Wednesday, February 19, 2014

On "Social Justice" Bloggers Minimizing Ableism

UPDATE: Mr Thibeault engaged with me over Twitter almost immediately after I published my post and mentioned him in the link. I want to thank him for that, and for giving me the chance to clarify a few items in my own post that might have been unclear. I have attempted to Storify our conversation, since it is relevant and he does clear up some things I misunderstood about his post's scope and intentions. I'm not totally satisfied about every single thing in our discussion. I'm sure he's not either. The fact is, though, that I could not have asked for a better response so quickly after I initially wrote my piece. If there are any mistakes in the Storify, I take full responsibility for them, and they are unintentional. I have done my best with a platform that I am using for the first time. Storify link: http://sfy.co/fbzy

TW: Discussion of slurs and their impact with use of said slurs. I'm not using euphemisms in this post.

I usually try to write a hook for the first paragraph, to bring you into my essays and to establish the scope of my discussion. I'm too tired to do that today. I don't have a witty way to make you relate to this, so I'm just going to say it:

You can't be on the side of social justice while you're condoning ableist language. Period. It doesn't matter if you have some nifty argument about co-opting the slur or about how it has become more "generic" over time. It doesn't matter if the common use of the slur is as a degenerate and poorly defined catch-all. It doesn't matter if your friends and family are people affected by the slur.

I feel like these are common arguments. I feel like, if the slurs we're talking about are nigger, cunt, bitch, spic, tranny, and so forth, then we all know this. I've seen trans* bloggers make this argument in detail too many times. I've seen more than a few African American bloggers and activists making the arguments outlined above when we're talking about racial slurs. I've seen many feminists, including Ophelia Benson and Stephanie Szvan, both on the Freethoughtblogs network, making these arguments over and over with regard to gender-based slurs.

As a general rule, most social justice activists I've read, regardless of their own backgrounds particular orientation to oppression, seem to have agreed that the following logical principles are valid when talking about intersectional issues and when trying to make spaces more inclusive. This isn't a comprehensive list of rules, just basic principles that I feel are re-articulated enough that we don't need independent arguments to establish them:
  • That the common use of a slur does not negate it being a slur.
  • That the degeneration of the meaning of a slur does not remove the fact that it is a slur.
  • That members of society who are privileged with regard to a given axis of oppression do not get to define what is and what is not interpreted as a slur by those without their privilege.
  • That we are changing our language use in order to encourage participation by marginalized persons in discussions within our communities (be they fandoms, atheist/skeptic communities, political parties, etc.).
  • That people who are privileged with regard to any given axis of oppression should be listening and boosting the voices of marginalized persons and not dictating the scope of their anger to them
I don't think any of these points are controversial with regard to any of the slurs I mentioned earlier in this essay.

So why the fuck is a neurotypical-presenting atheist "social justice" blogger spending so much time defending the word "stupid"?


Rather than generalizing his argument, which has many twists and turns on its way to attempting to justify his disregard for all of the points about oppressive language above, I'm responding point-by-point below. The goal of this response is not to argue that "stupid" is a slur, and it is not meant as an assault on Mr. Thibeault's intentions or character. It is instead meant as an illustration of the way that ableism is still widely ignored by the social justice community and the methods of denial that are employed to justify ableist language when it is pointed out.

I do this because I'm a fan of the Lousy Canuck blog and because I've seen Mr. Thibeault argue against the logical progression of his own argument when it is made by anti-feminists and racists, and I believe that he can do better. I also do this because I believe that his essay is a misguided foray into a larger discussion that is happening because of even more offensive and blatant ableist language being used by other atheist and feminist bloggers, and that by pushing the conversation in this direction Mr. Thibeault is accidentally taking the wrong side of that other argument.

Here we go.

The very first problem with this post is in the very first sentence, and it bleeds into the rest of the paragraph:
Anti-social-justice folks are attempting to stir the pot and get so-called “big names” to throw down with one another right now. There’s a definite sense of glee coming from certain parts, parts wherein people are evidently incapable of any sort of nuanced argumentation, where all they live for is the “drama” of people disagreeing with one another. It’s the “let’s you and him fight” sort of instigation you expect in high school. And it needs to be pointed out that this is happening, precisely because there is always some manner of painful growth necessary within our movement.
That very first statement is a false representation of the conflict that is currently occurring, as near as I can tell. I say this not because I think that anti-social-justice folks wouldn't do this, but because I know one of the principals in the fight that Mr. Thibeault is referring to (more on that in a moment). While it might be easy for him to glide over the issue by attributing the size of this fight to "anti-social-justice folks", it is dishonest to do so. If Mr. Thibeault believes that the campaign against ableist language, including the word stupid, is being co-opted by people that we (disabled persons) should not want as allies, then he should show his evidence for that. When anti-feminists and racists attempt a "divide and conquer" strategy by digging up dirt on community members and fomenting schisms, we usually get a selection of tweets supporting the allegation and/or screenshots of the discussion from their discussion forums. Funny that we're supposed to accept this generalization without any evidence.

