01 May 2010

Offensive language and why I swear so much; or, blogging against disabilism day

(N.B. I had never in my life heard the word "disabilism" before today, because American activists usually use the word "ableism." Because that's the term with which I'm more comfortable, it's the one I'll use here.)

Damn. I stayed up last night writing my post about cosplay and race and Doctor Who so I would GET SOME WORK DONE today, but the blogging gods are not with me. Today is Blogging Against Disabilism day, hosted by Diary of a Goldfish. Cara's BADD post at Feministe reminded me of this post I've been writing on and off for a few months about language and swearing. They dovetail nicely, so here goes.

Regular readers (and friends in real life) know I swear. A lot. It is a thing that I do. While I am a big believer in the fact that words mean things, I am in general unconvinced by arguments that swear words are offensive. It's not usually argued that they're offensive because they mean things (although I have heard this about pussy, a word I don't use, and douche(bag), a word I do), but just because they are.* They're magic words that are offensive because we decide they're offensive, unlike words that are actually, you know, offensive. I have a theory that most swear words are the result of us despising the dirt and materiality of our lives and bodies; it's not coincidence that most of them are about bodily processes (shit, asshole, fuck, bullshit, piss, etc.). Those are the words I don't mind using, as opposed to profanity that is homophobic, racist, or ableist, or profanity that uses genitalia as an insult (cunt, dick, pussy, etc.). (Although, both of these categories can be reclaimed by the groups they demean in less problematic ways.) And it says something truly fucked up about our culture that dirt, sex, and waste are turned into magic words that can't be said. But I don't think the appropriate response to that is to not use these words at all; that makes them important and allows them to accrue more negative meaning. So I treat them like unimportant words. It's not an entirely unproblematic solution, but I have bigger problems in the language department than my inability to finish a sentence without saying "fuck." Which brings me to ableist language.

From Feministe:
Ableist language is language that is used to demean people with disabilities, or that is based on negative misconceptions about disability. Much of it is very, very deeply ingrained in our culture to the point where those of us who are unaffected by such language rarely notice it on our own. Ableist language matters for the same reason that sexist, racist, and homophobic language matters.


In some ways, I think that our community has transitioned to non-ableist language relatively well. “Retarded” and “lame” are insults I very rarely see in our comment section, anymore; when they do appear, they’re usually from new commenters or trolls. It took a period of quite a few months, a lot of speaking out by moderators and commenters alike, and undoubtedly and sadly much harm done to readers with disabilities to get to that place. But I’m happy and proud to see that we’re there, now.

But other ableist language is an issue. And while not the only offenders, the terms I want to focus on are the ones I see the most frequently appear in our comment section: “crazy,” “insane,” and other similar terms that use language commonly associated with mental illness to indicate irrationality, unbelievability, ludicrousness, hilarious ignorance, and/or immorality.

These terms are a problem. They are terms that have been used to disparage people with mental illnesses for a very long time, to discredit them, to abuse them, and to protect those who abuse them. They are terms that are continually used in this way today. They are terms that, using their broadest definitions, could be used against me — someone who has struggled with depression more on than off since about age 13, has some PTSD issues, and probably has some other unspecified anxiety disorder. They are terms that, used very narrowly, are still used against good friends, some of the greatest writers I know, and folks who, whatever and whoever else they are, are still people. (For the record, words being reclaimed and used as self-identifiers are a VERY different matter.)

They are terms that do active harm when they are brandished, even when not used directly at the person who is being harmed. They are terms that still do harm, regardless of whether or not one specifically uses them to refer to mental illness, or whether or not one personally thinks that “the word doesn’t mean that, anymore.”

They are terms that you should probably stop using, if you use them. And they’re terms that I would like to be seen as unacceptable for use here, in this space. It would make this blog safer for a lot of people, and a more welcoming, less oppressive space. That’s the kind of space I would personally like this blog to be.
The use of "crazy" and "insane" to mean dangerous and wrong are my own personal stumbling blocks, both in speech and in my writing. If you look back at my posts, I tend to use "crazy" a lot, in a way that really bothers me. It's inexcusable, and a thing I'm working on.

