Shifting Away from Ableist Language

This is for Blogging Against Disablism (BADD) 2016 – go read other submissions!

When, years back, I was first introduced to the concepts a) ableism, and b) ableist language, my first reaction was “How can we stopped using *all* of these words?! It’s hard.”

But when I actually tried to excise ableist words from my vocabulary … I found that it was not nearly as hard as I expected it to be.

(For those who do not know what ableism and ableist language are – ableism is to disabled people what sexism is to non-male people and racism is to people who belong to a non-socially-privileged race – here is an overview of ableist language)

I cannot speak for anybody else, but I think in my case my thought of ‘it’s hard’ was my ableist privilege telling me that I should not have to inconvenience myself for the sake of disabled people (background: I am currently perceived by society as being abled, and I can do the things which ‘abled’ people can do, which means I now have abled-privilege). Once I actually put in a effort to change the language I use, I found that, actually, it did not require that much effort on my part after all.

A key part of changing my language use was understanding why I was changing it. I got the ‘why’ from many insightful writings by disabled people about their experiences, including many essays from previous years of BADD.

Before I go into the next part, I want to make something crystal clear – if the ONLY benefit of avoiding ableist language (words like lame, stupid, ‘bound to a wheelchair’, etc.) was to reduce the harm which ableism does to disabled people, it would still absolutely be worth doing.

However, I have found that changing the language I use to avoid ableism had additional benefits. It has taught me to be more careful and thoughtful about my language in general, not just with regards to ableism. And the way which taking out ableist words makes me thing about what I say, I feel, makes the things I say more precise.

For example, instead of saying ‘stupid’, I can say ‘uninformed’ ‘thoughtless’ ‘reckless’ ‘uneducated’ ‘ignorant’ ‘bad at analysis’ ‘failed to make connections between the facts’ ‘ridiculous’ etc. Notice how all of those substitutes for ‘stupid’ are more precise about my meaning than using the word ‘stupid’.

Of course, choosing more precise words does take more effort than using a catch-all word. You know what a really good catch-all word for bad things is? It’s the word ‘bad’. Simple, isn’t it?

Learning that I could use the word ‘bad’ whenever I wanted to say something was bad, without needing to think about a more precise term *or* possibly hurting a group of people I did not intend to hurt, really helped me reduce my use of ableist language. Is saying that something is ‘bad’ as emphatic as a number of ableist words which indicated that something is very bad? No. But if it that important to me to convey that something is really bad, or that it is bad in some specific sense, then I can go ahead and find the precise terms I wish to use. I find that, a precise description of how bad something is often packs more of a punch than ableist language anyway.

Here is an example:

Ableist way: That movie is lame.
Precise way: The plot of that movie jumps all over the place, and the actors were totally miscast. I fell asleep after the first hour.
Simple way: That movie is bad.

So, in summary – 1) reducing the ableism in my language was not as hard as I thought it would be when I was first introduced to the concept of ableism and 2) pruning ableist words out of my vocabulary had improved my use of language in general.

I’m the kind of person who would rather read Ann Radcliffe than Jane Austen

In high school, I remember the sensation of being the only girl I knew who *did not* like Jane Austen stories. In particular, I remember this time when we were having a vote on which movie we were going to see (it was after the final exam, so the teacher was letting us watch movies for fun). None of the guys in the class voted for Pride and Prejudice. Nor did I. However, every girl in the class aside from myself voted for Pride and Prejudice, so guess which movie won the vote. I ended up groaning with the guys through it. It was all the more weird since I cannot think of any other situation in high school when it was guys vs. girls and I was on the guys’ side.

I have tried to read Pride and Prejudice twice. I think I got as far as page 80. Both times, I found the novel so boring I could not go on. I also have tried to read Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park. I at least managed to get past page 100 in Mansfield Park.

Oh, and I actually managed to read Northanger Abbey all the way through. I even enjoyed it. And to a large extent, that’s because it’s a parody of The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe.

I did read The Mysteries of Udolpho in high school, and I loved it. Sure, the first hundred or so pages can be tiresome, but hey, the mysteries start within the first twenty pages, and I am willing to read long descriptions of beautiful landscapes.

