quick hit: compassion and critical thinking ≠ Big Brother

“History is written by the winners” – non-attributed

Growing up in America we are taught to believe in the Rightness and Goodness of the Meritocracy – that people who have good things and a life of comfort earned it all on their own efforts. Please note, people that have things relatively good tend to trumpet this loudest.  People who have things harder, well, sometimes they have a different perspective. We the privileged often don’t like to hear that perspective.

I believe one’s gut reaction to the “winners” quote above depends on one’s worldview.  Some people might see the quote as purely observational shorthand – that is, recorded historical accounts are told and reified by certain groups while others’ equally valid experiences are suppressed. Some believe the quote to be morally prescriptive in a Darwinian fashion: that is, a “winner” is someone who’s dominated others for their own goals, and – yay, the world is their oyster as it should be (this is sort of the sports analogy interpretation)!

Here’s what I believe: in being a “winner” one is essentially in a position of privilege (no matter how we got there); when I find I am a “winner” I must then look carefully around at how I have prevailed – and who hasn’t, and how to help them if they should want it.  It should go without saying to any who read here that I believe it is my responsibility – given I have relative privilege, good fortune, and personal success – to take steps to care for the “losers”, the down-trodden, those who are being marginalized, eclipsed, abused, oppressed. There are many, many paths of responsibility and stewardship; imagination and exposure continue to illuminate more still.

Some measures are small.  Today in a Yahoo group I made the tangential request those in the discussion pool refrain from using the words “crazy” or “lame”. Here is my clarification post (after I asked and was granted permission to post links):*

My intention wasn’t to police anyone and obviously I don’t have that power anyway (I’m not a mod). I am active in reading blogs authored by people with disabilities and the topic of abelist conversation comes up quite a bit.

For those who are interested, here are a few readings that convinced me to stop using those terms as pejoratives (“adult” language in the links):

“The Transcontinental Disability Choir: What is Ableist Language and Why Should You Care?” at bitchmagazine

“Guest Post from RMJ: Ableist Word Profile: Crazy” from Feminists With Disabilities/FWD

“Why Not to Use the Word Lame: I Think I”‘m Starting to Get It” at Alas! A Blog

I still accidentally say “lame” and “crazy” myself but am working hard to use other effective and less offensive words. Fortunately the English language has many!

This is also a fun read that comes up usually when someone calls out language as being problematic, and the resultant typical objections that often ensue: http://www.derailingfordummies.com/

The moderator immediately accused me of – guess what? Censorship. Yes – the moderator accused me of this. Very rich indeed.

Now of all the toothless arguments people knee-jerk with when their behavior is identified as being aligned with oppressive tactics, cries of “censorship”, accusations of being “the thought police”, and sneers of “PC” probably bother me the most; like an unholy Trinity of Ass they share the same roots of fear and an immediate assumption of bad faith.

I mean really, Censorship? “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” (Here is some 101: “online interaction and free speech” at finally feminism101). “Thought police” is particularly fartsy-bloated with the same tooting self-important drama-horn as the C-word; as if by maintaining a moderated blog or objecting to a word, phrase, or worldview that is offensive or incorrect or bigoted the blog author/objector is suddenly in the POSITION OF ALLTIME INTERNETTY POWER and now has CONTROL OVER ALL TEH BRAINWAYVES / ORWELLIAN TELESCREENS.

PC? Please. I teenaged through Bill Clinton’s Presidential tenancy and the attendant revival of sensitivity/PC language and I can tell you the backlash started so quickly it almost preceded it (which to me is a barometer that people loooooove their bigotries). There hasn’t been a whiff of PC that hasn’t been, like El Niño (this paragraph is very USian 90s), simultaneously and fervently blamed for Everything Bad including Ruining America and also, Now We Can’t Have Jokes.

Back to the Yahoo group response: at current count there have been five responses to my request – very familiar responses to those versed in corners of the social justice online sphere. On the positive side, the original poster who’d used the term “crazy” apologized for using it and said she understood why the word was problematic (classy! and – more later). The remaining four responses have been skeptical and/or hostile and for their brevity have still nailed a surprising number of the squares in Bingo for Derailing – including “You’re being oversensitive”, “You’re being overly-intellectual”, and “Words have power only if you give them power”/the reclamation argument (the “power” sentence is an actual quote from one of today’s Yahoo messages – this person also said, “words hold no inherant ability to hurt”). If the discussion doesn’t die quickly I predict soon I will get, “you’re nitpicking a minor/trivial issue” / “Don’t you have more important things to think about?” But hey, I hope I’m wrong.

