On our difficult language, and the calling-out of same.

By | March 30, 2011

Wall in Toronto, ON, Canada....[foto by paul b. toman], licensed under Creative Commons.Y’all have probably noticed I don’t do trigger warnings around here, or if I do, I serve them up extremely rarely. What’s a “trigger warning”, some of you are wondering? It is an advance heads-up that a given post is likely to contain ideas, anecdotes, or other information that may trigger a negative emotional response, including but not limited to destructive thoughts, or paralyzing anxiety. So, for example, prior to a post about anorexia, a person might include a trigger warning for people in recovery from eating disorders, letting them know that reading this post may be difficult or even dangerous given their history.

On this blog, I like to cultivate an environment in which people can assert opinions that are problematic and difficult and have them (respectfully) taken apart, if not by me, then by some of you amazing and brilliant commenters. Indeed, some of my harshest critics are people who’ve read me for several years, which I take as an absurd compliment, and also as a positive sign that discussion even with people with whom we categorically disagree is always possible, difficulty notwithstanding. Of course, the side effect of inviting such conversations is that this is not a safe space, nor even a “safer” space. There is always a risk of running into a commenter who will vehemently disagree with even the most basic tenets of social justice, or who will speak in a way that is overtly triggering, and there is always a risk that I will make an argument that is outrageous or ambiguous (or both), or that I will unintentionally say something problematic.

There is method in my madness. I like a good call-out. I like being called out on my own issues, as it promotes further thought and internal assessment that I might otherwise comfortably ignore, thanks to my own privilege. I like seeing other folks called out in smart and incisive ways, and calling them out myself, for the same damn reason: it makes us all think about what we’re saying, and why we’re saying it, and how we’re saying it, and what our expectations of the party to whom we are speaking may be.

I’ve mentioned that I’m currently exploring Tumblr’s hypothetical usefulness for my life, and recently I had a reader over there ask me to define “ableism.” I responded thusly:

It really depends on the context, but as I use it, I’d define ableism as what happens when people go about their lives without a cultivated awareness of the way the world privileges able-bodied folk. Calling someone “ableist” shouldn’t be a synonym for “asshole”, but rather a reminder that our lives and actions lack consciousness of able-bodied privilege. So, for example, if I unthinkingly hand a printed document to a vision-impaired person without considering that she may need a different format, I’ve done something ableist, because I’ve not communicated with her as an individual, and have rather just assumed printed paper would be fine for her because it is for me. Or if I plan an event at a location that requires attendees to climb stairs, then that would be ableist, because I’m not considering the realities of folks who move differently than I do.

Ableism is being used more and more to describe language lately, and I’m not the word police, but I do think this risks distilling the word’s impact, and I worry it will result in people taking the concept less seriously. For example, lots of folks are deeply troubled by the casual/slang use of words like “lame,” “retarded,” or “crazy.” When we’re upset by language, we should absolutely address our problems to the speaker, but I also think that we can come up with ways to explain why this use is troubling without just throwing out “THAT’S ABLEIST” as though no other discussion on the matter is needed. Unfortunately, language, and slang in particular, is communication formed by consensus, so we MUST be willing to speak in depth about how the things we say contribute to culture, and why it is important that we consider our words and their origins without prescribing “correct” speech.

This got me thinking more about the ways in which internet-based social justice activism has changed how we call people out. With Google around, it’s pretty easy to just drop some complex ideas and instruct the listener to look them the fuck up on his or her own time. And you know, for anyone suffering activism fatigue, or who simply doesn’t have the patience to educate yet another thoughtless individual on their privilege, sometimes this is all we can do: to protect ourselves. But to pretend it is constructive to the person committing the offense is preposterous. It’s a dice roll; we are leaving it to chance that said person will actually take our short-tempered outburst to heart and bother to investigate further. I daresay in most circumstances, they will not.

Shorthand is useful when we are speaking within our own meticulously defined communities, where we know what terms like “privilege” and “gender-inclusive” and “marginalized” and “intersectionality” mean, according to their most complex situation-bound connotations. But it is not always productive when speaking to someone who doesn’t have the necessary social justice context. “Racist” sounds like a personal attack, and not a description of an institutionalized oppression in which all white people are to some degree complicit, even against their will. “Homophobic” sounds like an accusation of uniform hatred against all non-straight people, and not a critical analysis of cultural gender and sexual norms. “Ableist” sounds like a candid lack of sympathy for disabled people, many of whom probably don’t give a shit about your sympathy but are rather invested in having equal access to the world beyond their front door, and in being treated like full-bodied human individuals and not like tragic monsters.