I also use crazy in a different way, a way I am a little ambivalent about. I'll say, for example, that it's nice to have people echo your own experiences so that you know you're not a crazy person. I've been called crazy (and hysterical and insane) a lot in my life (as have most women, particularly outspoken ones with feminist-y tendencies), so I think this is part of my response to that experience. Which doesn't make it unproblematic.

Language is a thing I worry about on this blog, and I will continue to work on that, both in posting and in the comments. And I ask the commenters here to think about how the words we use can harm others.

For other BADD blog posts, check out Diary of a Goldfish's roundup. A personal favorite is Curvature's.

*In the real world, that is. Language is a near constant discussion by feminists and feminist bloggers. However, when they talk about swearing, they usually target specific words, like bitch and cunt. The problem isn't swearing itself, but what words you use to mean what things. Saying "shit!" when you stub your toe, for example, isn't the same as calling a woman (or a man) a "bitch."


Satan said...

i like your insights here.

however, i do have to say, as a person with an actual diagnosis of a mental disorder, i don't mind if people call me crazy...
i say, "yes, why how astute of you....but what's it to you?"
i don't necessarily think that the problem is using the words "insane" or "crazy" when things aren't quite so...
it's more the idea that being crazy or insane is a highly undesirable thing to be...
however, i've come to enjoy it quite a bit. : ]

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I shall keep the bulk of my discussion related only to mental disorders/illnesses or psychological disabilities (they are one and the same as far as I can find). While I believe it incredibly perturbing when people would use the terms "insane," "psycho," "maniac," etc. in order to insult, I feel that words like "crazy" and "hysterical" are trickier with to deal. Words like "insane" are actual professional terms and roots used in the fields of medicine and/or law. But those like "crazy" have been abandoned from, as far as I can tell, any non-hostile rhetoric. So, there is a bit of noteworthy difference here, and I will explain its importance.

When we use a word to insult, we do one of two things: either
1) we mean to attack the qualities that the word references which we believe the receiver has, or
2) we find the qualities to which the word references worthy of attack and attribute it to the receiver as a way of attacking him/her.
In general, we are expressing ourselves as hostilely opposing the qualities of any word when we use it pejoratively.

Thus, to use words like "insane" or "psycho" pejoratively is a declaration (intentional or not) that the characteristics of psychosis are deserving of abrasive opposition. Thus, to use such words as a means to insult is accusing folks who do have a psychosis of being in some way responsible for their own condition and are morally reprehensible, regardless to whom the insult was consciously directed. To use "insane" derogatorily is a personal attack against the characters of all psychotic (or even mildly mentally ill) individuals.

However, words like "crazy" are slightly different ball games. While historically "crazy" has been used to denote mental illness, it is no longer used in professional jargon. This alone of course does not give way to its use as an insult. "Crazy" was abandoned from professional lexicons because it has been deemed so corrupted by our society at large into becoming almost strictly a derogatory word that it would be inappropriate to use it as a neutral term for medical diagnoses. As a matter of fact, the word is used in common parlance either to directly condescend against the mentally ill ("That strange man is totally crazy; he even sees a shrink!") or to attack a person over his/her culpable behavior. This second usage becomes problematic because it could mean that the insulter (A) truly believes the word's reference of the mentally ill is obsolete (or at least should be), or (B) does indeed believe the insultee's actions to be some degree of mentally ill and that mental illness is somehow the fault of a person's character.

I am sure it was Reason A as stated above when people who consciously support the fair treatment of the disabled would use the word "crazy." It may not be subconscious ablism driving these people. One could argue that we might as well abandon the word altogether to prevent confusion concerning intentionality and prevent encouragement of ablists from possibly using the word hatefully.

Wow. This comment is long. Sorry!