An Apology About Ableist Language

The word sorry written on a piece of paper
(Content note: ableist slurs)

So in 2010, I wrote a piece for AlterNet (two pieces, actually) about unfair gender role expectations for men. I interviewed my male friends, colleagues, and blog readers, asking them about their experiences of rigid, narrow, contradictory gender expectations, and I wrote my essays piece based on what they said. I also reposted the pieces on my own blog.

No, I’m not apologizing for that. I’m apologizing for the titles, and for some of the language I used in the content.

I’m bringing this up now because the first piece was recently reprinted in Raw Story. (AlterNet, Salon, and Raw Story do that sometimes, they reprint older pieces and give them a recent date: I wish they’d run it by the writers first, but they’re big publications and I get that they can’t always do that.) Because it’s being shared around on social media as a recent piece of writing, I decided that I need to apologize.

The titles of the two pieces were Five Stupid, Unfair, Sexist Things Expected of Men, and Five More Stupid, Unfair, Sexist Things Expected of Men.

I want to extend my apologies for using the word “stupid.”  In 2010 I wasn’t aware of the problems with this language. I probably should have been, but I wasn’t. The piece also uses some other ableist language (“insanely rigid but impossibly contradictory”). If you want to understand more about why it’s ableist to use words like “stupid,” “insane,” “crazy,” “dumb,” and “idiot” as insults, please read the excellent piece on this by Ania Bula (my esteemed colleague here at The Orbit), Ableism Challenge. She explains it a lot better than I can.

I have a longer piece brewing in my head about things I’ve learned in the last ten years about social justice, our learning curves about this stuff, and what is and isn’t reasonable to expect with people who don’t know it yet. I think that’s a complicated issue, and I’m not yet sure what I think about it. And no, I’m not going to go back through my archives and apologize for every hurtful mistake I’ve ever made (although I am going to edit these pieces to link to this apology as soon as I can). But because this piece has been re-published and is being shared again now, I decided I needed to bring this up. I’m working to keep this language out of my vocabulary, and if I were writing these pieces now, I would not use it. Really sorry.

An Apology About Ableist Language
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12 thoughts on “An Apology About Ableist Language

  1. 1

    Thank you, Greta. I too have had to learn to take this kind of language out of my mouth and writing, and I know we didn’t all start out good at it. But apologies go far not only in healing wounds, but also in helping others to change their ways. Thank you for learning, and for posting this.

  2. 2

    I’m curious what words would be appropriate instead? If you had it write again, how would you title it?

    I’m working on replacing ableist language in my own writing, but it hasn’t been easy finding concise replacements for some of it, “stupid” in particular. What’s a word for poorly-reasoned-to-a-high-degree that can’t also be used to label a person but packs a punch?

  3. 3

    I’m pretty much tearing up here. I don’t have words for how much this means, both personally and considering people I care about. If the Orbit can become the first actually safe site (or at least a lot safer than anything we have had thus far) also for physically or mentally ill or disabled people, that would be So. Friggin. Awesome!

    [CW: abuse and suicide over 3o years ago, slur] Some people here may have seen me mention elsewhere that when he developed some fairly mild neurological symptoms in his early 40s, my father — a medical doctor — killed himself. As far as I have been able to figure out, his reason was mostly that seeking help for something that most likely was wrong with his brain, was for him an intolerable thought. Death was better than it becoming known that he was in any manner, shape or form “crazy”.

    Make no mistake — I don’t miss him. He was toxic masculinity incarnate: abusive AF. I still consider the motive and manner of his death tragic, though.

    I see your efforts with your language as one building block on our way towards a world where the stigma that pushed my father to suicide (combined with toxic masculinity) will be considerably less powerful. Thank you for joining this effort!

  4. 5

    Should have said: first actually safe site not started by and controlled by disabled or chronically ill people.

    This is what I get from posting after midnight. 🙂

  5. 6

    yeah, past use of harmful language is the reason that, if i ever return to blogging, i will have to start a completely new blog (and any old pieces i want to retain from there will need to be rewritten).

  6. 7

    I’m curious what words would be appropriate instead? If you had it write again, how would you title it?

    Steven G. Clinard @ #2: There are lists of alternatives to ableist language: here are a few.

    (If people know of better or differently-good ones, please post them.)

    As to what I would have retitled it: In this case, I don’t think the ableist word needed an alternative. “Five Unfair, Sexist Things Expected of Men” would have been fine. If I’d felt like I had to use a substitute word, it probably would have been “ridiculous” or “absurd.”

    I’m working on replacing ableist language in my own writing, but it hasn’t been easy finding concise replacements for some of it, “stupid” in particular. What’s a word for poorly-reasoned-to-a-high-degree that can’t also be used to label a person but packs a punch?

    As I understand it (and please, readers, correct me if I’m wrong), the main thing to avoid is language that says or implies that the person is inherently bad at thinking. The language should say or imply that the person is choosing to be ignorant or bad at thinking. I’ve been using “willfully ignorant” or “stubbornly ignorant” a lot, if the context allows that many syllables. If I really need a short word, I’ve been using “fool” and “foolish,” since they seem to imply more willfulness.

  7. 8

    I’m sorry, but I don’t think fool is a good choice at all. The fool stock character in literature is definitely ableist and probably racist since a lot of the times jokes are made about them coming from a certain region the author wants to make fun of.

    Willfully ignorant is much better, because just plain “ignorant” is punching down on people with disabilities like dyslexia who have trouble reading and learning more. I like that one!

  8. 9

    To be honest, it was only when I saw someone – someone pro-SJ on an SJ site – state outright that they personally knew someone who was deeply hurt by the use of the word ‘stupid,’ but they’d continue using it anyway that it really struck me that, yeah, it really does belong in the drawer with all the other shit words that’ve been used as weapons to hurt people in the past… I don’t post there anymore, though I do sometimes still read the main articles.

    I have to admit, I did struggle with finding alternatives for those words. Mostly, I think, because my alternatives for each one was just the list of the rest of them, which is funny, because none of them actually say what I was ever trying to say. I generally go with words like absurd or terms like wilful ignorance now, which is pretty much what I meant when I said them anyway. (Sorry 1984 misquoters, I’m not voluntarily limiting the thoughts I’m able to have by reducing my vocabulary – I’m thinking more about what I’m expressing, and making sure that what I say is what I actually mean.)

  9. 11

    Once again, I come to this conversation long after it’s (probably) ended.

    But still — I am not comfortable leaving this unchallenged. I’ll repeat what I wrote the last time Greta brought up this “Challenge”:

    It’s not quite as clear cut as the post makes it sound. While it certainly can be good and useful for those of us with the resources to examine and alter our vocabularies to do so — such resources are not available to everyone. Particularly not to many people with various intellectual and/or developmental disabilities, and/or mental illnesses. And there is quite a range of opinions among disabled people over what language is or isn’t “ableist”. Finally, as I understand it, the authors of the Challenge, while they are disabled, are not actually people who are the purported targets of various of the terms they list (like ‘stupid’, or the r-word). So the (good) habit of defaulting to agreeing with people talking about their community doesn’t actually apply, at least not with regards to those words.

    (end quote)
    While I’m somewhat afraid of the response this might get, I am open to further discussion on the topic.

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