Funny too that the real objections to this language by marginalized members of the atheist/skeptic community are being sidelined by comparisons to adolescent emotional turmoil and gossiping. It's not like disabled adults, especially those of us with developmental, emotional, and cognitive disabilities, ever hear that we're not fully adult members of society and that our concerns are childish or anything.

This disingenuous generalization of the issue, coupled with the dismissive and infantilizing comparison to juvenile drama, is disconcerting when it comes from people I dislike. From someone who puts himself out there as a "social justice" writer it is simply inexcusable.

Let's get back to the issue of the actual event that he's attempting to kick dirt over, though--the use of ableist language on feminist and atheist sites. This didn't start as a battle over the word "stupid." In fact, this didn't start over the use of any one word. The original incident that was called out was the Skepchick valentine to DDOSers, and it was called out for numerous reasons. The first person I saw calling it out, and the loudest voice in the continued discussion, was Neurodivergent K (a.k.a. @UVGKassi). She blogs at Time to Listen, and she is and has been a loud voice in the atheism and skeptic communities on this issue. She's a known quantity on the Atheism+ forums too. Oh, and she presented at the first Freethoughtblogs Conference. She's hardly an "anti-social-justice folk". Here are a couple of her tweets, from the beginning of this mess:


For those who can't read the small print, going from bottom to top (earliest to latest):
1. @SurlyAmy I usually love you but holyfuck your valentine to DDOSers was the most ableist thing I've seen in a WHILE. Be better.
2. @skepchicks You couldn't make the point w.o being disgustingly ableist? #abledpeoplesay #whyicantbefeminist
3. @SurlyAmy all the "stupid" & "I'm surprised you remember to breathe". Like, holy fuck ableism. Considering tossing my surlies. It's THAT BAD
4. @SurlyAmy pretty much anything that isn't intellect related? The "surprised you remember to breathe" shoulda made all y'all pause. #ableism
5. @SurlyAmy This is a really disappointing lack of thinking from a collective I did admire.

There are more if you want to read back through K's timeline on Twitter, but those are the earliest mentions I can find. It's worth noting that she's objecting to ALL the ableist language, not just the word "stupid", and also worth noting (though it's not pictured here) that Surly Amy did respond and did acknowledge that they need to do better. Then Rebecca Watson responded, using her platform to minimize the issue and to defend the use of ableist terms on Skepchick. This response, which seems to be predicated on the argument that something can't be a slur if a lot of people use it, managed to undermine any inroads that K and Amy were making in their discussion. From where I'm standing, it was more ableist, more triggering, and more obtuse than the original Valentine, and I have to concur with K--"This is a really disappointing lack of thinking from a collective I did admire" (emphasis mine).

I'm not going any deeper into that post in this discussion, but it needed bringing up to show the context and content of the discussion that Mr. Thibeault is dismissing as "high school drama" and as "instigated" by "anti-social-justice folks." It's anything but that. It is a discussion that was caused by the bad behavior of some feminists who claim to be intersectional when they were called out for marginalizing an entire class of people.

Back to the post on Lousy Canuck.

After the trigger warning, the first substantial example in the discussion is a long-ish story about Mr. Thibeault's parents, about their abusive relationship, and about the way the word "stupid" operated in that relationship. I'm not block-quoting it here because it is very long and my response to it does not involve dissecting the fine points of the narrative, but you can always read it for yourself.

I feel for Mr. Thibeault. I also came from a childhood that involved a lot of one-sided relationship abuse, and also a lot of emotional abuse of the children in the household that was disguised as "discipline" or "teaching." I found it telling that his mother used the language difference between herself and her husband as intellectual leverage, and I believe that her English-language chauvenism is both disgusting and telling. I am not here to say that Mr. Thibeault is wrong in his interpretation of his parents' relationship--I think that in a very bad essay, this is the one area where he strikes an emotional chord.

What I do take issue with, though, is the set of conclusions he draws from it. There is much to be made of the way that cultural chauvenism (by his English speaking mother) was leveraged to project an air of intellectual superiority in that relationship, especially when you consider the way that equating his father's educational background and abilities with language to a cognitive deficit serves to disable a man socially when he might not have a "medical" disability. For those of us that discuss disability as a social phenomenon and an axis of oppression, this appropriation of disability slurs in the service of maintaining ethnic supremacy is a very interesting intersection, and if Mr. Thibeault would like to engage in that longer discussion with me, I would be very interested in it. That's not the analysis we're given here, though.

Instead, he neatly skips over the heavy emotional and sociological content in his example to say:

There are certainly words that are insults, that only serve to do one thing: express displeasure with the target. An insult that has been used to dehumanize and break down a victim’s resolve over time, by calling to mind all the times that that insult has come with threats of or actual violence, can eventually graduate to the level of “slur”, especially when that word is used to hurt any of a whole class of people interchangeably. There is not, however, a hard, solid, bright line that once one crosses, it’s obvious to all parties that the word has graduated to the upper echelons of hurtful insults.
An argument can absolutely be made that the word “stupid” can be used to cause grievous harm to an individual, and I’d be extremely sympathetic to that argument. However, I had stopped using the word myself some years ago, not specifically because of its ableist connotations that a person is only of value if they are traditionally intelligent, or even just neurotypical — rather, I stopped using the word because it is maddeningly imprecise. On the insult scale, it is the polar opposite in my mind to the word “nice” — it means something generally bad, and generally about either the target’s intelligence or the intelligence of the person who designed the object. It doesn’t specify whether that bad thing is inherent in the nature of the object or person; it doesn’t specify whether that bad thing could be rectified or not. Neither does it define the scale or scope of the problem, or whether it’s compounded by a will to stay in its deficient state or a defense of said state as the preferred over the alternative.
This is only related to his story about his parents in the most tangential way, and it makes that story appear to be emotional leverage and not an actual illustrative example. I say this because the two paragraphs above are interested not in examining the impact that his mother's degrading language had on his father's psychological well-being or on their family, but in defining the parameters of the word "stupid" and attempting to exclude it from the catalogue of ableist slurs that disabled persons might reasonably object to. He does this in fairly polite language, but he still does this--both by claiming that the word is too imprecise to convey ableism specifically and by arguing that there is no consensus on the use of "stupid" being a slur.

There's one glaring problem with this: Mr. Thibeault's not presented any evidence that this line is blurry. He asserts it, and I'm sure that his assertion comes from his lived experience, but he does not produce any discussions of ableist language from within the disability community that touch on the ambiguity of the word "stupid", he does not produce any arguments from within our community that this language is mild enough that it should be considered something less than a slur, and he doesn't even bother to discuss the history or use of the word in general society in any specific way. Instead, he analogizes his way out of having to grapple with the words of actual disabled persons when it comes to this term.

Here are four sources that discuss why "stupid" is ableist. All of them were published well before the current discussion about the Skepchick valentine. The earliest of them is from 2 years ago. They are not even the most authoritative discussions--they are simply the first four credible Google results on the topic of "use of stupid as a slur".

Why the word stupid is considered ableist at Broaden Me
Ableist language alternatives at Living Archives on Eugenics Blog
Ableist language at Autistic Hoya
Using ableist language is never okay. Ever. at Is This Ableism?

The fact that an abled member of society is not aware of the discussion about a slur in the disability community is not a problem, generally. If you don't live with the constant barrage of threatening, dismissive, or exclusive language that is our society's comfort with not only the word "stupid", but also with the other slurs discussed in these sources, then you really aren't at fault for not knowing better.

Fault comes in when you don't listen. And that's what happened here.

Mr. Thibeault chose to construct an argument around his definition of what is an is not an ableist slur, based on his experience as an abled (or abled-passing, I don't want to make assumptions) member of society, and then he attempted to impose that definition on the existing conversation without slowing down and listening to what members of our community actually have to say about it.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but after seeing Mr. Thibeault participate in discussions that debunk this very kind of linguistic colonialism when it is in the context of actual colonialism (settler or otherwise), race, and gender, it is disheartening to see him fall so far short on disability. Reflecting on it, this shortcoming in his reasoning is actually quite illustrative of the extent of our society's internalized ableism, and it is my hope that pointing it out will be interpreted not as an attack on his character, but as an illustration of the fact that we are so far short of our goals for autonomy and inclusion that even the people who think that they are fighting for equality for everyone fail to notice us.