We throw “that’s ableist” or “that’s racist” or “that’s fatphobic” around, I suspect, in the hope that such heavy judgement-bearing words will shock and embarrass the speaker out of using the offending language. And sometimes, it can work, at least in the short term, when we are merely thinking of our own self-preservation. But beyond that instant, this is not constructive activism. Using surprise, guilt, or humiliation as negative reinforcement to change behavior does nothing to instruct the person in question on why their behavior is causing problems; they stop simply because they don’t want to get in trouble. While the power shift this approach employs may feel awfully satisfying to those of us who have labored under some degree of oppression for much our lives—we get to dictate the terms of engagement, for once—merely shifting the power from one hand to another does nothing to change the destructive use of said power against us.

This practice of shaming people into behaving a certain way or using certain language does not truly address the underlying inclination; it does not unpack the thinking that allowed that speaker to feel entitled to say those things in the first place. Fear can be an effective motivator, but it’s not often a productive one, if our goal is broad and lasting cultural change. It is, after all, fear that motivates folks of all sizes to diet, that keeps queer folks in the closet, that makes women afraid to walk alone at night, that compels people of color to keep their heads down even in the face of overt discrimination and just get by. It is fear and shame that locks the systems that marginalize us in place, and as Audre Lorde has explained, in one of the most brilliant pieces of writing on social justice ever put to paper, there is little we can do while still holding on to the master’s tools.

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.

Ideally, people should stop using certain language because they have developed an understanding of why that language is oppressive, and how their use of it contributes to inequality and marginalization, and not because they are afraid or ashamed of confusing social repercussions they do not understand. What we need is a commitment to giving people clear explanations—be they angry, or impassioned, or blunt—of why their words or behavior are problematic, or upsetting, or damaging. We need to resist relying on comfortable jargon to call people out, and to ditch the erroneous presumption that making someone feel stupid will encourage them to read more about a subject. It doesn’t work. Fear and shame don’t help people to understand how the language we use and the actions we undertake, even in our own small individual spheres, all conspire to create a social environment that oppresses us. Fear breeds resentment and, sometimes, hatred. These are not things we need more of. These are the things that put us here in the first place.

Edited to add: Following a marvelous conversation with the always-insightful Marianne, I want to elucidate a point I may not have made abundantly clear above. I mention in the original post that using shame or fear to stop people using certain language because it is upsetting to you personally is often deployed as a self-preservation measure. I’m not suggesting this should not happen. What I am suggesting is that shutting someone down with “that’s ___ist!” for the purposes of self-preservation is not actually [constructive] activism. (I’m qualifying this with “constructive” since I do not own activism as a whole, such that I could presume to universally define it.) But it does not have to be! Taking care of ourselves and protecting ourselves is a valid practice all on its own, and a necessary one, whether it serves our activism in the moment or not.


Heather on March 30, 2011 at 11:11 am.

“We throw “that’s ableist” or “that’s racist” or “that’s fatphobic” around, I suspect, in the hope that such heavy judgement-bearing words will shock and embarrass the speaker out of using the offending language. And sometimes, it can work, at least in the short term, when we are merely thinking of our own self-preservation. But beyond that instant, this is not constructive activism. ”

I must really disagree here. While you’re right that it doesn’t address deeper problems or, usually, even change the mind of the person who’s throwing around harmful, abusive language (whether it be ableist, fatphobic, racist, sexist, etc), the fact that it shames people into silence is actually a good thing and still valid activism. Why? Because, firstly, if there’s enough shame around a word, like “nigger” for instance, and people are less likely to use it- even just out of fear or being called racist or receiving people’s anger- it still means less people being abused- it still helps a group of people, overall, to feel safe and able to speak out without fear of abuse- which is important.

Secondly, language is so incredibly important and, most importantly, it influences others- including children. A child who grows up hearing sizist language is likely to internalize and believe those things himself (ditto for homophobic, racist, transphobic, sexist, etc) and to then go out and abuse others with that language.. whereas a child who grows up free of such language (because the parent is afraid of using it because they don’t want to be called out), then they are less likely to believe bigoted ideas or use abusive language towards others.

Even if the parent uses the language privately- the child will soon find out that it’s socially unacceptable because it’s “mean”, “bad”, etc. People aren’t stupid… kids least of all.. and many will realize that it’s bad for a reason. For example- I knew nothing about ableism until a friend pointed out that she doesn’t use “the r word” because it’s ableist. Because I knew there must be a reason some people believe that it forced me to reevaluate my own ideas and beliefs and I began reading on ableism and talking to others.. and while I can’t say I’m the best at recognizing my own able bodied privilege (even if i’m not completely able bodied which should give me more perspective!) it has allowed me to start the journey and to begin telling others what I was told- which has since caused them to reevaluate as well.

