Today, May 1st, is Blogging Against Disablism Day. Blogging Against Disablism Day is hosted every year by Goldfish as an absolutely excellent blogswarm about ableism. (“Disablism” is synonymous with “ableism.” Disablisim is the term preferred in the U.K.; as someone from the U.S., I’m more comfortable with the term ableism, and that’s the one I’ll be using throughout the post.)
This here is a blog. And while others writing for Blogging Against Disablism Day can and will interpret the title of the event in a huge variety of ways and choose to write about a huge variety of topics and experiences, it strikes me that those words imply a perfect opportunity to address the subject of ableism in blogging communities, and in this blogging community specifically.
At Feministe, we’ve have had plenty of problems and committed many offenses with regards to ableism. As readers have educated us and as we’ve educated ourselves, we’ve made changes and attempted to do better. It’s certainly a work in progress; I harbor no illusions that Feministe is anywhere near a safe space for people with disabilities, and we are very far from perfect. One area that still needs a lot of work, and one which we have less control over than most, is our comment section, and the ableist language that tends to appear there.
Ableist language is language that is used to demean people with disabilities, or that is based on negative misconceptions about disability. Much of it is very, very deeply ingrained in our culture to the point where those of us who are unaffected by such language rarely notice it on our own. Ableist language matters for the same reason that sexist, racist, and homophobic language matters. Feminists tend to reject the word “pussy” as an insult, as it takes a word that is usually associated with women and uses it to imply that there is something bad, insulting, and demeaning about being a woman. Progressives tend to reject the word “gay” as an insult, as it takes a word that is used as a personal identifier by many people and suggests that to hold that identity is to be bad, pathetic, and/or laughable. We also reject racial slurs, as they use a position of privilege and capitalize on an ongoing history of oppression, dehumanization, and colonization to directly and purposely demean marginalized groups.
Similarly, we should reject ableist language, as it takes people’s identities and experiences and turns them into insults and jokes. And we should also reject ableist language because it involves direct slurs that represent a long history of marginalization and oppression, and wields them as weapons of privilege against those who do not have it.
In some ways, I think that our community has transitioned to non-ableist language relatively well. “Retarded” and “lame” are insults I very rarely see in our comment section, anymore; when they do appear, they’re usually from new commenters or trolls. It took a period of quite a few months, a lot of speaking out by moderators and commenters alike, and undoubtedly and sadly much harm done to readers with disabilities to get to that place. But I’m happy and proud to see that we’re there, now.
But other ableist language is an issue. And while not the only offenders, the terms I want to focus on are the ones I see the most frequently appear in our comment section: “crazy,” “insane,” and other similar terms that use language commonly associated with mental illness to indicate irrationality, unbelievability, ludicrousness, hilarious ignorance, and/or immorality.
These terms are a problem. They are terms that have been used to disparage people with mental illnesses for a very long time, to discredit them, to abuse them, and to protect those who abuse them. They are terms that are continually used in this way today. They are terms that, using their broadest definitions, could be used against me — someone who has struggled with depression more on than off since about age 13, has some PTSD issues, and probably has some other unspecified anxiety disorder. They are terms that, used very narrowly, are still used against good friends, some of the greatest writers I know, and folks who, whatever and whoever else they are, are still people. (For the record, words being reclaimed and used as self-identifiers are a VERY different matter.)
They are terms that do active harm when they are brandished, even when not used directly at the person who is being harmed. They are terms that still do harm, regardless of whether or not one specifically uses them to refer to mental illness, or whether or not one personally thinks that “the word doesn’t mean that, anymore.”
They are terms that you should probably stop using, if you use them. And they’re terms that I would like to be seen as unacceptable for use here, in this space. It would make this blog safer for a lot of people, and a more welcoming, less oppressive space. That’s the kind of space I would personally like this blog to be.
To be clear, I’m not saying that you’re a bad person if you’ve used these terms without knowing about their harmful impact. In fact, Feministe used to have a category called “Crazy Conservatives” (it was changed some time ago to Radical Right-Wingers). “Crazy” and “insane” are terms that I used to use rather liberally, before learning why my choice to do so was oppressive. I don’t write this post to make you feel bad; I write it because I don’t like seeing harm done in almost every single one of our comment threads. And causing harm is something that all people do, regardless of intent. But intent usually doesn’t matter a whole lot when harm is being done regardless.
And I think that if we are serious about holding a social justice stance that works to eventually eradicate privilege and create a world where all marginalized people are perceived as valuable and fully human, it’s our job, it’s our responsibility, and it should be our immediate desire to stop causing that harm ourselves once we know that we are in fact causing harm. No matter how defensive we feel, or how much we like the words in question. Both because it’s right, and because if those of us who purport to believe in social justice don’t act as though language, cultural narratives, and casual prejudice matter, how can we expect to convince anyone else that they do?
MOD NOTE: I understand that it’s likely this post will incite some defensiveness. But, as a general rule, we at least try to not let defenses of privilege take over threads. Today is Blogging Against Disabilism Day, so I find the idea of comments from abled folks who want to explain why something many people with disabilities find to be ableist isn’t really ableist to be in particularly atrocious taste. Those arguments have all been addressed in the various posts linked throughout this one, and in any case, you can have that conversation in about 99.9% of other places on the internet. This place isn’t going to be one of them, and comments which attempt to defend language that marginalized people have identified as actively harmful will be deleted.