Avoiding Ableist or Sexist Language Won’t Make Us Less Fun!

I found this amazing campaign on a website and decided to share on my facebook wall.  As stated on the website , “The following are images from the “You Don’t Say?” Campaign out of Duke University. The premise of the campaign is to encourage people to think before speaking as the words one delivers can have negative implications that were never intended in the first place, especially to those around us.

These phrases are often said with harmless intent. But how do we really make those around us feel? Perhaps it’s time for us to actually think before we speak?”

 The images show different persons holding different signs  -

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When I posted this wonderful piece as my FB status update, I added-

 And I don’t say “Don’t be a retard” because it is Ableist .

 As expected, some do not agree with the campaign or my statement. Not many of us are familiar with Ableism and how just like racism or sexism, it exposes some group of people to discrimination and derogatory treatment . I always wanted to write something about ableist language but felt there are already some good blog posts on the subject, so I just end up referring people to those posts. When attempting to respond to some of the comments on my FB wall, especially the comment below,  I realised my response was so long it is a blog post in itself, so I made it a blog post. Happy reading!

 Oh come on, that’s so stingy! There’s a reason why they are called “proverbs”, the word itself is only offensive if you don’t read it in context.

Also some words, like “Pussy” don’t refer to the female gender,the etymology derives from the Latin words “pusillus” and “animus” combining into “pusillanimous”, meaning “Very Small Spirit / No Courage”.

Also the term was used by many ethnic groups to describe Cats.

Now I’m with you for equality and against sexism, but I think there’s a line. If you take things all to serious, people will dismiss you as militant, a militant mindest can never create a common understanding. So what I’m trying to say is that you should have a bit of self-humour, I mean those proverbs derived over hundred of years, they are part of everyday culture and used all around the word, even by LGBT people who don’t think they’re offensive. If you really want to change the world, you can’t just deny everything, embrace it with all it’s faults and change it slowly over time. Forbidding someone to say words is the same as forbidding someone to be gay. People say those proverbs but they don’t mean them, they don’t project “Man up” with gay people or “pussy” being negative just because it’s female, we use them because they are proverbs, but we aren’t thinking the stuff that’s written on this image. When we say “Pussy” we don’t mean “Ohh you’re such a female, females are all weak, so you’re a coward”, no, we just mean “You’re a coward”.

It’s dangerous to interpret that everyone who’s saying these proverbs is a sexist or albeist, that’s just not trueYemisi, as much as I respect and honor your opinion, but I can’t be in on this one with you.

The sentiments expressed in the above comment are similar to the ones I have heard people express whenever the subject of sexism, ableism or even racism comes up. Therefore, I will try and respond to it as thoroughly as I can.

  • “Oh come on, that’s so stingy!”

There is nothing stingy about asking people to think about the impact their words would have on others before they speak. It does not matter whether your intent was to hurt or just be funny, what matters is the impact on the persons concern.

  •  “There’s a reason why they are called “proverbs”-

 I don’t know what your idea of ‘proverbs’ is but I can tell you that calling people “pussies”, “bitches”, “retarded” or  using the expression “This is so gay” to refer to something you think is stupid, have nothing to do to with proverbs. These are not proverbs; they are insults, derogatory insults.

  • “the word itself is only offensive if you don’t read it in context.”

These words are even more offensive when they are read in context. If I am called a “bitch” or “cunt” by a man or even another woman, I know this has to do with my gender and the stereotype of what a nasty, manipulative, ambitious or aggressive woman is. Fathoming the particular stereotype they are referring to would be apparent from the context of what led to them calling me a “bitch”, “pussy” or “cunt”. The context makes the insult and sexism much more apparent.

When a man is called a pussy by a fellow man or even a woman, the context makes it even more offensive. Studies and 422634_2822985968404_1512899802_nexperience have shown that one of the worst insults you can throw at a man is to call them a “Pussy” or a “Woman”. Call a man a pussy, he either punches you in the face or go all out to prove that he can ‘man up’. Tell a woman she acted like a man and she goes all grinning and even offer you a “thank you” because this is considered one of the highest compliments you can give a woman. This is sad.

Whenever people are called out on using the word pussy as a derogatory remark, the defense is always invariably aimed at an attempt to inform us about cats. This does not in any way take away from the fact that ‘pussy’ in the context used does not in any way refer to cats, but to vaginas and its supposed weakness and all other negative stereotypes typically associated with being a woman with a vagina.

  •  “Now I’m with you for equality and against sexism, but I think there’s a line”.

No. For me, there is no line to be drawn when calling out sexism, racism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia or ableism. If it is bad, it is bad.

