lame, retarded, schizophrenic… what the hell are we saying?
Don’t call me PC
On a semi-regular basis, people describe me as “politically correct”.
And I haaaaaate it.
But “PC” has too many negative connotations for me.
But the connotation that PC was always meant to have is suspect, too: political correctness is founded on the idea that we have to watch every utterance in case it might offend someone, somewhere, whether they’re a member of a discriminated-against group or not.
“Being PC” suggests that instead of engaging with changing attitudes around gender, race, and disability, it’s enough for people to keep thinking offensive thoughts and retaining outdated notions, as long as they don’t say them out loud.
Not saying something because “it isn’t PC” just means you’re toeing the line of accepted behaviour. It doesn’t mean you actually care.
And political correctness actually makes it harder to discuss genuine issues of inequality, because any attempt to bust the kyriarchy can be shut down with “Oh, stop being so politically correct.”
Nor am I the language police
It’s not about political correctness for me. It’s about inequality. Yes, how people feel about women, gay people, transgender people, people with disabilities, and people of races other than their own is often a problem: words come from prejudice, not the other way round.
But they definitely perpetuate the problem.
I consider myself a person with disabilities (PWD). Is it coincidental that I’ve experienced a lot of ignorance, and that the ways language around ill-health and disability are used in our society is often ignorant? I don’t think so.
Still, my aim isn’t to slap down a mandate saying “You must not use these words!” The line between free speech and hate speech is a tricky one to walk and I’d rather err on the side of civil rights.
What I’d like to do instead is to offer some suggestions I hope will encourage you to wonder whether you’re using language in a way that contributes to ignorance and oppression, and to think about reducing your use of these words in future.
I realise it may sound like it, but I’m not suggesting I’m exempt. (See the “we” in this post’s title?) I use words I should probably question, too. I don’t use all of the following, but I’ve said most of them at some point. They’re all pretty prevalent, and thus ripe for further examination…
One of the worst things you can say about something is that it’s “lame”. Lame is like, the worst.
Why is that, exactly?
Because lame is weak. Lame is stupid. Lame is not strong, or normal, or cool.
Lame is disabled.
I know — no-one uses it that way anymore. But that’s how it started out. Like a lot of language, it moved from being used literally to being used metaphorically.
And you’ll notice that its metaphorical use isn’t complimentary in any way, illustrating exactly how people thought about PWD at the time its meaning shifted.
The reason it still resonates today? Physical weakness is still associated with being somehow less worthy. If we didn’t have that understanding somewhere in the backs of our minds, it wouldn’t work as an insult at all. (Bear in mind that unlike words such as “idiot”, which was once a medical diagnosis, the first definition of lame in more than one dictionary still refers to disability.)
That’s why the needs of PWD are so often ignored. Why we’re bullied and marginalised by individuals (Clint Eastwood!), corporations, and the government. We’re seen as “other”, as “broken”, as just not good enough.
I get that people who use lame these days are only using it to mean “pathetic”, and I’m not demanding they stop, although I’d like its use to fall out of favour. But I do think it’s useful to understand what you’re saying, where those words come from, and the impact they might have on other people.
Especially when it comes to words that are arguably even more offensive. Like, for example…
This is an immensely popular insult, especially in America. I see it almost daily on the internet and occasionally in young adult fiction. It rankles more than “lame” because while the latter is only rarely used these days as a term for someone with a physical disability, there are at least three concurrent uses of retard(ed):
1. A person with a learning disability. (“My son is retarded.”)
2. A person with a learning disability, who is therefore stupid. (“Wow, I’m acting like a retard today!”)
3. Stupid. (“Why did they do that? So retarded.”)
You can see the path of language change clearly, right there. Except we’re right in the midst of it, so unlike “moron”, which also went from a diagnostic term to an insult but which most people today wouldn’t consider a snub to people with learning disabilities, we all have knowledge of “retard” as meaning all of these things.
While the first use is certainly falling out of favour, I’ve read Martha Beck call her son (who has Down’s syndrome) “retarded”, seen someone on Facebook refer to having children as “something even retarded monkeys can do” and observed a blogger calling shop’s new layout “retarded” all in the same week.
I’m not saying that people who use “retard” or “retarded” simply to mean “stupid” intend to insult people with learning disabilities. But by using the word, they’re calling upon its history and being offensive all the same.
People who would never use racist or sexist epithets don’t think twice about the R-word, perhaps because they don’t mean it “like that”. They just mean it as a slur on someone’s intelligence.
But its other meanings hover too closely around us for it to just mean that. It packs a punch precisely because its original meaning was a diagnosis of learning disability — clearly you can’t get more insulting than that.
I worry that the reason this word is so pernicious is because its users think it’s a victimless crime: that people with learning disabilities won’t understand, or their friends and families won’t care. If so, they’re wrong on both counts.
I know. You help people with visual impairments cross the road and sing along to “Isn’t She Lovely?” every time it’s on the radio. I’m not saying your use of “blind” to mean ignorant or incompetent means you hate blind people.
You probably don’t even think about people with major vision impairment when you call someone “blind drunk” or talk about how she ignored those really obvious signs a relationship was going nowhere, “What was she, blind?”
But the fact you didn’t even think about what you were saying is kind of the problem. When you really think about it, using blind as this kind of metaphor is profoundly offensive.
