new fancy drug. Or, they will insist that we are just addicts who refuse to find ways to manage our pain.
And for some of us it is a type of shaming that is hard to get out of our heads. For me, personally, I have let not just that, but some people actually convince me that pills were so bad that sometimes I convince myself that I can manage my life without them. It usually takes a significant event (which I will leave out of this little anecdote b/c someone that I know reads this blog thinks these things are his business, but I assure you, they are not) to remind me and make me realize that I not only need them, but that it is in my, and my family’s best interest for me to use them.
I saw a doctor recently who took the time to have a real conversation with me about my health, my Fibro and my care. It was incredible and refreshing. She gently insisted and reminded me that I need to take some medications, and together we decided that, yes, some of them don’t hinder me, but actually give me parts of my life back. That while addiction and dependency are different things, real concerns, and things to consider, they are things that we need to weigh against the benefits of taking medications. She took the time to discuss side effects, interactions, whether I would need to take multi-vitamins, that I would need to watch my calcium intake (to avoid getting stones), and discussed lifestyle changes that I have either already made or would need to make to improve my quality of life, and that of my family’s. This is the kind of thing that needs to happen between pain patients, chronic illness patients, and pretty much any patient who needs to take medications and their doctors.Read more: Where I jump in and defend pills…
Message to TABs (Temporarily ABled folk):
It’s not yours.
It doesn’t describe the sleepy feeling you get at the end of a long day, nor the feeling you get when your kid wakes up for the third time in a night, nor the feeling you get because you went for a bike ride yesterday or are pulling shiftwork right now or feel like a weekend nap or stayed up late last night reading a book or whatever else is going on in your life.
It’s a word for people with disabilities, an oppressed group, to describe our lived experience, which is not the same as yours. Our oppressors taking our language is not ok.
Many of us know what not having a chronic illness feels like, including not-having-a-chronic-illness while parenting or exercising or pulling shiftwork, and it is nothing like this. Ordinary done-a-bit-much tiredness has nothing in common with the experience of people with genuinely limited spoons (and typically a whole other bunch of symptoms), and who are going to feel the same every single day for the foreseeable future. No.Thing.
Your co-opting of this term is NOT OK with me.
 I know that “temporarily able-bodied” is a problematic term, though in this post I am speaking mostly specifically of chronic illnesses like CFS, fibromyalgia, lupus, and so on. Do people have the same problem with Temporarily-ABled? I’m willing to change the language.
Cross-posted to Hoyden About Town
Two separate posts about disability issues have had me thinking lately about the way in which our society systematically devalues the disabled body. One, on Feministe, about a casting call for someone to play a disabled character, and another, on Hoyden About Town, about a shameful chapter in the right to die debate. The very word “disabled” is devaluing, although as Amandaw at Three Rivers Fog has pointed out, it’s difficult to come up with less problematic language; the way our language is structured, people who are ablebodied and neurotypical are the “normal” and people who are not are “abnormal,” with the implication that they are also lesser.
One of the problems with having discussions about disability issues is that people with disabilities are not out there, in public, in the same way that other subsets of the human community are. This is because of the fact that society has devalued people with disabilities, creating a vicious cycle in which people with disabilities are erased so that we can feel comfortable continuing to marginalize them. The assumption often seems to be that life with a disability is not worth living, and therefore any measures taken to promote quality of life or community engagement are useless (much like disabled bodies themselves, in the framework of a society which fears disability).
As a society, we have not placed a high emphasis on accessibility. We have not created a society which is friendly to people with disabilities, which as a consequence makes it very difficult for them to engage with the world of the ablebodied; even people with economic clout who have access to numerous tools and resources face struggles with simple tasks like navigating a street, because society is primarily structured for the benefit of the ablebodied. For people living in poverty, or people of colour, it’s even more difficult to get basic support, and this can lead to situations in which people are trapped in homes or residential treatment facilities. Not because they are disabled, but because society has refused, in any way, shape, or form, to accommodate them or to recognize that they are human beings who have a right to be part of our society.
