Monday, April 28, 2008

On Making Argument: Disability and Language

This next post is perhaps the longest I have ever written. Sorry about that. It was motivated by some stuff that I read on Alas, a Blog. And it appears there as a response to the Alas thread on grey activism. You can read that post here. But it is also part of a conversation that has been happening here on my blog and in my disabled world. So, I'd like to connect it up here, too: to my post on special jokes, to Seahorse's post on special, and to Cilla's post on speaking up.

Quick edit to these links that I caught up on from Andrea's site. The R Word! And her posts on speaking up: here and here:

We all use disablist or ableist metaphorical language, and I bet most of us say something that is potentially offensive every day: we might be blind to this, deaf to that, pass disabled vehicles, chat about being paralyzed in a situation, etc., etc. I'm often uncomfortable with it -- I never use the moron or cretin words -- but, honesty here, I do say idiot. I never say, "that's lame;" I almost never say blind, deaf, paralyzed, cripple, but I occasionally I find myself saying, "that's dumb," with full negative rhetorical force. Most of the time, if I slip up the non-disableds I'm with don't notice; however, the disableds get it, call me on it, and we talk.

If you are feeling a little bit of resistance, here, I'd ask you to think about it. If perhaps what I am saying feels like a burden -- too much to take on? a restriction on your carefree speech? -- perhaps that feeling can also serve as an indicator of how pervasive and thus important the issue is. As a community, we've accepted that commonly used words can be slurs, and as a rule, we avoid them, hopefully in the name of principle, but sometimes only in the name of civility. Do you go around using derivatives of the b*ch word? If you do, I bet you check which community you are in.... Same thing for the N word. These days, depending on your age, you might say something is retarded or spastic, but you probably never say that it's gay.

I'd like to suggest that society as a whole has not paid the same kind of attention to disabled people's concerns about language. By not paying attention to the literal value, the very real substantive, physical, psychological, sensory, and emotional experiences that come with these linguistic moves, we have created a negative rhetorical climate. In this world, it is too easy for feminists and people of colour to base their claims on argumentative strategies that depend, as their signature moves, on marginalizing the experience of disabled people and on disparaging their appearance and bodies.

Much of the blogosphere discourse of the previous weeks has studied the relationships between race, (white) feminism and feminists, and WOC bloggers. To me, the intellectual takeaway has been an emerging understanding of how, in conversation, notions of appropriation, citation, ironization, and metaphorization can be deployed as strategies of legitimation and exclusion. And, as a result, I question how "oppressed, minoritized" groups differentiate themselves from other groups in order to seek justice and claim authority. Must we always define ourselves in opposition and distance to a minoritized and oppressed group that can be perceived as even more unsavory than the one from which one currently speaks?

As I watched the discussion about who among the feminist and WOC bloggers has power and authority and how that is achieved, I began to recognise a new power dynamic both on the internet and in the world at large. Feminism takes on misogyny. The WOC have been engaging feminism. But from my point of view, a wide variety of powerful feminist and anti-racist discourse is predicated on negative disability stereotyping. There's a kind of hierarchy here: the lack of awareness about disability, disability culture and identity, and our civil rights movement has resulted in a kind of domino effect where disability images are the metaphor of last resort: the bottom, the worst.

Disability language has about it a kind of untouchable quality -- as if the horror and weakness of a disabled body were the one true, reliable thing, a touchstone to which we can turn when we know we can't use misogynistic or racist language. When we engage in these kinds of argumentative strategies, we exclude a whole population of people whose histories are intricately bound up with ours. When we deploy these kinds of strategies to underscore the value of our own existence in the world, we reaffirm and strengthen the systems of oppression that motivated us to speak out in the first place.

Some background and ground rules. Though I am using Mandolin's post in detail, I will be referring to her throughout as "the writer." This is because I am not interested in making an anti-Mandolin conversation. I wish to begin a conversation about disability, language, authority, and power. Mandolin's post just got me started.

Organizational strategy. That was the theory and conclusions. In the rest of the post are some explanations of how I got there. I'd like to go about this two ways: first talk about details of the post and then talk about implications.