I have called out sexist language or homophobic language or ableist language and seen it start wonderful, in depth, intellectual conversations about privilege and oppression and discrimination.. and it’s true that very few people are suddenly enlightened the first time like I was- but the thought will still be in their heads for the next time they encounter someone who tells them the same.. and over time I’ve seen some great progress in the people around me who begin to recognize their own privilege and speak out against forms of oppression that they’d never thought of before. .

Even without these wonderfully intellectual conversations (which not everyone will have) creating an environment that says to people “bigotry is not okay and it’s not welcome) still aids in progress and bigotry must be called out for what it is.


Lesley on March 30, 2011 at 11:49 am.

I agree with you in every respect, excepting the idea that shaming people for their ignorance or poor choice of words is productive. I believe shaming folks for not knowing something is a barrier and not a path. Shaming people for outright, conscious abuse of other individuals is a far murkier subject, and while I like to believe that there are usually better options than shame, there will always be circumstances in which that is all we’ve got.


The Rotund on March 30, 2011 at 12:44 pm.

In the case of something like the n-word, shame isn’t used as a tool of education – it’s a punitive measure. Someone has transgressed in a real and harmful way.

I think we need to be clear that punishment CAN be an activist tool – but one we need to weild pretty carefully. Punishing people for being socially constructed in a completely predictable way seems counter-productive to me – because ignorance is not something that requires punishment, in my mind.


Lesley on March 30, 2011 at 12:51 pm.

Yes! And I would count any use of “nigger” as a purposeful slur as abuse, for sure. That’s a tough example, because it IS a term white folks tend to have an immediate and kneejerk shame response to, and which is pretty clearly culturally-marked as offensive already. What gripes me is that while white folks may understand it’s a word they’re not allowed to say, but they don’t know WHY their saying it is a problem, and I think the knowing why would be a far more effective means of keeping the majority of good folks from ever wanting to use it. It would also help head off the inevitable and ridiculous arguments that, “well Black folks can say it, why can’t I?” because that context would avert this question even needing to be asked.

/starry-eyed idealism


The Rotund on March 30, 2011 at 1:04 pm.

I think there is a lowest common denominator element to punishment.
“If this has a negative consequence, people won’t do it” involves a lot less WORK than “if people understand why this is wrong, people won’t do it.”

You know what this is? This is a question of whether or not the ends justify the means.

The activist goal is, for example, to get people to stop using racial slurs.
It is not necessarily to get people to understand why using racial slurs is a bad thing. If your goal is “people stop” then it doesn’t matter whether or not they understnad as long as they stop.

As you said in our IM conversation – it’s Machiavellian activism!

Do the ends “people stop using racial slurs” justify the means “punishment trumps education”? I think some people would say yes. Particularly people who are a member of the oppressed group being actively injured.


Lesley on March 30, 2011 at 1:10 pm.

Right on. And I think the distinction between “I am an oppressed person trying to survive,” and “I am an activist trying to get people to rethink their assumptions,” needs to be extra clear. We CAN be both, but we don’t have to be, and it is not our responsibility to be.


Shaunta on March 30, 2011 at 11:26 am.

What we need is a commitment to giving people clear explanations, in plain English, of why their words or behavior are problematic, or upsetting, or damaging.

I have such a hard time with this, not with the public in general, but with my family. Sometimes in order to get to the point where we can give people we love clear explanations why somethings are not okay, we have to get to the point that you can remove yourself a little from them. Like take a step back and realize that if your explanations make them angry, it’s their deal not yours.


Lesley on March 30, 2011 at 11:43 am.

Yep. We can’t take responsibility for other folks’ obstacles; the best we can do is be honest and straightforward and plain-spoken and heartfelt about things.


Robert Hutchinson on March 30, 2011 at 11:32 am.

I must confess that I don’t see (or maybe understand) the connection between your initial description of trigger warnings and the rest of your post. Could you clarify for this tired brain, please?


Lesley on March 30, 2011 at 11:39 am.

Oh! Heh. The point is that this space is always a potential and unpredictable trigger, owing to my practice of allowing even problematic comments and language through, so long as they make a good-faith attempt at discussion. I’ll clarify this above.


Maneoplyse on March 30, 2011 at 12:45 pm.

Hi Lesley.

My concern about comments like, “that’s racist,” that’s ableist” or “that’s fatphobic” without further comment is that such statements hinder the ‘language game’ we play to negotiate the specificity of communication between parties. The space (aporia) created when we communicate complex ideas, thoughts and feelings isn’t rigid and predetermined; the language space must be organic and allow for those moments where you offend people because it opens a new moment that allows the offending person an opportunity to-restate what they meant with the statement and understand how their language choice was read or heard, but they aren’t going to get that with “hey, that ableist” with nothing more said.