I regularly see business owners complaining about ADA regulations and other measures which are designed to make the world more easy for people to navigate when they can’t walk, because apparently, if you can’t walk, you don’t deserve to be an active member of society. I regularly see people with disabilities marginalized everywhere from public transportation to traffic law; it is viewed as unreasonable that people using mobility aids and other assistive devices should expect to be able to negotiate the street, ride a bus, or even safely navigate the side of the road. I regularly see people with disabilities marginalized in careless language, from the President of the United States making derisive comments about the Special Olympics to friends who routinely inform me that things they don’t like are “lame.” And for people who are bedridden or unable to leave their homes for other disability-related reasons, there is nary a hint of suggestion that support could be provided to make life more enjoyable, more full, more rich. After all, if you’re bedridden, what do you have to live for?
This is a society in which the lives of people with disabilities are not highly valued. The post on Hoyden About Town just about broke my heart, with the description of a disabled man who has been marginalized and forced into a position of such utter misery that he would rather die than go on living. He doesn’t want to die because he’s disabled. He wants to die because his living circumstances are deplorable, because he’s trapped in a bed in front of a television set. Apparently, actually providing him with things which would improve his quality of life is so pointless that it would be better to just let him rot. The ruling to allow him to refuse nutrition is, as the author points out, not a “win” by any stretch of the imagination, and it amounts to little more than the government doing a terrible job from the start and being grateful to pass the buck.
I believe in the right to die with dignity, but the Hoyden About Town post made me realize that I prioritize the right to live with dignity. I believe that all people have a right to live rich, happy, excellent lives, and we as a society need to make sure that they are provided with the tools to make that happen. The ablebodied, who control much of society, need to break themselves of the beliefs that life with a disability is tragic, not worth living, and inherently lesser than that of our own lives. We need to promote the idea that all people should have equal access to society, equal value in the eyes of society, and the equal potential to contribute to society. It is not for us to decide when life is and is not worth living, nor should we pat ourselves on the back when someone society has thrown away decides to die rather than enduring a restricted and grim existence.
If someone decides that ou wants to die rather than enduring several months of pain and misery in the end stages terminal cancer, or feels that ou does not want to live through the end stages of a severe neurological disease, that is their right, and they should be provided with the tools to do so. But people should not be asking to die because society has made their lives miserable. And we should not be providing such poor treatment and support to people with disabilities that they want to die rather than go on living; we should not be devaluing life to the point that people come to believe that they are worthless or have no hope.
The devaluing of the disabled body leads to assumptions. Like “all people with disabilities are miserable and longing to be un-disabled.” Or “people with disabilities don’t have sex.” Or “people with disabilities can’t lead normal lives.” Or “all people with disabilities are heroic/romantic figures.” Society collectively silences people with disabilities and would prefer that they be shut away somewhere where people don’t have to look at them because they make people uncomfortable, and society expects people with disabilities to adhere to its own views and opinions of disabilities, to behave gratefully when society throw them scraps from the table, to be brave and cheerful when society tells them with a patronizing smile that there’s “only so much we can do, really.” In all of this, members of society never stop to examine their own assumptions, nor do they stop to consider the fact that they are being every bit as foul as the racists and misogynists of the world.
We are at a point in society where most people are offended and upset if they are called out on racist and misogynist behavior, because while racism and misogyny are still widespread problems, we collectively believe that race and sex should not be used as grounds for discrimination, and that the history of discrimination and abuse against women and people of colour is wrong and shameful. We have come to believe, in other words, that devaluing people on the basis of sex and race is wrong.
We haven’t yet reached that state with ableism, and I want to know why. Why is it that people raising questions about problematic language in the sphere of disability issues are accused of being “too PC”? Why does society expect people with disabilities to strive for as close a simulacrum of “abled” life as possible, and why does society get offended when people with disabilities are proud of their disabilities, or reject things which are supposed to make them more “normal”? Why are people angry when people with disabilities ask for basic dignity and respect? Why is it that people routinely think it is acceptable to devalue people because their bodies or brains are not like theirs?
What is normal? What is abnormal?
Originally posted on this ain’t livin’.
One of the many, many things that bothers me about disability & accessibility is how many of the problems can be solved by throwing money at them.
Let me just give the simplest, bare bones problem that’s on my mind this month.
Once a week, Don attends an appointment that is on the other side of the city from us. He has three possible ways of getting there.
First, he can take public transit. There is one bus from our neighbourhood that gets to where he has to go. (This is an improvement – the bus he takes “directly” only recently became wheelchair accessible.) As anyone with a chronic pain condition will tell you, though, taking the bus anywhere can be extremely painful. The bus drops him off a few blocks from where he needs to be, and he “just” has to navigate the non-existent curb cuts and the broken side walks. Then he gets to reverse the whole process, except the return trip is during rush hour, and wow do people get really pissy when a full-time wheelchair user needs a bus during rush hour.