Except... wait... he does notice us:

To make matters worse, the word “stupid” has been used — along with a number of other words — to dehumanize a class of individuals who are born neuro-atypical. Its prevalence and casual use might serve as microaggressions to people who have been on the receiving end of the insult in matters over which they have no control. They know better than I exactly in what context their lives have been filled with that sort of talk.
So... after he defines "stupid" as not a slur, he acknowledges that it is used as a microaggression and that being on the receiving end of it might feel different than he imagines. So it's not a slur, it's a... word that matches the definition of a slur but doesn't rise to that level? This is confusing, and not a point that is made very well, because the illustration of the point involves a bit of goalpost-moving, a false analogy, and more than a little bit of denial.
But while the word “retard” might have fallen out of general use in pretty much every other context except as a slur against people with Down’s syndrome or who are on the autistic spectrum, the word “stupid” is still largely used as a grossly-generalized and largely mild insult when directed generally. And when the word is used against a specific person, it can mean anything from lacking education (which leads into a socioeconomic argument), to willful ignorance, or obtuseness, imprudence, or even duplicity.
This is disingenuous. The argument here is that "retard" is a slur because it is not used in those grossly generalized ways, but the argument is made without acknowledging that when the disability community (especially the T-21 community) started fighting against the use of this slur, it was in fact a "grossly-generalized and largely mild insult when directed generally". It is only after years of hard work by activists that it has been stigmatized to the point that it is no longer in general use, and it is through the application of activism very similar to K's objection to the Skepchick posts that the word was (generally) eliminated from polite conversation. To point to the disability community's victory over one oppressive word is not to discount the need to fight against another one, and there is no way that an argument about this topic can be both honest and informed and still retain that assertion.

But he goes on.
Intersectionality — of the sort that people here at Freethought Blogs, and Skepchick and the Atheism Plus forums, and that every other sympathetic humanist skeptical blogger espouses — implicitly demands an extremely high level of empathy. We have to be willing to put ourselves in others’ shoes and recognize that the language used against them may carry too much cultural baggage in one specific direction, and recognize that their fights should also be our fights if we imagine ourselves to be any sort of decent humanists. Therein lies the problem. We are supposed to be empathetic individuals — how dare we not have empathy for every fight? 
But there are, in fact, ridiculous fights that we should abstain from empathizing with — ones where a person does not wish to be ridiculed for their otherwise ridiculous beliefs, like religiously motivated bigotries, for instance. Ones where a person is unwilling to actually examine the cultural baggage and sociological impact of their beliefs, their actions or — yes — their words. 
The casual equation of the everyday experiences of disabled persons, who do not control their disability or the public perception of its visible manifestations, and religious persons, who use their faith to justify bigotry, is uncalled-for. It is dismissive, and it is a false comparison that undermines what little coherence and consistency there was to be found in this argument.

I have avoided addressing you directly so far, but how dare you, Mr. Thibeault? How dare you equate the marginalization and oppression of a class of persons with diverse needs and challenges who are daring to fight for their equal representation and access to cultural participation with the bigots who traditionally stand in the way of people who wish to access that participation?

Is the word "stupid" really so worthy of protection?

But let's move on. I have nothing but outrage for the bait-and-switch tactics and the minimization involved in those paragraphs, and I'm not going to waste my breath on outrage when there are more serious failures in the logic of this piece to deal with.

I recognize that some people might be made to feel bad if they are told their liberal use of “cunt” and “bitch” is misogynistic; I recognize that people saying that this-or-that-bad-thing is “gay” might be put out by your telling them that using the word as an insult is demeaning and systemically dehumanizing to homosexuals. I totally empathize with the discomfort caused to a person who cannot examine how their words or deeds affect others. But I cannot call for tolerance of, say, your average homophobic preacher who, despite never committing any direct violence on a gay person, still teaches their flock that hatred of gays is perfectly acceptable and that anyone trying to stop them is just striving for “political correctness”.
Remember, the people crying “you just want to ban words so you can be Politically Correct” are desperate to hold onto language that they personally enjoy using, and they do not wish to have to withstand the discomfort of changing their ways to avoid causing damage to others. In fact, they often don’t care about the damage, because they actively see these classes of people as Less Than. These people almost certainly lack any sort of empathy for their targets. And in most cases, in their calculus, they have determined that the people complaining about being called a certain name are simply too sensitive, and that they are in the right.
I agree with all of this. This is good reasoning. What is missing is an explanation for the fact that he is defending the use of "language that they [people using stupid as an insult] personally enjoy using" so that they can "withstand the discomfort of changing their ways to avoid causing damage to others" by showing off all his good-guy badges and then asserting as an abled or abled-passing bystander to this conversation, that somehow the word "stupid" doesn't rise to the level of being a "real" slur because... why? I'm not seeing a clear reason for its exemption here. I'm just seeing hand-waving and self-righteous indignation, and I have some news that shouldn't be news: being on the right side of one social justice issue does not excuse being on the wrong side of other social justice issues.