Would you use a word that described another minority group that way? He was gay to the consequences. He was black to the consequences. He was so woman to the consequences. Of course not. Because it would be insulting to any of those groups of people to conflate their existence with ignorance.
Yet it happens to PWD all the time. (See also: “What are you, deaf?”)
If something unfavourable isn’t criticised for being lame or retarded, you can guarantee it’s being called crazy. Or one of those flattering synonyms for crazy: insane, nutty, loony, loopy, cracked. And these and other colloquial terms aren’t only used in casual speech, but accepted by and in the mass media.
When Leona Lewis was unfortunately hit in the face by a man who was later sectioned under the Mental Health Act, her assailant was described as “crazed”, “mad”, “a buck-toothed nut” and “a burly maniac” by the papers. (Yeah, I kept ‘em.) Is it surprising that people who have experienced severe mental illness often feel a stigma about discussing it, given that these terms are so mainstream?
Mental health has become associated with worth, logic, and common sense, mental illness with stupidity, incompetence, and ignorance. When Jon Stewart wanted to launch a public protest against the Tea Party politicians in late 2010, he knew calling it the Rally to Restore Sanity would engage people. It did: because one thing Democrats can agree on is that Sarah Palin is insane.
But she actually isn’t, as far as anyone knows. She has appalling, intolerant views which people should challenge. But that doesn’t make her insane. Anyone who truly matches the medical definition of insane deserves our support and compassion, not our criticism.
I know: you (or your mother or your sister) have Bipolar Disorder or depression or had a breakdown, and you don’t get offended by the term. You don’t think “crazy” applies to you. Doesn’t matter. It’s aimed at you, whether it offends you personally or not.
I’m not saying I’m immune. This is one of my most-used words. I like to think designating something “crazy good” makes me all reclaim-y because I have depression and anxiety, but it’s possible I’m just being lazy. “Crazy” is so often used as a metaphor and a modifier because its meaning is so intense. But that’s only because mental illness is so stigmatised and misunderstood.
Speaking of which…
One of the worst things about the use of this word to mean something SCARY is that I have so often seen it in writing by self-declared feminists and even feminist scholars. In other words, people who want to eradicate oppression, who are unthinkingly perpetuating ignorance against a minority group. (Stick that in your woolly hat, Alanis Morrissette.)
For example, I was reading Rosalind Gill’s Gender and the Media to help me build up a good head of feminist steam when I came across this sentence about teen magazines’ approach to personal grooming:
The emphasis on fun… can produce some almost Schizophrenic splits in which girls have no language to talk about their own experiences.
Are we supposed to be horrified by that? Are we supposed to think “OMG! Not duhn duhn duhn… Mental illness!”?
This was just a couple of weeks after reading a Huffington Post piece about feminism which contained the phrase:
“Is feminism schizophrenic or what?”
These writers seem to forget that Schizophrenia is a lived experience for some people, many of whom are women. Why do they deserve to be treated as the butt of a joke, or a metaphor meant to scare us?
And let’s not forget the most important point of all when people throw around the word “Schizophrenic”: most of the time (as in the examples above)…
They’re using it wrong.
Schizophrenia is nothing to do with multiple personalities (that’s Dissociative Identity Disorder). When I (politely) tried to say this in response to the HuffPo piece, my comment didn’t make it through moderation.
It’s clear these writers have never met someone with Schizophrenia or DID, preferring to think of these illnesses as reliably horrifying bogeymen rather than something thousands of people live with every day.
It’s true, they are serious disorders. But people who experience them are just that: people. Not punchlines or punching bags.
That feminists are so slow to grasp that fact is more disappointing than words can express.
And all the others…
People/things are called spastic, anything we don’t like is lunacy. People who don’t like to hug are “autistic”, or who like to tidy up are “OCD” as if that’s an insult, and as if that’s all there is to these disorders (nope, saying “no offence!” afterwards doesn’t make it OK).
We talk about crippling shyness and paralysing fear, and say people are “wheelchair bound” (many people use wheelchairs just some of the time and/or see it as a device that gives them more independence).
And on and on and on.
Maybe you think none of these things matter because you don’t mean any harm to anyone who has a disability when you say them. But they’re all rooted in ignorance of what living with a disability involves, and a refusal to see PWD as real people. And that’s not necessarily a conscious choice, but it is thoughtless, and what makes it worse it that it’s sanctioned by the culture we live in.
Just in case you think this is all theoretical, a few stateroos: Did you know that in late 2009, the Royal National Institute for the Deaf reported that 1 in 7 of its members believed their deafness had made them the victim of an assault? Or that PWD are four times as likely to be assaulted as able-bodied people? Or that women with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be raped?
The casual ignorance of disability exemplified in the use of ableist language is symptomatic of a general lack of respect towards PWD.
If the only metaphor we have for things that are damaged, broken, ignorant and incompetent is disability, are people with disabilities really ever going to be seen as having equal value?
I know some PWD don’t care that much about language use, which is totally their prerogative. But it doesn’t give anyone an opt-out.
There are millions of people who would like it if you would think a little more carefully about what you say and why.
I’m one of them.
(And I’m going to try my best, too.)
after words:: There’s a lot of great stuff on feminist blogs on this topic, but two I particularly recommend are Bitch’s The Transcontinental Disability Choir: What is Ableist Language and Why Should You Care? (though the comments section gets pretty awful) and FWD’s Ableist Word Profile (a whole series of thought-provoking posts).