Say What You Mean

[Content Note: This post talks about disablist language and includes examples of disablist slurs.]

So, now that we're careening into another election season, and the Republican candidates are proving to be typically obnoxious, indecent, and contemptible, I want to post a reminder that disablist language is a violation of the commenting policy.

Words and phrases with disablist etymologies are deeply embedded in contemporary US English—lame, dumb, crazy, insane, maniac, lunatic, idiot, moron, imbecile, cretin, freak, spaz, -tard, -nut, madness, sickness, myopic, blind and deaf used as synonymous with ignorant, etc.—and there is an obstinate tradition in political discourse of dismissing one's ideological opponents as "crazy."

I used to do it, too: The rhetorical flourish of "those people are nuts" is deeply entrenched in partisan punditry, and I had to be called out by people more sensitive than I was to the destructive nature of disablist language.

Working through one's privilege publicly can be difficult, but given the choice between showing my ass and learning from it, or being an asshole in private, I'll take showing my ass every time. I just regret that it means I've hurt or alienated people in the process.

Anyway. The point is that it was enough for me to stop using disablist slurs because they undermine the safe space. (And they're rather self-defeating and self-loathing, to boot. So there's that.) But the more distance I get from relying on disablist language—and the more I am forced to say what I really mean, that Mike Huckabee (for example) is not crazy, but privileged and bigoted and cruel—the more I realize how progressive pundits' reliance on disablist language is not merely hurtful or alienating, but counterproductive.

I said in comments once upon a time:
It really gives me the shivers to think about how much of the US' lurch rightward has been enabled by the left condescendingly dismissing rightwing extremist operatives—and the people to whom their ideas appeal—as "crazy."

The US left has used that flippant bit of ableist rhetoric to give ourselves permission to ignore all manner of indecency. And then feign shock when it turns out the "crazy" ideas presented without counter were embraced by a population of whom we were too contemptuous to even bother trying to communicate.
We need to do better than "those people are nuts." Not just because it's more ethical, but because relying on contemptuously dismissing ideological opponents as "nuts" is lazy—and I don't mean merely uncreative (although that, too) but a way of absolving ourselves of having to deconstruct, over and over, the way in which dishonest, immoral, selfish, and in other ways terrible positions held by conservatives are dishonest, immoral, selfish, and variously terrible.

It occurs to me that the rightwing must love our casually dismissing them as "nuts," as unworthy of intensive examination. Yeah, sure, we're nuts, they agree, as they pass more "crazy" anti-choice legislation in seventeen state legislatures, nationally unscrutinized behind a wall of disablism.

So, in this space (and hopefully everywhere), instead of relying on disablist language: Say what you mean.

If you mean that the Republicans, or whomever, are being dishonest, say that they're being dishonest. And, if you mean that they're indecent, say that they're indecent.

If you need a less specific word, there are plenty of words that will do—contemptible, reprehensible, awful, terrible.

Not only is this a good practice so as not to alienate and other people with mental illness; it's also more politically effective in terms of developing counter-arguments and defining solutions. Because good solutions depend on defining problems accurately.

And "crazy" or "idiots" or "wingnuts" doesn't do that. Not even a little.

Let's think about what our objections really are, and then thoughtfully and carefully say what we mean.

[Previously: A Thing About Disablist Language. See Also: I Write Letters; Liss Says Stuff.]

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