Words and Able-ism

A post on Feministe led me (via Takenji) to this very informative post arguing that certain terms commonly used in a negative way on political blogs are offensive:

You know, when you throw around words about mental illness, like crazy, psycho or psychotic, frootbat, and nutjob, you’re mocking disability. You’re spitting in the face of everyone who suffers from a mental illness. You’re equating horrible behavior with mental illness. Stop it.

(Another excellent post is here, from Wheelchair Dancer.) This reminded me of Shelley’s argument that terms like ‘double-blind’ are offensive (see the comments here). But it also reminded me of one of the things I promised to discuss eventually– a talk at the recent SWIP conference by Jackie Leach Scully. Part of Scully’s discussion was about the many metaphors based on bodily abilities. Her focus was on the different ways that these metaphors may be understood by people whose bodies work in different ways. Scully, for example, is profoundly deaf, and reported that she spent many years misunderstanding the phrase “I hear what you’re saying”. It’s meant to convey a fairly deep level of understanding, but for Scully, hearing is about piecing something together very uncertainly from fragmentary clues– leading to a very different understanding of the metaphor. She listed many other such metaphors: “stand on your own two feet”; “stable”, and so on, noting each time how the metaphor might be understood by people with various different sorts of bodies. I thought of both the very widespread feminist discussion of ‘silencing’. Interestingly, Scully explicitly did not want to argue that all metaphors like these were offensive, despite the fact that they present being able to stand and being stable as positive, and being unable to speak audibly as negative (and equivalent to being unable to communicate). Instead, her take was that the experience of one’s own body is so fundamental that basing metaphors on it is inevitable; but that we should be aware of the potential for miscommunication when we do this. It’s perfectly compatible with this thought, of course, to find some particular such metaphors offensive, and I imagine that she does, though this wasn’t her focus. How to distinguish between the offensive and non-offensive metaphors would then become an important issue. (Some who I’ve discussed this with suggest that it’s easy: Just pay attention to what disabled people say on the topic. But since disabled people– like members of all other groups!– disagree with each other, there’s no such easy short-cut.)

You may well react to this– as I confess that I did, initially– by getting defensive insisting there’s no malicious intent behind use of these terms and that trying to expunge them is simply too much to ask. However, that’s how opponents of feminist linguistic reforms feel about, for example, the supposedly gender neutral ‘he’ or the insistence on classifying women as ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’. So I think it’s very much worth taking these worries seriously.

What do you think? (A note: for some reason, discussions of this topic on other blogs have shown a particular tendency to get heated. So please make an extra effort to observe our standard BE NICE rule.)

33 thoughts on “Words and Able-ism

  1. Dundes, writing about racist jokes said “racism need not be conscious to be destructive”.

    It’s the same argument, really, because it rarely is conscious. The language piles up into one big discriminatory habit.

    I heart this blog.

  2. It might be worth adding gendered metaphors into to the discussion, such as “take it like a man” or, maybe, “women’s work.” I do find these often offensive, and I think they are linked to factors that can diminish women’s participation and contributions. It also seems clear that the bad effects do not depend on a specific speaker’s intentions.

    This might also direct our attention to the further goal the change in language should serve. If the two sorts of case – gender and disability – are comparable regarding the negative effects of language, then the language creates an atmosphere that encourages and to some extent disguises an absence. It isn’t just a matter of feelings, if the analogy works.

    On the one hand, Scully might seem to be talking about a very different dimension. But maybe she was instead addressing one way language can be exclusionary, and leave disabled people puzzled at the language rather like the way women can fail to get the male-based language.

  3. This is the reason why I have consciously eliminated using the word “lame” in my spoken and written words. Similar to “slave driver”, “crack the whip”, and “rule of thumb”. Language is socialized and it really takes a conscious effort to cull such words and phrases.

    Most people imho who react defensively don’t like the idea of having to actively think about what they’re saying.

  4. Why is it unreasonable?

    And are you suggesting that because the majority of people do not have disabilities that it is okay for “most people” to continue using ableist language?

    From one bearded white man to another, this seems to go back to institutional power and all of the facets that assist in maintaining a dominant paradigm.