Broad statement’s like “that’s ableist” without an explanation as to why that is the case (even if that person is tired of schooling others) are really unproductive. The moment I feel like saying “that’s ableist” is precisely the moment I decide not to say anything.

“Language Game” from Wittgenstein, ‘Aproias” from Derrida. Sorry, I feel like it’s inappropriate not to give credit to the brilliant philosophers where the ideas came. I’m not that clever.



heavyaura on March 30, 2011 at 2:01 pm.

“[I]t does not unpack the thinking that allowed that speaker to feel entitled to say those things in the first place” made my head explode with yes-ness. My partner is newer to ideas like ableism and intersectionality, and has only recently allowed himself to recognize his own queerness. So, while I am far from an expert, actually explaining those concepts and ideas to him as part of an active exchange of ideas (or directing him–not dismissively–to literature that could) allowed him to unpack his thinking, as you say, and think about privilege and how it effects his life. I’m not saying that it would be helpful to treat every troll and bully the way I treat my partner, but instead, just pointing out that information that seems foreign or shrouded in academagic is actually easily available can be helpful.

Sometimes, “big concept” words get tossed at folks as a way of shaming them (as you point out), and it seems clear to me that shame is not a viable educational tool. I mean, from what I’ve gathered, proponents of FA have always said that the social shaming/humiliation fat people regularly experience (often under the auspices of “for your health” thinking from those doing the shaming) does not “help” fat individuals lose weight. Why, then, would intellectual shaming have positive results?


sensei on April 4, 2011 at 12:33 pm.

I’m not sure your comparison with FA makes much sense in this context. Being fat is not something to be ashamed about in general. Being bigoted, however, is. Additionally, fat shaming works VERY well for those that are both willing and able to conform to beauty standards. Just look at all the dieting materials out there…if fat shame truly didn’t work, there would be no idolization of supermodels and thinness in general.

For someone that CAN’T lose weight, shaming still works – at making the fat person feel inferior. The analogy to bigotry is that if a majority of people shamed those that were transphobic, homophobic, ableist, then there simply would be less of those things. And yes, the best way to ensure a majority of people feel this way is by educating them. However, as an individual that is hurt when people sling fat jokes, I’m not invested in “unpacking the thinking that allowed that speaker to feel entitled to say those things in the first place”, I’m invested in making my pain go away. On top of that it puts the onus of education on me, the hurt person.

In your case with your partner, introducing new ideas and words are a wonderful thing if someone wants to be an active listener. However, to many oppressors, they care more about keeping their social platform over making sure they are kind to others.


Chris on March 30, 2011 at 2:04 pm.

What the brain feels and what the mouth says can be two very different processes. Sometimes people don’t always think about what is coming out of their mouths. Saying something towards of the lines of “that’s retarded” is a part of our society, I personally try not to say such things but once in awhile it jumps out… would I like to have someone jump down my throat about it, NO! On the flip side if someone asked me… really in what way do you relate that to someone of mental disability, in my mind the word then takes on the form of a verb, transitive or intransitive depending upon the context. To retard something is to hinder or impede, there for retarded is SOMETHING not necessarily someone that has been hindered. Okay so now it’s time for everyone to say I am just insensitive. The key is being aware, and not being forced in something by fear or shame. There is enough fear and shame in this world, in fact the world runs on fear, fear of going to hell, fear of being alienated, what have you. Repressing people even in the smallest amount will ultimately contribute to the membrane of hatred that everyone secretly lands on from time to time. What I am really trying to say is in a world where it is funny to be discriminatory, comedians get paid to do it and we all laugh and drink beer, having a good time; it’s hard to not encounter bigotry words being thrown around lightly. But you’ll see the people who are good or not generally good when everyone exits the fancy NYC venue and there is a homeless person, some will throw change some will say “aww” in their heads or some will recoil in disgust moving away which can be more hamrful than making a condescending comment. I feel discussing the issue is best, but not shaming someone into stop using the word. People function best when they understand function and context, and have an over all awareness.
All of this seems to be geared toward light hearted comments, not actually filled with hatred. I think all true bigotry and hatred is equal and dangerous. These are the kind of people that need therapy…………… nlaaalllhhhhhhh brain fart, I’m done
A bunch of what I said had already been said and or a cumulative response to everyone’s comments, but If I didn’t just run with what was in my head I would of lost it.


Tombrokaw on March 30, 2011 at 4:06 pm.

Admit that your comment policy exists because you enjoy my roguish and vituperative defense of the patriarchy.

On some level you all find it charming.


Lesley on March 30, 2011 at 4:25 pm.

I will concede that I enjoy the persistent challenges you pose. Also your use of “vituperative”.