  • “If you take things all to serious, people will dismiss you as militant, a militant mindest can never create a common understanding”-

It does not matter what people take me as, what matters is what I take myself as. l do not allow people to define me, I define myself. Also, others acceptance or dismissal of me is not a validation of the rightness or wrongness of my cause.  Just saying, I do not seek validation from others before I act or continue to act on issues I care about.  Also, opinions are like assholes, we all have one. So I won’t lose sleep because my perceived ‘militancy’ would supposedly stop people from having a common understanding. The foundation of my activism is based on the fact that every human being is born free and equal in rights and dignity regardless of sex, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, circumstances of birth or any other status. If there is no common understanding around this basic fact, it still would not stop me from acting decisively to assert this fact.

  • “So what I’m trying to say is that you should have a bit of self-humour”76562_507127119315763_786930123_n

It is self-humour when I am laughing at myself, but it is no longer just self-humour when I am laughing at myself at the expense of another. For instance, if I say to myself “Oh, I am so retarded, how could I say that!” Well, it is not just laughing at myself but actually insulting those who are medically diagnosed with such condition. Deliberately laughing at myself while using insulting and derogatory language to describe the medical condition of another is no longer self-humour, It is downright irresponsible and mean.

  • “I mean those proverbs derived over hundred of years, they are part of everyday culture and used all around the word, even by LGBT people who don’t think they’re offensive.”

Again, these are not proverbs, not even close to it. Also, because something or a language is part of everyday culture or usage does not make it right or wrong. Culture is not a determinant of right or wrong.  Also, when a word is used, it becomes normalized. However, we must always remind ourselves that because something is considered normal does not mean it is always right. ‘Normal’ only means it is common, not that it is correct or right.

And most importantly because you do not find the word ‘pussy’, ‘bitch’ or ‘so gay’ offensive, does not mean everybody else should not find it offensive. And vice versa. The fact that some blacks call themselves niggas does not mean it is ok to call every black person a nigga. And the fact that a black person is comfortable calling himself a nigga does not mean he has the right to stand on a podium and call every other black person in the audience a nigga.

If a gay person is OK with the expression ‘so gay’, they should not get so defensive when others call them out on enabling a negative stereotype about a sexual orientation or gender identity.

A woman might be OK with calling herself a bitch, but it is not ok to go around calling other women she disagrees with, ‘bitches’. This only serves to enable, entrench and enforce the patriarchal, sexist and societal stereotype of women.

  • “If you really want to change the world, you can’t just deny everything, embrace it with all it’s faults and change it slowly over time .”

Sorry, this is definitely not my philosophy of life.  I am not intent on changing the world; I am concerned about making the world a 577637_10151010819121873_455428710_nbetter place, starting with myself and my interactions with others. This includes being conscious of how my words and actions impact on those around me. Also, this definitely includes how I make people around me feel through my actions and words.

And why “change it slowly over time”? The impacts of my words and actions can be immediate. Surely, I do not have to wait a decade before I am comfortable enough to tell people not to call me a “pussy”, a “bitch” or use the word “retarded” or “so gay” to describe people. I think it is a matter of urgent importance and I don’t have to take it slowly. I’d rather the world evolve quick enough to play catch up and understand that words can immediately hurt  and that the impact of these derogatory, sexist, ableist or racist words can take a lifetime to heal.

  • “Forbidding someone to say words is the same as forbidding someone to be gay.”

 No, this is definitely not true. You have the choice to say good things or bad things to people. You also have the choice to make people feel good or feel bad with your words and actions, but you do not have the choice to make people be gay or not gay. BTW, I can forbid someone from saying hateful things about me by going to court to enforce certain rights including invoking the laws against hate speech, but I cannot forbid anyone from being gay , lesbian, bisexual , intersex or transsexual or left handed.

  • “People say those proverbs but they don’t mean them, they don’t project “Man up” with gay people or “pussy” being negative just because it’s female, we use them because they are proverbs, but we aren’t thinking the stuff that’s written on this image. When we say “Pussy” we don’t mean “Ohh you’re such a female, females are all weak, so you’re a coward”, no, we just mean “You’re a coward”.”

 Oh, I can’t even begin to explain just how wrong this statement or sentiment is. When a man is scolded with the remark “Don’t be a pussy”, he is not being told “Don’t be a cat”  and it is surely not just telling him not to be a coward, it is more than that. It is generally meant to mean “Do not be that disgusting, weak vagina” and we all know this. Men do not get offended for being called a “pussy” because they were likened to a cat or a coward; they get offended because they were likened to a woman, more precisely, a vagina.

Also, when a man or even woman refers to a woman as a “bitch”, they are not conjuring up the image of a “dog”. The word “bitch” has come to be synonymous with negative attitudes attributed to women e.g Manipulative, Mean, Aggressive, Controlling etc. All attributes that are deem undesirable for a woman to exhibit in a patriarchal society. We can try to kid ourselves and pretend that those words just mean cats and dogs, but burying our head in the sand like the ostrich would only make us part of the problem not the solution.