The most commonly iterated response was the token/backup trot-out, or what I sometimes think of as the “black friend” defense meant to entirely shut down conversation: “I have a friend / brother / such-and-such in this marginalized group and they don’t find this offensive” etc etc. So therefore: I will not read the articles or listen openly to your points. Therefore: I will ignore the fact that marginalized groups sometimes internalize oppressive and damaging narratives and strategies (reading the above link re: “reclamation” helps explain the so-called “double-standard” on who is “allowed” to use what language). Therefore: I do not care how many other people/scholars/researchers/writers/bloggers have objections and have worked to elucidate others on why they do – my tokenized example puts me above any reproach. This would be a laughable defense if it wasn’t also a very typical response to anti-oppression work and therefore, a bit sobering if not frustrating.

I have no evidence whatsoever a single soul who responded on Yahoo read my provided links, and that’s a shame. I posted them precisely because they were good, well-written, and better formed than anything I could have done. I’ve been exposed many times to the defense of pejorative use of words associated with marginalized groups: “retard”, “gay” (Wanda Sykes – I love it!), “crazy”, “lame”, “pansy”, “spaz”, “moron”, “pussy”,”woman” (yes! This is often used as an insult!), “faggot”, and “idiot” (um, I really could go on and on); objecting to these words and offering up arguments against their casual use is my prerogative and is not done for fun nor whimsy. I further add nor is it my contention those who use these words are Monsters and I am A Thoroughly Enlightened One (please; I only recently got right re: “crazy”; if you search my near decade-long blog you’re sure to see my ass in many minorly humiliating ways). To those who are uncomfortable with being challenged and/or embarrassed, I feel you. I’d offer this tasty tidbit from the Shapely Prose comment policy:

If someone gets pissy at you for using the word “retarded” for instance, that doesn”‘t mean they think you”‘re an evil person who hates developmentally disabled people OR that they”‘re hysterical, overreacting thought police. It means there are people around here who find that word hurtful, and we”‘re a lot more interested in protecting their feelings than your god-given right not to think of a better word.

Believe me; I’ve made my share of comments and been called out; it stings, I know, and I fully expect it to happen again! Being allowed to say anything I want without being challenged is not an inalienable human right; in the glass-half-full analysis of this I would posit that listening openly and self-educating are some of the more breathtaking and beautiful aspects of human responsibilities if we are in the position to do so.

Speaking up is hard. It often isn’t welcome, as any of my dedicated readers will know by now. This isn’t because the world is full of assholes (or at least I refuse to believe this); it’s because many people don’t like having their worldviews challenged; they often respond with a counter-offense (no matter how respectfully, I’ve discovered, one puts forth an objection).

But there are good reasons and positive results from objecting to a harmful status quo; a few touching anecdotes came my way from a father who tweets me today in recognition of these problematic words. “The one that makes me cringe the most is ‘that’s retarded’ and this was before I had a son with a mental disability.” He continues: “Now that I do have a son with autism I hear the ‘R’word and it sounds like it’s coming out of megaphone.”

Yeah. And thank you for sharing. He sends me the link to his blog where he writes about his son; I put it in my feed reader.

And then there’s this: some people truly can pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and thank you for the assistance. The very first comment in response to the FWD ableist word profile linked above is from Sarah, who simply writes, “I”‘ve been guilty of this. How embarrassing! Thank you so much for posting.”

Now that? That gives me hope.

* Incidentally? I would appreciate it if you do not re-tweet, IM, email, or share this article unless you first read through the four links provided in my cited Yahoo message; I typically do not write using linked articles (hence “quick hit”) and these are good ones.

Mentioned/Further Reading:

Meritocracy at en.wikipedia.org

The quote, “History is written by the winners” discussed at the snopes message board.

“Teaspoons 101: I Am Not the Thought Police” at Shakesville.

“Ableist Word Profile: Why I write about ableist language” A great 101 on a way to think about abelist language and the study therein at FWD.

“Being White” by Louis C.K. (trigger warning: rape metaphor)

“Touching Strangers: Making Friends of ‘Others'” at humaneeducation.org, sponsored and authored by Zoe Weil

“What ‘So Ghetto’ Really Means” by Tami Harris at change.org; those who’ve used “ghetto” against white neighborhoods might want to zap to my comment re: growing up in then-largely-white-but-working-class Hoquiam.

Tangentially and finally, because I had nowhere else to post this – someone in rebuttal to my points in the Yahoo discussion offered up this page: “Your guide to living life in the U.S.”. I kind of don’t have words as this does not seem to be a parody.