Clean up your language: say ‘asshat’!

I posted a little while back on the tricky issue of ableist language. Perhaps the clearest cases of ableist language are the ones where a term describing some disability is used as an insult. But, speaking for myself, I find it very hard to write about Bush administration policy without using words like ‘insane’. ‘Wrong’ and ‘mistaken’ just seem inadequate. So it’s great to have a list of alternative insulting language. But the list itself raises interesting issues– arguably (see JJ in comments) some of the terms on the list of suggested alternatives are also ableist. This shows just how hard it is to avoid ableist language, and how hard to even figure out what it is. Virtualjess at What Sorts of People wonders why there is a lot of resistance to reforming one’s language to avoid ableism, and I’d suggest this is one reason. It’s daunting to contemplate trying to drastically change one’s language when it’s not even clear exactly what changes to make. Avoiding ableism can seem impossible when those advocating it may not even be succeeding. And not wanting to do something impossible? That’s pretty understandable. In fact, I think it’s well worth making the effort even if perfection is not obtainable. But being a bit overwhelmed and confused by what’s called for is an understandable response, and one that I think we need to discuss and address.

20 thoughts on “Clean up your language: say ‘asshat’!

  1. I had another look at their general, nonbigoted list and I can’t think how I missed “ponce” and “git” as really insulting, the first a heterosexual equivalent of an abelist slur. “Plonker” is even stranger, since apparently it’s slang for “idiot,” which means it looks like an abelist slur.

  2. I think it’s an interesting question whether it is possible, even in principle, to come up with generalized terms of insult that are not bigoted in the sense of playing off of our derogatory views of some kind of person. Perhaps that’s how non-literal insult language works?

    Many of the terms on here strike me as anti-sodomy and anti-mastrubation (jerk, all the ass-related ones) and, by close implication, homophobic and het-missionary-position-erotocentric. Again, my point is to wonder whether this kind of list is even possible.

  3. “Jerk” is really interesting, since one might well think it comes from a term for masturbation. However, I think its earlier use was non-sexual. I can remember nuns in my childhood using the term, and they really wouldn’t have meant “jerk-off”. But what about its use today?

    Here’s a quote from the OED that explains the sense it had at least a while ago:

    1941 Sun (Baltimore) 7 Mar. 12/7 In the early days of railroads the small boilers of the locomotives required frequent refilling, and water tanks were very few. Every train crew carried a leather bucket on a long rope with which they ‘jerked water’ from the streams along their track. As locomotives increased in size the small ‘jerk-water’ engines were relegated to branch-line service. Today no train crew carries a bucket, but the name ‘jerk water’ still sticks and has become part of our national heritage of American slang.

    The OED does not, however, explain why this is the origin of “jerk” as derogatory slang for a person, but I guess it’s connected with through being subsidiary or of little account.

  4. I think it might be helpful to just clear up what we mean by an ableist word or phrase. There is something tempting about looking to etymological explanations, or even dictionary definition. It would be nice if we had a rule book that we could refer to in this case. But if no one knows the origins of the word except you and a few other people, then the concern to not be offensive/ make fun/ etc. is not being met. What we want is an understanding of what part of the term makes it meaningful to us- if it’s the part that refers back to ability (i.e. if it makes sense to us as a meaningful word or phrase precisely because of reference to disabilities) then I think we ought to avoid using those words.
    Now, the second problem is the question of who I mean when I refer to “us”. Language is local, words can have particular meanings that are unique to specific communities. So what words are offensive by the description given above will change from community to community. So then the best thing we can do is be conscious of how words mean differently in different places, and to revise our vocabulary as we go. So much harder than a definition in a book. But I think it would also be a step in the right direction to look to the communities who are aware of the greatest number of offensive words- that being various disability communities- and ask them how we ought to alter our language. If our goal is not to be offensive, then that would seem a good place to start.

  5. Virtualjess, let me pick up on your remark:

    But I think it would also be a step in the right direction to look to the communities who are aware of the greatest number of offensive words- that being various disability communities- and ask them how we ought to alter our language.

    Your suggestion reflects the fact, I think, that “our” non-disabelist discourse has shut out other voices so we haven’t heard them. And perhaps the best remedy lies in a restructuring that changes that. In the meantime, I’m wondering what ‘asking them’ really does or could amount to.

    Let me say that I really am glad when there’s some cross-discourse between our blog and What sorts of People, and that might be a start. But how would one move from there to addressing the specific question of what offends? Ask for lists? Somehow that doesn’t seem promising.

    Sometimes these changes take place by a kind of vetting, so one is called out for getting something wrong. That can be unpleasant, but maybe it can be done in a way that doesn’t create warring camps, eye-rolling and so on. Or are we already at that stage?