As someone else admitted on the post thread “I call myself a bitch sometimes. Most times, others do the calling.” Yes, I alsoLOUDMOUTH BITCH used to call myself a bitch like a decade ego, and more recently I used it in an attempt to reclaim the word “bitch”. However, there is a very thin line between reclaiming a word and entrenching a stereotype.

When people call me “bitch”, I simply let them know if their definition of a bitch is an aggressive, assertive woman who won’t let anyone treat her like a doormat, then yeah, I am. But the thing is, I don’t have to redefine myself to suit stereotypes.

As someone also said on the post thread- “And true I usually mean “pussy” as just 2 things – a vagina or a pusillanimous individual – mean, petty and egotistical.”- The possibility that a person who uses the word ‘pussy’ to describe a man or a woman they disagree with is thinking of the latin word  ‘pusillanimous’  or even knows that such a word exist is almost  nil.  When they use the word pussy to describe a woman and when they use it to describe a man, you can add “weak” and/or “vain” to the meanings. The question is, why would we as women agree with anyone that our vagina is “petty” or  “egoistical”? Why would anyone who identifies as a feminist help entrench such sexist language? The only explanation I have for this is that it has become so normalized that we can’t even see it any more. As someone else rightly opined on the post thread:

“you have to know then that language influences thought as well as the other way round. if small children learn pussy to be an insult it has an influence on their view of the world. Sexism is subtle and it proves this through your outrage about this article. You wouldn’t call yourself sexist though you don’t see how sexism has itself already established in the language, you don’t even see it there anymore”

 I believe that we all are still learning and we owe it to ourselves to be better humans. Being conscious of how our words and actions affect others and impact on our society is part of our duty as human beings who want a better world. Every little helps to make the world a better place for all.

  • “It’s dangerous to interpret that everyone who’s saying these proverbs is a sexist or albeist, that’s just not true”

Yes, not everyone who says these words are intentionally sexist or ableist, but the onus falls on us to be better human beings. 481866_543604339002200_820756368_nIgnorance is not an excuse, especially when the issue has been brought to our attention, and we have the means to do our research. I once also carelessly used words  like lame, dumb, mad, psycho, retard and recently ‘religitard’ became the favourite word for believers who make stupid remarks, not because I was being willfully ableist but because I knew no better. But then , it came to my attention, I did my research and realized that it is not about how throwing such words makes me score cheap insulting points, but about how it makes those really affected feel and how my careless actions entrench ableism and support sexist stereotypes. I cannot after knowing this, in all good conscience continue to use these words.

There was a time I would happily scold homophobes, biphobes, transphobes or  religious fanatics who leave stupid comments on my wall to go take their pills or asked if they have just escaped from the psychiatric ward. These might feel like a good retort but now I understand that these kind of statements entrench the stereotypes of mental patients as ignorant, violent, disruptive people not fit for the ‘normal society’.

 Also, this kind of attitude stigmatizes mental health patients. It makes it even more difficult for people with mental health problems to come out and seek help.  The sad case of Clara Chime, the wife of the Governor Sullivan Chime of Enugu state comes readily to mind. Even her family preferred to have her locked away in a room by her powerful husband rather than let her seek help and risked being publicly identified as someone with a mental health issue. The family would rather avoid the stigma than help their daughter seek the best professional help possible.

Supporting persons living with disabilities goes beyond demanding rights from government for them, we must also do our 558635_452575621435167_122256581133741_1696293_265476766_npersonal bit to make them feel wholly welcome in the society as human beings with all rights, respect and dignity intact. I was at a workshop specially for LGBTs with disabilities and I must say I learned a lot, and one of the important things I learned is that you must listen to those who are affected and ask them how they prefer to be addressed. Please let us get informed about the different words out there that further disrespect and stigmatise persons with disabilities and let us avoid using these words. This is not to say we will all agree on what words constitute ableism and which do not. For example, i use the word stupid but some are of the opinion that it is ableist. I certainly do not think persons with disabilities are automatically stupid because of their medical condition, therefore I do not consider the word stupid to be ableist. I guess we won’t always agree, but it is good to make an effort to minimise the pains our words or actions might cause others.

  •  “Yemisi, as much as I respect and honor your opinion, but I can’t be in on this one with you.”

Thank you for respecting my opinion. I do hope you will look beyond this being my opinion and take the time to do a little research and reflection of your own. It is not about being on this with me, it is about being a better person than we already are and making people around us feel the best they can and not the worst they can. Thank you.

Below are links to other enlightening posts on Ableism: