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.

Advertisements