  5. Just judging from what you’ve summarized, I think Scully probably has the right attitude here. Consider the metaphor of ‘silencing’ used in feminist discussions: the force of the metaphor in that context is not that inability to speak audibly is a negative but that being forced by someone not to speak audibly is; thus it would seem that the right response to such a metaphor is not to regard it as offensive, simply speaking, but instead to keep in mind that we need to be careful about which of the metaphor’s associations are guiding one’s description of the situation. Where one risks being offensive is when the metaphor starts dominating reasoning instead of being an instrument of description; but a little thought will keep things right. And actually, we should be doing this anyway, regardless of the metaphors; it’s part of critical thinking.

    This is similar, I think, with the problems of communication that arise from metaphors like “I hear what you are saying,” since I think it can be argued that there is no problem with this or that particular use of such a metaphor; the problem arises only when it becomes systemic, and therefore generally exclusionary.

    With terms like ‘crazy’, however, the metaphors are based on an analogy of insult: a set of insults used to describe one set of people, the mentally ill, is transferred to a different domain in order to insult another set of people (those with whom one disagrees). This only works if the original retains its insulting and degrading character, so it has to cut two ways: you insult the source group and the target group simultaneously, the one in order to insult the other. It’s not merely that a case can be made that it’s offensive; the whole thing works only if it is, in fact, offensive.

  6. Isn’t it also essentially linked to the argument that the Lesbos Islanders made? They wanted to ‘reclaim’ the term ‘Lesbian’ and prevent it being an ‘insult’.

  7. Building on what Brandon said (wrote!), I’m wondering if offense is the right basic category here. Shouldn’t the issue (says the political philosopher) be, not whether these metaphors cause offense, but whether they perpetrate injustice? While I think that emotional experiences (including offense) provide evidence for judgements of justice and injustice, the offense is ultimately not as important as the injustice.

    So: how do these metaphors perpetrate injustice? The summary of the Scully piece suggests they perpetrate injustice by preventing understanding and communication, thereby marginalizing disabled people. They also (as in the common use of “retarded”) reinforce stereotypes of inferiority and powerlessness, thereby “justifying” paternalism and exclusion.

  8. Eric – “Why is it unreasonable?

    As you said yourself, it takes an awful lot of effort to constantly self-censor oneself. And for what benefit? It’s so trivial, compared to other good things people might do with their efforts. (And I don’t even think those can often be reasonably demanded of others.)

  9. Richard, how are you using “reasonable” (and derivative terms) here and on your blog? I ask not only because your assertions depend a lot on your standards of reasonability, and also because I just read a large part of Rawls’ Political liberalism, in which “reasonable” is arguably the single most important technical term, but also left completely undefined except in two particular cases (viz., a reasonable person and a reasonable conception of the good). It’s made me rather sensitive to undertheorized uses of the term.

  10. An excellent post: since I have been reading more blogs and LiveJournals by people living with mental and/or physical disabilities who have written about the ways the default insults in verbal and online communication are based on ableist stereotypes. Trying to think more about the issue has convinced me that there are very few insults that aren’t based on a perceived group stereotype! I had not thought about the metaphor issue before, and that’s additionally fasinating. As long-time feminist, I don’t care about intent: I care about effect, and just as I would ask people to consider the effects of careless use of sexist, racist, or homophobic language, I have to consider my own ableist language choices.

    Suzette Haden Elgin (she has a LiveJournal under the username “ozarque”) is a linguist who has written about the foundational problems with language for some time).

  11. FYI for Richard: Somehow a comment of yours got repeated, so I’m taking out the first one. Lots of one’s comments sound better the second time around, but I’m assuming your repetition was not so motivated.

  12. I entirely agree with Noumena about focusing not on whether metaphors cause offence but whether they perpetuate injustices. But, related to this, it may be that we should deal with the same metaphor differently in different contexts. A personal anecdote to elaborate:

    Not long ago, Mr BTPS and I attended a friends’ wedding. The groom was white British, the bride mixed white-Asian British. The wedding was held at the groom’s family home. The only other non-white wedding guests were the bride’s all female Singaporean family who had flown over specifically for the wedding. Now, the Singaporean wedding guests had also wanted to do all the cooking for the wedding. So, after the wedding ceremony held at the local magistrates, we all made our way to the groom’s family home for food and drinks. Immediately as we arrived there the Singaporean guests started cooking. And they cooked for about 4 hours solid, while other guests (all white, 90% middle-class) just sat around waiting. (We felt extremely uncomfortable with all this and were constantly offering to help but were sent back to our table to wait.) Finally lovely food arrives. Mr BTPS while getting some food ran into one of the cooks and in order to express thanks was about to utter ‘Many thanks for all this. I hope you get to enjoy the food soon too instead of slaving in the kitchen’. But suddenly realising that he is white European male while she is an Asian female stopped short because of the obvious power inequality between them, and the implicit implication that Asian females are just white men’s slaves. Now, whether the person would have taken offence we don’t know. But it is irrelevant. Mr BTPS certainly did right not to make any references to slavery given the situation (apart from the history of various oppressions, the wedding just felt like a colonial party).

