The Incredible Shrinking Phallus

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Meditations on privilege

That’s stupid: Saying what we mean

On Womanist Musings, Renee has a post up apologizing for her ableist language in the form of the word “crazy”. I am a former and occasional crazy person, by which I mean that throughout high school and some of college I had an alternate education plan to help to address my emotional problems and their presentation in the classroom. Near the end of my first year of college, I also checked myself into a hospital where I spent the first three days screaming off and on and keeping a tally of my panic attacks. And this past week I had a three-day-long, slow-burn freak out because my friend touched my side. So the word “crazy” as a generic insult should, perhaps, be close to my heart. But it’s not particularly. Renee’s post got me thinking about why that might be.

When I was in high school, I started hanging out with a girl who is developmentally delayed and became involved with Best Buddies (a group which pairs DD people and non-DD people). I began to realize how much of the common insult vernacular (for want of a better term) has to do with intelligence. When I, as president of the GSA, lead trainings, I’d often ask “what do you mean when you say ‘that’s so gay?'” Usually the response was “that’s stupid,” so I’d urge them to use that term instead. “When you say ‘gay’ where you mean ‘stupid,’ you’re saying gay people are stupid. Just say what you mean.”

It took me a long time to realize that terms like “stupid,” “idiot,” and “moron” speak directly to someone’s “intelligence.” In fact, I can’t say it really hit me for years, even after one lunch time when I played Trivial Pursuit with several of the people in my friend’s class. One of her teachers told me that they had noticed a card that used offensive language and asked me to take it out if I came across it. I asked what it was, so that I could look for it, and she got uncomfortable, unsure how to phrase it, and said “it involves the sort of people we teach in this room.” The card asked about the IQ of people with the diagnosis “moron.”

That was probably five years ago, and I am still working on trying to find better insults. I’ve been disabled by my brain’s misfirings  but I still use “crazy”. Words like these are so ingrained in our shared language that they are almost invisible unless aimed at you. This is, of course, the essence of privilege: failing to (have to) realize that the potential for these words to harm is not theoretical and that their pervasiveness doesn’t dull the tips of these invisible daggers.

For my part, I am making a point of using better words that more correctly label whatever problem I have identified. This requires me to actually think about what I dislike about someone or something and to articulate that.It means that my language is more effective and less prone to distract with unintended meaning.

Instead of saying someone is “stupid”, I say they are “not thinking”, or that they “don’t make sense”. Instead of calling a situation “crazy”, I can say it is “out of control”. Rather than “that’s lame” I can say “I don’t like that.”

What words do you use as a shorthand for things that seem out of place, unwanted, or wrong? What is the implication of those terms? What better replacements have you found?

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Filed under: Disability and Ability, , , , , , , ,

3 Responses

  1. Cedar says:

    I tend to be a fan of “busted” and “fail” other folks I know use “stale” (for things not as bad as busted) and/or “bogus”.

    I think there’s something to be said for perfection-is-impossible,do-what-you-have-the-spoons-for with respect to pervasive busted language–but then, I’m much closer to perfectionist on that score than most, and I resent it when people pull that argument on me about something I think they shouldn’t use. I think what you point to–saying what you mean–and perhaps finding new insults that aren’t busted is better than saying not to use others (for the most part–I mean, “sucks [cock][ass]”? “asshole”? “fucked”/”fuck it”? dork/dick[wad]/prick/schmuck? “jerk [off]”? “bastard”? “dumb” is ableist two ways. …The list is endless, and when there’s a common insult word that I don’t already know to have an oppressive/hurtful root, I have to suspect it; it seems like a shift from “don’t say [bad thing]” to “do say [ok/less-bad thing]” is important.

  2. Jem says:

    How is asshole ableist? Is it ableist toward people without said body part?

  3. Eli says:

    I don’t think Cedar was saying “asshole” is ableist, but I agree that it is busted. I think it, along with “dick” and “pussy” show some seriously body-negative essentializing. It makes me feel icky.

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