This post discusses ableism and ableist terms. For the purposes of this post, the ableist terms are spelled out.
Ableism is NOT allowed on my wall.
It saddens me that over the years, I’ve had to repeat this several times. Worse still, I’ve lost friends (both in and out of the social justice community) bc it is more important for some folks to be able to use ableist language than it is for them to simply edit their comment (to be fair, that list of people is very small–less than 5; when asked, everyone else who has used such language has been willing to edit their comment). This, despite my friends list being comprised largely (though not exclusively) of many progressive minded individuals who are advocates of social justice. But then I remember that those of us who are social justice advocates and/or progressives were raised in the same bigoted, ableist society everyone else was. That makes us (yes, “us”, bc while I am a SJ advocate and progressive, I grew up in the same bigoted society as pretty much everyone else in the United States) prone to the same in-group thinking, the same human foibles, the same cognitive shortcuts, and the same resistance to modifying our language in recognition of splash damage as any other group. And certainly, many people long ago began the task of ridding themselves of bigoted language. I know a great many people who don’t used racial slurs (including anti-Black, anti-Hispanic, and anti-Asian ones, as well as others). I also know many people who don’t use gendered slurs. I think that’s commendable, bc it takes work to overcome years upon years of cultural indoctrination.
Our society is rife with far more than race or gender based bigoted thinking. Such bigotry neither begins nor ends with racist or gendered thinking. We live in a classist society that regularly discriminates against and oppresses poor people. We live in a body-shaming society that looooooooooves to hold fat people up as objects of contempt. And we love to shame others based on our perception of their intelligence.
Yes, we love our ableism.
And that’s something we need to work on.
Just as we in the social justice community worked to be less homophobic, sexist, and racist, and many of us are working on our transphobia, fatphobia, and classism, so too should we put in the work to be less ableist. And a lot of that work begins with the language we use. If we can recognize the harm in racial slurs, gendered slurs, anti-gay slurs, or transantagonistic slurs, we already have the tools within us to understand why ableist slurs should be eliminated from use as well. We have within ourselves the ability to tease out the harm inherent in using words like idiot, simpleton, stupid, moron, imbecile, and other such terms. Tease out, and then abandon. But that takes time and conscious, ongoing effort. Sadly, some don’t want to do that work. Some refuse to acknowledge that there’s work to be done.
One of the problems with ableist language is that, despite claims to the contrary, ableist words are more than simple insults. Upon critical examination, they actually function on a deeper level than that, bc words mean things. If I were to say the following:
“POTUS45 has made yet another idiotically racist comment when he said “our inner cities are a disaster”.”
I’d be insulting him, of course. And to be sure, the man is a wretched, contemptible, human being who deserves to be insulted (impeached and imprisoned, too). Insulting him is not the only thing I’d be doing though.
I would also be using my perception of his cognitive ability as the basis for the insult. In other words, I would be weaponizing cognitive ability. The weaponization of cognitive ability in my example is very much like the weaponization of feminine-coded genitalia that occurs in masculine spaces all the time. When one bro among a group of bros is egged on, teased, or called a pussy for not wanting to have another drink, take a risk, or have sex with a woman? That’s weaponizing feminine-coded genitalia in an attempt to emasculate a man by way of a misogynistic slur. All too often, such attacks “work” bc they are attacks on masculinity and for many men, any attack on their masculinity is a potent threat that must be countered. The attack is effective bc our society treats anything that is coded feminine as contemptible. Similarly, my comment likens POTUS45 to mentally disabled people and attributes his racism to being cognitively disabled. Mentally disabled people have long been objects of mockery, scorn, and ridicule, and the United States is a society that places high value upon intellect (and even the perception thereof). That makes intelligence-based attacks quite potent, bc generally speaking, people don’t want to be viewed as being unintelligent.
Insulting POTUS45 in that way does something else: it perpetuates a simplistic and bigoted explanation for his racism. It attributes the source of his racism to his cognitive ability. I can see the appeal in thinking “The Tangerine Tyrant is a racist shithead bc he possesses diminished cognitive ability“. It’s simple. It’s pat. It allows us to not have to think any deeper about the causes of racism. It’s also contradicted by all the people who are mentally disabled and not racist as well as the people who are not mentally disabled and are racist. Whatever the solutions to overcoming racism may be, they aren’t “become smarter” or “eliminate mental disabilities”.
Do I really want to send the message that racism and white supremacist ideology is attributed to, directly caused by, or the result of cognitive deficiencies or mental disabilities on his part?
Do I really want to effectively say that mental disability is at the root of racist, white supremacist beliefs?
I might not mean to say that mental disability is at the heart of racism, but that’s the idea I’ve conveyed (and helped perpetuate).
So if I don’t want to convey that idea, I ought to give more consideration to how I express my thoughts and the language I use to do so. I should work to ensure that what I end up communicating to others is what I intended to convey. I can start by reexamining the language I used. Is there another word I can use in place of ‘idiotic”? A word that more accurately conveys what I mean? Of course. In fact, there are plenty:
The list hardly stops there. Each of those words can better convey the idea I want to communicate without also weaponizing cognitive ability. One just needs to stop and reconsider the language one uses.
Taking that time to engage in self-analysis with an eye to eliminating ableist language can have a couple of benefits:
1: Reduction of stigma and discrimination faced by mentally disabled people by uncoupling mental health or cognitive ability from undesirable or contemptible attitudes, behaviors, or beliefs.
2: Greater precision in communication. If I recognize that crazy or insane does not actually communicate the idea I intend to get across, that should force me to reconsider what I want to say, and go back to the drawing board to find how better to express my thoughts.
So many progressive folks and social justice minded people have already looked within themselves and worked hard to eradicate slurs against Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, and gays. These people understand what splash damage is and already take many steps to avoid causing it. They also know how to criticize or excoriate others without using gender, race, sexuality, or ethnicity as the basis for their attack. They’ve looked at the vastness of the English language to seek out alternate ways to insult or verbally eviscerate others. Heck, some of them have invented their own terminology. Unfortunately, for all that the English language offers a cornucopia of alternate words to replace gendered or racial slurs, many people cling to ableist slurs like their life is on the line. It’s sad, bc they can go about their lives unbothered by the use of ableist slurs, but an entire class of people continue to be maligned by such language.