Cooker on March 30, 2011 at 5:54 pm.

Very good points. I think a lot of time, the shorthand is used because the offended/harmed party does not feel articulate enough to engage in more substantive critique/education. Or sometimes it really just feels like trying to educate is just pissing in a forest fire. But your willingness to engage and not just write people off as ideologically impure is damn refreshing. I want to hang around some blogs but they just feel like righteous indignation festivals, which ya know, not my blog so whatever. You maintain a really unique and thought provoking space is what I suppose I’m trying to say…


Holly on March 30, 2011 at 5:55 pm.

I was originally planning to write a whole “hell-to-the-motherfucking-yes!” response here. But instead I will calmly say “thank you.”

The whole… debacle that’s been going down in the Fatosphere over the past few weeks has created a lot of tension and cognitive dissonance between my desire to engage more actively with FA and the values I embrace as an educator. You do a really great job here of reasoning through the same issues I have been grappling with – namely the notion that, edifying and justifiable as it can sometimes be, schooling a person is usually incompatible with educating them. Everyone is entitled to set their own objectives as an activist, but the belief that shaming or chastising a person is a reliably effective way to show them the light simply flies in the face of what we currently know about learning around these difficult concepts.

I have been reading this blog for quite a while, and to offer a little unsolicited metacriticism, I think it’s fair to say that the tone of the entries has shifted slightly in the past year or so. Namely, there has been a more overt emphasis on explaining the “big ideas” clearly and persuasively. It also seems clear from the commenting that happens here versus on other FA blogs (which I also read and enjoy) that even while this was not intended as a “safe space,” in practice it is seen as precisely that by many people who would otherwise be reluctant to dip their toes in the water. From where I stand, these are good things. Everybody has to start their journey somewhere, and they’re a lot more likely to keep on going if they haven’t been kicked in the shins right after leaving the gate. It probably also explains why even your trolls (at least, those that get posted) tend to be pretty deferential. It’s way harder to be an asshole toward someone who’s making sense and treating you with respect.


Ashley on March 30, 2011 at 9:29 pm.

Thanks for clearing up the meaning of trigger warning. I kinda had a feeling that was more or less what is was, but I wasn’t totally sure. I don’t really believe in using themself, because I think anything can be triggering. I swear I can write one word, any word, and *someone* will have a problem with it. Plus, I never am affected that deeply by any post I read on other blogs. I guess maybe that is because my own self esteem and identity is rock solid and nothing anyone can say to me is going to really “get to me.” So I can see why a trigger warning may be necessary to use for people who don’t have a rock solid self esteem or a strong hold over their emotions, and to those people I warn right now to probably not visit my blog at all.


Kristin on March 31, 2011 at 2:35 pm.

Being “triggered” isn’t about being angry or “not having a strong hold over your emotions” though. It’s about finding topics triggering in a PTSD sort of way, as Leslie has said, not about people who have a “problem” with that you write. It’s actually a part of a trauma or mental illness for some people.

That said, you are of course allowed to do with your space as you like, but I wanted to clear that up because I felt your classification of “being triggered” problematic.


Lesley on March 31, 2011 at 2:50 pm.

Yeah, this is pretty critical—when people say they are “triggered”, it is not so simple as they just didn’t like what you said. Triggers actually have deep psychological effects. A personal example is how I refuse to be weighed at the doctor’s office, because it’s triggering, and has a negative emotional and psychological impact that lasts for days if not weeks.


lilacsigil on March 30, 2011 at 9:57 pm.

Thanks for putting the ETA about self-preservation. If someone is being aggressively or consistently ableist, for example, towards me, I have no problem snapping, “Stop using that ableist language in my blog/this “safer” space/my presence”. I do this in the full awareness that the person is probably not going learn from what I said, but just think nasty things about me and keep on using the same language elsewhere. At other times, when I have more energy or am not being personally attacked, or the person is making an error in good faith, I take more time to discuss why what they said is offensive, or harmful or not helpful, in the hope that they will learn something and change their behaviour so as to not inflict it on other people in the future. But I certainly can’t say I always do that!


S on March 31, 2011 at 12:50 am.

Maybe this is a tangent, and maybe it’s not, but this post (and the conversation in the comments) really reminded me of a discussion I had with my partner a few weeks back about language and its use/abuse, and the difference between removing a word from use and educating folks about the issues behind using ___ist language.

I’m in graduate school getting an education degree, and at the time I was taking a class related to disability and education. The texts I was using got us talking about the way some terms have been cast off and/or replaced seemingly in response to the way they’d been abused. The example I was focusing on was “cognitive delay”—the replacement for “mental retardation”—and the fact that I can’t actually see any semantic difference between the two phrases. “Cognitive” = pertaining to thought, as does “mental”, and “retardation” is a synonym for “delay”. The only reason I can see for changing the terminology is the disgustingly widespread use of the word “retarded” as a pejorative. Now, I’m not arguing for the reinstatement of the word “retarded,” but what disturbs me is the fact that while I know a lot of people who will quickly reprimand someone for using the word (either as a pejorative OR as a descriptor of someone with a disability), I don’t know that many people who are also willing or interested in educating people about WHY ableist language is offensive. What worries me is that without the accompanying education, how long will it be until “delayed” is the new “retarded”? Obviously there are some words with completely malicious roots that have no place in language (racial slurs spring to mind)…and this doesn’t even begin to touch the idea of whether or not “cognitive delay” is an appropriate or self-chosen term (delayed in relation to what?)…

..but, TLDR: it bothers me that bigots chew up, misappropriate or otherwise abuse language and sometimes it seems like the response is entirely made up of “hey you, stop using that word” instead of “hey culture, STOP BEING A BIGOT.”


xenu01 on March 31, 2011 at 2:13 am.

I’m sort of halfway to where you are. In the case of commenters who are not questioning the basic personhood of others and who genuinely want to learn, I think that the “here’s a link to my FAQ” or “here’s a link to this one article that has some 101″ is helpful. When I began my feminist journey, I started on sites like Feministing. Feministing, and to a smaller degree (although they try a little bit more) are helpful for young white cisgendered able-bodied women who are having their click moment about there being a need for feminism in 2011.

It is difficult, however, to really get beyond the very basic “feminists can be racists, yes!” conversations there. And articles there have been very unapologetically ableist, anti-trans, etc. There have been race problems as well.

This is not to pick on Feministing in specific, but to note that this blog is a good place to start with the 101. Everyone there doesn’t know what “cis” means, for instance. I would say that if you are a contributor there that writes an article on, say, a rad fem that was racist and anti-trans, that it would be fair to expect a lot of questions and confusion and defensiveness.

If you’re going to go and read gudbuy t’jane, or transgriot, you are being a derailing douche if your comment in a thread is, “I don’t understand what you mean by cisgendered. What does that mean?”

Unless zie has set up hir site to be a 101, introductory, educational-type blog, it’s not fair to expect that marginalized person to have to do that kind of education. It just isn’t. Especially because you really CAN open a new tab and Google what a term means. The most I might expect a mod or community member to do might be, “Go read this first, please.”


xenu01 on March 31, 2011 at 2:14 am.

BTW, the second site I was going to list there after Feministing was Feministe. Typo’d though.


deeleigh on March 31, 2011 at 3:27 am.

If you can’t insult someone by calling them stupid and/or crazy, then how are you supposed to insult them? We have to agree that some personal characteristics are undesirable. How about “stinky?” Does that discriminate against people who don’t have working showers? If you call someone a “lazy bum” then that could hurt the feelings of the homeless and unemployed.

Is “douche bag” the only one we’re allowed to use? There needs to be more variety. Hum. I guess there’s always “asshole,” but that’s considered impolite. It’s such a conundrum.


xenu01 on March 31, 2011 at 10:37 am.

“woman-hater” “jerkface” and “rude” work for me.


Kaesa on March 31, 2011 at 11:23 am.

I think the reason people take issue with “crazy” is, for example, it lumps a whole group of people who have psychological issues together, so my abusive personality-disordered mother who should really know better but doesn’t, and my loving and supportive friends and family members who take anti-depressants (and I, who should probably be on them) are in the same category, as well as a huge number of other people with completely different psychological issues, which is then extended to encompass anyone with an apparently irrational view of the world and anyone who is violent. Yes, there are some personal characteristics that are undesirable, and I have to admit my frequent bouts of feeling utterly and irrationally worthless are pretty damn undesirable, but I would not equate them with the undesirability of violence, intentional cruelty, or an utter failure of empathy.

Also, I find that when I try to figure out why people think something that apparently flies in the face of what I think is true, saying to myself “well, they’re probably just crazy!” may make me feel better for a moment, but when I am confronted with an entire group that is “crazy” by this definition, there is really no way to frame that constructively without just despairing. I don’t necessarily want to be engaging people I disagree with in debate all the time, but dismissing their entire worldview as “insane” is really not a viable solution if you have to work with them every day and need to get along.


JupiterPluvius on April 1, 2011 at 5:47 pm.

When people say “That’s r*t*rded!” they generally don’t mean “That behavior would be engaged in by someone with cognitive disabilities.” It’s rare that someone says “That’s r*t*rded!” when someone else can’t, say, learn matrix calculus or diagram a sentence. It’s usually used when someone with average cognitive abilities does something thoughtless or foolhardy or incautious or illogical, yes? “I locked my keys in the car–that was completely r*t*rded” isn’t even a colorful description, because many, many people with cognitive disabilities are more attentive to detail than people with average cognitive abilities. Kim Peek of Rain Man fame would never lock his keys in the car, for instance.

