The Problem with Critique of “Ableist” Language

Trigger Warning: Bound to make some people mad.

I follow a page on Facebook, Chronic Illness Cat. It’s essentially an on line support group for people with chronic illnesses, mainly physical ones like Fibromyalgia and other auto-immune disorders, but I find their content relevant to mental health issues as well. People can post questions about medications and talk about their struggles, and there’s always someone who can say, “You’re not alone.” In my opinion, this is one of the main reasons support groups exist: to validate people’s experience.

One of the most popular features of Chronic Illness Cat is member-created memes. These feature the eponymous Siamese cat along with pithy, usually humorous, comments about living with a chronic illness. The humor is generally the dark, frustrated variety you use when you’re reaching to find some light in a miserable situation. It pokes fun at the illness and illustrates the common experience of people who are doing their best on a daily basis to cope with the hand they’ve been dealt. Critique of well-meaning healthy people, the medical establishment, and the illnesses themselves bear witness to the lives of those with chronic illnesses and provide an avenue for bonding and commiseration. It’s the kind of thing you can look at while shaking your head and laughing quietly: “Oh, gods, I know that one. Me, too. Doesn’t life suck sometimes?”

suffering meme
an example

Last week, one of these memes caused an ugly incident on the page, which involved accusations of promoting “ableist” language, insensitivity, “throwing the neurodivergent under the bus,” and the like. In fact, the moderator of the page, who herself copes with chronic illness, received death threats and suggestions that she should kill herself. All because one of the memes she posted contained the word “stupid.”

Leaving aside, for the moment, the fact that SENDING DEATH THREATS TO A PERSON IS NEVER AN ACCEPTABLE RESPONSE TO SOMETHING THAT UPSETS YOU, the incident pretty much exemplifies the problems I have with critiques of “ableist” language, and language policing in general, not to mention a tendency I’ve seen all over the Internet to take offense at every little thing and smear trigger warnings on shit that is pretty much part of life, and can you just please get a grip?

the meme in question
the meme in question

Look, I’m a writer. I understand the power of words and terminology. I understand that changing the way we use language is an integral part of changing the way we think. I understand that learning new language actually makes our brain able to access new concepts. I believe in language as a political tool that can be used both to oppress and to overcome oppression. I’ve even touched briefly on my irritation with people’s tendency to co-opt mental health terms to refer to everything from the weather to nail polish, here.

I’m also “disabled,” which is a word I personally hate, but it makes a convenient shortcut into a particular concept (and more about that later). I dislike feeling as if I have to offer credentials for my disability, but for the information of anyone who doesn’t know and who might be reading this blog, I have Bipolar Disorder, PTSD, Social Anxiety and other “mental illnesses,” as well as chronic migraines, all of which are severe enough that I managed to convince the United States Government that they actually do prevent me from running out and getting a job at the Stop and Save on the corner of the highway–no easy feat, let me assure you.

I know a thing or two about language, and I know a thing or two about disability, and I am confident that I can make a judgment in this area. And my judgment is that most people who complain about “ableist” language have no idea what they’re talking about. And when you get reactive without knowing what you’re talking about, you run the risk of undermining your entire point.

anxiety memeI’ve found discussions of “ableist” language irritating for some time now–perhaps ever since I first became aware of it as an issue. But I never could quite articulate why or how they irritated me. Plus, I am a strong proponent of the right of any marginalized group to define itself–i.e., if a disabled person says something is a problem, then we need to accept that it’s a problem, the same way we have to accept it if an Indigenous person says something non-Indigenous people do is a problem, whether we like it or not. However, there is a difference between misuse or oppressive use of language that is a problem to everyone in a marginalized group and that which is a specific trigger to an individual. This is where I see critique of “ableist” language falling down.

