November 2017
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more on use of 'lame' 'gay' 'retarded' etc. as insults or negative expressions


I wanted to share this part of a letter I wrote to a blogger I admire:

I had a concern about your use of the word "lame" as slang for "bad" or "un-cool." I imagine that it's probably something you hadn't really thought about, since that's true for most people. I wanted to let you know that it has a similar discriminatory sting to racial slurs, because it's been used in a similar way. It came from a simple description of a group of people who were considered lesser, and took on a negative connotation that eventually overwhelmed its original meaning in most people's minds (the word "gay" is like this too). But it still gets its "bad" connotation from the "less worth" status of those people, and thus reinforces the idea that that group IS lesser. If people always rolled their eyes and said your name in a disgusted tone when they didn't like something, you'd feel pretty sure that those people didn't respect you or perhaps actively hated you. If you do that with a word that describes a group of people, you're doing that to many people at once.

This builds on the the "it's not expressive or useful anyway, and it hurts me personally" post I wrote about two years ago.

ksej also points out the consummate laziness and lack of imagination in using ableist slang.

ETA:
This isn't about offense. It's not about being polite. It's not about being "PC." It's not even about being kind. It's about living in a world that is structured to enforce inequality, and the fact that language is an extremely powerful tool for policing difference. It's about the fact that using words which have discriminatory connotations contributes to discrimination. Like with the word "gay" -- even if the people you know who fall under that umbrella don't have a problem with it, it is still used to reinforce the idea that being gay is bad. Even if it doesn't hurt the feelings of those you know, it still causes harm.

I'm not asking people to not use this word. I'm asking people to consider why they might let a habitually used word remain in their vocabulary upon learning that it has been -- and still is -- used to remind people with disabilities of their station, of their "inferiority," of their lack of belonging and acceptance.


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Comments
wakingdreaming ══╣╠══
I never thought about "lame" that way. However, I have a big problem with the term "gypped" and most people have no idea of the origins of that one.
belenen ══╣hissing╠══
yeah, I almost included that one when I mentioned "gay" but then a whole list came to mind and I wanted to keep it short. That one bothers me a lot too.
Garnet Hyneman-Crow ══╣╠══
I used to say gypped all the time until my husband got upset about it. I was then educated on its origins and felt horrible. I try hard not to use it anymore.
belenen ══╣progressing╠══
I've found that all we can really do is think about what we say and why we say it... Sometimes our privilege makes us miss things, and I don't think that says anything bad about us as human beings. It just means we're part of a horrible system and if we don't want to contribute to it we will have to put work into changing our defaults.
theindiequeen ══╣╠══
I don't use "gay" in a negative way because the word is still used to describe a group of people. Same with "retarded." I don't really think about "lame" the same way I do the other two, though, because I have never in my life heard the word "lame" as a way to describe any group of people. I know that at one point, it was, but there is also another valid definition to the word.

If you look up "lame" in the dictionary (at least the Merriam Webster), the word also means "lacking needful or desirable substance." Then it goes on to give example sentences, "He offered a lame apology for his actions." Whereas if you look up "gay," you won't find a definition that would fit with the sentence, "that is so gay." Same with "retarded."

One of the things I think people need to keep in mind is the way that language changes. This is a general statement. Before the printing press was invented, language changed CONSTANTLY. You could live in one town and have the people in a town 10 miles over speaking an entirely different dialect or even language altogether. Since the printing press and the spread of mass media and then the internet, though, language has been more static.

I don't know the exact history of the word "lame" and when it was used to refer to disabled people. But in all of my life, I've only understood the word to be meant as "weak" or "ineffectual" and so that's how I use it. Also, I've never heard stories of actual disabled people being offended by this word. I'm sure there are many out there, but because I've never come across any, I use it that way.

I'm not saying we should all start using words that are offensive and say whatever we want. We definitely need to think about our choice of words around different people. But I don't feel the same way about "lame" as I do "gay" and "retarded" because I don't think anyone actually uses "lame" to describe a group of people anymore. I think it has just become a synonym for "weak" or "ineffectual."