Part 1: Details
But more on the systemic level. We cut off our own feet. If we can’t acknowledge we’re all trapped in racist and sexist systems, systems which compromise our most purely intended actions, systems that prescribe our choices and make us choose between lesser evils… what can we fight?
We commonly talk about us "handicapping" ourselves in a given situation. Here, the writer takes a more literal approach: we become double BKAs (below the knee amputees). This, in itself, might be a small oversight, except that the image of the amputation as a self-inflicted injury is troubling. It is even disturbing because it reaffirms the idea that disabled people are trapped, paralyzed (by their own doing or perhaps not) and helpless -- in this case before the forces of evil oppressive systems.

Yes, I know, images and language like this are so routine that they are almost invisible. But that doesn't make it acceptable. Language and its ideas still have effects. In this case, they are part of a system of images that the writer has begun to use whenever she needs to talk about a powerless situation in the identity and cultural politics wars. The image is not hers to begin with, but she takes it on and takes it over in a title and in the post that follows that title. And then, the same image shows up in, here, in the Grey Activism thread. It's almost as if amputation of the legs is this writer's way of indicating the victimization of a well-intentioned person who then becomes helpless either in the face of critical discourse or in the face of discourse systems that have power to wreak havoc on an innocent speaker.

The second detail is an example of how, once it becomes acceptable to take small images in brief words and phrase, it becomes possible to make huge paragraphs:
There’s a personality disorder called Borderline Personality Disorder in which sufferers have a great deal of difficulty understanding ambiguity. They tend to view themselves and others as either entirely good or entirely bad, a switch that will flip with great regularity. On a good day, they are all good. On a bad one, they are the worst person who ever lived. If you give them something they like, you’re an angel; if you speak a harsh word, you’re an evil person conspiring against them.

I tend to drive some of our legalistic commenters here crazy...
This is an awfully generalized description of Borderline Personality Disorder. Short on factual information, it relies on the safety of the You and Them dichotomy: You and those awful Them. And it highlights Their irrationality, Their craziness, Their suffering. The suffering thing is a key point. To use such language is to imply that people are prone to their diagnosis, stripped, in some ways of their personhood -- to the point that they can become THEM, a safely otherable pile of flesh. The disability civil rights movement has worked years to educate people on language like this. We don't "suffer" with our disabilities; we are not our medical diagnoses. To reduce us to our diagnoses is to suggest that there is a fundamental binary of human existence: able-bodied and not. And those who are not, suffer. And it offers an understanding of disability that is wholly medical and awful. There is no natural physical variation, no understanding of how environment and culture contribute to the understanding of disability; there is only the awfulness of BPD. BTW: there's a tremendous amount of dispute in disability communities about how diagnoses like this are formed. It's not like irrationality is objective. It's not like, medically speaking, you do these things and BOOM! BPD.

Essentially, this is a coercive argument by analogy that is successful because of the awful image of BPD it uses. It kind of runs like this. BPD is bad. People who have it aren't like you and me -- they're irrational. Crazy. And when we do these kinds of things -- "trying to define THAT person as evil for THIS compromised act and making that declaration of good or evil a single, solid, reified thing" -- we are exhibiting the behaviours of someone with BPD. So, don't do them. You wouldn't want to be seen as having BPD, now, would you?

And what to make of the writer's very next sentence where she declares that she drives people crazy? If you don't acknowledge the power of the words you wield, the border line between the real and the figurative is very porous.

OK. Enough. I've spent so much time on the literal value of the metaphorical details and figurative language because I think not recognizing the literalness of all of this is critical to the next move.

Part 2: Implications

The most important things to me here are one: the fact that one of the people posited throughout the post -- the poor liberal who in trying to do good and be complex makes a couple of mistakes -- ends up helpless before the dysfunctionality of the politics of the system. And two: the fact that, by the end of the post that person is represented as a double BKA with BPD: a double below the knee amputee with borderline personality disorder. A wacky, helpless, and perhaps dangerously irrational, disabled person. The details may seem small when looked at individually, but that final image is extraordinarily undermining of the disability civil rights movement and of modern progressive understandings of disabled people's place in society.