I try to keep an open mind and educate myself in all aspects of intersectionality, or at least as many as I am aware of and can keep track of. In the wake of the Chronic Illness Cat fracas, I stumbled across this article about “ableist” language, which I read in an attempt to make some sense of the entire thing. And what I found was, instead of shining a light on the issue, it  in many ways exemplified my personal problem with the whole subject. It starts out with some common disability metaphors: “The economy is crippled by debt;” “He’s blind to his privilege:” etc,. and points out that these metaphors are common in our language and culture and that they are “almost always pejorative.” Okay, right here I have a problem. I don’t think the word pejorative was used appropriately, in the first place. The definition of the word I could find that makes the most sense is “disparaging.” Myself, I don’t see either of those uses (or any in the other examples) as disparaging as much as pointing out an actual thing that is happening. For example, a person who is blind, for one reason or another, actually can’t see. Yet “seeing” can take many shapes aside from processing visual stimuli. Sure, there are lots of other ways you might say “blind to his privilege” that don’t use the word “blind.” You might say he “can’t perceive” it, or “can’t see” it, or any number of other things. And this begs the question: How would those be less “ableist?” How is”can’t see” better than “blind?” The answer is, it’s not. A person could just as easily object to one as the other. You could just as easily object to “can’t perceive,” or “is unaware” or anything else on down the line, because words don’t have just one meaning. Even a lot of words that have been used in bad ways. I’m sorry for the state of the language, but it’s simply the truth. Once you start eliminating the words you don’t like because they may have at once time been used to oppress, there is no clear stopping place.

One of the first things the article in question says is,  ableist words, “perpetuate negative and disempowering views of disabled people, and these views wind their ways into all of the things that most people feel are more important.” I have to say, “Well, yes and no.” Some do. Simply using the word, though–this is something I have to question. Going back to my first example, does “blind” say something negative about  people who can’t see, aside from giving the information that they can’t perceive and/or process visual information? I’d have to say no. The word itself implies no value judgment. If you want to argue that disability is, in itself, seen as negative, that’s something different. I’d have to take the stance that since we talk about DISability, that in itself implies that there’s something negative about it (which is one reason I dislike the term). So maybe let’s look at that, instead. But I’d bear in mind that many, if not all, people with disabilities would probably trade them for good health and able bodies, were it in their power to do so. To me, that says that we, the disabled, ourselves see disability in a negative light. And I believe this is something that needs to be addressed before you go around policing other people’s language.

At another point, the article has this to say:

“Think about it this way: Consider that you’re a woman walking down the street, and someone makes an unwanted commentary on your body. Suppose that the person looks at you in your favorite dress, with your hair all done up, and tells you that you are “as fat as a pig.”

Is your body public property to be commented upon at will? Are others allowed to make use of it — in their language, in your hearing, without your permission?

Or is that a form of objectification and disrespect?

In the same way that a stranger should not appropriate your body for his commentary, you should not appropriate my disabled body — which is, after all, mine and not yours — for your political writing or social commentary.”

Here’s my problem with this example: In the first instance, that of a stranger making an unwanted commentary on a woman’s body, the event is personal. Someone has addressed another person to their face and made a judgment: “You’re as fat as a pig.” But using words like “blind,” “crippled,” “paralyzed,” and what have you in the context of social commentary is not personal. The two incidents are not the same. And if it hits you on a personal level every time you see the word, whether or not it’s directed at you, that’s your problem, not that of society at large. That’s your trigger. You can look at why such and such a thing triggers you, you can make people aware of it; you can ask for accommodation. But it is not always possible to make triggers disappear–and, in my opinion, it shouldn’t be. I get triggered by graphic depictions, in word or film, of emotional abuse. When I come across them, I can skip a few pages, or cover my head with a blanket until the scene is over, or leave the room, or eat chocolate, or any number of other things. I don’t start a movement to  abolish depictions of emotional abuse from all forms of media, because not everyone has the same triggers. Some people may even find the things that trigger me to be of immense benefit. And when you try to demand that everyone just stop doing shit that triggers you, you both undermine the whole purpose of trigger warnings and give ample ammunition to a segment of society that believes the whole concept is a sign of weakness and laziness.

As far as the Chronic Illness Cat meme goes, I saw a few comments from people who don’t like the word “stupid,” because that particular word has been used to bully them. And that’s valid. People with learning disabilities, in particular, often are demeaned as “stupid” and “hopeless” (are we going to censor that word, too?), among other things. But, at the risk of repeating myself, personal triggers are not necessarily ableist language. I, myself, am triggered by the word “ugly.” For me, that word is incredibly loaded. I cannot conceive of demanding that we remove the word from common usage because it perpetuates a negative stereotype of those with non-normative appearance. No more can I imagine demanding we cease using the word “fat” because it’s been used to vilify people of size.

