Monday, February 2, 2015

On Policing Oppressive Language

On Policing Oppressive Language

[Trigger Warning: uncensored ableist slurs, mentions of the type of violence which disproportionately affects disabled people.]

Words matter, they are a core of standard modes of communication and all have rich histories. Some are hyper-conserved, some are incredibly fluid. They describe concepts and attitudes. They reflect a speaker/writers way of thinking. For this, many social justice communities (particularly younger ones) have focused on words and language as a pressure point in our striving to end ableism, racism, sexism, cissexism, dyadism, heterosexism, classism, xenophobia, and other forms of systemic oppression. 

On the whole, I agree with this approach; language is powerful and it is very often a tool of oppression. When we consider our language, how it is used, its history, and its cultural grounding, we are examining ourselves. There are issues, however, with this approach: it leads to rote memorization of “acceptable” language, does not inherently challenge the stigma theory these words are based on, and perpetuates the very oppressions it seeks to solve.

In the “pc wars” we encounter in popular culture, there is a certain language deemed “politically correct.” This includes “person-first language” (a grammatical construct often rejected by the very people for whom it is supposed to “respect), not using slurs (which is good), and generally more academic and cognitively inaccessible language as well as other terms. These are then policed by “enlightened” people on what is essentially their version of a “lumpenproletariat.”

 Now, I for one am not opposed to people calling out white supremacists using the word “k*ke” or whatever they’re currently spewing out of their racist fucking mouths—believe me, I really am not. An issue does arrive however when professionals “call out” Autistic, Deaf, Blind and other Disabled/multiply-disabled folks who prefer identity-first language because they believe our disabilities are an intrinsic part to ourselves and our identities, not something we have like makeup on our faces. And this policing of our identities is an act of oppression. So too is strict use of  cognitively inaccessible language. (A good rule for figuring out whether your language is cognitively accessible or not is whether it is heavily French/Latin based.)

But “pc” is not what we’re discussing. What we are discussing here is a new "acceptable" language being codified in the social justice arena of social media sites such as Tumblr and Twitter (both of which I am proud members of). For the most part, this centers on ableist language.

“Ableism” (or “disableism”) is the systemic discrimination of disabled people—which includes the societal acknowledgment of abled experiences as the only human experiences (which leads to inaccessible spaces to people with different modes of transportation, sensory perception, etc.), the devaluation of disabled people’s worth, the centering of abled people’s perspectives in discussions of disabled people’s lives, limiting (or outright denying) the access of disabled people to places/institutions which are meant to give people advantage in society (ex. schools, universities, marriage), controlling a disabled person's economic opportunities (SSDI limits the amount of money disabled people can save while on it, for example), society's violence on disabled peoples (ex. restraint and seclusion; institutionalization; electric shocks; and extremely high rates of sexual assault, bullying, and abuse), etc.  

Ableist language are the parts of our language meant to degrade disabled people and justify ableism. Words like “crazy” are used to dismiss the emotions of Neurodivergent people—particularly those marginalized by another axis of oppression such as sexism, racism, etc. They are also used to justify why people have been institutionalized or why it was justified for police to kill or seriously harm them. In addition, these words are used to explain why a person is justified in being excluded from various spaces, like a social justice talk or school. These words are also used as an insult to abled, neurotypical people. Ableist language is like other oppressive language in that they too are used when killing, assaulting, or in other ways seriously harming people. They have history; they have meaning. Many such as “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron” have a history in the Eugenics Movement which sought to rid the world of “inferior peoples,” particularly those classed as “feeble-minded.”

Avoiding these terms avoids the intergenerational trauma that disabled people experience as well as their personal traumas. For this reason, it is incredibly important to avoid them. Still, problems arise from the alternative we have chosen—and that is Latin-esque language coupled with the same intentions. So I ask: if we are trying to eliminate ableism, why are we focusing on language and not attitudes? Why also are we not focusing on all the other parts of our ableist system?

I think in our social justices communities we want to latch onto easy things because our lives and social justice is hard. It is easier for many of us to start replacing “stupid” with “inane” and not try to unlearn our ableist attitudes. Examining ourselves takes an enormous amount of energy, however necessary it may be to the work of social justice. On its own, I do not view this as incredibly problematic. In fact, I think it is a positive because at the very least we are not using ableist language. Do I think people can do better? Absolutely. Do I think it is better this way? Yes, in its own limited way. But what I take issue with is the sort of self-righteous policing that takes place in our communities related to ableist language. Here’s the thing—a lot of people can’t start automatically switching their language to a more acceptable form.  In fact, a lot of people can’t consistently do this, myself included. When I am having issues with communication and words in general, it is hard for me to come up with higher level words that 
I have only learned in the past few years from a list on Autistic Hoya.

In addition, the extreme level we take this is disconcerting. We often will label people horrible human beings for not getting our new, acceptable language exactly, one-hundred-percent correct. This is, for one, unhelpful, and two oppressive. People will often recoil from our communities if we do not allow them to learn as we once had to. (Although I am a firm believer that the duty of ally-training should be voluntarily done rather expecting people to do it.) And as stated, not everyone is able to pick up our new language easily.

These issues are serious. And to be honest, while I think a focus on language could be good, we are not doing it correctly and should move to a different tactic. If we were to attack ableist and other oppressive language, however, we should do it by thinking of it not as an object itself but as the mirror to our attitudes that it is. We should be helping people unlearn their attitudes by asking them to deconstruct the language they use and the intent behind it. Phrases such as “that’s so gay” exist because it is under the assumption of gayness being in some way undesirable, lesser. (Unless you’re like me and use it as a positive term within LGBTQAI spaces.) From this, change can happen within people. Trying to teach them a new vocabulary as if they are studying for a test, though? That accomplishes very, very little. 

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