I Didn’t Mean it That Way

CN: Ableist Slurs and discussion of other slurs.

Earlier this month, I recorded an interview (p1, p.2) on the Atheistically Speaking podcast. During the discussion, the subject of ableist language came up and rapidly turned into a debate. While the conversation was happening I misunderstood part of what Thomas was saying. During the argument he kept suggesting that using the word gay as a pejorative was different than using one like crazy or lame because it only had the one meaning. While I didn’t understand entirely what he was getting at at the time, I believe I do now. He meant that when people use the word gay to denote something bad, they are aware of the related meaning and therefore mean the associated bigotry, whereas many people are no longer aware of the non-pejorative meaning of ableist words.

I understand where he is coming from. It is back to that old argument of intent versus result. Many people believe that if their intention is not to insult the people who may be associated with the label, then the usage should not be counted as a slur. Taking it further, if most people are unaware of the original meaning, then how does it continue to be harmful?.

Intent versus Result:

If my intent wasn’t to insult someone or to suggest a bias against a certain group, then why does it matter if I use the word?

There is a great analogy to why intent is not enough using the metaphor of stepping on someone’s foot. Imagine that a using an ableist/sexist/racist/transphobic/etc. slur is like stepping on someone’s foot.

If you do it by accident and didn’t mean to step on someone’s foot, you still hurt them and owe them an apology. Using the same analogy, consider that the damage done can vary. If you step on someone’s foot who is wearing shoes, that is going to hurt less than stepping on someone who is barefoot, or on someone who has a broken toe or foot.

Similarly whether you mean to or not, using a slur is damaging and hurts those other than the people who or what you are aiming the slur at. The amount of damage done depends on those who witness it, but for those who are triggered by said words their use can be the same as stepping on a broken foot.

But I didn’t MEAN it that way.

There’s no way for the person on the receiving end to know that. What’s more, the person you are aiming the insult at may not be the only one hearing it. Take a racial slur for example. You might only mean to use it on one person, but everyone in the surrounding area who hears it is affected. People whom it doesn’t effect will hear it and might think that using such a racial slur is acceptable and use it themselves later. People like children, who like to imitate adults. Racists will hear it and think that you think the same way you do. They will take that as a sign that they are not alone and it will fuel their future racism. They will see you as someone who condones their racism. Some others may see you as an unsafe person and decide not to associate with you further. People whom it does affect will think you are someone around whom they have to be careful and may just write you off completely as a racist. Other might be triggered by it and be forced to relive painful moments associated with that word. Still others might hear it and think that since the word applies to them too that it makes them a bad person, or flawed.

Definition and Meaning

It makes sense for words like gay where everyone knows that it means homosexual, but come on, I didn’t even know lame meant impaired mobility or that dumb meant non-verbal. How can it harm people if I don’t even know what it means?

Although you might not actively register the meaning of the word, chances are that you have heard it used in the original context. English is my third language and I didn’t start actively learning it until later in elementary. I learned to speak and understand English by watching tv, listening to people speak, and by reading books. Despite that, I had heard a lot of these words used in their original context. I had heard people referred to as Deaf and Dumb. Although at the time I processed it as having the same meaning as dumb in a colloquial sense, I was corrected not much later by being told that it meant mute or non-verbal. Same with the word lame. I have heard it in reference to horses in fantasy books, in romance novels, and any other books that dealt with horses. While the specific meaning may not be readily obvious to everyone, the sense of what the word means is there for many people.

Even assuming that you actively don’t know the original meaning of the word, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t create harm. This goes back to the intent versus result argument. You might not be aware of the meaning, but other people around you are. Moreover, the people most likely to be affected by it are also those more likely to know the meaning.

There is a further consideration that has to do with why the original meaning may not be as well known. Over time a slur can enter the common phrasebook as purely an insult because the discrimination it encompasses has not been challenged. What I mean by this is that many slurs are identified as such specifically because the bigotry espoused by them was fought against. Consider the N-word. Part of the reason why it is recognized now as a slur was because PoC fought against racism and had it recognized as such. People spoke out and said “this is treated as an insult because it is based on the assumptions that white people are better than black people and that assumption is wrong and racist.” While there still remains a lot of work to be done on the topic or racism, at least on a greater social level that word is recognized as a slur, although it is worth noting that many other racist slurs are still not recognized as such. See also words like the f-word pertaining to homosexual individuals, and the r-word as pertaining to cognitively disabled people.

With certain slurs that challenge never came. The word lame was able to enter our lexicon as meaning something bad, uncool, etc. because society wasn’t actively challenged on a big enough level to believe that equating disability with something bad is wrong. People still think it is better to be dead than disabled, as you will hear from eugenicists and even in the pop culture like this new film You Before Me. The idea that disability is misery exists in the Zeitgeist.

The fact that a slur has lost its social edge or has a forgotten meaning isn’t a sign that it is no longer a slur, but rather acts as a damning indictment of how ingrained certain privileges are in our culture. This is true of slurs pertaining to other marginalized groups as well, which are still not recognized as such.

Removing ableist language from your vocabulary is about more than “just offending someone”. It is about actively dismantling ableist ideas by bringing awareness to how those ideas can become ingrained even in our language. It is about avoiding triggering someone for whom that word may have been used to force them to internalize their ableism. It is about noticing how words and their meaning can affect our actions, such as treating non-verbal as lacking in intelligence, or in self-awareness, or in autonomy because we culturally associate the word dumb with meaning unintelligent. Using those words has a ripple effect that hurts the marginalized communities who are labelled with them.

Consider this: While you might be aware of only one definition of the word gay, there are children using that word right now as a pejorative who have no idea that the word means something other than uncool or bad. Who, when challenged on its use say: “Oh, I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just what people say.”

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I Didn’t Mean it That Way

2 thoughts on “I Didn’t Mean it That Way

  1. 1

    I’ve been using the “stepping on someone’s toes” analogy for quite a while now because it’s so beautiful in how far it goes, especially when talking about the reaction.
    Most people agree that the mature reaction to stepping on someone’s toes is:
    1. Get off the toes.
    2. Apologise.
    3. Try to mend/alleviate whatever damage you’ve done.

    It is not:
    1. Stay on the toes.
    2. Complain loudly that you’re the real victim here because the other person crying with pain is making you feel bad because you didn’t mean to harm them.
    3. Blame the person on whose toes you’re still standing for not wearing steel enforced boots.

  2. 2

    “I didn’t mean to…” reminds me of something my mother said a LONG time ago. When one of us tried the “I didn’t mean to…” defense her response was usually “but you didn’t mean not to.” Leaving pain and destruction, whether physical or emotional, in one’s wake by never “meaning to” hurt anyone, but never considering the possible outcomes, is not a lot better than “meaning to” hurt someone.

    I also suspect that very often “I didn’t mean it that way” is a disingenuous excuse for a hostile act. The actor wants to get the slur in while claiming pure intentions. But maybe I’m just cynical.

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