Good Reasons for Removing Abelist Language from Our Vocabulary

One of the hardest things about learning empathy is realizing we need to change. We may see nothing wrong with something we’re doing, and we know we’re good people, but all of a sudden, there’s someone (or many someones) in our face, asking us to stop using some words because they hurt. And that can be hard.

For one thing, we may not see what the problem is. Why shouldn’t we use certain common terms?

Then there’s a knee-jerk, “It’s my vocabulary, and there’s nothing wrong with it!”

There may be the temptation to downplay the whole thing. People are soooo oversensitive, amirite?

But if I’ve learned anything by hanging around the social justice crowd, it’s to shut up and listen when someone from a marginalized group tells me I’m doing something that’s hurting them. Even if I’m part of that marginalized group, I need to listen to perspectives other than my own. I’m not the center of the goddamned universe. My viewpoint is not the only valid one.

So I swallow the resentment and knee-jerk responses, and hear them out. And in many cases, I realize they have a very excellent point, and now I need to do the hard work of changing some things.

Ableist language is one of those. Anyone who’s been reading this blog for years will know I was very fond of the words “stupid” and “batshit crazy.” You may also be aware that I’ve largely excised those words from my public discourse. Even though I’m actually certifiable and don’t mind calling myself crazy, I’m very, very careful with how I use that term and its relatives now. And I’ve stopped using anything derogatory relating to someone’s intellectual ability. I’m still working on stamping those terms out of my casual conversation, because they were with me for so long they slip out on automatic. But someday soon, I’ll be out of the habit of using ableist language completely.


Because there’s an excellent case for not using those words. I’m persuaded they do more harm than good. And I’ve actually quite enjoyed having to reach for alternatives. It forces me to be more creative.

I’d like to see the secular social justice crowd, the progressive atheosphere, and other assorted circles I run in excise those words as well. Allow me present two excellent cases for why you should put ableist words on a restricted list, and reach for other ways to express yourself.

Almost Diamonds: Enough “Crazy”

If you’re among the people telling the world that Sarah Palin or Donald Trump or Ben Carson is “crazy” for saying what they do, why do you need to stop? Really, it comes down to many of the same reasons people need to stop calling religion a mental illness. It’s wrong. You don’t have the qualifications to diagnose someone, and that’s not how diagnosis works anyway. And it stigmatizes people with mental illness.

 So let’s go through how this works in this case. Yes, calling these things “crazy” is wrong. Sarah Palin isn’t crazy. No, her words don’t make any sense if you want speech to map cleanly to the real world, but that isn’t what her people are listening for. The fact that what she says is one layer removed from reality isn’t a bug. It’s a feature.

The same is true for Trump. He isn’t saying anything real, but he’s telling his audience what they want to hear. It’s working too, because he’s still the front-runner in a race that was thought to belong to someone else. Anyone else. But there he stays. Carson? He was in second place when his “crazy” words were being reported regularly.

Beyond that, this is a strategy for the GOP. It has been for ages. This isn’t a bunch of people who’ve wandered away from reality at the behest of a neurological malfunction. These are people doing what has been proven over the last twenty-five years to work with their voting base.

In the case of religion and politicians, using ableist language causes splash damage while excusing behavior that is absolutely under someone’s control, and is also quite rational, no matter how weird it looks from the outside.

But that’s politics. Here’s something rather more personal:

Alyssa and Ania Splain You a Thing: Quickie Rant: Hey Actually, That’s Ableist

The same cannot be said for the effort people put in to remove ableist vocabulary from their language. Sure some of the big ones like R*t*rd that many of us have known since childhood was a slur, but st*pid, Id*ot, Cr*t*n, M*r*n, l*me, Cr*zy, for those I haven’t seen as much effort, even from people who claim to care. It’s disheartening.

Every day I scroll through my newsfeed and I’m bombarded by these words from people who are my friends, who claim to care about me and people like me.