This is not a point that I should have to keep bringing up to a person who is so deeply involved in a blog network that not only features strong social justice themes, but that sponsors an online conference that is mostly about discussing those themes.

I'm not going to quote the sidebar conversation about the use of "cunt" here , both because this post is running long, but I will say this: In that part of the discussion, it is pointed out that while that word is in common usage in other places, it is still inherently misogynistic and therefore still a problem. It is presented in comparison to the word "twat," and the general argument here is that the people who rush to defend their use of misogynist slurs only cling to their right to use the most offensive of the two and don't really argue about the word "twat".

It's hard to see this as anything other than a justification for the continued use of the word "stupid" instead of "retarded," and it has unsettling connotations with regard to feminism, because there is an unsubtle implication the Mr. Thibeault is himself more comfortable with the use of the word "twat" than "cunt", and I'm not sure that he intended that connotation when he wrote this rambling, disjointed apology for ableism. It is not in line with his usual stance on the issue, and it is disheartening if it reflects a change in his orientation to the use of oppressive language.

I will say this, though, and it applies equally to "twat" and to "stupid": The existence of a more offensive slur does not justify the use of a less offensive slur. I'm sure that if the comparison was to the difference between "colored" and another choice word, Mr. Thibeault would not have a problem seeing this truth. I am dismayed that he can not see it with regard to ableist slurs.

Let's take a look at a section of his conclusion, and then I'll sign off:

In my eyes, this isn’t a matter of oversensitivity, or undersensitivity, or privilege-blindness. It’s a matter of the evolution of language, and of context; of empathy, and knowing your audience and your audience knowing you. I genuinely believe that with regard to who actually cares about ableism, you’re going to find a little more empathy on one side of the “great divide” than the other; you should likewise empathize with the person who’s using a phrase that they didn’t know might trigger you, and give them the benefit of the doubt because in this specific case, the word is too doubtful. But by all means, ask for more precision and rip them a new one if they’re demonstrably being ableist and that’s stepping on your or anyone else’s toes.
I'm not sure why he thinks he's defending his "side" of the "great divide" here. The bulk of the discussion in this post is not about whether or not disabled persons are likely to find allies in the kinds of people who fight other social justice causes. That was a point raised in the first paragraph without any justification of further discussion and never returned to. To bring it back in the conclusion after ignoring it for the duration of the discussion of the main point (language use and slurs) smacks of dog-whistle tribalism, just as its use in the introduction did. It also glosses over the fact that the original issue here is someone doing exactly what Mr. Thibeault calls for the community to do.

It's hard to see the principled call for responsible action and accountability in the final quoted sentence as genuine, too, since it comes on the heels of an appeal to those of us who are marginalized to take the feelings of the people who hurt us into account more when we decide whether or not to address their bad behavior. Paired together, the final two sentences here translate to the same old garbage that privileged majorities always throw at marginalized people who dare to speak up: We sympathize with you, if only you wouldn't be so (fill in the blank: shrill, angry, bitchy, defensive, argumentative, oversensitive....).

It's not a new excuse, and it's not a defensible one. Coming as it does at the end of an execrable excuse for an essay justifying ableist language, though, it is entirely in line with the pile of shit that preceded it.

In a day or two, I will take the time to spell out the case for "stupid" being a slur. I don't mean to sound like a "Google it yourself"er, but I'm saving it for a blog hop on the 21st that will be dealing with the wider use of intellectual slurs. The blog hop is a monthly event organized by Down Wit Dat, a T-21 advocacy page, and it will feature a range of voices talking about a variety of ableist words.

This month's blog hop was organized in response to Mr. Thibeault's post.