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.


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