    But, my point is this: what if the people doing the cooking were all white middle-class British males? Would there have been anything morally problematic about Mr BTPS’s utterance? My intuition is that there would have been nothing prima facie problematic because (a) the speaker and the hearer are pretty much on a par power-wise, (b) talking about slavery in this context wouldn’t perpetuate injustices against white middle-class males. So, I agree that we need to be very careful about what we say in which contexts and to whom. But, this is certainly not an unreasonable requirement.

  13. I read a similar article a few weeks ago, and have been fully attempting to cut such vocabulary out of my speech. I have friends and family with mental illness so I don’t know why the potential for offensiveness hadn’t occurred to me before.

  14. I just now followed the link to Scully’s site, and didn’t see anything listed that looks like the summary you gave. Am I just missing it? What’s the title?

  15. Many thanks for all the great discussion (and, FM, for the praise!). Sorry for giving the wrong impression, Noumena– the paper’s not there. I don’t know if it’s been published.

  16. May I query the idea that causing injustice is the issue, not causing offence? There are a couple of things that worry me about this. First, it isn’t clear that the distinction is in practice all that viable. If people with a disability find language offensive, that already makes things a bit more difficult for them than it need be. Secondly, most of us moderate our language when we are in a subordinate position; for example, I address the police as “Officer” precisely not to give offence. Similarly, judge, chancellor, etc. And there are swear words I don’t use much in public because they’d cause offence, where the last example is perhaps a matter of being just polite. To exempt oneself from the requirement of politeness for people with disabilities seems to me actually to amount to a political move. To do it because they don’t have power seems also a political position. (“Political” is meant here to be taken weakly.)

  17. Do you really think that phrases such as “rule of thumb” cause significant harm? I have to imagine that an overwhelming majority of people have no idea of its origin whatsoever–and even if they did, I doubt that it would matter. This all strikes me as unctuous; political correctness taken to a near-comical extreme.

  18. jj –

    First, to clarify, I don’t think that offense and injustice are mutually exclusive. In my first comment, I said “I think that emotional experiences (including offense) provide evidence for judgements of justice and injustice”. The fact that people find the common use of “retarded” offensive is preliminary evidence that this common use perpetrates injustice. It’s not the only such evidence (it’s not necessary), and I say preliminary because the offense alone isn’t sufficient for injustice*, but it should prompt further discussion and consideration. And my suggestion is that this further discussion and consideration should examine whether or not this language is unjust, and not whether it’s “really” offensive.**

    ( * Consider a case where someone finds it offensive that fundamentalist Christians aren’t allowed to stone anyone who has sex outside of marriage. Or a KKK member who’s offended that he isn’t allowed to set fire to crosses on the lawns of African-Americans.
    ** And presumably the offense in the two examples above are just as real as someone being offended at “retarded” used as a derogatory term. Another way of putting my suggestion: the difference between these is justice vs. injustice, not “apparent” vs. “real” offense.)

    You seem to say that the offense itself is problematic. And I would agree; I’d just bring this under one or several forms of injustice, eg, marginalization.

    Second, I’m not quite sure how the parallel with calling a police “officer” works — as you say, that’s used by someone who’s at least relatively powerless, while we’re talking about the language used mostly by the privileged (able-bodied) rather than the oppressed. Unless your idea was that failing to modify one’s language with respect to disability is similar to failing to call the police “officer”, in that both amount to claiming a relatively more powerful position. In which case, I agree — and, once again, I’d analyse it in terms of justice.

    I’d like stress that I’m a political philosopher, so I tend to think in terms of justice, and I’m a pragmatist, so I don’t claim that it’s the one right and true way to analyse the issue. It’s just the one that strikes me as the most useful and insightful. YMMV

  19. Andy– I think it’s important to distinguish between different sorts of cases. Objecting solely on the basis of a term’s origin– where that origin has been forgotten by everyone except a few scholars, and where there are no bad effects is indeed (in my view) weak. (I doubt that the ‘rule of thumb’ case is like this, but if it is then there isn’t much to object to in my view.) But the cases discussed above are mostly unlike this– they’re ones where all the meanings and associations under discussion are very much live ones. ‘Crazy’ isn’t just a term for a person with bad political views, it’s also a term for the mentally ill– and we all know both of these meanings. In cases like these, there’s a real potential for damaging effects, so there’s a much stronger case to be made.

