Hey, progressive types. Do you ever say anything like this?
‘Sexism in advertising is so lame.’
‘Denying people equal rights because you don’t like them reeks of insanity.’
‘This is going to cripple our progress.’
Can you perhaps see something wrong there?
My extra special favourite is when such turns of phrase are uttered during reflections on the speaker’s own bigotry.
‘I was blind to my privilege!’
‘I turned a deaf ear to those calling me out!’
‘It makes me crazy to see how ignorant I was.’
It’s especially spectacular when they’re talking about their ableism.
If you do not have the disability referenced, don’t use the word. I do not care if you think you are being thrillingly retro and ironic, because that is not how irony works. Irony requires that your audience understand that you are saying one thing and drawing on another meaning. If you are using an ableist term, you are basing your usage on disability=bad. You are not being ironic. You’re just being full of shit at the expense of people who cop a lot of it.
If you have a friend with the disability referenced in an insult who says it’s okay, you still shouldn’t use it generally, because your friend doesn’t speak for everyone with hir disability. For instance, a lot of people with mental illnesses are fine with ‘insane’ being used in a derogatory fashion, but it hurts a lot of other people. As a progressive, your language should be a reflection of your respect for people with disabilities, who are not a monolith. I would like to say that whether it’s okay to use a particular word should rely on consensus, but there are a few problems with this.
- PWD are not the consensus-makers in this society, and so any work we do is on the fringes.
- The feelings of those outside of whatever the hypothetical consensus matter, and I’m not about to set quotas or prescriptions.
- Standards and convictions change.
So if you really care, don’t use these words, because you cannot guarantee you aren’t hurting anyone.
If you’re one of those who likes to argue that meanings have changed and lame or whatever doesn’t have an ableist connotation anymore – well, that’s clearly not true, as should probably be evidenced by the entirety of ableist society. Even if it actually had moved far from its origins, that doesn’t negate the associations, the knowledge of its history that still cuts deep. And you should take a PWD telling you that a word is hurtful at hir say so, because it’s hir experience that matters here, not yours. You try telling me it’s not after living my life for just a day, feeling that sting, knowing how it is. You can only say there’s no ableist connotation because you choose to ignore the ableism; I never can.
Hearing lame used as an insult – lame especially because that seems to be the most in vogue right now – makes me feel sick in my stomach, and panicky, and afraid, because it is evidence that the speaker finds people with disabilities to be low. Low enough to be a source of synonyms for bad. Low enough so that the real people needn’t bother to think through their words. I feel scared and sick because I have been through no small amount of shit in my life as a result of the attitudes that kind of language betrays. Hearing those words from someone means that I’m not safe with them. I know that this is one more person who doesn’t consider me as one.
If you think you should use a word because no other has the same impact, well, you’re right about the impact. Your usage has such an impact because it draws its power from disability=bad. You are forming a powerful sentence from disablism, our deep-set pain.
It’s so much easier and better to just change your words. If you still insist on such usage, that’s lazy and cruel. If you’re not sure if your use of a word is offensive, err on the side of caution.
Another message to take away is this.
- If you are calling yourself progressive
- and you are harming people with disabilities
- you are not, in fact, progressive.