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.)