  20. I personally believe that using words like Crazy to describe polititians, criminals etc. is not offensive.

    I am mentally I’ll myself and do not see my craziness as intrinsically bad. But it is disordered. Just like a politician who believes abstinence only sex ed will cut teen pregnancy is disordered. His or her thoughts are being influenced by something other than rational reasoning. Just like mine are when I am convinced I’m going to be fired because I was 30 minutes late for work. The evidence shows one thing and crazy people (whether medically or not) think and conclude something else.

    I use crazy often to describe things I don’t like in others but also things that don’t fit in. A car may be parked crazily or an outfit may be crazy. For me it means something other, opposed to rational, conventional or boring in good and bad ways.

    BUT there are ablist words that are not the same. Lame and retarded for example. The use of these words cannot be as varied and creative since there is the weight of their disabled meaning behind them. I think the diference between disorders and disabilities is also fundamental in this.

    In terms of metaphor it really is different. I work with lots of people for whom English is a second (or third or fourth) language. I used metaphors and idioms that were every-day for me but were completely bizzare for them taking the words literally. It has been useful in making me aware of the dangers of such things. I don’t think though that I am/was contributing to my countries oppression of foreigners by doing so. Merely being thoughtless and insensitive. Still need to work on it though. It rather depends on the frequency of such language and awareness of who you’re speaking to also.

  21. I think controlling ones language, a bit like engaging in philosophy, can be seen a good in itself as opposed to a cost. Most people go through life oblivious to the ways their language is proliferating untrue memes or otherwise shaping the development of their thoughts and the thoughts of those they converse with.

    Also once one has spent a while examining ones usage of words the things learnt will start to become second nature. I.e. it takes some effort but after that your language will probably be significantly more refined without effort (not to say that you wont slip of course).

  22. Like jj, I’m inclined to question whether it is quite right to think of the issue here as injustice rather than offense; I’m inclined to think the issue of injustice simply highlights how high a priority prevention and remedy here should be. My thought on it is this. One of the most basic things we owe to other people is straightforward good will; and if this is so, the issue of offense arises prior to, and independently of, the issue of injustice. Even if there were no injustice whatsoever, that it offends someone is in and of itself sufficient to raise the question, “Is there any way to avoid this out of good will to this person that is itself consistent with good will generally?” We’re dealing with a matter that becomes an issue from our common humanity, and while the issue of justice is very important, focusing on it as the issue is a bit like saying, of conversation between friends A and B, that the issue of whether it was OK for A to make a claim that offended B is justice. If A was unjust to B in making the comment, that certainly increases the seriousness of the matter by a great deal; but it would still be a serious issue even if injustice weren’t an issue at all. Common humanity is not quite as profound a bond as friendship, but I think the same thing applies.

    But I also think, now that it has been raised, that offense, like injustice, is too narrow a focus; and one could argue that offense, like injustice, is just a mark of how serious the issue, not what marks it out as a serious issue in the first place. After all, even if no one were offended, it would still be something of an issue if they were just made uncomfortable by it, or if it made things a little more difficult for them than such things needed to be.

  23. Let me explain the police officer example. The thought was that self-interest leads us to make lots of changes in our use of language. Given that, the remark that the adjustment is too hard when self-interest is not involved might put a different light on the complaint.

    Speaking perhaps just for myself, if someone with a disability had a million dollars to invest in some project I was very attached to, I suspect my speech would quickly change to suit her or him…

    Except for the fact that, embarrassingly enough, I notice my speech is influenced by connections that I’m not making consciously. So I would have to hope to catch myself before I referred to non-white workers as slaving away (see 13 above), or to a blind donor as clearly blind to extraneous concerns or, perhaps worse, having a keen eye for quality.

    And Noumena, I apologize for my mistaken interpretation!

  24. I think we should look at language, but we shouldn’t value it higher than the actual message.
    I’d much rather hear someone say “treat the retards with respect, they’re just as good as we are” than “we need to help the cognitively disabled people” even though I think the phrase ‘cognitively disabled’ is better than ‘retard’.