I also think that sometimes the challenge to be completely PC in everything we say can get exhausting. If you start over analyzing everything you are thinking about saying, you'll find that a lot of things could be offensive to a lot of people. I try to think before I speak, but sometimes my desire to honestly express myself overrides the amount of time in which I can think and choose my words, especially when I'm talking and not writing. So I just try to be non-offensive based on what I personally find offensive, and then if something I say offends someone else, and they tell me, then I'll try not to use that word around them any longer.

So having said all of that, now that I know that "lame" is offensive to you, I will try not to use it!
brightlotusmoon ══╣╠══
I just wanted to say that I, as a disabled person, have never been upset or offended by the word "lame" because I, too, have always seen it used as a synonym for "weak" and "ineffectual" - as have my close friends who also have various disablities. We just shrug it off if someone calls us lame. Because, well, our disabilities are lame. We're gimpy and crippled and I for one hold my head high about it. In fact, this sudden backlash against "lame" surprises me. I do, however, flinch if "retarded" is used improperly in certain ways, so there is that. It does still mean "developmentally delayed" and "slow" right?
I also wanted to say that I fully support you comment about language changes. I've been studying it, and it's staggering how many times different words have been used for so many different things. I had no idea that so many words we take for granted today had such different conotations so long ago. I do often enjoy saying "I bite my thumb at thee!" just for giggles.

tralfamadore ══╣╠══
I don't mean to take this discussion into, "Yeah, but..." territory because I do agree that it's sometimes difficult to know what kind of statements might trigger various people and it can be very easy to just assume that lesser-known or lesser-understood terms don't have an effect on many people. I also think it's great that you acknowledged your attempts to change as you come to understand what might be upsetting for the people you interact with. But I'm not sure that justifying the use of that word because of its 'other' definition is quite the right way to go.

Merriam-Webster also says that gay means "happily excited, keenly alive and exuberant, bright and lively," etcetera. In fact, the "homosexual" definition is the fourth one offered.

Merriam-Webster also says that retard means "to slow up or impede."

I don't think anyone would disagree that, while any word can certainly hold multiple definitions or potentials for use, there are certain words that are known foremost by one definition and the use of them creates an almost visceral reaction in a person. The fact of the matter is that "lame" was once used as a term for people with disabilities, or those who were seen as weaker and in need of assistance. What makes it ableist is that the word has been co-opted in order to refer to things that are bad, undesirable, or lacking in merit. For many people it might not be quite such a 1-1 conclusion, but the underlying thought is that people who are physically weaker or disabled are in some way bad, undesirable, or lacking in merit.
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theindiequeen ══╣╠══
theindiequeen ══╣╠══
I was trying to point out that when I say "lame," I mean that something is "weak" or "ineffectual," which is a valid definition of the word. Yes, "gay" has other definitions (like "happy"), but you won't find a derogatory definition in the dictionary. When people say, "that's so gay," what they really mean is "that's so stupid" or something to that extent. If you look up "gay" in the dictionary, you won't find that kind of meaning in any of the definitions. So you're literally taking a word and making it derogatory by using the homosexual definition as an insult.

When you use the word "lame," however, I don't feel it should be insulting. Because even disabled people, quite literally have something physically "weak" or "ineffectual" about their body. That's not an insult, it's just the way that it is. So when you say, "well, that was a lame movie," you're basically saying "that was a weak movie." You're not taking a term that normally means something entirely different (i.e. referring to a specific group of people) and making it insulting because "weak" is actually one of the literal definitions of the word as it stands now.

Of course, I do recognize that some people may find the word offensive because they have a different perspective than I do. And I do try to be conscious of things and not use words that offend people. But at some point, you can't take into account what may or may not offend someone when you're speaking because then you could never say anything. A lot of people get offended, for example, when you take Jesus's name in vain or talk about homosexuality or use a cuss word or bring up a political point that they don't agree with, the list goes on. I personally can't stand words like "girlfriend," "boyfriend," "husband," and "wife," but I'm not going to expect people not to use them. Because they have different ideas and a different vocabulary than I do and while I might not agree, I respect their perspective.