Relying on the figurative value of disability metaphors tends to render disabled people invisible; it cuts us out of the conversation. And we are a part of those communities -- a necessary part. Disability IS a feminist issue and vice versa (think choice, think end of life, think pre-natal testing, think any part of body autonomy). The constructions and experiences of disability in a divergence of racial and ethnic communities are important to us -- for the disability civil rights movement is mainly white. We who are feminist, of colour, and of disability are critical to the conversation, but, to quote Vicki Lewis, we disabled folk are not your metaphor.

And we do experience the exclusion from the conversation in many of the same ways discussed over and over again in the past weeks. Personally, I get tired of trying to bring the disability angle to the table -- others I know do, too. As a movement, in our daily lives, and even as a scholarly field in the hallowed halls of academia, disability and disabled people have yet to be recognized as full participants in the conversations about intersecting identities, power, the body, etc. etc.

In the disability movement, we often talk about interdependence and the way all humans are dependent, in some ways, on each other. We use these terms as a way of countering the very material point that disabled people are dependent, non contributing burdens on society, and we use it to challenge the narratives of able-bodied American self-sufficiency. I can't speak for a very diverse movement, but, to me, one of the signature disability moves is to look for a collaboration that acknowledges the interdependence of all peoples while respecting and valuing their differences. There is no logical need for one of us to leverage off the other: collaboration not competition floats more boats on a rising tide.

So, the next time you need to make an argument about the value of your particular minoritized group, its place in society and culture, its history, etc., I'd ask you to look down and check whose broken back (metaphorically speaking, of course) you are standing on.


  1. What a wonderful, wonderful post. This really did a great job of articulating the issues I have with some "feminists" and "anti-racists"...but at the same time called me out on my own shit. (Throwing around words like "idiot", "dumb", "stupid", etc.)

    What really amazes me is how deeply this stuff can be internalized. My partner and I are both autistic. He took a course this semester in which the textbook described Japanese culture as "increasingly autistic" in a negative way. He called out the problem in class only to get a glib and uninformed response from the professor. Then, a student presenter used the term "autistic" in a similar manner, and my partner again commented. The guy later said to my partner that he's autistic himself. What?! How is it that these kinds of metaphors become so ubiquitous that we ourselves start to use them? Thank you so much for addressing this issue so well.

  2. The metaphors do have a cumulative psychological effect, whether individuals are aware of their use or not. And they keep coming, almost always without remark — those of us that notice have to decide whether or not to remark on word choice, either derailing a conversation or silencing ourselves.

    Typically, this multi-blog discussion on race, appropriation and privilege has made ample use of disability metaphor. Off the top of my head I am certain “falling on deaf ears” has been used at least once, and metaphors of “blindness” too many times to count. I hung in there, reading along everywhere, mostly quiet and reflective and saddened, until last Friday’s Shakespeare's Sister post boldly entitled "The Blindness of Privilege" drove me from even following the discussion any more. How to even participate in that as a white, disabled (though sighted) feminist blogger?

    See how that works? The discussion is on privilege, of all things.

    This is exactly the point where many people get defensive about their freedom of word choice. The N word? The C word? Decent people know better than to say publicly what they might secretly think with those (and they may feel guilty even thinking them), but they’ll be damned if they’re going to stop using “retarded”. It’s funny when Jon Stewart uses it on The Daily Show and they don’t want to give it up. And they don’t want to have to think about every turn of phrase or worry about the sensitive feelings of another oppressed group.

    Or, as above, people reasonably want to know exactly what they can or cannot say without unintentionally hurting anyone. But this is just as complicated as white privilege — you can’t just follow along, make a list, and do it right. It takes work, active commitment and humility, because we all learn as we go. Understanding privilege (or the flipside, oppression, for that matter — these WOC explaining where they’re at these past weeks weren’t born understanding it all either) is a process, not a decision we make one day.

    I always feel like a bit of a didactic snot talking about this stuff, because I think my tone comes across as that of someone who feels like she’s figured it out (knows exactly which words are acceptable, etc.). But the best I can say about myself is that I remain curious about the process of understanding privilege (all privilege, mine and other people’s) and try to keep a bit of personal energy focused toward acting on that knowledge.