I would never argue that the work of Ann Radcliffe has greater literary merit than the work of Jane Austen, but I love Radcliffe fiction in a way I don’t think I would ever love Austen fiction, even if I ever manage to read P&P to the end. It’s got adventure! Mystery! It’s gothic! And yes, The Mysteries of Udolpho is much more romantic, in the sense that it combines the landscapes of poets like William Wordsworth with high human passions.

This is one of those things where I wonder – does it have anything to do with me aromantic? I don’t know. I’m sure there are tons of aromantic people who love Jane Austen stories too. I certainly can love witty romantic comedy myself. And it’s not like the stories of Ann Radcliffe are less romantic.

Of course, there were times when female readers did favor Radcliffe over Austen. Radcliffe was a bestselling writer in her own lifetime; Austen not so much. So maybe women literate in English in the early 19th century were more aligned with my literary tastes than the female readers of the present.

Apparently, Speaking Chinese in the San Francisco Surprises People Less than Speaking Chinese in Taiwan

In Taiwan, whenever I opened my mouth around strangers and started speaking in Chinese, people would be shocked. Not always, but often. This was even true if I was in some remote part of Taiwan where few foreigners ventured and practically nobody spoke English.

Furthermore, when I walked into bookstores in Taiwan, people would often be amazed that I can read Chinese. On the contrary, the few times I have entered Chinese bookstores in San Francisco, nobody raised an eyebrow.

This struck me as odd. Sure, it is not unreasonable to presume that a random white person wandering around Taipei cannot speak Chinese. My experience is that most random white people wandering around Taipei cannot speak Chinese. But in remote parts of Taiwan which aren’t touristy, or even smalller cities like Changhua and Pingdong, any white people who are wandering around likely can speak some Chinese. And even in Taipei … is it so shocking that somebody who is in Asia can speak an Asian language??!!!

Now, I’m living in San Francisco. The overwhelming majority of white people here cannot speak Chinese. In fact, the percentage of white people in San Francisco who can speak Chinese is several order of magnitudes lower than the percentage of white people in Taiwan who can speak Chinese. Yet when I open my mouth and speak Mandarin here, it surprises native Chinese speakers a lot less than it surprises native Chinese speakers in Taiwan.

What gives?

I don’t know why this is. But I can speculate. First of all, Taiwanese people have told me that language is in the blood, and that Taiwanese people can speak Chinese well because of their ancestry, just as I can speak English well because of my ancestry (of course, only a minority of my ancestors came from the British Isles, and most of those ancestors were Scots-Irish rather than English, but Taiwanese people generally do not think about such things). These people believed that a) because the do not have white ancestry, they could not become fluent in English and b) because I do not have Chinese ancestry, I cannot learn how to speak Chinese. This is an extreme version of a common sentiment in Taiwan that non-Asians simply cannot understand Taiwanese/Asian culture, or hope to become fluent in Chinese. Hence the surprise when someone like me can carry a conversation in Chinese.

Native Chinese speakers who are in San Francisco are much less likely to entertain such notions. They generally have a much more nuanced view of white people, and are more aware that it is possible for people to learn additional languages. Though Taiwan itself is a multicultural society, it is not as diversely multicultural as San Francisco. In short, native Chinese speakers have a better understanding of what actually happens when very different cultures interact.

The Problem with Using a Single Model of Consent

CONTENT WARNING: Due to the nature of the topic, non-consensual sex is mentioned, albeit in a very general way.

Recently, I have been thinking about consent to sex, and the conclusion I’m reaching is that any single model of consent is going to make at least one of the following errors if it is applied universally:

Type 1 Error: Describing sex which was consensual as non-consensual.
Type 2 Error: Describing non-consensual sex as consensual.

I’ll give an example of a model which is prone to Type 1 Error: “enthusiastic consent”. Sciatrix describes pretty well the problems with the “enthusiastic consent” model and asexuals, but its problems aren’t limited to asexuals. For example, what if A wants a biological child, thinks B would be a really good co-parent, and therefore decides to have sex with B, in spite of the fact that A feels no enthusiasm for the sex itself. And let’s say that B thinks and feels the same way, and they have communicated all of this clearly. I think this is clearly consensual sex, yet it does not meet the standard of “enthusiastic” consent.

As far as a model which is prone to Type 2 Error – “if they don’t say ‘no’, then it’s consensual.” I hope that it is obvious how this model of consent leads to a lot of Type 2 Errors.