  25. I think a distinction needs to be made between a word being used as an insult and a word having two distinct meanings. For instance ‘double-blind’ is a term used to denote a type of study.

    The blind method is a part of the scientific method, used to prevent research outcomes from being influenced by either the placebo effect or the observer bias. To blind a person involved in research (whether a researcher, subject, funder, or other person) is to prevent them from knowing certain information about the process. The terms ‘blind’ (adj) or ‘to blind’ (vt) when used in this sense are figurative extensions of the literal idea of blindfolding someone. Blinded research is an important tool in many fields of research, from medicine, to psychology and the social sciences, to forensics.

    How the use of this term could perpetrate an injustice to vision impaired people I can’t perceive. Surely, we have the intelligence to realise that one word can have more than one use and that use in one context does not imply anything about its use in another.

  26. No one who had studied seriously lingüistics can take ableism discusion seriously, as the meaning takes form in a context and not aisolated in a mere word there is no need of brand certain words. The structural vision can say that signs have theyr meaning in a sistem, when one pice of the sistem moves every other do as well, so no sign have value itself.

    Take King Lear from Shakespeare, from the beggining Lear uses metaphors as well as the Fool, but only out in the storm the methaphors are belived by Lear, making him go insane. That means Lenguaje can make a difference only when is been taken literally. The same way the conception of Eastern culture (defended by the people who wants to end the Western monopoly on culture) is Itself making a diference and thus renforcing West-East difference.

    When some group say “celebrate the differences” it can mean “acentuate the difference”. The main concept is to tie difference as a mark of unity. Its difficult to use language cause is not like mathematics, but in the end is more useful. Wittgeinstein (one or the most important philosophers of XX century) said that the limits of lenguage are the limits of the mind, that means there are subjects you cant talk (like “beign” “existence” etc.) and silence is a wise opiton. The other option is being trapped in the games of language.

    Ableism is a mere game of language, It reinforce a conduct based in some form of arcaic linguistic formalism. Words such as “Lame” that had lost their initial meaning (exept in dictionaries that no one uses) recover their ability to hurt because of some people who forbid them. An ancient philosopher said “what is forbbiden is desired”.

    Of course political philosophers said thanks to them “people are realising what they said”. That is a Lie, by discussing the “lame” word (and taking it out from its context in the use) they are introducing something that wasnt there. There are certain phrases that have sleeping potential to hurt badly and to discriminate, however the focus of these political movements cant recognice them.

    Is a concecuence of Phenomenology, things are as they appear to us, if something appears as offensive It would offend. Phenomenology searched to erase preconception of the phainomenon, this new “word hunting” can only search to reinforce preconceptions. There is a dialectic relationship between the object and the sensorial object (the one that appears to our councience). When discusing Ableist language you are going to use Ableist language.

    Chilean goberment started a propaganda that said something “Faggot is the one that hits a woman”. By moving the word Maricon/Faggot in the sistem they not only fight against homofobic language but also start a campaign against the waves of domestic violence in this third world country.

    The lenguage dont change because of rational use from the speakers, is a slowly process, the social, cultural and ecomomical factors are importants too. The meaning of a word is not the definition that has in some dicitionary.

    English is a free language, dont make it a “purist language” like the French Academy of the Language.

  27. Ettins (comment 27) make a point that have Its history on the bases of liberalism. Is the rational selfishness of Ayn Rand, individualism tend to offer as a rational absolute some principles.

    For exaple, the word retarded is still an insult but is moving from being an apelative to some disabled people.
    The first phrase uses Retarded as an apelative to disabled people, in that way putting back together the two meanings. “as good as we are” needs an specific context, it can be seen as a sign of friendship or as simple chauvinism. But when in the context of adressing diabled people with a word that in the sistem still works as an insult then the phrase is doomed from the begining. Aislated “treat the retards with respect, they’re just as good as we are” is just sarcasm, in context is more like a preconseption or disrespect. It has a lot of negative potential meaning.

    The other phrase have its idea in three words “need to help”. Seeing disabled people as some ones that are need help, and the duty of society to help them basically express altruism (an irrational thing acording to Rand). This preconception also needs a context but because of the precise lanaguage used the chances are 50-50. It can potentialy mean that disabled people cant take care of theirselfs or can potentially mean that society can help them to conquer their disability. Also can mean the society can (and need) to compensate them. Depends on the context.

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