There are words that only have one meaning, and that meaning is meant to degrade. “Cunt,” “Nigger,” “Redskin,” “Moron,” “Retard,” “Chink,” “Spic,” and any number of other racist, sexist, homophobic and ableist slurs. By all means let’s challenge them where they appear. Let’s work to excise them from our vocabularies. But let’s make a distinction between language that really is hateful and harmful and stuff we just don’t like. Otherwise we make it harder for others to take us seriously, and we actively sabotage the very battles we’re trying to fight.

I’m fully expecting that some people will not take kindly to my point of view in this area, and I reserve my right to be proactive about my mental health. Comments are closed.

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The Unhealed Wound

The weather here in Colorado has been awful–by my standards–for the last week:  dark, gloomy, rainy, unseasonably cold. This isn’t good for either my physical health or my mental health. Since Tuesday, I’ve been all but incapacitated by a migraine. Add in the fact that tomorrow is Mother’s Day, which is an incredibly problematic holiday for me, and, well. I’m not doing too well.

Migraines are frustrating for me. Not just the pain. That’s bad, sure. The unpredictable physical awfulness is exhausting. But I’ve been dealing with that part almost since I can remember. I don’t like it–you can’t LIKE it–but I’m used to it.  I have my coping mechanisms. I have a partner who’s willing to run to the store for a Coke and massage my neck. If I absolutely can’t stand it, I can call my doctor and get a shot of Toradol and Phenegran. I get through it.

The worst part of it is the boredom. Pain is boring, once you get past the ability to indulge in it. Migraines limit my ability to participate in my life at the level I’d like. I spend a lot of the time lying on the couch with a heating pad on my head, sometimes fretfully dozing but not truly sleeping. When I get bored with that, I read random stuff on the Internet. I don’t feel well enough to DO anything, and although some ideas might drift in and out of my mind, I don’t have what it takes to set them on the page. Everything is grueling and colorless, the same grey as the sky outside the window. Uninteresting. Passionless.

There’s always a point where I become almost unbearably depressed. It might be from pain and exhaustion, or it might be from spending so much time with only my thoughts and process for company. Physical pain forces me inward, to the place where my emotional pain lives. Without exterior distraction, I have to co-exist with it. I look at it, and it looks at me. We take each other apart and rearrange ourselves in new patterns. Insight arises, and it comforts no one. I see a particular truth or explore an old wound, and there’s nothing at all I can do about it

I think there are some wounds that never heal. They’re like a chronic abscess. From time to time, you open it up and drain out the poison, but there’s some deep impurity you can never quite access. Over time, the infection builds again. The pain increases. You try to live with it, get through it, get past it. But eventually you have to go back in.

I think this truth is the reality behind the stories in folklore about unhealable wounds. Some things, you don’t get over. We like to think, in modern society, that everything is surmountable. That we shape our own destinies and own our Fates. But it’s not true. Some times it IS too late to realize your dreams. Some things ARE impossible. Some things, once broken, can never be put back together. Some things are never put together right in the first place.

In places along Glenwood Canyon, trees grow out of rocks. They cling through winds and storms, twisted and stunted, some many years old. Roots find small pockets of soil, water; never enough. Those trees will never be like the straight trees in the woods above. People might think it’s amazing they grow at all. They might be admired for their strength and tenacity. I wonder if the trees feel strong, or if they simply do the best they can without the resources they need. Seeds sprout and grow, mindless. This is what they’re programmed to do. But perhaps one day, the wind will be too strong and the roots will give way.

* * *

I read an article on mindfulness the other day. It upset me.

For those who don’t know, mindfulness practice in its varying forms grew out of the Buddhist tradition of meditation. To put it simply,  when you sit quietly with yourself and focus on a single thing–your breath, a candle–and let your inner thoughts arise without judgment, you gain insight into your own thought process. This, in turn, allows you to release patterns of thought and action, and relate to the present moment instead of instilling it with your ideas about what it “should” be or projecting past experience and/or future desires onto it. The idea is to become detached from your solid sense of self, the “ego.” This is supposed to be beneficial because it makes you more adaptable to circumstances as they are, rather than as you interpret them, and this, in turn, can help you get through crises, triggering events, and the like.