  6. Well, I think assertions of good will and a willingness to be wrong are good places to start. From there you can start having discussions about what hurts and why. A constant dialogue built on shared goals and principles, rather than a list, it what is needed. And that dialogue, I think, must start with a strong condemnation and desire to prevent the tragedies that have been perpetrated by ableists against people with disabilities (this, of course, requires knowledge of those tragedies to begin with). From this position a sincere interest in building ties that have been broken, and working for mutual betterment can be established. I would like to think that this would set up an atmosphere where we can call on each other’s mistakes, not in a punitive way, but with the knowledge that we’re working together for improvement. I’ve worked in environments like this, such as when the tblg group at my school started to make an effort to be inclusive of people with disabilities, and it’s hard, but not impossible. In my experience, when executed with sincerity and care, the results can be heartening.
    There’s a lot of anger and resentment, as well as defensiveness, that need to be addressed before you can go making rule-like language boundaries. Those rules become meaningless and facile without a real commitment to right wrongs as their foundation. I’m thinking as an example of the situations in which I’ve talked (as a white atheist) to strongly religious women from different ethnicities about feminism. May not be a perfect example, but if you’ve done it before you might get an idea of the types of problems which can arise. So yes, dialogue! I do believe that the sentiments expressed here are coming from the right place, and that’s better than I can say for most people :) Also, take a look at Shelly’s response on my post, might be a good place to start.

  7. I’m familiar with some ways in which dismissive language can lead to very substantial injustices, but I’d guess the tragedies you mention are different. Could you mention something we might read or names we might start with?

    I hope that I won’t go away and realize in a few minutes that there are obvious cases that I should already have thought of.

  8. Virtualjess, I went over to look at the comment you mentioned. I feel like following Rob’s exemplary locutions with some of mine own: O Booger! And puke! Just in general, you know, on a hard day.

    I am sorry that anyone could think Jender’s discussion worth the reaction it got over there. But now that everything is thoroughly polarized, perhaps someone can suggest where we go from here.

    Shit! (Taken generally, that is.)

  9. Let me add: I doubt I am alone in feeling really sad that a discussion here of changing presents a perspective that is a painful reminder to you.

  10. Why is it that poor is first an insult and second why under lame, poor people dont choose to be poor, it is a state of deprivation forced onto one by another and for the benefit of the Other. As a person who lived in poverty for 33 years and whose family is still forced to live that way I take offense to an economic elitist using poor as an insult, but then I do OFTEN use the words overindulged and bourgeois as insults, i guess the meanings of most of these words is always situated for each person.
    I am familiar with work for the this population because I took care of my mom for a long time, with her it was more of a problem of someone scaring her with not explaining things or jackasses staring at her, she had a brain tumor and surgery that went bad so she had an eye stitched shut, 1 side of her face caved in, feeding tube, trach tube ect, that was the case because she no longer understood the implications of alot of words. There are also those working against sexist, heterosexist, and racist language which is great, I wonder where the rest of us are who want to end bad language against those living in poverty though. I actually cannot even find a word for hatred of the poor, I almost always use misogynist instead of sexist and white supremacist instead of racist bc that usually states the case most clearly, I want a word better than economic elistism to use, maybe I am just looking in the wrong places since i was poor for so long.
    I do think this is so important to do though, everyone who is privileged enough to not be in a harmed group needs to think about what we are saying, it is the least anyone could do, and i do mean the least! It can be dangerous when it gets dismissed because language can and does lead to so very many horrors.

  11. To be sure I didn’t foresee Shelly’s reaction myself and I’m glad she took the time to mention how it read to her, otherwise we might not have known and this conversation might be less fruitful than one would hope. I know it might be hard to see how she read the post as she did, but I hope you can start to understand how different perspectives on the issue can be. I hope this highlights for you that there’s yet some things that need to be addressed before looking at language as such.
    In response to jj’s question, what I’ve been trying to get at is that ableist language is symptomatic of ableist thought. So people who if asked would generally express good will towards disabled people often do not, for example, understand how disabilities go unaccommodated, or how difficult regular tasks can be because of ableist design. This is in part due to the way that disability is silenced, washed over or otherwise ignored- we all know of tragedies that have occurred due to race, but very few people have heard, for example, of the eugenic practices in many parts of the world (including here in Alberta) which forcibly institutionalized and sterilized people who were claimed to be disabled on some ground or another (usually, in this case, due to economic status, or not having English as a first language). There are people alive today who were institutionalized and serilized on ground of being “morons”. That word has a particular connotation for these people that very few others can begin to understand.
    That ableist language continues underscores the fact that very few people know/care about what people have endured due to real or purported disabilities. I think that part of what makes it hard for people to be aware of their ableist language is precisely the fact that they are unaware of dis/ability issues generally. Ableist terms are not just exclusionary, they are a reminder of how the history of the treatment of disabled people has been silenced, and continues to be out of the focus of public attention. Tragedies occur against disabled people all the time- our blog reports some.
    It is almost intuitive not to use gendered or sexist language for me because I’m very aware of gender issues and live in a sexist culture. I can’t even bring myself to write the n-word out for the purposes of argument. But why is it so easy for people to say “that’s retarded” or “she’s a moron”?
    Again, being interested in inclusiveness and not being offensive is a great place to start, but it’s going to be hard if not impossible get the desired results unless you look at the big picture.

