Sunday, 3 August 2014

The Acceptability of Ableist Slurs - An Idiot's Guide

The motivation for this particular blog entry came from a discussion I read this morning, involving Ophelia Benson in a series of exchanges with the regulars on the well known atheist hate site I realise this site can prove highly triggering to the vast majority of the sub-species homo sapiens sapiens who happen to stumble across it, so I ask you to treat this link with some caution:

Joint statement by Ophelia Benson and Richard Dawkins

I must firstly admit to a certain degree of schadenfreude at the responses Ophelia had to deal with over there. That is to my detriment, I realise. The regulars - who never fail to prove that intolerance and myopic self-interest are equal opportunities employers - gave her a great dose of the kinds of wilful misportrayal and constant prejudiced assumptions of intent that are the modus operandi on the worst of the comments sections over at her usual blog host.
I suppose if you live by the sword of objective righteous ethical certainty (a fabled blade, in many designs, each one of them the one true sword) at some point you will die by that blade also; there is, after all, always someone out there more puritanical in their strive for absolutism in social justice than yourself.

So this got me thinking about the issue at hand which was that of ableist slurs.

In many ways this entry is part three of my existing video series on gendered slurs which I very much encourage you to watch (they are both lighthearted and serious at the same time)

In part 1 Gendered Slurs #1: A Load of Tittybollocks! I discussed why I thought the arguments claimed with the usage of gendered slurs fall wide of the mark (and made a somewhat flippant suggestion on a compromise).

In part 2 Do Cocks Cause Splash Damage? I examined in more depth (and ultimately dismissed) the claim that genital related slurs are qualitatively no different from terms like nigger and fag and should be avoided for the same reasons. The arguments raised in part two, especially, are quite pertinent to what will be discussed here, so if you haven't seen this video spend a few minutes and give it a watch!

Which brings us here, to what is effectively a third part but with a shift of focus from gendered slurs to ableist slurs. By an ableist slur we are, I suggest, referring to using a term for a cognitive or physical differentiator from the developmental norm in a negative way. So common has this become that terms must be constantly cycled as they start to weigh down under too much frivolous usage as everyday insults (special needs must surely be long overdue for replacement, by way of example).

Two that have really caught my interest are crazy and blind.

Bear in mind that the whole issue that is being claimed with slurs is that of splash damage - that by using the term in question not only are you insulting the person you intend to insult but that you are causing a boatload of collateral damage to anyone else to whom the term legitimately refers. That by placing negative connotations on the label those negative connotations cary far wider than perhaps you intend.

In the second gendered slurs video I explored that idea with regard to two groups of words. On the one hand words like cock, twat, cunt and dick; and on the other hand words like nigger, fag and (not one people take much issue with but, I proposed, of the same kind - wanker). My claim was that qualitatively these groups of words differed because the relationships differed between their original usage and the specified usage in the following way:

Cock: general usage a sexual organ/ specific usage a whole person
Fag: general usage a whole person/ specific usage a whole person

So the thrust of my argument was that when we insult someone by calling them a fag (homosexual) we are saying that there is something wrong with a person being a homosexual. We can immediately see the issue here: homosexuals ARE people so by dint of our usage we are implying that there is something wrong with homosexuals being homosexuals = something wrong with homosexuals and homosexuality generally.
However, with the word cock the situation is very different. When we insult someone by calling them a cock we are saying that there is something wrong with a person being a cock (or displaying some set of intangible qualities we have somewhat arbitrarily ascribed to cocks). Is the difference here not apparent? Cocks are not people so at no point is there any implication that cocks being cocks is a bad thing; that cocks are inherently bad in any way. No. All we are saying is that for a person to be a cock is a bad thing. No slight on cocks or cock owners any more than calling a person a sheep is a slight on actual sheep or on the farming community!

So how does reasoning translate across to terms like crazy and blind?