Like I said, that was a very simplistic definition.

Mindfulness practice has become pretty trendy over the last twenty years or so, particularly as a therapeutic tool. And it definitely has its benefits. It’s a good thing to learn more about one’s own mind and how it functions. It’s a good thing to be able to take a breath and be able to interact with things as they ARE, rather than as you expect them to be from a bad childhood experience, or whatever. So in that respect, I have little disagreement with using it as a therapeutic tool.

The thing that upset me about the article was the title: ” ‘You’ Don’t Exist: Why an Enduring Self is a Delusion.” Up front, that phrasing is a personal trigger. And I got triggered more and more as the article went on, talking about how amazing it is to realize that “self” is a construct made up of constant chatter and how since the self is the source of suffering, working on self-esteem and the like is actually detrimental to health. In my opinion, this is a place where trying to fit everyone into a box described by a particular facet of Eastern philosophy can be damaging, if not downright dangerous.

I majored in Dance Therapy at a Buddhist college where mindfulness practice in the form of sitting meditation was part of the curriculum. It was presented as the “One Wonderful Thing” that would solve everyone’s troubles. But it’s not, because people are different. It may be true that learning to transcend the self is beneficial for people who have a solid self concept. However, this idea does not take into account the experience of those people who never had a solid self concept to begin with. People, that is, like me. When you’ve lived a great deal of your life on the receiving end of messages like, “Don’t bother me,” “Don’t be selfish,” “Don’t get in the way,” “Don’t take up space,” and simply “Don’t BE,” hearing that self is the problem is re-wounding. People whose experiences have been dismissed and minimized need to RECLAIM the self, not give up more of it.

* * *

Today I read this article on toxic parenting (it’s actually about breaking up with a toxic mother, but I think the ideas apply to any primary caregiver). It cites a study in child development which included an experiment called the “Strange Situation” scenario, in which an infant is introduced to increasingly stressful situations, e.g., a stranger entering the room while the mother is present, being left alone with the stranger, being left entirely alone. The researcher posited that an infant needs a secure base from which to explore the world and interact with others. If the caregiver consistently meets the infant’s needs beyond simple food and shelter, she (the study was done about mothers, so I’m sticking with that pronoun) provides a secure base. If, “on the other hand, if a caregiver is inconsistent or absent, the infant forms an insecure attachment and becomes incapable of exploring or regulating their feelings in moments of stress.” 

To me, this resonates with the deficiencies of mindfulness practice as a therapeutic tool. If you don’t have a secure attachment to begin with, focus on overcoming attachment–as in meditation practice–is wrongheaded if taken too far.

The mindfulness article pointed out that “in other cultures” identity is less individual than it is in the West, being equally divided between the community, nature, and other elements, and went on to argue that this diffuse ego is innately healthier than the centralized Western ego. Aside from this reeking of the “noble savage” trope, it strikes me as exceptionally short-sighted. I would posit that in cultures with less centralized ego structure, care-giving is also less centralized. That is, a child would not be dependent on a single person (the mother) to help them establish a secure base. There would probably be a network of grandparents, other community members, and so forth. Some people get these things in Western culture. Some don’t.

* * *

At my core, where I am supposed to have a self, there is a crater. A gaping emptiness that nothing ever seems to fill. The wound that won’t heal. I have no secure base. I pretend to, because I have no alternative. But nothing is there.

I fling myself into the abyss, over and over. I strive to BE. I have no reflection in the eyes of the people around me. When I leave the room, I cease to exist.

Some of the ways I have learned to cope look like strength. I ask for what I need or want, because I have been taught that this is healthy, because “you can’t expect people to read your mind.” Yet every time I do, it rubs salt in the wound. I know that if I don’t speak up, if I don’t ask, I become invisible. I have no faith that anyone would piss on me to put out the flames, were I to catch on fire. Not unless I ask. If I don’t ask, I must be fine.

I cry from a broken mouth. I want to be heard before I ask, to be seen before waving my hand in front of the face that turns away, intent on its own business.

These have been my thoughts over the past week.