Basically, I think what it boils down to for me is that if someone tells me something I'm doing or saying is personally offensive to them, I will definitely try to change my behavior. And as a whole, I try not to do anything that I think is offensive. But I can't worry about who I might offend with my words and actions all of the time because almost everything you do and say is guaranteed to offend someone out there.
tralfamadore ══╣╠══
As previously stated, I completely agree that you can't predict what words may or may not be a personal trigger for everyone out there. The best that you can do is to avoid being intentionally insulting, and be appropriately gracious and apologetic when you find out that something you said did in fact insult someone else. There are certainly some words that should be avoided outright because they're obviously insulting and triggering to a great many people, and just simply don't need to be said. But of course there are things no one could predict. I just read an excellent Tumblr post a few weeks ago about a person's relationship with the word "stupid" and why she finds it to be a derogatory, ableist term that deeply pains her to hear. I'll readily admit that I have always used "stupid" without so much as a second thought, but after reading her account I am definitely given pause and have been doing my best to check my language and see if there isn't some other way I can express myself.

I think you're doing the right thing in recognizing that you may unintentionally offend someone with your language and seeking to change the way you communicate when you're told that your words are personally hurtful. What I find is that there are many people who will say, "Well, I can't predict what might insult everyone and it's not worth my time to try," and just stop there. They use the fact that there are a multitude of words and ideas that are very hurtful to dismiss their personal responsibility in striving to do better. That's what frustrates me so much, because they're effectively saying that it's not worth their time to try, even when they've been called out on it.

More and more as I progress with my disability studies concentration I'm finding that there are a lot of things that people will dismiss outright because they don't understand how hurtful the ideas behind the word are. I think we all know why words such as "gay" and "retarded" can be so hurtful and derogatory when used offhandedly, but words such as "lame," "dumb," "spaz," etcetera are often overlooked because of some of the reasons that you pointed out above. Your statement that people with disabilities "literally have something physically 'weak' or 'ineffectual' about their body" might seem obvious, but there's a whole experience and culture that comes with words like that, that most people don't ever consider.
theindiequeen ══╣╠══
belenen ══╣honesty╠══
When you use the word "lame," however, I don't feel it should be insulting.

It's true that it shouldn't be insulting. The word negro simply means black, and originally was just a descriptor -- but it is insulting now because of its history. Lame has a similar history. We (being the privileged group in both cases) simply don't hear as much about ableist words as we do about racist words. Hopefully we'll get some civil rights activists who do as much about ableism as has been done about racism, at least on a consciousness level.

It's also more complicated because disability itself is considered being "weak" or "ineffectual" when in fact the weaknesses and ineffectualities are mostly caused by society. We have wheelchairs -- if everywhere was accessible and there was no stigma, people with no legs would experience no more "disability" than people with poor vision. Even though mainstream folk might not refer to "the lame" any more than they'd refer to "the negros," those are still categories people think in and those categories are what give prejudicial significance to the word.

I don't care about offense. I care about things that I feel contribute to prejudice, and this is one of them. And I care about things that hurt me personally, which this does, because of the first reason.
brightlotusmoon ══╣╠══
theindiequeen ══╣╠══
This whole discussion is really awesome, though.
aliyna ══╣╠══
This. It's an important dialogue to open up, and fascinating. Language is endlessly fascinating.
theindiequeen ══╣╠══
I agree! I'm always fascinated in the way language changes and the different words that get added or changed along the way.
sidheblessed ══╣╠══
I grew up thinking that "lame" meant of boring quality or weak. When I finally heard the word in its correct context at around nine, I thought "It's not nice to call him lame just because he has a bad knee!" Out of the mouths of babes, eh?

Anecdotes aside, I agree with you that words have power and we should think about that power before we use words like lame, gay and retarded. They might not be discriminatory in origin, necessarily, and I think there is something to be said for reclaiming words, but these have a powerful enough derogatory tone to contribute to inequality and discrimination that I think being more careful with language instead of using them is a good idea.
on communication, social justice, intimacy, consent, friendship & other relationships, spirituality, gender, queerness, & dreams. Expect to find curse words, nudity, (occasionally explicit) talk of sex, and angry ranting, but NEVER slurs or sexually violent language. I use TW when I am aware of the need and on request.
Expect to find curse words, nudity, (occasionally explicit) talk of sex, and angry ranting, but NEVER slurs or sexually violent language. I use TW when I am aware of the need and on request.