Second, he can attempt to book Access-A-Bus. In our city, Access-A-Bus must be booked a week in advance. Not 8 days in advance, not 6 days in advance, just seven days in advance. You are not guaranteed a space if there are too many people that day. You will get a phone call two days beforehand if you’re going to be on the bus. You have no control over the return trip, other than that there will be one, and you should let them know when you’ll be available. Although Access-A-Bus is free for users, it’s not the most effective way of getting around.
The third option is that Don takes a taxi. It costs about 25$ one way. The taxi can be pre-booked on either end. It usually comes on time. It takes him exactly where he wants to go, drops him off at the door, and picks him back up at the same location. It just blows through a large-ish wad of cash every time.
Don takes a taxi to this appointment a lot. Unlike a lot of people with disabilities, we have access to family financial support. We can afford that 50$ to make sure Don can get to his appointment on time and in a relative degree of comfort.
For other people we know, the options are much smaller: Be in large amounts of pain while trying to get around the city, or don’t go out at all. (Buying a car is also a “throw money at it” solution. It also assumes you can drive, and have a place to put a car.)
People with disabilities are disproportionately poor. Many also have monthly costs that add up pretty quickly, like medications, purchase and repair of mobility aids, doctor’s appointments, etc. They may need to pay interpreters. Some of them have dietary restrictions or food allergies that require “special” food items, like wheat-free flour or lactose-free milk. A lot are no where near as financially privileged as Don and I are, and cannot afford the expense of a pain-limited trip to the doctor.
A well-funded, well-advertised Access-a-Bus program, along with funding increases to ensure that all buses are wheelchair accessible can make such a difference. But that is not the financial priority of my city at the moment. (Apparently, it’s a high-speed ferry of some sort, and a new hockey arena.)
So, instead, aiming to keep Don’s pain levels as low as possible (he’s recovering from surgery at the moment), we throw money at the problem. And thank our lucky stars that there’s money to be thrown at it.
So many others are not nearly so lucky.
This the story of the first time I really understood the degree to which intersectionality was key to understanding and addressing mental health issues.
When I was first diagnosed and the subsequent years when we all tried to figure out what was really wrong with me and what medications would allow me to function without too many problems, I had a lot of problems with anxiety. Or hypomania, or mixed state, or whatever people want to call it. But back then I had absolute faith in the power of the DSM-IV, and the medical professionals for which my parents were paying big bucks, to analyze my illness, assign it to a category, and know exactly the protocol to treat me. So back then, I thought of the episodes I was experiencing as panic attacks.
They felt like sheer terror, like my heart was pounding so hard I could feel it through my whole body, like my hands were a blur of shaking, like my muscles were pulled tight beyond their limit. I couldn’t make myself breathe right, taking a short gasp each time my heart thudded. But it was even worse inside my head, where a giant storm raged and kept me from thinking even a full thought because I was so overwhelmed with the thunder of certain and unavoidable bad! harm! doom! destruction! And after ten or fifteen minutes, the storm seemed to pass, and I could take deeper breaths, but felt battered and sore. They were awful and I hated them and resented them for appearing out of nowhere. I was ashamed that I could be so affected by whatever it was that set one off, if that could even be identified. I felt like I had no power to affect them.
Years later, when I no longer carried a bottle of tranquilizers with me just in case I had an attack, I went to a week long training up in the mountains with people from all across California. We were all young professionals with lots of degrees and post-grad degrees from US institutions. One night, I sat with some of the other women at the edge of the forest, in the kind of pitch dark you don’t get very often in California, with all our lights. It was super quiet, with no cars around for miles, and you could hear rustling of animals in the trees. Frankly, it was a little scary, so we of course decided to tell ghost stories.
One of the women told us a story about a road near her house in rural California. She said there was a section of the road where a bad car accident had taken place in the past that when you drove through, you could feel it was haunted. She told us how people from the surrounding area would drive by it to try to see the ghosts. I’m a complete skeptic about anything remotely paranormal or extraterrestrial or psychic, so I wasn’t making much of the story, and neither were some of the other women. But the woman explained that while the people who came to the spot were silly and would never get anything out of it and were wasting their time, she said she was certain that there were ghosts there.