    Thanks, Wheelchair Dancer, for your fabulous articulateness. (Cross-posted at Alas, A Blog.)

  3. Really great post. I've tried to become much more conscious about my own language use. I think we naturally seek metaphors to express experience, but you're right that they shouldn't objectify disabled people, just as they should not objectify any other group.

    Hearing "retarded" as an insult makes me flinch, but people bandy it about regularly. I have caught my kids' friends using that and gay as insults, and have told them it's wrong. True confessions: I'll occasionally use "crazy" for decisions people consciously make, but I don't mean that they are mentally ill and I am conscious of that. It's not a word I'd apply to actual mental illness. I generally get completely ticked off about the word "bitch" and call people out on its use, though I used it satirically in my blog once.

    More common words such as dumb, lame, and idiot aren't words I use, but I'm slower at catching them when others use them.

  4. Amazing post.

    You know, I was thinking of running off an angry blog post telling my fellow high schoolers to stop calling everything they don't like "gay" and "retarded". But it's about a lot more than that, as your post demonstrates.

    I'm definitely guilty of a lot of what you described from time to time, but I'm becoming increasingly sensitive to it, and I'll be sure to point it out the next time I hear it. And stop myself from using it, of course.

  5. I thought I left a comment here saying how great I thought this post was, but I keep thinking I've left comments and find they're not there this week so I will assume it is my imagination (or else I said something very rude).

    But yeah, this was a great post and thank you so much for speaking out about this. Like Kay, I am frequently infuriated to the point of feeling pretty much excluded from similar discussions and your post clearly did make an impact. :-)

  6. thanks ... It's been an interesting stress posting this. The worst hasn't happened, but .. whew.

    Goldfish ... a third option? The sharky internets ate it.



  7. hi, just wanted to say how much i have enjoyed reading your blog recently.



  8. I'm a person that really needs to hear this one, as I do tend to throw language around like a frisbee when I write...

    I need a better word for "dumb@ss" obviously.

    I love the depth to this post.

  9. Is there a value in turning language around on the oppressors? I think of the post-modernists who have adopted "Queer" as opposed to "Gay." Deliberately seeking the confrontation of using the word with traditional negative connotations in positive ways. Some who subscribe to Queer Theory of course go further, self-describing themselves as "faggots' and worse. Just as certain people of African origin embrace their most hateful words.

    I know my BADD post
    insulted at least one community member, and might insult others, by embracing a word I heard all through my childhood as an insult. But I look for every opportunity to "queer" the experience, to reverse the impact of language and thus - perhaps - hold a mirror up in front of some people's faces so that they can see their own perceptions.

    Anyway, I truly appreciate what you have written here. Excellent, thought provoking, really well developed, organized, told. Thank you.

    - Ira Socol

  10. For the moment, I am holding out the hope that language really can help influence who we are and how we relate to others since language is one of the primary means of creating relationship, interaction, and analysing ourselves.

    Not terribly academically theoretical, but a deeply held personal principle.


  11. jvansteppes5:59 PM

    The thing I don't understand about those who cling to the right to use terms like this is that it is so easy, even if you didn't understand why it was messed up, to simply work the word out of your vocab.
    I don't think of the word 'stupid' in the way that I think of the word 'fag' because where I come from, stupid had no fixed image, [certainly not to the degree that retarded does] whereas 'fag' meant you were homosexual and it was a bad thing. But its not like I need to feel entitled to use the word stupid even if I know I wasn't making that reference in my head. Once someone said to me 'oh, this is the connection I make to that word so I'd rather you change your language' it was like, okay, I'll work on that.

  12. As one who is incredibly careless with figurative language, I have to thank you for encouraging me to examine my choices more carefully. Great job.

    Also, I love this line:

    "[C]ollaboration not competition floats more boats on a rising tide."

  13. What a wonderfully articulate contribution to the conversation so many of us have about this topic. Thank you SO much for this post.

  14. Great post, thanks! It gave me a lot to think about.

  15. First-time reader, and I loved this post. Keep up the great writing! :)

  16. Anonymous2:31 PM

    Hi, Thank you...still learning.