The first time I saw someone say in a progressive space that it was ableist to use the word “lame” as a pejorative, I thought they were ridiculous. Honestly, I’m telling you right now. I did. I thought all of those things that you most commonly see argued whenever someone is called out on using the word or one like it. It’s not used like that anymore. No one is thinking about disability when they use the word lame. That’s not what it means. It just means bad, and it’s especially useful because it not only means bad, but also bad in a kind of pathetic and sad way … and no, I’m not going to think about what that certain connotation of the word means when it’s a word that also can be used to refer to a disability because it’s not used that way anymore, so it doesn’t matter.
I didn’t make an ass of myself publicly and argue as much. But I thought it. A lot.
And so I didn’t stop using it right away. I didn’t stop, because I used the word a lot, and because I liked using it. And I didn’t want to stop. And I thought that the reasons to stop were silly.
But I couldn’t say it the same way anymore. Every time I said it, every single time, I felt a jolt, a little jab in my spine, a little pain in my heart, a little tightness in my throat. It wasn’t because I thought I was being a “bad progressive,” because frankly the popular opinion among progressives was that using the word was fine and those who disagreed were wrong. It wasn’t because I realized that my brain was connecting pathetically bad things with disability, because I still didn’t feel like it was. It was because I had seen people say that when I used that word, it hurt them. And not only that it hurt them, but that it hurt them systematically, that it harmed them, and that the harm was oppressive.
I didn’t stop saying “lame” or any other word like it because I had a light bulb moment and realized the social connections between the different meanings of the word, and how there really is a reason that “lame” doesn’t just mean bad but uniquely and pathetically bad, when people with disabilities are so commonly portrayed as pathetic. In the end, I’m not entirely sure that it matters when or even if I started believing that. Because it’s not why I stopped.
I stopped because I didn’t want to hurt people. I stopped because I didn’t want to engage in what I claim to advocate against. I stopped because people told me that it was doing them harm when I did it, and because it hurt me to realize that that hadn’t initially been enough. I stopped saying the word because I realized that it was enough.
When it comes to a lot of language that is offensive to marginalized groups — the kind that is exceedingly common and even generally accepted by most progressives, including the types who take pains to correct someone for calling something “gay” or “retarded” — I have to say that I have difficulty getting angry at an average person who uses it. That, of course, comes from a position of privilege, and a position of having been the person who didn’t know any better about 10,000 times. When it comes to most of these words, I am privileged. These words tend to not denigrate me as a person, my humanity, my existence. It is a privilege that I can say “they don’t know any better” and politely inform them otherwise, that I can give them the benefit of the doubt that they will try their best to not do it again. I’m not saying that I expect otherwise of different people, or that anyone else is wrong to get angry at someone who “doesn’t know any better.” At all. That’s just me.
But. When it comes to people who I know know better, who I know have been informed, who I know have been exposed to the harm that certain types of language can do, common though it may be, and then still not only use it, but use it so frequently that it seems like it’s almost on purpose as some kind of gross defiance … I don’t know quite what to think. But I do know it makes me really, really angry to see.
And it makes me wonder about their progressive credentials, not because I can’t believe that they fail to see the exact theoretical reasons and linguistic history as to why the word is one they should stop using. But because they know they’re harming people, people more and differently marginalized than themselves, no less … and just don’t seem to care.
This post originally appeared at Cara’s Tumblr and has been cross-posted with permission.
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Our first two posts in this series seem to have been a smash hit! So, today, I’m picking up with “lame.” When people first start thinking about ableist language, “lame” is one of the first words they eliminate, and it’s a word worth examining. It is usually used in a context which suggests that something is bad, boring, or not worthy of attention. A word often interchanged with “lame” is “gay,” which is, of course, homophobic.
And also not very creative.
“Lame,” derived from a word which literally means “broken,” is an original Old English word. We’re getting to the roots of ableism here, people! At any rate, the word was used historically to refer to people (and animals) with difficulty walking. It’s a bit unclear when people started using the word in the context of events/situations/objects, although it appears to have started around the 18th century.
“Lame” is an ableist word. It’s an ableist word because it assumes that having difficulty walking is objectively bad, and that therefore, a word which is used to describe difficulty walking can be safely used as a pejorative to mean “this is bad.” Using “lame” reinforces ableism in our culture by reminding people that disability is bad, and that it’s so bad that it can be used as a shorthand code to talk about bad things in general. Incidentally, the related “lame-brain”? Also ableist. Just so we’re all clear on that.
One defense of this word which I sometimes encounter is “well, I know someone who is disabled and they use it,” or “I know someone who uses it self referentially.” Both of these things may well be true. I am certainly not going to override your experience. But not everyone views “lame” in a neutral or positive way. Here’s a selection from a comment left at this ain’t livin’ by FB, a regular reader:
Please imagine men AND women staring at you who either: want to insult you because you limp, want to point out that you limp, want to know why you limp, want to point you to an elevator or their personal medical specialist, and, very ocassionaly, want your number because they think you’re attractive. And you know what makes these stares complicated? You never know why they’re staring, except that there is an 80% chance it is about the limp, and absolutely no chance they’ll just leave you alone to mind your own business.
That’s how some people feel when they hear the word “lame.” And when we talk about language usage, it’s worth considering how our use of language impacts others. Not the people we know, the people who assure us that our language is ok, but the people we don’t know. The people whom we are hurting with our careless language use. Eradicating ableist language is not about meeting some politically correct ideal (and when did “politically correct” become a pejorative), it’s about thinking about our actions and considering the ways in which they impact others.
Language has power. We have power when we use language. Language is often used to oppress and abuse. That is what this series is about, an attempt to break the ableist habits of English language users because those habits enforce ableism in English-speaking societies.
So, what are some good alternatives to “lame”?
Try thinking about the situation the word is being applied to. Some suggestions might be: bad, boring, dull, not worth my time, frustrating, irritating.
©2015 FWD/Forward. All Rights Reserved..]]>