Improving our inclusivity (and vocabulary!) regarding ableism
Content warning: Use of ableist slurs, uncensored.
Hello all! As of this post I am one of the newest writers for Teen Skepchick! To kick off my time writing here, I am going to introduce you all to an issue that we have to deal with when the skeptic community and the social justice community intersect, but that is far too often ignored. Namely, ableism as it manifests in a community full of smart folks.
When we discuss woo-pushers, snake-oil-salesmen, and science-deniers, there is an instinct to respond by insulting them regarding their perceived lack of intelligence. We laugh at them as we tell them how stupid they are for believing and pushing the things they do.
The way we go about doing this is not okay. Thing is, it isn’t just women who are turned away from the skeptic community due to the way they are seen and regarded by skeptics. Something similar happens with people with disabilities as well. Women are put off of this community when we throw sexist slurs at the people we argue against as a way to belittle them by comparing them to women; In the same sense, people with disabilities are told that they are not welcome here by people using ableist slurs as insults.
It should hopefully come as no surprise that calling someone a “retard” or its derivatives is absolutely not okay. And no, “special” is no better. The issue here is that what you are saying is “you lack intelligence, much like someone who is developmentally disabled.” As a mentally disabled person who knows many people with intellectual disabilities, this is absolutely, 100%, Not Okay. Many of the people I know with intellectual and learning disabilities are astoundingly brilliant, and even if they were not, it would be wrong to use a slur that they are often cruelly subjected to as a quick gotcha against someone who peddles nonsense. There is a world of difference between having trouble intellectually because of a disability and believing in non-scientific nonsense. People who believe in say, homeopathy, don’t (necessarily) have developmental disabilities, and should they have one, the two are not related. Plenty of developmentally and intellectually disabled people are, in fact, huge skeptics (Go ahead, get an autistic person started on anti-vaxxers.)
Now, beyond that we run into murkier territory– words like stupid or idiot. Many social justice versed people still feel it is okay to use these words to describe anti-skeptical people. I will argue that not only is this not okay, but not desirable. On one hand, it’s simply not accurate. Plenty of the people who push these things are not in the least unintelligent– they just use their intelligence to weasel their way out of sense-making arguments. And of course, words like stupid and idiot are used to insult those with intellectual disabilities, though many argue that “stupid” is something someone does, not something one is, but nonetheless these words have become tools of the kyriarchy that hurt and disempower disabled people. I, personally, am fond of the logic that even if you believe this about the word “stupid” and similar words, the loss you suffer by removing it from your vocabulary is less than the harm you cause by using it and othering disabled people.
This is about the point that even well-intentioned people start arguing about censorship and sanitizing their language, but I just can’t take the argument that language is lessened when you remove privilege-entrenched words.
Simply because, if not stupid, what do you call a woo-monger?
There’s wrong, for one. Or disingenuous. Or uninformed. Or a ridiculously underinformed fallacy-spouting nonsense-geyser. All far superior options, if you ask me– it’s similar to how, when we take away bigoted slurs to use as insults, we wind up using truly fabulous phrases like “asshat” and “douchenozzle.”
Removing undesirable words does not hurt us. It makes us more welcoming to underprivileged people, while forcing us to expand our vocabulary to be more specific and descriptive… and often, hilarious. We are entirely better off for the effort.
featured image courtesy of Laura Lewis via Flickr