Thursday, January 7, 2010

Random Thoughts

1. Recently, I came across a term that I am unfamiliar with: Ableist.

Ableism is defined as discrimination against persons with disabilities. Ableist language is comprised of terms, phrases and words that support this discrimination. These words/phrases include (but are not exclusive to):

Blind (to one's surroundings)
Deaf (to one's surroundings)

These are often thrown out as insults or as part of a larger negative assessment. This economy is making me crazy! That outfit is lame. The Catholic Church scandal crippled the faith of millions.

I'd like to state at the outset that I am against the use of language that oppresses anyone. As much as we'd like to denounce the power of words to hurt (Sticks and stones and so on with the bones...) they do. Language is a powerful tool in the creation of civilizations. It is a representation of how we as a culture view our own people, how we separate ourselves into tribes, and how we identify our individuality. Sure, actions speak louder than words, but words are facilitators of action.

Which is why I come to be troubled by the appropriation of terms as Ableist.

The human body is something we all have. Whether you love yours, hate yours, find yourself trapped by it, freed by it, have had it fail on you, have experienced a recovery - you own one. we all have a mind, too, one that perceives it's own space in the world and can conceive of a future and a past. A mind we use to express frustrations, expectations, or satisfaction with our bodies.

The body is the first thing we perceive.

Because of this, expression about our bodies can come in the form of the idiomatic or the metaphorical. We also convey our thoughts on our surroundings or feelings via bodily metaphor, for instance, in the song Amazing Grace: "I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see."

In this instance, the quality of blindness is used in the negative, and those of us who are physically blind are, in essence, excluded from a definition of normal (or, in the example of Amazing Grace, blessed).

This is where my problem with Ableist Language resides. Our language is full of idioms to describe our various mental, physical, and emotional conditions. These phrases draw attention to a particular state of being and evoke a wide range of response from fellow humans. If we remove the metaphor in favor of the literal, how do we encompass the vast possibility of a language's meaning? And, eventually, isn't everything, when coupled with negative intention, able to offend?

Say we replace, "Was blind, but now I see" with "was unseeing, but now I see." The quality of "unseeing" is still unfavorable...and there are plenty of the unseeing among us who might still find that offensive. Where does it end?

I believe in the potential for language to evolve. It should (and will, whether we like it or not. Otherwise we'd still be speaking Latin or Middle English. Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote...LOL) The idea that we'd use once accepted terms to reference people of color is absurd. And I'm very much in favor of the equal use of gender specific pronouns rather than He or Him as universal.

A human being is a human being regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or physical/mental ability or disability. Use of language can take us leaps and bounds towards inclusion for all. I certainly do not advocate slinging the arrows of "Hey Retard!" in resistance to this inclusion. There is nothing post-modern or wry or ironic about that.

But my question is this: In the realm of metaphor, should my use of such language be removed entirely? And if it's replaced with something less charged or more literal, won't that rise to the same level of offense after a while?


Muzorama from Muzorama Team on Vimeo.

3. Favorite word this week:

[bel-weth-er] Show IPA
1. a wether or other male sheep that leads the flock, usually bearing a bell.
2. a person or thing that assumes the leadership or forefront, as of a profession or industry: Paris is a bellwether of the fashion industry.
3. a person or thing that shows the existence or direction of a trend; index.
4. a person who leads a mob, mutiny, conspiracy, or the like; ringleader.

1400–50; late ME; see bell 1 , wether

2. leader, pacesetter, frontrunner, trailblazer.

4. Least Favorite Word.



Jan Smelk said...

Umm, I know I am basically a retard, but what if those are some my favorite words? I don't feel I am an ableist, as I pride myself on a tendency toward disability as an aesthetic. But I guess I am. And I think that's gay.

Anonymous said...


I LOVE that video. L.O.V.E. IT!


S. E. Johnson said...

It was once the case that, in arguments about language and power, we focused on the question of oppression. The difference, for instance, between an African-American using "the 'n' word" and a Caucasian (Tarantino?) using "the 'n' word" = an African-American lacks the necessary (access to) power--political, economic, or otherwise--actively to oppress someone by denying that someone a job/college admission/etc. on the basis of race.

So: while I'm aware of the anti-Ableist argument--and heard many variations of it while working at the Little City Foundation--I'm inclined to agree with you. I will never--okay, likely will never--become a person of another race; and, if I changed my sex, I'd be open to more forms of discrimination than only those defined by sex and gender. I can, however, become "cripple." In fact, in my dotage, I *have* become so, and have the application for the handicapped parking space (w00t) signed by my doctor and ready to mail in. Something about the fluidity of my position with respect to "disability" makes me uncomfortable w/ the anti-Ableist argument as anything more than another version of "treat others as you would be treated."

Then again, I think your argument about language and metaphor is dead on.

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