There are other models – such as Emily Nagoski’s model which I think is less prone to error than a lot of the others, but as far as I can tell, all of them are going to produce errors in some situations. That’s because people, and their motivations for having sex (or not) are complicated.

Some people insist that consent must be communicated in words to be valid. I think that using words is an excellent guideline, and I encourage everyone to use words if they want to express and/or request consent. But even though I think using words is better, I also think it is possible to have consensual sex without the use of words, even between strangers.

Asexuals get hit by both sides of this. On the one hand, there are the models of consent which deny asexuals their agency (see the Sciatrix post linked above), but asexuals are even more vulnerable to the forces of compulsory sexuality than the general population.

I prefer models which are prone to Type 1 error over models prone to Type 2 error because, of the two types of errors, Type 1 error is less bad. I’d rather bother people who have consensual sex than encourage non-consensual sex. This is why I support laws against statutory rape. Is it possible for a 16 year old to consent to sex with a 30 year old? I would say, technically yes. But the power imbalance is such that there is a higher than usual probability than the 16 year old is being coerced in some manner, and I think statutory rape laws prevent some sexual abuse which would otherwise happen. One thing which makes statutory rape laws particularly effective is that it is a lot easier to prove the ages of the people involved than whether or not they expressed consent, which makes it much harder for sexual abusers who exploit younger people to get away with it. I think it’s more important to prevent that sexual abuse than to make consensual sex between 16-year-olds and 30-year-olds completely legal.

Since no single model of consent can be applied universally, one must have a solid understanding of the thoughts and feelings of the relevant parties before determining which model is most applicable. And there might not be a best model. And it might not be clear at all if it falls into the the grey area of consent.

Mostly, It’s the Invisibility

The them of this month’s Carnival of Aces is “Be yourself (but stretch)”, which as I understand it, is about how ‘being yourself’ may not work and one may have to stretch oneself to at least appear to conform to norms.

I am luckier than a lot of other aces. The only person in family who I’ve had any friction with on account of my ace is my mother, and we’ve managed to work most of that out by now. On the other hand, one reason there hasn’t been much friction with my family is that … we don’t talk much about that kind of thing. When family dinners are awkward, they are awkward for entirely different reasons. I know nothing about my first cousins romantic or sexual lives, which implies that there is not much going on (for example, if they got fiancés, I would definitely hear about it, and even if they had long-term boyfriends/girlfriends, I would probably hear about it). However, my first cousins’ lack of obvious romantic and/or sexual activity is never discussed in my presence, and I suspect that my own lack of romantic and/or sexual activity is also not discussed by any of my closer relatives.

There is a similar dynamic among my friends – if they are the kind of people who are going to make things awkward for an asexual friend, I am probably not going to stay friends with them for very long. At least in this case it’s not mostly a matter of luck.

So does that mean I am totally myself as an asexual all the time to everybody? The short answer is ‘no’.

My mother is the only person in my family who I am out to as an asexual. That is an aspect of myself which other people in my family do not know about (though my father may very well suspect it at this point), and I’m not sharing that with them. It’s the same with most people I know (with the exception of people I know through the asexual community).

Sometimes, this means people will make comments, and I do not react to them the way they expect. And most of the time I mask that my reaction is different from what they expect. Also, sometimes it means that people do not understand where I am coming from.

It’s not the worst situation. Mostly, I ‘stretch’ to maintain the invisibility which is already there because most people are not aware or are only marginally aware of asexuality, and it simply takes less effort to stay invisible.

Who Shows Up at Tedious Yet Important Political Events?

On March 29th, I attended this this public hearing on the proposed merger between Anthem and Cigna, which if approved, would make Anthem-Cigna the largest health insurer in both the United States and the State of California.

My opinion, based on the testimony, is that the merger should be rejected, but I want to write about the process, not the issue itself.

First of all, most of the people who attended the hearing were very professionally dressed (there were a few who were a bit more casual, including myself). Based on the (small) sample of people I talked to, most of them were representatives of Anthem or Cigna. I also talked briefly with someone (who, like myself, was more casually dressed) who was “from the investment community” (I am guessing that he works in investment research). During the bathroom breaks, people generally talked about what a drag it was they had to be at the hearing, about whether they would get out before rush hour. During the hearing, I also saw lots of people doing things with their smartphone rather than paying attention.

