Ableist Language & Ableism

Yesterday evening, I spent a great deal of effort trying to explain how a conversation about ableism turned into a conversation about sexism on top of ableism. Having already written about what sorts of memories and experiences might be triggered by the use of ableist language, it seems readily obvious that this term is frequently unknown or misunderstood (despite the wide availability of resources online about it); and even when ableism is understood and therefore it is also understood why it is disputed, the call to stop usage of ableist language in particular isn’t taken seriously. In other words, when someone learns that the word for prejudice against disabled persons is called ableism, and that certain language choices reflect a tolerance of this prejudice; the argument that those language choices are oppressive and therefore should be avoided in favour of more accurate language isn’t taken seriously. So I found myself searching the recesses of my academically trained brain for a relevant analogy, and suddenly thought of the word bitch.

When used to refer to a female dog (e.g., “The bitch is in heat”), is not a part of every day language. It’s a lot like using the word Mongoloid when discussing matters specific to forensic anthropology (i.e., within this context, this word does not represent ableism/racism, but outside of the specific tradition of forensic anthropology, it does). Bitch has a specific place within matters pertaining to dog-breeding, and in that context, the word bitch simply does not represent sexism. Yet outside conversations about dog-breeding, I don’t hear people use the word bitch to express something positive. It’s virtually always “Stop being such a bitch” (i.e., your status as a female human being is lesser than the rest of your own species because you’re being aggressive) or “Quit your bitching” (i.e., you are expressing dissent in a way that I find annoying and trivial, so I don’t want to hear you anymore).

One of the reasons bitch is a powerfully sexist word outside of conversations revolving around dog-breeding, is because of the implication that a woman who is being called a bitch (or being told to stop bitching, or being accused of being bitchy) is failing to fulfil a social stereotype of a woman–she is not being passive, quiet, submissive, nurturing, docile, or obedient enough; and needs or invites Correction By Someone More Objective (who is usually a man, because men are considered more objective by default because they are considered less emotionally erratic). There is a shared understanding between Speaker and Audience, that women are socially expected to be quiet and unassuming, and a failure to be this way is bad, erroneous, or wrong. Without this shared understanding, the speaker would simply appear to be someone who possesses a pathetically limited vocabulary, and their point would be lost on their audience as a result.

And sure, occasionally people attempt to reclaim this word, bitch, to mean something awesome, empowering, or raucous for greater social justice. Just like, it is widely understood, the word “lame” once referred to people with a limp or other visible difference in their gait (and occasionally in psychology, it was used to refer to someone who was socially/mentally delayed; not unlike the implication of the word “retarded”), but now it means “bad” or “weak” or something negative that doesn’t concern people with a visible physical disability. I feel it necessary to emphasize that this is only sometimes. This is the “But Language Evolves Given Enough Time And Usage” argument.

Yeah. That’s what people say about phrases like “rule of thumb”, which originated as written law that entitled a man to beat his wife for discipline, but only with a switch that was no wider than his thumb. That’s what people say about the meaning of words like “fag” and “gay”, that not-very-long-ago were used as derogatory slurs against members of various gay communities–slurs that might immediately precede a tightly clenched fist, a nightstick, a set of handcuffs, and/or a violent sexual assault. Just like the word “bitch” might immediately precede a beating, or a loaded gun being pointed in the face of the accused. Even the words “lame” or “retarded” might trigger a memory of violence for people who have to live with various disabilities–certainly I have been subjected to both threats and violence when my cognitive capacity has been called into question, or when I was unable to fulfil physical obligations because of my metabolic problem or my joint problem, and I’m not the only survivor of physical battery as a Measure To Correct Disability. Many people have written volumes of books about this subject before me, so this really isn’t new insight.

What the alleged evolution of language indicates to me, is that there is a repackaging process taking place with certain words like “bitch”, “lame”, and “retarded”; but the underlying problem (the continued  social oppression of women and persons with disabilities, among others) persists in the face of these linguistic subsets. Because the fact is, the evolution of language isn’t even a counterargument for the original problem (that social oppression is real, and that certain language choices reflect an attitude of tolerance towards these experiences). A parallel example arose in a conversation I had a few days ago, about the cognitive bias many people possess, that the world is generally more just than it actually is because of the belief in an externalized judicial force. The person who raised my attention towards this cognitive bias began talking about how people express that the victim of a tragedy is often described as getting what’s coming to them, which is how the normative Western culture commonly defines the word “karma”. It’s not particularly coincidental that people also say things like “Karma’s a bitch.” But I begin to digress.

The origin of the word “karma” is the Hindu faith. In Hinduism, karma is either a spiritual deficit or a spiritual surplus, generated by day to day acts of either selfishness or altruism, which are in conflict with an individual’s pre-determined life purpose (i.e., dharma). And in Hinduism, incurring either good or bad karma over a lifetime, simply means that one is bound to the cycle of suffering–temporarily spending some finite period of time in a good or bad spiritual limbo between mundane lives, before being reincarnated and ultimately suffering again (as it is part of the human condition) and adding to the overall suffering in the world. A Hindu doesn’t want to incur karma, because they don’t want to be reincarnated.

Karma has come to mean the polar opposite in Western culture–that good begets good and bad begets bad; which comes back within one’s present lifetime–shows that cultural appropriation has occurred through a complicated relationship between current Western society and the colonization of major Hindu centres in South Asia by the people we descended from. It is a fundamentally ignorant view of what karma means, and ultimately, what constitutes the Hindu faith. When the appropriation of the word karma eventually became repackaged into concepts like the Just World Hypothesis, the stain of oppression was wiped away from the superficial meaning of the word. The establishment of this particular cognitive bias is attributed entirely to a Western psychologist whose work on the hypothesis began in the 1960s. As this work came hundreds of years after the colonization of India by European colonies, it is fair to say that the Just World Hypothesis very likely represents a repackaging of the appropriation of the word “karma”. But the underlying problems of colonialism, cultural appropriation, and postcolonial racism have yet to be resolved.  The Western colonization and occupation of India has also become repackaged: in the form of outsourced labour.

So how does this complicated process of cultural appropriation (which I really have just barely glossed over) relate to ableism and sexism and the “But Language Evolves Given Enough Time And Usage” argument? Well, it relates in that this argument, which doesn’t even address the original (and still underlying) problem, reveals a profound ignorance of how The Original Problem Evolves Given Enough Time Too. People living with disabilities have more rights than they did a few hundred years ago, when they were imprisoned, chained up, beaten, and/or subjected to abusive exploratory treatment techniques such as gratuitous lobotomies.  But the fact that people living with disabilities have more rights now than they did when these words like “lame” or “retarded” originated, does not mean that the stigma, exclusion, and other oppressive barriers against people living with disabilities has dissipated or disappeared.

Women and people of colour have gained a lot of rights in Western culture, that they simply didn’t have in that time (or within the last hundred years, for that matter), but that doesn’t make sexism and racism magically disappear either. In fact, if anything, it makes sexism and racism more significant as oppressive events, because there’s no excuse for it. Why would it be any different in the case of ableism?

A lot needs to change. Ableism isn’t a “first world problem”, it isn’t a word I just made up (google it, I dare you), and it isn’t something that’s going to go away by continuing to use and defend the use of ableist language (google that too, while you’re at it). Hell, here’s an ableist bingo card I located online using google:

I guarantee you, if you start talking about why ableism is wrong, for just a day, you’ll score a bingo. I score one nearly daily myself, when I’m not even making a deliberate effort.

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