Do you really think we don’t notice?

Many of us are just too exhausted to have the same argument again and again. When many of us struggle to survive in a world that in some cases is actively trying to kill us, often through neglect (think flashing lights, they are fucking everywhere!!), it can feel like too much to tell yet another person: “Hey actually that’s ableist.”

These words hurt. I’ve had friends with intellectual disabilities who’ve had “stupid” aimed at them so much it’s left scars, and they’ve made a good case for not lobbing it at assholes due to the splash damage, so I’m trying to get better about not using it and similar words. Thankfully, English is a rich language full of words to use on asshats without hurting good people. There are whole word lists dedicated to helping you find alternatives: just google “non-ableist insults,” and a whole internet of possibilities is right there in front of you.

Ultimately, it’s up to you whether you want to do the work of removing ableist language from your vocabulary. Remembering there are real people, people you care about, who suffer another bit of chipping damage every time you use an ableist insult can help you decide to stop. And I hope you do. There are plenty of things we can say that won’t hurt people who are already treated like shit by most of the rest of society.

We can do better.

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Good Reasons for Removing Abelist Language from Our Vocabulary

4 thoughts on “Good Reasons for Removing Abelist Language from Our Vocabulary

  1. 1

    Well said & agreed.

    I must admit, its along time habit of thought and language with me and usually easily “explained” as colloquial and not meaning that sort of “crazy” / “stupid” etc ..

    Good points and truth here. I’ll try to do better in future myself and feel free to call me out if and when I slip up on this as I’m afraid I could well do at times.

  2. 2

    There are many good points and I certainly don’t call people crazy or stupid.
    Though in some cases I think it’s just talking around the hot mash, as we say in German. What do you say when something is not well thought out and makes no sense? Sure, you can use the exact words I used, but it’s in the end just another way of saying “this is stupid”.

  3. 3

    I have been slowly accreting a sort of theory of invective. Briefly…

    An insult gains its power by being an invidious comparison or a painful truth. Those are the two options: I call you something you’re not, likening you to something unpleasant. I.e.: “You right-wing boot-licker!” It may sting if you are not right wing or a boot licker, but it gains its power from the comparison and how unfair it is. As such it always causes splash damage. An extreme edge case I might say someone is like Hitler, and get a “cease and desist” from Hitler’s attorneys – it’s splash damage. The other kind of insult is a painful truth. Perhaps the person I just called a “right-wing boot licker” is actually a caligaphiliac supporter of Donald Trump; they might shrug and say “Yeah. So?” The only power a painful truth has is the degree to which the target finds that truth to be painful. If you think about it this way, you’ll understand why there are a lot of really vague insults like “asshole” (clearly, I am not an anus, though I do have one.) or “fucker” or whatever. Those are borderline invidious comparisons: you know the comparison can’t possibly be true so any weight the insult has is merely in the fact that you employed it, not in its content. Nobody claims that if I call someone an “asshole” that I am causing splash damage on those who do not have assholes.

    So, when I unpack verbal abuse in that way, I conclude that the only insults worth using are painful truths. If I want to hurt someone’s feelings I focus on reminding them what it is about what they do that is both true and unpleasant. For the insult to work, it needs to be aimed at something under their control (e.g: “you bore me to tears!”) not outside their control (“big nose!”) Off the table, then, is pretty much anything that’s not a statement of truth about the target’s choices under their will.

    And, if you’ve stuck with me this far, I heard a delightful one the other day on the Infinite Monkey Cage podcast:
    “a spherical bastard”
    that’s someone who’s a bastard from every possible angle. (Of course under my theory of insults, “bastard” is unusable since it’s either true or a lie and doesn’t have much weight anymore and causes splash damage)

  4. 4

    What do you say when something is not well thought out and makes no sense?

    That’s nonsense.
    It’s a bad idea.

    Meta-analysis is also good:
    You need to think harder.

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