Since the California Department of Insurance expected a relatively large audience for this hearing, they prepared two overflow rooms for people who could not find space in the hearing room. I briefly looked at one of the overflow rooms, and it seems that people were more casually dressed, indicating that they may not be corporate representatives. Most people did find space in the main hearing room, so that still represented most of the people who showed up.

So, at this important hearing, which could help determine whether or not this corporate merger which would affect the cost and quality of health care in California is approved, and where anybody who shows up can make a public comment, most of the people who show up are bored corporate representatives.

See a problem here?

With the presidential campaigns going on in the USA, the media and most people who I talk to about politics act as if voting for president is the greatest influence we have on the political process. Should it be Trump, or Hillary, or Sanders, or Cruz?

I completely disagree that the presidential election is the most important thing, or even close to being the most important.

First of all, as a voter in California, my vote will not affect the outcome of the general election at all. But even if I did vote in a swing state, I can do a lot more to influence politics by showing up at these hearings than just by voting for president, or even governor or mayor. Though I did not make a public comment, the mere fact that I was there showed the California Insurance Commissioner (who was present and could see me in the audience) that people who were not corporate representatives gave a damn about this issue (by the way, Dave Jones behavior during the hearing was awesome, and I would vote for him if he runs for public office again).

Regardless of who wins the presidential election, these types of hearings, as well as other kinds of political events of its kind, will continue to happen, and the public will have a lot of leverage if it chooses to use it.

The Protagonists from Chinese-Language Pop Fiction That Grab You and Make You Scream in Frustration

One thing I’ve noticed lately is that there is a type of protagonist – and type of cast of characters – that I run into way more often in popular Chinese-language fiction than popular English language fiction. Namely, the kind of protagonist who a lot of readers end up hating because they do bad things, yet their motivations are so understandable that they are not villains, and sometimes have enough saving graces that the reader can’t help loving AND hating them at the same time. And an entire cast of characters who are mostly unlikeable, yet also have understandable motivations, and end up creating a trainwreck so compelling that readers can’t put the book down.

An example is the novel Love in the Rain (煙雨濛濛). For those who aren’t familiar with it, one can get at least the flavor of the story from the theme songs of the 1986 TV adaptation (take particular note of how, er, courteous the characters are towards each other in the clips). The only characters in the novel I find likeable are a) the protagonist’s mother and b) the protagonist’s best friend. Pretty much every other character of any significance manages to do something thoroughly awful at some point in the novel. Even though it’s a ‘romance’ novel, it’s really about the relationship between the protagonist and her father. One of my favorite moments is when he says ‘You should have been born as a son when I was in my prime, then you would have become the second me,’ and she replies ‘I don’t want to be the second you,” and he replies ‘I also wouldn’t want you to be the second me.’ She gets to see him at his worst, and the irony is that a) it inspires her to be herself at her worst, which is much like her father as his worst and b) she eventually discovers (when it is too late) that the qualities she has at her best, are also qualities her father has. Anyway, I found the novel incredibly frustrating to read because I constantly felt angry at the characters, but at the same time, I kept turning the pages, and it has stayed with me a long time.

Another example, which is (mostly) available in English translation, is Crane Startles Kunlun.

Another example is (long-time readers of this blog ought to know who I’m going to mention) Yang Guo from Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ. I personally love him, but a lot of readers hate him, and I can understand that. He does some really shitty things in the story (as do most of the major characters at some point).

One of the things I appreciate about Chinese-language pop fiction compared to English-language pop fiction is that it is much easier to find stories about characters who are a mix of good and bad in a way which is psychologically compelling, and do not fit the hero/villain dichotomy as clearly. By comparison, pretty much all of the main characters in Harry Potter, with the very significant exception of Snape, and possibly Malfoy, have straightforward motivations. Ditto Lord of the Rings (with significant exception of Gollum). Ditto The Hunger Games (caveat: I’ve only read the first book). I could go on.

I feel there is something true about these characters who do such horrible things, yet do not necessarily do them because they are horrible people. And there is something strangely reassuring about people who do horrible things, yet sometimes also do wonderful things. It’s also just refreshing to read a style of fiction which is relatively less common in English.