Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Civil Language is a Barrier to Change

Note: This is a direct follow-up to last week's post on space ownership and expectations, which can be found here.

[Trigger Warning: Damn Near Everything]

Part I: Fuck Civil Language

I'm getting really sick of hearing about how important politeness and civility can be. They're overrated, especially when they become means to their own ends. Don't get me wrong, I'm not an advocate for abusing others on the internet--especially not in their own spaces, as I outlined in last week's post. I just don't believe that "civil" language is an end unto itself that we need to address. Partly, this is because I believe that the discussion about civility is a red herring that's designed to pull attention away from the core ideas that the party accused of "incivility" is raising. Mostly. though, this is because civil language can mask some truly savage and immoral acts.

Without even starting in on the autism community, I'm going to run through some examples:

Within the autism community:

So don't talk to me about civil language, okay? It's not an end unto itself, because it's not inherently a good thing.

Part II: Civil Language as a Badge of Privilege

The previous section took some easy shots at civil language, not because I really believe that most people who advocate for it believe that those are appropriate uses of it, but because it was necessary to knock down the idea that civil language is good in and of itself. It would be fair criticism of that section to point out that, in our blogging community, our discussion spaces, and our conventions, the call for civil language is about focusing on ideas. The people who usually call for it are looking out for those who might be highly sensitive to triggers, trying to maintain a safe space, or trying to focus on ideas instead of personal attacks. Fair enough.

Except it's not.

At its best, "civil language" is a marker of privilege. It sets a vocabulary, appropriate tone, and style of discourse as a standard. That standard usually reflects a skill set that is educated in a traditional educational environment, that has learned the "appropriate" euphemisms to avoid offending others' sensibilities, and that has acquired a certain emotional distance from the event. In short, it identifies a specific group of people who have had access to certain educational resources and who are not currently affected by the issue in a way that creates emotional turmoil. By definition, it excludes from the conversation all of the harried, harassed, and traumatized expressions of ongoing suffering from people who are currently in the middle of a crisis. It also excludes reasoned-but-rough discussions from people whose cultural background includes a vocabulary that the "civil" members of the conversation take offense at, and it presumes a level of education that acts as a barrier to entry for anyone who might lack access to mainstream educational resources.

It should be pretty apparent right about now why "civil language" is a problem for any community, including the autism community.

In case it's not, let's add a few more wrinkles that are more specific to our needs. Civil language assumes an ability to read tone and to control it, and many of us are at least partially blind to tone. It also makes an assumption about the goals and/or intentions of people who don't perform the expected rituals, and that's a mistake. When "civil language" creates a barrier to entry for discussion in our community, it's not creating a barrier that excludes certain segments of the community. It's not creating a racially homogeneous or gender-homogeneous discussion.

That would be bad enough. Instead, it is creating a threshold of ability. The only adult autistic voices that are being heard are the ones most likely to have already progressed far enough in their personal development to have achieved a high level of social/professional/personal success. They are the adults who are least able to articulate what is currently unjust about the resources we have access to, because they are served well. They are not the traumatized, or the ones who have comorbid conditions that create unique problems. Those are the people not served by the current state of affairs.

By insisting on a certain level of "polite" discourse, we are a disability community that is excluding voices based on their disability. How fucked is that? Why would we do such a thing?

More importantly, Who are we protecting? The loudest voices for civil discourse are parents. They need support and help, it's true--caregivers are in an incredibly stressful and demanding position, and they don't deserve any abuse for their good work, but still... Why are we a disability community that puts the disabled person second? I don't know of any other community that does that. It's counterproductive.

Part III: The Intersection of Space and Tone

This is the important part. I'm not saying that any of us needs to take crap on our own blogs. I'm not advocating that you let a horde of potty-mouthed /b/tards invade from 4chan and throw slurs like "retarded" at you. I'm not saying that you can't have comment policies, or that you need to treat every viewpoint as equal. Your space is your space, and you own it. That's what the post from last week was about.

