Ableist Language and the Need for Empathy

So I listened to this episode of Atheistically Speaking regarding ableist words and I would like to offer some thoughts.

First I wanted to point out how relatively polite and reasoned the debate itself was. When I heard it described as ‘contentious’, I should have realized that it was in the sense of the ideas themselves, not the tone. This was no yelling match a la Fox News. This was a solid battle of ideas.

Anyone who knows me at all should know whose ideas I found most compelling. I had heard rumblings of ableism, but didn’t really know much about it until I read Ania Bula’s article about the issue a little while ago.

I have an admission to make, however. When I first started thinking about ableist terms, I had the same attitude as Thomas. I used many of these words myself on occasion. Should I have to stop using certain words because some people might misinterpret what they mean and take offense, even though I in no way intended to do so? This has gone too far! This is a line I will not cross!

But then I expanded my view and looked at other communities that have been disenfranchised and marginalized throughout history. We are perfectly willing to recognize there are certain words we shouldn’t use because of their negative connotations regarding other minority groups. Bitch is a term that has misogynistic roots yet many people use this term to refer things other than women. This doesn’t remove the socially pejorative value overall  however. As Ania stated, gay is used a pejorative to mean undesirable. This meaning of the word is well-known enough for Wanda Sykes to do a PSA on why you shouldn’t use gay when you mean undesirable. We have changed our language over time as a society because we recognized that certain words perpetuated harmful stereotypes. And while an individual well-meaning person may not have had that intent, the very use of the word legitimizes its use, and thus opens the door for people who are not so well meaning to use it ones less than charitable way.

To be brutally honest, I think the big reason there is such blowback on the use of words that aren’t ableist is because the disabled are still, in a lot of ways, fair game for insult and ridicule. And if you think I am exaggerating, do a Google search of memes with disabled people. I am sure you will find lots of horrible shit that’s being said about humans who, through no fault of their own, have some sort of disability. I am not going to be high and mighty about it, either. I will admit I used to make fun sometimes of disabled people, just because they behaved in a way that is considered ‘abnormal’ by some. That shit is abhorrent, and I freely admit it. I think only when there is more visibility and discussion about these issues will there be any sort of change in this attitude. LGBT acceptance took decades to gain any sort of mainstream acceptance, and that was because started realizing that these were not perverse monsters, but instead their neighbors and friends. And the battle isn’t won. As Callie Wright (host of The Gaytheist Manifesto) will attest, there is active discrimination against transgender folks going on right now, and some states are trying to nullify marriage equality even though that’s blatantly unconstitutional.

For the reasons above mentioned, I think these conversations are important to have. There are too few of them going on, and there is too little attention paid to the issues of disabled people. I think what Ania is doing, by spreading the word in a most passionate and eloquent way, needs to be amplified a thousand fold. It’s only when it’s demonstrated how these sorts of words actually hurt people and perpetuate dangerous stereotypes that we’ll get people to stop discussing these things as academic and removed from their experience into the realm of human empathy.

EDIT: I implied Thomas thought the word ‘gay’ couldn’t be used as a pejorative. That is clearly incorrect and I removed the text in which I said this.

Ania wrote a rebuttal on her blog to Thomas’ comments at the end of his show. The article can be found here.

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