Language Matters: Language Matters, But It’s Not the Most Important Thing

I love talking about language, and I do so all over the place, and all the time. I adore language. I like talking about words and word origins and I am also interested in exclusionary language structures, in how slurs creep into daily life and are used thoughtlessly and with little awareness. I talk about language a lot here and in other places, which might lead you to believe that I think language is really important.

I do. But I also don’t think it’s the most important thing. And there’s an interesting trend I am noticing in online activism where language is being used for pro forma activism, and a form of dog whistling; ‘I corrected you about the use of [word] in your post, so I’m an ally to [community] and my work here is done!’ Often, this becomes a tool for derailment, where suddenly people are talking exclusively about a person’s language choices, and not engaging with substantive content. A very solid discussion and argument is neatly dismissed and ignored because one person says ‘but you used a bad word in the fifth paragraph, and now we all have to argue about it until you have abased yourself sufficiently to satisfy us.’

I see this perhaps most strikingly with disability. I sort of get the impression that some people seem to think that the bulk of disability activism is about running around correcting the words people use, and you can stop there. That’s all that needs to be done. They ignore commentary from disability rights activists pointing out that language is not the problem, it’s a symptom of a problem.

I cannot tell you how commonly I run into the following scenario: A nondisabled person writes something about disability with the best of intentions, but it has some serious issues in terms of how it is framed. Say the person read an article in the newspaper about a disability issue and decided to write about it, and in the process, missed a glaring problem, or comes away from a profile of a disabled entrepreneur with the idea that it’s ‘inpsiring.’ Or something. The point is, something is written and it contains questionable attitudes about disability. The title of the post contains a piece of archaic and deprecated language or slur; ‘the disabled‘ is used, for example. A commenter jumps on the author for using ‘the wrong word’ in the title of the piece, but doesn’t engage with the substantive problems with the content itself, at all.

The commenter comes away from this experience with the impression that A Good Thing has been done. The author of the piece comes away suitably chastened for not knowing the correct terminology and lacking the resources for looking it up. Meanwhile, social attitudes that contribute to very real, actual problems for people with disabilities go unremarked.

Disability activism is about so many things. One of the things I love about the disabled community is how diverse we are. It is about fighting for inclusion. Keeping people out of institutions. Making the world more accessible. Challenging attitudes about disability. Finding fellowship and community. Supporting each other; supporting disabled parents, disabled students, disabled professionals. It is about building a better world. It is not about language.

Talking about language is important, but when it eclipses everything else, it becomes a problem. When people think it stops with challenging language, that this is all we face, that’s a problem. When people are terrified and watching every single word they use with extreme care to avoid being jumped on while not examining their ideas at all, that is a definite problem.

Talking about language is terrific and I’m glad to see people doing it, but I am not glad to see it becoming the only thing people do. And disability is not the only place where this happens. ‘Oh, if I just correct people and say ‘writing transwomen, without a space, is not ok,’ I’m being an ally to the trans community and I’m helping fight for trans equality!’ Well…you are…but on a very, very small scale. And when the only problem you can identify with what someone is saying is the language; ‘I can’t believe this news article says ‘confined to a wheelchair’,’ well, you’re missing the point.

In a pretty big way.

Online activism is often pooh-poohed and dismissed, something ableist in and of itself; some people can only engage online. But I can see why people are dismissive of disability rights activism online when all they encounter is endless harping about language, people using codewords to see who is the better activist, constant derailing of substantive and important discussions over a single word.

People focusing on language are missing so much. There are tremendous and terrific and awesome things going on within the online disability activist community. There are complex and interesting conversations. There’s support for real-world situations. There’s online organising that transforms into offline action. There’s education empowering people to resist ableism, by which I mean discrimination against people with disabilities, not saying ‘this movie is lame,’ in classrooms, workplaces, and public places. Huge things are happening and I love being a part of this vibrant community.

And it makes me so sad to see it reduced, over and over again, to language. To see people not recognising that language is a facet of a much bigger issue. Feminists have cottoned on to the idea that calling a woman a ‘bitch’ is a problem because of the embedded social attitudes and ideas behind that word, not because of the word itself, have managed to grasp that sexism expresses itself in many ways, of which, honestly, having a slur hurled at you is one of the least. But feminists starting to engage with disability rights seem to have trouble making the same connections when it comes to disability; the problem isn’t the word, it’s what lies behind it. It’s what the word reinforces and reveals.

The problem isn’t that people call me a crip.

It’s what they think that means.