Clearly crazy, as an insult, (with reference to the potential for splash damage) appears to fall closer to the nigger/fag/wanker pool than the pile of cocks, cunts and their bretheren.
So does that mean I side with the rabid morons over at atheismplus over its usage? No (which you probably guessed already with the "rabid morons" bit) and here's why:

The issue we have with words like fag, wanker and nigger is that, by dint of using them as an insult we are suggesting that there is something wrong, bad or lessening about the person having that characteristic. Consequently, as a result of fag, nigger and wanker actually being descriptors for groups of people we are suggesting that there is something equally wrong, bad or lessening about ALL those who have that characteristic. The same is true of the word crazy but (and it is a BIG BUT) the key difference is our perception of a crazy person from the off. It is my sincerest belief (and hope, in fact) that everyone who reads this blog has no issue with homosexuality, race or masturbatury status. That none of us regard these as negative things is precisely the issue and a key determinent in why they are potentially problematic to use as slurs. However, is it really bigotted or prejudiced to hold the view that craziness is NOT a positive characteristic? Surely even the majority of crazy people accept that insanity is not a desirable thing. So, when we call someone crazy whilst it may be true that we are spreading a veneer of negativity towards insanity that extends beyond our immediate target in what way is that causing damage to the crazy people of this world?

As things stand:
I call you crazy as an insult -it follows- that craziness is a negative characteristic for a person to possess + craziness is, by definition, a characteristic possessed by (some) people -therefore- craziness is a negative characteristic in all those who possess it.

Nothing I am unhappy with there. I don't see how anyone could be, short of taking political correctness to such a level that they won't even accept madness as anything other than of equal standing to sanity.

I find the argument regarding the usage of blind not substantially different. If you look for something and fail to spot it and I remark "are you blind?" I think we all agree that I am suggesting that blindness is a negative characteristic to possess for someone visually attempting to search for an object. Clearly, like the previous example, that has implications for people who are genuinely blind: the potential for splash damage. However, even the ultra-hardliners over at atheismplus would have a hard time arguing that blindness is anything other than a pretty major handicap when it comes to visual searches, so how does our slur usage implying that blindness is a limitation in this area in any way damage our perceptions of genuinely blind people? I cannot, for the life of me, see how it does.

I do think we need to be a bit more careful with some other terms, especially when we attribute general negativity to conditions where the link is not justifiable. Calling someone a leper (leprosy) or a spazzer (spasticity) because of general physical or behavioural features we wish to pour scorn upon is not so easy to defend and I am convinced has led to much misunderstanding of what these, and many other, medical conditions actually entail.

Thanks for reading,


  1. Hi Noel,

    My disclaimers: Benson and I don't get along. Dawkins and I don't know each other. I've not read their statement, nor do I plan to. I recognize that my negative bias towards Benson guides me in that decision, but rather than potentially get annoyed at how she might've "ablesplained" me indirectly, I prefer to have people like you read it and comment.

    I'm legally blind. Have been since birth. Ableism is a thing. I've experienced it. In fact, I experience it just about every week in some form or another. That said, neither atheismplus nor Benson speak for me and it pisses me off to no end that any of them should presume to.

    Crazy can be a bad thing. So can blind. They can both be factual. As such, it's unproductive for us to police ourselves on the usage of those words. Yes, we should attempt to be sensitive in our usage, but sensitivity for its own sake isn't always useful and usage itself is that and that alone: usage.

    Thanks for reading. Happy to discuss further.


    1. I certainly wouldn't want to give the impression that I don't believe ableism exists or has an impact on lives. My thoughts are that there are then some people at A+ who extrapolate that (as they and others do with sexism, racism, transphobia (is there an -ism word for that?) etc) to a point where they find it lurking under every single rock.

  2. Thank you much for the link to that thread on A+. That was a clusterfuck to behold. Ophelia gets to experience the brunt of sanctimonious rage from the very same impotent, hateful monster she helped feed.

    At first, she tries to fight back smugly against the absurd accusations of bigotry from the members whose self-appointed duty it is to always be offended on behalf of everyone else who could possibly take offense. Next, she gets callously misrepresented and assigned nefarious motives; then come a bunch of hyperbolic, pearl-clutching, "how could you?" responses; and then she gets told multiple times to check her privilege. I was waiting for her to be accused of "doubling down". However, the best part is when she stops responding. She obviously realizes that any discussion, short of her completely relenting and kissing the ass of every participant in the thread for good measure, will merit absolutely nothing positive.

    1. Some of the commenters there must spend their lives in a perma-rage given the myriad things they take such issue with.