So why not just say that what you did was thoughtless, or incautious, or foolhardy, or illogical, or nonsensical?

The same goes with “cr*zy” and “ins*ne”–people generally use those to mean “illogical” or “nonsensical”.


Emily on March 31, 2011 at 11:52 am.

I never comment, and since this may be the only time I do it anywhere, I’d like to say two things. First: Lesley, your blog is wonderful and insightful and witty, and so many other really great things I can’t think of right now. And thank you.
Second: Shutting people down, or shaming them is not a productive way to engage them in whatever discussion you’re involved in. In fact I would posit that it sends the message that you don’t want them to understand, thus ending their participation, and very possibly losing some worthwhile conversation. If the idea is “Your feelings/opinions/questions don’t matter”, that’s fine and is indeed your prerogative, just don’t expect understanding and civil conversation. I guess if you don’t like it when people shame you (or try to) don’t try to do it to someone else.
That said: having dipped my toe in, I hope it doesn’t get bit off. Thanks again.


Amy on March 31, 2011 at 7:16 pm.

Thank you for this. I needed to read this, as someone who has been labeled as “scary” for my intolerance of certain words/discussions/analogies in my presence. I have not been great at articulating why, though, to the extent that certain “discussions” get shut down with a look of wide eyed disbelief and an “Oh, no.” I have found that there are certain people with whom I am willing to engage in a discussion of why their attitudes are problematic, and others where I just don’t have the energy. Also, if certain people will refrain from using certain language or discussing certain topics in my presence out of fear, we can continue to hang out, whereas a deeper discussion would likely result in my having to end a friendship. And if nothing else, the people I hang around with most have admitted to evaluating their language on the basis of whether it would piss me off, even in situations where I am not present, so I think that it is possible to affect change simply by voicing an objection to certain views and language with those who truly care about you.


ayounggirlclimbsatree on March 31, 2011 at 11:56 pm.

Lesley, your writing is wonderful and I love reading the stuff you write, especially the problematic stuff.
Here’s my 2 bits. I think that oppressed groups alone do not have the power (because oppression) to make terms like “retarded” shameful. If calling the uninformed out by crying “ableist” shames them, it is because the language used for calling out has been warped and misused by the kyriarchy. It’s like you point out: the meaning of racism is not “you consciously chose to hate people”, so why do non-activists think that it is? It is because those who have power have both consciously and unconsciously misused social justice terms to further the kyriarchy. It is true that we cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools, but it’s damn frustrating when the tools that social justice activists painstakingly forge are then stolen and twisted again and again.


Lesley on April 1, 2011 at 6:57 am.

Truth! Yeah, you’re absolutely right. My suggestion against over-reliance on these terms comes in part from a desire to preserve their power, but when their meanings are consistently subverted that’s an uphill, possibly-overly-idealistic battle. You make an excellent point here.


ayounggirlclimbsatree on April 1, 2011 at 11:39 am.

Thanks for talking back!
I think your feeling (that shaming well-meaning people into silence is not productive in the long term) is right, and especially important for activists who have a lot of privilege to realize. We’ve all been taught those power dynamics and how to shame and step on others to get what we want, whether that is cold hard cash or peace on earth. Activists who have privilege have the power to keep the shame cycle spinning or to break it down. That’s why knowing when and where you’ve got privilege is so important.
At the same time, I think some activism includes or even is limited to making oppressors feel uncomfortable in that role. If the underclass can force a physical change (better working conditions, legal change, freedom of movement) that improvement can pave the way for future activists to be given the chance, or have the courage to have those conversations and work toward the ultimate goal of mutual respect and understanding. As long as the ultimate goal is not lost sight of-which sometimes it is unfortunately.
Again, I love your writing.


Moe on April 1, 2011 at 2:41 pm.

Like a few others I kind of had an idea that is what it meant but wasn’t sure. And reading your description actually hit home for some of my reactions on posts I’ve read the last few months but didn’t know why. It’s too bad trigger warnings couldn’t come with a rating like 3 out 10 or whatever. I realize this wouldn’t work because it really would be different for everyone and is totally subjective but it would be nice. ;)


Willow on April 6, 2011 at 11:11 am.

““Racist” sounds like a personal attack, and not a description of an institutionalized oppression in which all white people are to some degree complicit, even against their will.”

Depending on the system (e.g., university, affirmative action, etc.), I’d say that “racist” can go any way. This is a very complex issue, but my basic argument is that not just white people are complicit in racism, even the systematic “practise” of racism.