  12. O please, vj. You didn’t anticipate Str reaction? I certainly did and warned jender of what she’d get. I am proud of her for deciding it was still important to try.

    Of course I know of the cases you describe. I thought you were referring to something less obviously connected to language.

  13. but… but… I didn’t! Maybe I should have. Most people I know are little more empathetic and patient to people who are working for change (even if they’re being insulting in the process). Though I do understand how one’s patience can run out. I don’t know, I don’t think that Shelly’s response is the only/expected/right response. But I think it’s one worth listening to and considering. It’s strange to me that you anticipated the response and yet didn’t put anything in place or consider any ways to avoid it. I don’t think that halting conversation is the best alternative here. There are ways to get around these kinds of stumbling blocks, giving up at the first sign of resistance is like hardly trying in the first place.
    I guess I have hope for something better. *shrug* Or maybe I’m just young and inexperienced and should really be more cynical about these things :P

  14. There really are some deep misunderstandings here, which are adding to the interpretations that are being given to jender’s post.

    Of course, if I had thought the post was genuinely insulting, I would have strongly opposed it and I would not be proud that jender went ahead. I do not agree with the interpretation and I am sorry and sad you found it convincing or even worthwhile. After many years in philosophy, one acquires the ability to trash just about anything. And that’s particularly true if you are prepared to insinuate all sorts of motives that may or may not be there.

    For example, is jender’s opening line really a pretentious claim to have systematic approach (“a research project”), which claim needs to be deflated? That’s just nonsense. She’s just trying to knit together a conversation.

    What I did expect was a blast that would derailed the discussion, while leaving the status exactly quo except for placing obstacles in the path of those who are trying to advance issues. It is not rocket science to figure that would be tried. It is pretty depressing that it worked so well one is told to learn from it.

  15. vj, I came back to the topic because I thought it was really not right to dismiss all of ST’s points. Then I looked at the critique. Do notice that all of the criticisms are preceded by interpretations of jender’s post. Her criticisms aren’t based just on the text; she’s had first to find what seems to me at least a very debatable interpretation.

    Nonetheless, of course I hear your sense of alienation from the discussion here. It can be pretty awful to hear one’s concerns addressed from an alien clinical perspective that seems to be a repeat of the hegemonic enterprise one has experienced too much already.

    You’ve really helped me, and I am sure others, to see how distancing the discourse can be. I hope we can continue to try to find more common ground.

  16. virtualjess and jj, I sure hope this very useful discussion can proceed somehow. Maybe these particular threads are not the best way right now, and some more direct and private conversation could help lower the pressure and clear misunderstandings. I think it’s hard not to make assumptions when reading posts on a blog, and the delays in the exchange can lead to festering misinterpretations from all sides.

    I’m sure the common ground is there to be found, if only because the ableist language issues remind me of gendered language. The reactions were familiar as well from that context. I’m not saying both are the same, but that’s why I wasn’t surprised.

    virtualjess, you wrote about goodwill, and I feel strongly that there is plenty here, with jender and jj being some of the most open minded people I’ve read from on blogs. I still find that criticism of jender painfully unfair, but that’s why I think such a dialogue is important.

    This debate has made me aware of things I could and should do about my own language, assumptions and attitude. But I’m certain my own progress would be helped a lot by some guidance from all of you. So, again, I hope you can find a way to proceed.

  17. Thanks, Counterfnord. I’m actually having a lot of trouble getting the courage to participate in this discussion, but I will say that there are a lot of false assumptions about both me and my intentions, including the assumption that I’m able-bodied.

  18. VJ writes:

    “That ableist language continues underscores the fact that very few people know/care about what people have endured due to real or purported disabilities. I think that part of what makes it hard for people to be aware of their ableist language is precisely the fact that they are unaware of dis/ability issues generally.”

    I disagree; even if many people knew and cared about these issues, I don’t think that’d be sufficient; some metaphors and parts of our language are just very very ingrained in our cultural and linguistic consciousness, so it makes it very hard to even notice when one is using such language.

    I write as someone who cares about disability issues, having had a family member with a disability, and having worked with young people with disabilities. I don’t doubt I sometimes use ableist language.
    I also don’t doubt that, as a feminist, I sometimes use metaphors or language which, if picked up on, I’d be keen to reject as anti-feminist, and try to change my habits.

    Of course, I’m not excusing my inadvertent mistakes – just highlighting that it is very easy to make them when well-intentioned.

    Wrt jender’s last point on assumptions that those who use ableist language are able-bodied:
    I know lots of women, feminists, even, who use sometimes use gendered language. Given the pervasive nature of gendered language, it’s not surprising that feminists – women and men – sometimes use is.
    Likewise, I know disabled people who sometimes use ableist language and metaphor; again, no surprise given its pervasiveness.
    Ableist language isn’t only an issue for, or used by, able bodied people, just as sexist language isn’t only a issue for, or used by, men.

    Basically, we’re all in the same boat in trying to get rid of problematic aspects of our language.

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