She told us that her grandmother was from one of the indigenous tribes of Mexico and had been considered a holy woman because she could be possessed by ghosts. Her grandmother would be possessed for short episodes, around ten to fifteen minutes, and during the possession she would breathe quickly and her muscles would shake and she felt overcome by fear and evil. And the woman had inherited some of this ability through her grandmother’s bloodline and had similar episodes sometimes. She described the possession in detail and it was if she was reading my psychiatrist’s notes on my experience of a panic attack. Exactly the same – it felt like we had experienced the same thing.
I still remember the feeling I got then, when I realized that what I called a panic attack and thought of as a mental health problem to be treated with medication, she experienced as a ghostly possession and thought of as a valuable ability and a tie to her grandmother. And that neither of those definitions or perspectives or frameworks was any more valid. It was like one of the optical illusions where suddenly what I’d been seeing as a vase was also two faces in profile. That there were two realities that had been co-existing this whole time and I’d just now noticed one of them was there.
I was, and am, still overwhelmed with the implications of that realization. How would a person with her framework interact with a mental health system with the DSM categories and staggering range of medications? What would happen if she described an episode of possession to a physician or psychiatrist? And what would the difference be if I could think of it as a valuable ability instead of a debilitating problem with my brain? Would I even want or get any treatment if that were my perspective? What if my culture valued me for this? How does she handle the prevalent skepticism to ghosts and such? So many things to consider.
And then there’s the remaining question: how many other realities are there? How many other perspectives are on this experience we’ve had? How else can I think about what I experience?
Read a Czech translation of this post, prepared by Vera!
I was saddened but unsurprised recently to encounter a discussion on a feminist website in which commenters were bemoaning the appearance of content about race, gender, disability, class, and other social justice issues on feminist sites. “Why can’t feminism,” commenters asked, “just be about women?”
Feminism is useless, in my mind, if it fails to recognize an overlapping and intersecting collection of injustices. Even if all that you care about is “women,” I sincerely hope that you mean “all women.” As a movement, feminism is primarily focused on issues which involve white, Western, able-bodied cis women. Some of the gains for women accomplished by feminism, as a movement, have also benefited women outside this narrow category, it’s true, but a lack of understanding about the fact that all women experience life quite differently and may in fact have different priorities and concerns is exclusionary. And, again, if you care about all women, this is a problem, because it means that you are hurting other women when you do not consider things like race, gender, disability, and class to be “women’s issues.”
Which brings me to the topic of inclusionary language. When you are a white, cis gendered, able bodied, Western feminist, you have a lot of safe spaces to go. Pretty much any space dedicated to “feminism” is safe for you, because there’s a very high chance that the people in charge of that space are like you and/or that many of the people in the site’s community are like you. When you are are a person of color, a person with disabilities, a person who transcends the gender spectrum, a person who is not from the West, a person of low social class, you have far fewer safe spaces to engage with if you are interested in feminism. In fact, the safe spaces of others may be directly damaging and harmful for you, as people who proclaim to care about “women” proceed to talk about people like you in a disparaging way. And, tragically often, to actively oppress you.
Racism, ableism, classism, cissexism, transmisogyny, transphobia, sexism, sizeism, and heterosexism are all problems in the feminist community. Many people who identify (or would like to identify) as feminists are victims of these problems. These are problems which some white, cis, middle class, able bodied, heterosexual feminists have recognized and are trying to fight, and some of these feminists identify as “allies” and try to include oppressed people in their feminism, to advocate for social justice, to recognize the need for justice for all people, not just for heterosexual white cis ladies.
Even people who are trying to be good allies mess up, though, and use exclusionary language. Many become extremely defensive and lash out when called on exclusionary behaviour. Others recognize that they have done something hurtful (sometimes doubly so in being exclusionary and then in being reactive to questioning from people who raise concerns). Some allies even feel bad about this, and apologize or make an effort to avoid making such mistakes in the future. The ally thinks that ou has done the right thing by doing this, but the ally does not necessarily recognize the harm that has been done. For the ally, it’s a slip, the use of a “bad word” or the failure to recognize a community of people in a supposedly inclusive discussion. For the person who has that word or phrase used as a slur every day, as a weapon every day, who is constantly deliberately excluded, seeing a supposed friend do it is a stab to the heart.