Fatshion Hustler on April 9, 2011 at 6:05 pm.

Discriminatory language is definitely a tough issue, particularly in environments where it becomes slang, as it often becomes in the inevitable evolution of language. It is very difficult to stop using words like “lame” and “crazy” when they are so naturally part of a person’s vocabulary (which is definitely the case with “crazy”, at least, for a lot of people. “Insane”, a word that often has POSITIVE connotations, is another example”). I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to stop using such language if it is in our vocabulary, but it is worth noting that if it comes naturally to us it can be hard to stop.

I agree that punishing a person for using able-ist language by screaming “that’s racist/able-ist/etc!” is not the best way to go about it, for a very simple reason: people hurt. Not everybody in the world is an arsehole, but a lot of people are ignorant, and may not necessarily know that a word like “lame” has a different meaning from the “not good” slang meaning. I admit to being a bleeding heart, but punishing someone for being ignorant does not strike me as being remotely fair, and I do not think it’s that hard to take the educational route. I was told a few years ago that in the… late 80s, early 90s, I think, people used the word “spastic” a lot. I vaguely remember this – I was fairly young. Anyway, some young people were taken to meet some actual spastics, and they were shocked. Many of them said they had no idea that “spastic” had that sort of separate meaning, and I’d wager that many of them refrained from using the word ever again. They would have felt guilt and shame, yes, but they would now know better, and their reason for never using the world again would be far more justifiable than “because a whole bunch of people will yell at me”. People have the right to protect themselves from ableist language, absolutely, but I wonder if protecting yourself by taking the comparatively easy way out and punishing the offending party without offering any explanation is really going to make a thorough job of it. Personally I’d feel guilty for saying something so cold to the offending party, but as I say I’m a bleeding heart.


kcjones89 on May 1, 2011 at 11:52 pm.

“Yeah, this is pretty critical—when people say they are “triggered”, it is not so simple as they just didn’t like what you said. Triggers actually have deep psychological effects. A personal example is how I refuse to be weighed at the doctor’s office, because it’s triggering, and has a negative emotional and psychological impact that lasts for days if not weeks.”

I know this post was done weeks ago, but I am just catching up on my blogs. I also normally don’t comment here, but I felt what I had to say was important enough. My question to you is that if the distinction that the term “trigger warning” is from therapeutic/mental illness language, then why did you not make that clear earlier? As someone who did first learn about the word trigger while in a mental hospital, I must say that my first reading of your post seemed ableist to me against those with mental illness. I don’t expect every site to use trigger warnings when a sensitive subject is about to be talked about, but the way you began your piece explaining why you don’t usually do trigger warnings sounded to me like it’s something you don’t want to use, because it’s not necessary to make allowances for those that have mental or emotional issues. If a trigger IS more than simply fear of a negative reaction, but a helpful warning to those who deal with PTSD or other types of emotional/mental illnesses (which I would argue it is), then in terms of allowing the dialogue to be expanded to those who do have emotional/mental illness, then can’t it be seen as not a tool for restricting dialogue, but for furthering it? Because giving a trigger warning does not stop the blogger from writing about any subject or from a comment from posting about it, but it does give the reader the chance t o decide before reading a potentially dangerous topic for one’s recovery whether they should read it or not. In short, a trigger warning provides necessary information to people whose lives are already hard enough. I’m not saying to start using them more often, just that the way you explained it and you’re reasoning for not using them seemed ableist to me. In my opinion, the only person who can give a solid reasoning for not using them is someone is actually disabled with an emotional/mental illness. It is very privileged to talk about how it is not important for your blog to use trigger warnings when your blog is not about mental illness, as if people who do not have mental illness do not read your blog.

Usually I adore your blog and I even have it on my blog roll! This is the first time that I’ve ever had a complaint. *sigh* I’ve even written a number of FA articles on it, but as I have not found many FA bloggers who also write extensively about mental illness, those are the articles that seldom get read on my site.


Lesley on May 3, 2011 at 11:41 am.

It is very privileged to talk about how it is not important for your blog to use trigger warnings when your blog is not about mental illness, as if people who do not have mental illness do not read your blog.

If that was how it came across, I apologize, as I didn’t mean that at all. I know lots of folks with mental illness, both online, in RL, and myself included, who read and participate in this site. My biggest reason for not regularly doing trigger warnings is because I cannot be trusted to do them consistently and appropriately, and I would feel horrible if I gave a false impression of being a safe space and wound up sending someone into a spiral because they weren’t adequately warned. This isn’t a safe space, but doing trigger warnings would likely cause at least some folks to think of it that way, which could lead to folks being triggered unexpectedly.


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