Several bloggers on FTB and The Orbit brought to my attention the ableism challenge, which is a call to sympathetic bloggers to try, for one month, to stop using ableist insults. The list of insults includes “stupid”, “crazy”, and “blind”.
I’m going to say a few mixed things about this. First, I’ll say why I’m critical of calls to taboo words. Then I’ll say why I’m more sympathetic to this ableism challenge. Then I’ll explain why I personally don’t use ableist insults.
In social justice activism, I am unenthusiastic about tabooing problematic words. For one thing, taboos get abused. The arguments around “bisexual” are an example. Another example are the many words for people who aren’t asexual. Sure, words can be problematic, but people seem especially motivated to find problems when a word is used by a group they don’t like.
Second, tabooing words is clearly difficult. Few other kinds of social justice activism inspire such resistance. Social justice activists often think this means we need to push harder and harder–resistance means we’ve found a load-bearing stone in the temple of the patriarchy. But maybe that resistance should be taken at face value. Maybe tabooing words is in fact difficult, in disproportion to how important it is?
Third, I really don’t like etymological arguments, which say that a word is bad because its history is bad. I believe that the meaning of a word is found in its usage. The history of a word is only important if its usage frequently references its history. If you keep on referencing a word’s history in order to complain about how that history is terrible, I feel like you are creating the same problem that you are trying to address. Additionally, if you say that “stupid” is a bad word because of its history, you only encourage people to look for synonyms, which is missing the point.
However, I have nice things to say about Ania Cebulla’s ableism challenge. She recognizes that changing language is difficult. Challenging yourself to avoid ableist slurs for a month is in fact a practical tool to overcome that difficulty, if you are willing. Second, she does not rely on etymological arguments, instead referring to current usage.
I’m proud to say that I have already passed this challenge. Based on searches, the last example in my blogging was in February, when I referred to stupidity on the internet. Prior to that, I used “stupid” in November, and in that case I was giving voice to a hypothetical person whom I was disagreeing with. Obviously I haven’t purged “stupid” from my vocabulary completely, but apparently I use it sparingly.
The truth is that I’ve had a lifelong impulse to think of certain people as stupid, and I’ve long made an effort to reject that impulse as discriminatory. When people seem stupid, the pattern I’ve found is that really they’re just lower class, and they didn’t have as good an education.
If someone lacks basic background knowledge, or they’re failing to draw the obvious inference, or they’re coming up with nonsensical ideas, I try to say that. But to call someone stupid feels to me like calling someone uneducated, or poor. So we live in a world where life is unfair, but I will not gloat over my own fortune!