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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Respecting the Work, Respecting Ourselves

A couple weeks ago I ran across this blog post: “Do Writers Really Have to Learn All that Yucky Grammar?” Now, I am what is commonly known as a Grammar Nazi, but I count myself a Grammar Lover. I dig language. I dig how it works and how it’s put together. More than that, I find it easy. It resonates for me. I don’t always have an explanation for the way things work on the tip of my tongue, but I have a natural gift and I almost always get it right.

I understand that not everyone has the same advantage, not even everyone who writes. When I Beta other writers’ manuscripts, I find a lot of mistakes, and that’s fine. That’s part of why you get feedback–so someone else can point out things you might have missed from being too close to your work. So you correct them and move on, or if you don’t understand the issue you might ask about the problem or look it up and learn to avoid it next time. It goes with the territory.

But I don’t get people who claim a writer’s identity, who object to learning the basics of the trade. So when I read the above-mentioned article my gut reaction–the same gut reaction I have when I read any article along the same lines–was: Why is this even necessary? Why does this have to be said over and over again?

puzzled-expression
Are you really going to make me explain this again?

I have a long history with the arts and humanities. I’ve done visual arts. I’ve studied music since I can remember, play a variety of instruments, and have been in several bands. In college, I majored in Dance (and Psychology), and I’ve held starring roles in numerous theatrical productions. But my first love has always been writing. I’ve seen it as my calling since second grade, when Mrs. Stahl told Julie Johnson that she should be an author and I piped up, “No, I’M going to be an author!” And I have never seen any of the arts treated with the same bizarre combination of reverence and disrespect that people bandy around when the subject of writing comes up.

In the disrespect corner are the people who say things like, “My family always tell me I write such great letters, I think I should write a book.” The acquaintances who greet the news that you’re a writer with, “Hey, if you need any help editing let me know!” There’s the lady in town who writes poetry in the bathtub, reads it that night at the local coffee house, and receives any suggestion that her work might be made cleaner as an affront. The relative who tells you, “I’ve got a great idea for you to write about in your spare time…” I’d also include those individuals who refuse to learn proper spelling and grammar, as well as those people who submit unpolished manuscripts and query agents without following their guidelines. These things are so common that there are a couple memes circulating about them. And at first, you greet them with sighs and eye-rolling, but as time goes on and you hear them over and over again, they make you want to bash your head repeatedly into the nearest wall.

BeatingHeadAgainstWall-495x401-e1332166063852
No, really. This is less painful

On the reverence side of things, you get a weird conglomeration of stuff. The hushed awe some people show you upon learning you’re a writer, as if you’ve announced you just dropped in from Alpha Centauri, or perhaps discovered a cure for cancer. The massive advances that some A-list writers get. Book fandom turns popular writers into rock stars. Readers obsess over the fates of their favorite characters and line up for signings and treat the winners of the Hugo or the Edgar the way other people treat Oscar winners. Prominent authors become spokespersons for political causes and their names become household words. All of it contributes to this feeling that writers are a race apart, with talents that set them far above the average Joe. And I don’t know how other writers react to the intersection of reverence and disrespect, but in me it causes a kind of cognitive dissonance, a feeling that my ability to use words to convey a coherent story is a kind of superpower, but it doesn’t really count because anyone could do the same if she felt like it. Anyone at all could sit down at a computer, or with paper and pen, and write a hundred thousand words, and transform herself into the next Stephen King by breakfast next Sunday. Because writing is, after all, an easy way to make a quick buck.

I’m  not sure where this idea comes from, and I think about it a lot. Maybe it’s because in the First World we’re all (allegedly) taught to write in school. Most people experience words on a daily basis in one way or another. We write emails and Facebook status updates. We see words on cereal boxes and street signs. They’re not mysterious, like the ability to dance or act or play an instrument. Society’s focus on literacy for everyone has made them accessible, and don’t mistake me, I think that’s a good thing. I think words are great, and do good things, and people should have access to them. But being able to send a witty letter to Mom or tweet your emotional state in one hundred and forty characters does not equate to being able to write a novel, or even a short story.

The thing is, while most people learn some form of literacy, a great many of those people don’t absorb the annoying details. Grammar, unless you’re me or share my fascination for language, is neither easy nor fun. Neither is spelling. No more so  is the logic of structuring a coherent plot, or many of the things that turn a string of semi-related words into a novel that someone might actually want to read. And so people don’t learn them, or if they learn them, they often forget them as soon as the test is over.

There’s also this idea in some circles that the picayune details don’t matter as long as a person expresses herself honestly. I remember back when I was in high school hearing about some Urban District where an English teacher was having great success getting kids to write by telling them not to worry about spelling or grammar or any of the rules; just get the words down. Needless to say, this approach sent my English-teacher mother through the ceiling, but I do see the value in it. My own husband, who is also an English teacher, sometimes has to resort to it just to get his students to do the work. And I’ve seen it used to good purpose in groups like Writing Down the Bones, where the point is to overcome the fear of writing and the debilitating tendency to self-censor. Just write. Worry later. I say it to myself when I’m working on a first draft. Just write.

The problem comes when people get so enamoured of the idea of self as writer that they forget that Just Write is the starting place. The process of writing gets entangled with the ego to the point where any criticism, any suggestion that you might perhaps want to subject your work to a little critical analysis or perhaps learn how to construct a sentence in a more effective way is seen as a personal attack. And I get it, really I do. The act of writing, or creating with words, is intensely personal. Taking what’s in your heart and putting it on the page for everyone to see is scary. But isn’t that a good reason to make it as tight and coherent as possible? “Well yeah,” you might say. “But what about the idea that my words have intrinsic value? That I, as a person, have intrinsic value? If you’re telling me I can do better doesn’t that mean you think what I’ve done so far is shitty? Who are you to judge? My books are my children!”

To this I really must ask: “Do you really refuse to bathe or toilet train your children because they weren’t born with those skills?”

I’ve seen this conversation a lot in the self-publishing community, which is fairly well divided between those who believe in working at their craft and making it the best it can be and those who think that uploading whatever words come off the tops of their heads to Amazon and calling it a book is just fine. (You can probably guess where I stand on this debate.) It’s the kind of thing that leads people to write articles demanding that those who self-publish shouldn’t call themselves authors. And it certainly isn’t helped by the fact that it’s demonstrably true that going the traditional route (or subjecting your work to gatekeepers, depending on your slant) does not always result in a superior product.

But, you know,  as it says in the article that prompted me to write this: you wouldn’t want to take your car to a mechanic who didn’t have a full range of tools at his disposal. Deciding you’re a novelist because you write good letters is like deciding you’re a brain surgeon because you were good at Operation in your youth. The two aren’t the same. And there’s another side to studied ignorance of your craft that directly contributes to some of the stuff that annoys writers most: When you don’t respect what you do enough to do it well, other people won’t respect it either. So they’ll continue to misunderstand what being a writer means, and continue to make those comments we find so hard to hear. Like these things:

10-things-people-say-to-creative-writers
And the next time I hear any of these, someone’s going to get punched in the mouth.

Everyone might have a story to tell, but not everyone needs to write a novel (which is my problem with events like NaNoWriMo, but that’s probably a different blog). It’s not an easy way to the big bucks. It’s hard work with less return, on a monetary level, than most people would like to think. If you manage to finish your first draft, there are edits, and sending your work out to critique partners; shit, there’s the whole business of finding a good critique partner before you even share your work at all. And then, more edits and, if you decide to go the traditional route, there are queries and synopses to write, which is an art all of its own. And more edits. And all that is no guarantee that a publisher will pick up your book, or that the public will buy it.

There are lots of ways to be creative with words. My husband (the English teacher, remember) creates beautiful and lavish worlds. I envy his ability to do so; he has one of the most original and creative minds I have ever encountered. Sometimes I tell him he really ought to do something with those worlds he creates. His response, inevitably, is “Oh, I don’t want to do all that work.” And that’s fine. Not writing a novel doesn’t make him any less original or creative.

I’m lucky. I have to edit far less than most other writers and I never fall prey to the tendency writers often display of looking back on early drafts and thinking they’re shit. Most of the time I can go over my work and know that, even if the words I’ve written aren’t the right words, they’re good words all the same. A novelist friend of mine recently told me, “The words you pull out of your ass are better than the ones I’ve gone over a dozen times.” But the reason for this is that I have spent forty years loving language, studying my craft, and learning to organize my thoughts so I can churn out 2000 words on short notice and have them make sense. (As some proof of this, I offer the fact that this post appears as it came out of my head, with only one edit to add the sentence about books as compared to children, because I thought of that when I woke up this morning.)

If, after all this, you still feel that novel pushing against your breastbone, write it. But please do yourself a favor and get the tools to make your book the best book it can possibly be. Study grammar. Learn how to spell. Read the work of other writers and ask yourself what does and doesn’t work, and how you’d do it differently.

Teaching other people to respect the process of writing starts with respecting it ourselves.

Are Writing “Rules” Gendered?

Rules of “good writing” have always bothered me. There are many reasons for this: I have a questioning mind and I don’t accept anything is so simply because some authority tells me it’s so. I see so many places where the rules are “broken”–sometimes for good, and sometimes not so much. (Rereading the Harry Potter series as I recover from my sinus surgery, I haven’t been able to help noticing how much static language and passive voice J.K. Rowling used, especially in the first three books. As an aside, it’s been interesting to watch her writing style mature over the course of the series.) And a lot of the time the “rules” simply don’t apply to my personal experience.

But one thing I never considered was that the rules of writing one sees so much might be gendered.

Like it or not, gender is an issue in a writer’s world, especially when you get into genre fiction. And I mean, the gender of the writer, not of the characters. It’s still a man’s world out there. If it weren’t, you wouldn’t need con panels like “Women in Science Fiction;” the fact that women write it wouldn’t be seen as anything remarkable. Men still get most of the reviews, and men are still the ones asked to write reviews. And it’s possible that men are still the ones telling us how to write, whether or not what works for male writers works for women.

I started thinking about this just this morning, actually. Yesterday I read a blog by a prominent male author & blogger. The topic was one of the usual ones: Write even when you don’t feel like it. This is one of the “rules” that bothers me, and I felt moved to comment to that effect. This morning, I found that several people had responded to my comment. I fully expected my point of view to be dismissed, but when I looked at the responses all of them agreed with me and said they appreciated my articulating what they had wanted to say themselves. And all of the respondents were women.

It got me thinking. The idea of writing every day whether you want to or not comes from a place of privilege, doesn’t it? It assumes that you have even five minutes to yourself to jot down words, that you aren’t struggling with a chronic illness, that you feel justified in taking the time to write. It assumes that not writing every day shows a lack of commitment or the unwillingness to “develop the habit of writing.”

But I have to ask, who has the time? Despite many strides in feminism and equality, it’s still the women who are responsible for most of the housework and child care. Women are still expected to spend more time on personal grooming. Women suffer more chronic illnesses than men, including auto-immune disorders like fibromyalgia, which can be completely debilitating. Sometimes, we don’t write because we simply CAN’T, not because we’re lazy or less dedicated. And then we have the added burden of feeling guilty about not writing, because so many people who do not have our experience tell us we should be doing it every day, whether we can or not.

It made me wonder about other writing rules. A quick Google search came up with about 650 million results. Obviously I haven’t gone through all of them, but in the first five pages I found two references to lists of writing rules by women as opposed to 30-odd references to writing rules by men. (Many of these were the most recent list from Elmore Leonard.) Making a brief comparison between this list and another by Janet Fitch, it strikes me how dissimilar they are. Leonard’s are, in the main, definite instructions: Do this, Don’t do that. Fitch’s are more suggestions that an individual might apply to his or her own writing experience: Pick a better verb, or explore dependent clauses. I can’t help but feel that, perhaps, this difference may stem from a difference in world view and experience. And it makes me ask the question: Are women writers doing themselves a disservice when they try to follow the rules that have been made up by men in the field?

I don’t have an answer, and I think the question deserves further exploration. I’m interested to hear what others might think.

Stop Hating on Adverbs!

Today I’m going to talk about a much-maligned part of speech. Yes, I’m referring to the infamous adverb. If you’re any kind of writer, or even if you follow writing, you’ve without a doubt heard that ADVERBS ARE BAD. I say a little about why I disagree in this blog post. Recently, however, I’ve seen a great many tweets and various other posts from writing coaches encouraging writers to “obliterate adverbs” and similar nonsense, and this really flips my switch. Hence, an entire post devoted to the adverb.

The main thing that irritates me about the “no adverbs” philosophy is that the people who subscribe to it don’t seem to know WHY adverbs are bad. Or at least, if they know they aren’t telling. And I get reactionary and sick at my stomach any time it appears to me that someone is making a sweeping judgment of the worth of anything without giving clear reasons for it. I feel the same way about people dissing parts of speech that I do about racism and sexism and size-ism and any -ism at all. It flips my switch, and I want to come out fighting.

The thing is, a person can overuse adverbs. They can be a sign of hasty and amateurish writing, and going deeper than the adverb can make for better imagery. Compare “He walked quickly down the street” with “His boots beat a rapid tattoo on the asphalt as he wove through the parked cars…” The first doesn’t tell show you much other than the gender of the subject and the fact that he’s moving as a rapid pace. But from the second, you know what kind of shoes he’s wearing (boots), the ground he’s covering (asphalt), that he’s going fast (rapid), that the quality of movement is perhaps martial (beat/tattoo)…all kind of things, all without a single adverb. So, yeah, too much reliance on adverbs can make your writing dull.

On the other hand, telling a writer to eliminate any part of speech altogether is like telling a painter never to use the color red, or telling a musician never to play a B-flat. You’re taking a tool out of the box and throwing it away, not because it’s broken, but because it’s unfashionable. “Oh, manual drills are so last century! No one uses them any more.” But you know, there’s going to come a time when you want that manual drill. When an electric one won’t fit in the space you have, or when you need to drill a starter hole for a screw right away and your electric drill has lost its charge, or just because getting it out of the case is too much trouble and you can keep the manual one in your pocket.

Same with adverbs. Sometimes you need them. Consider:

“The creases in the wrapping paper stood out as sharply as those in a Marine’s trousers, and the crisp, double bow topping the package had been aligned with military precision. Clearly someone had taken trouble over this gift.”

Sure, you could eliminate those two adverbs. You could do it in one of two ways. You could decide that neither of them mattered, and replace “as sharply as” with “like,” and drop “clearly” altogether. And you know what? Your sentence would lose imagery. It would not mean the same thing. Or, you could do what far too many writers do, and replace those nasty -ly-words with prepositional phrases.

“The creases in the wrapping paper stood out with sharpness like a Marine’s trousers…”

And you know what? I’m not even going on with that, because if you can’t see how awkward it is to go around replacing every single word ending in -ly with a prepositional phrase, I doubt you can understand the point of this blog post. But I can’t tell you the number of dismal fantasy novels I’ve read that had me hugging the toilet from bizarre constructions like “With caution, the hero with swiftness unsheathed his sword and with bravery launched himself at his attacker. With dedication.”

It’s not a question of any part of speech being “bad” or “good”. It’s a question of knowing your craft. And that means being able to make the choice to use an adverb when it suits you or finding a way to replace that adverb you used in the first draft because it was the first thing that popped into your mind with something more picturesque. It also means being able to recognize when a word ending in -ly is an adverb and when it’s not instead of condemning every word with a particular suffix. It means understanding that adverbs also can modify adjectives, and sometimes you want to do that. And it means learning about adverbs that don’t end in -ly, and asking yourself if you really have it in for a part of speech or just an irritating suffix.