A not entirely unexpected stab to the heart, but still.
What do all of the following words or phrases have in common?
Bitch. Cripple. Grow a pair. Lame. Cunt. White trash. “He/his/him” as a generic when the gender of a subject is not known. Ballsy. Harpy. Whore. Female impersonator. Jewed. Real woman. Retarded. Slut. Dumb. Natural woman. Harridan. Witch. Idiot. Man up. Biological sex. Crazy. Tranny. Invalid. Psycho. Step up. Asexual (not in reference to someone who identifies as asexual). Breeder. Shrew. She-male. Gay (not in reference to sexual orientation). Moron. You guys as a generic greeting to a mixed gender group. Skank. Mankind. “Man” as a generic for “people.” Gyp. Halfwit. Insane. Schizo/schizophrenic. “Disabled” as in “the disabled.” Women born women. Ungendering by using “he” as a pronoun for a trans woman or “she” as a pronoun for a trans man. Fat/fatty (as an insult, not an adjective).
They’re all exclusionary. Some of these words are actively used today as insults, and some of them have a historical context of use as insults which oppress, silence, and marginalize large groups of people, some of whom happen to be women. Some of these terms are racist, some are sexist, some are classist, some are cissexist, some are heterosexist, some are ableist. (I deliberately haven’t used speciesist terms here because, while I think that there is a clear intersection between animal rights issues and feminism, others may disagree, and thus, may not think that using speciesist language is exclusionary.) Many of these words are a common part of the vernacular; I use “bitch” all the time, for example. Many are examples of subconsciously exclusionary terms, in that people use them thoughtlessly, without realizing what they are really saying.
All of them should not be used by people who claim to be feminists, if feminism for them is about advocating for all women and improving conditions for all women. I include myself in this admonition. Every time we use them, we engage in othering. We exclude The Other, and make it clear that we don’t actually care about the issues that other people may experience. We make it clear that our claims of ally status are just lip service.
At its core, feminism should be, to my mind, about justice. Justice for all women. Not just women who fit into a very narrow set of categories. And this is why we need to use inclusionary language. This is why we need to cultivate spaces which are truly safe for everyone. This is why we need to own our actions and apologize for them if they are hurtful. We cannot repair the damage we have done to other human beings, but we can work to prevent it in the future.
Lots of people like to defend exclusionary language. They say that they like using a term, or can’t come up with a good alternative, or don’t really see why they should have to change. “The word doesn’t really mean that anymore,” or “but I’m not really [pick your poison]ist, so it’s ok.” But, here’s the thing. Even if the word doesn’t mean that anymore, that doesn’t mean that it does not carry very negative implications. Even if someone thinks that the word is being used in a positive sense, it is still loaded with negative meaning. It does not mean that the word does not have a very loaded history. It does mean that every time you use it, you are unconsciously enforcing a system of oppression. You can participate in and even perpetuate a system of oppression without actively subscribing to it.
People who dislike being told that they should not use exclusionary language are often people who have something to lose if actual justice is achieved. If we ever live in a society where trans hatred doesn’t exist, everyone who is cis gendered will lose privilege, for example. As the old saying goes, “we all like to see our friends get ahead, but not too far ahead,” and this appears to apply to social justice issues as well, though you would be hard pressed to find someone who openly admits it. Being informed that you are hurting people with your actions threatens people when they have something to lose in this fight. This is why people push back so strongly when they are informed that their word usage is hurtful. This is why people become defensive when they are asked why they failed to include different perspectives in discussions. This is why people get angry when they are called on their privilege.
You can believe with all your heart that sexism is terrible and evil, but when you call a woman a bitch, it kind of undermines your point. You can think that people with disabilities are oppressed and marginalized by society, and that this is wrong, but when you call something “lame,” you’re saying that you think it’s ok to continue oppressing people with disabilities. When you say that someone should “step up,” you are unconsciously erasing everyone in the population who cannot step, like wheelchair users and people who are bedbound. When you refer to someone or something as “insane” or “crazy,” you are using mental illness as a slur.
So stop it. Stop using exclusionary language. Start including people.
And stop trying to defend it. If you’re too lazy to find a better word or phrase to use, that’s your problem, not society’s. If you can’t be creative enough to think of a different word or phrase, a word or phrase which does not exclude or silence someone, you apparently have not heard of a thesaurus.