Monday, 9 March 2015

Words Matter

(content warning: discussion of ableist terms, reference to other slurs)

I changed the URL and title of this blog yesterday, to remove the ableist slur 'stupid'. I apologise wholeheartedly for not doing this sooner and for failing to treat this issue with the gravitas it deserves until now.

The rest of this post is addressed to anyone who thinks this is making mountains out of molehills, or that I needn't have bothered making the change.

Let me start with the obvious: words matter. They have power. I'd be a pretty poor writer if I didn't believe that. And power is always dangerous - not necessarily always harmful, but always accompanied by the danger of causing harm.

Words can become harmful in lots of ways, but one of the most serious is when used to justify (or in the justification of) harmful policies. We rightly regard racial slurs like the n-words as harmful because of their association with governmental policies and societal patterns of slavery and segregation - policies and patterns with costs both measurable (in death and injury figures) and immeasurable (in lost human potential and complex, oppressive legacies).

Why, then, is 'stupid' harmful? It is, after all, a very common word, and one not normally connected to any great opprobrium.

The simplest answer to this is a direct comparison with racist language. Constructions of intelligence have sometimes been used as viciously as constructs of race to justify policies every bit as horrible. The eugenics movements of the early 20th century are the best examples of this - in the 20s and 30s, many 'developed' nations including Britain and America forcibly sterilised people who failed to meet certain standards of 'intelligence' (usually measured with IQ tests - the exact purpose and value of which remains controversial to this day). More famously, Nazi Germany sent people to concentration camps and even gas chambers on 'intelligence' grounds as well as racial.

It's generally good policy to not throw around as insults words that the Nazis used to justify genocide.

One final thing; I want to point out how easy it is to overlook this issue. When I started this blog, I was twenty-three, already in possession of a master's degree and well on my way to a doctorate - hardly able to claim general ignorance, and yet I had no idea that my choice of phrase (a reference to Bill Clinton's famous campaign policy from 1992) could be harmful. Worse, I was literally working in disability support for students at the time - none of my (actually quite limited) training had addressed this issue.

And it gets even worse than that, because a year or two later I was working with a student whose course included modules of disability studies and special educational needs. There were several lectures about ableist language, including specific problems with the language of intelligence, and I still didn't see a problem with my own blog title. It's very easy to dismiss issues when they require you to change.

Learning to rid my everyday vocabulary of words like 'stupid' - to put them in the procribed category where they belong - is not easy. But there are plenty of better words, both as insults and to refer to things that are strange/absurd. We can - and should - live without words that are imbued with such harm.

Here's a great resource for examining ableism generally, and here's their excellent collection of articles addressing specific ableist terms.

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