I don't expect any parents to allow me to come onto their blogs and call them psychotic child abusing morons who deserve to be slow roasted while hanging from the genitals just because they feed their kids Miracle Mineral Solution. Heck, I don't even expect the parents who go the gluten-free route to give me room to argue with them in the comments on their posts. Your blog is your blog, as are its contents.

Similarly, I don't expect to have to put up with parents walking into my space and expecting me to share their values, to act as a shoulder for them to cry on, or to prioritize their needs over my own. I don't put up with it, either. My blog is run for my convenience, and for the convenience of the people who enjoy reading what I have to say. If it's not a fit for you, then that's OK, but you don't get to demand that it change to become a fit for you.

This means that if I require a certain tone or vocabulary or level of respect to be shown here, that's my business. The same goes for you on your blog.

What I am saying, though, is that you don't have a right to demand that I use civil language on my blog. When I am in my space, addressing what you did in your space, I have every right to use the language that most accurately reflects my feelings. That includes saying shit like civil language is a really fucked up thing to be focused on when you could be focused on why adults in our community are only respected if they have autistic kids, or if they can hold full-time jobs and/or keep a marriage together.

In public spaces, you have the right to walk away from abuse. If there's nothing but harassment happening, then fine.Keep in mind that sometimes, for us, the abuse is not something that we can control. Sometimes meltdowns happen. You're not expected to sit there and take it, but at least give people a chance to apologize if they're willing to own their responsibility and they're not blaming you for it. (This is a topic for a different post, so I'm cutting it off here.)

What you don't have a right to do is to ignore the substance of a complaint because you don't approve of the language used to frame it. You don't get to clutch your pearls and pretend that you're too fragile to hear that someone finds your ideas contemptible. You can draw a line in the sand at personal attacks, but you don't get to demand that the people who feel wronged by you use your language to describe what you did wrong. You don't get to:

  • pretend being called ableist is worse than your ableist behavior.
  • pretend being called racist, misogynist, transphobic, homophobic, etc. is worse than the behavior that is being called out.
  • change the topic of the argument to the word choices of your opponent in order to argue semantics instead of the point ze originally brought up.
  • control the medium of discourse.
  • moderate a debate you are a participant in.
  • claim that you're being harassed when examples of your own bad behavior are clearly being addressed.
  • lob generalities as accusations.
  • assume that you are privy to the intentions and ulterior motives of people you don't personally know.
  • assume that your level of education/vocabulary/comfort speaking in public confer a moral superiority upon you.
It doesn't matter if you're a parent, a health care advocate, a self-advocate, or a doctor, you are not entitled to do the things on the list above. It doesn't matter if you're arguing with someone who shares your status (i.e. autistic adult vs. autistic adult, parent vs. parent) or if there's a difference in privilege level between you and the person you're debating, you still don't get to do that.

Not without hearing about it.

Part IV: Closing, and Fuck Civil Language Again

For the last year, I have focused this blog on narrating my experiences in the most welcoming tone possible. I've intentionally avoided using vulgar words as much as I can, and I've tried to focus on making my words understandable to my reader. This was intentional. I have a disorder that makes accessing specific vocabulary difficult sometimes, especially when it is a vocabulary of emotional expression. For years, I used profanity as a crutch, I painted in vitriol, and I reveled in it because anger was the only emotion I knew how to express with my full rhetorical ability.

The last year has been a study in moving away from that, because I can't write fiction that touches on a depth of emotional experience if all I can write is anger.

That doesn't mean that I'm done writing anger. I'm not going to go out of my way to use vulgarity again, but when I'm angry, I'm not going to shy away from it either. If you have a problem with this, it might be time to move on. There are things that are worth getting angry about, and when that happens, I will paint in all the glorious colors of rage to fully illustrate my contempt. To do less than that would be to mask the horror I feel at what I see under euphemism.

I'm not going out of my way to offend people, but if you step on the rights of others, expect to hear about it. I'm signing onto the Desert Tortoises with Boltcutters Civility Pledge, and I encourage all of you to do the same thing.

I'm going to be too busy being kind to worry about what you find fucking civil.