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.


Talking about ‘humanizing/dehumanizing’ is ineffective

In the previous post (which you should read before this one), I promised I would talk about the problem with talking about things in terms of ‘recognize as fully human’ and so forth. Since then, I’ve realized that I want to discuss TWO sets of problems with this use of language, so in this post, I will only address one problem.

Talking about ‘humanizing/dehumanizing’ isn’t effective communication.

Okay, there must be a situation somewhere where using ‘humanizing/dehumanizing’ language is effective. But I think this type of language is often used in ways which don’t help anybody, and in the context of ace/aro discussions, I think it’s almost never effective.

A self-defense instructor I knew said that he used to teach his students to yell ‘Fire’ if they got into a physically dangerous emergency, even if it wasn’t literally a fire. Then he became aware of research that indicates that yelling ‘Fire’ doesn’t do much good. When people hear ‘Fire’ they tend to just come and watch, and do nothing to save the person in danger.

My own experience is consistent with this research. I have witnessed a number of uncontrolled fires in my life, and in each instance my behavior – I came to watch, and didn’t lift a finger to help. Granted, by the time I noticed that there was a fire in downtown Hsinchu (a city in Taiwan) there were already firefighters on the scene, so there wasn’t anything I could do to help. Likewise, when I noticed that a hill right above the town of Santa Clarita was on fire, half of the people in the town had already noticed it, since it was really, really obvious (Santa Clarita is possibly the wildfire capital of the USA). And when there was a fire at my middle school, the best thing I could do was follow the teachers’ instructions, which I did (by the way, fire drills do work – since we at first assumed that the fire alarm went off because of an unscheduled fire drill, we stayed calm, and even when we could smell the smoke and realized that it wasn’t a drill, we still didn’t panic, and nobody was injured in the fire). But when a building in the middle of San Francisco is on fire, what is my reaction? To go tell other people – ‘hey, check it out, there’s this building on fire, you want to come and watch?’

So, what does the self-defence instructor teach now? He tells his students (who live in urbanized parts of the USA) to yell ‘Call 911’. This gives bystanders a specific action they can do which might save your life (if you’re in an urbanized part of the USA).

As I explained in the previous post, when we talk about ‘being recognized as fully human’ and such things, we are actually talking about something else. Many people can probably deduce from context what we actually mean, but the extra mental steps it takes to deduce what we are trying to say means 1) they are more likely to misinterpret and 2) they are less likely to respond in the way we hope for. Likewise, someone who hears ‘Fire’ can probably deduce there is some kind of emergency, and if they come to look, they might figure out what kind of emergency it is, but they are unlikely to respond in a way which helps you. People who are already in the asexual and/or aromantic community don’t need to be convinced of the validity of asexuality/aromanticism, and telling people outside the community ‘aces/aros are fully human’ is unlikely to make them change their behavior.

Of course, in this regard, saying ‘aromantics/asexuals belong in your in-group’ is probably even worse.

Sometimes, we want to say ‘Stop saying that all people are sexual, because that excludes me and when I hear that I feel like you think I don’t matter’. Sometimes we want to say ‘I want more aromantic characters in fiction who are passionate about life, because I am an aromantic who is passionate about life and I want to see more people like me in fiction’. Sometimes we want to say something else. I think our communication is more effective when we go past the generalized vagueness of ‘humanizing/dehumanizing’ and express more fully what we actually mean.

So that’s one problem. What’s the other problem? You might have noticed that I put this series of posts in the ‘Veganism’ category, which is a bit of a hint. If we all aspire to be recognized as fully human, what does that say about how we treat those who are not human? That’s going to be the topic of the next post.

Can we reserve ‘sleep with’ for when we literally mean ‘sleep with’?

Open Letter to Users of the English Language,
CC: Users of Mandarin (every point in this letter applies to Mandarin, and I suspect it also applies to other Chinese languages)

Dear Users of the English Language,

I know that I can’t seriously ask over a billion people to change the way they use English just to please me, but I still wish to make a little request.

How about we say ‘sleep with’, ‘get in bed with’, etc. … when we LITERALLY mean it.

As it, let’s stop using it mainly as a pseudo-euphemism for sex.

I have never had sex with anybody. I have, however, slept with people. Those are two distinctly different actions.

I have to be careful about how I talk about sleeping with people so that people don’t assume that I mean that I did something sexual with them. By itself, that wouldn’t be a big deal, and if that was all that was going on, I wouldn’t bother writing this letter.

However, this idea that ‘sleep with’ almost always means ‘have sex with’ ties into sexual supremacy, and as an asexual, I am not on the priveleged end of this specific hierarchy. It erases and discounts non-sexual interation, such as sleeping next to somebody else.

In addition to being asexophobic, ‘sleep with’ as a pseudo-euphemism is also, ironically, sex-negative. It supports the idea that sex is so shameful that you can’t actually say ‘have sex with’. This cocktail of sexual supremacy AND sexual shame is precisely why ‘sleep with’ is assumed to mean ‘have sex with’ – if either the sexual supremacy OR the sexual shame were absent, most people would assume that ‘sleep with’ is meant literally unless otherwise indicated.

The fact that the default meaning of ‘sleep with’ is ‘have sex with’ also ties into rape culture. Part of rape culture is that, if men and women sleep together, there must be sex, and that by consenting to sleep with a man, a woman is automatically consenting to sex. As a woman who has slept with men, will probably sleep with men in the future for convenience, but has no intention of having sex with them, this particular wrinkle is very disturbing.

From now on, aside from potential poetic metaphors, I will only use ‘sleep with’, ‘get in bed with’ etc. in the literal sense. When I mean ‘have sex with’, I will say ‘have sex with’. I request that you do the same.

The Notes Which Do Not Fit

Asexuality and Mandarin

I have never tried to have a conversation about asexuality in Mandarin.

I would like to. But I don’t know how to.

The English-language asexuality community is still developing the language needed to describe our experiences in English … and most of that language is still not understood by fluent English speakers outside of the community.

I once tried to discuss asexuality in English with Taiwanese people who spoke English at a high level. They had a lot of trouble getting what I was talking about. It wasn’t because their English was lacking – it was because they simply had never encountered some of the concepts I was trying to describe.

I would currently rate my Mandarin speaking skills to be at B2. If I have trouble getting Taiwanese people who speak English at a C1 level to understand asexuality when speaking in English, I think it would be nearly impossible for me to try to communicate it with my B2 Mandarin. Especially since I don’t have the vocabulary to have a thorough discussion of sexuality in Mandarin. I can understand the basic words used to describe queerness in Mandarin (such as the word tóngxìngliàn which literally means ‘same-sex (romantic) love’ and is close to the English word ‘homosexual’), but I wouldn’t be able to follow an in-depth discussion on queer theory.

I do, however, understand a lot of the vocabulary related to romance, love, marriage, and so forth, even if I don’t always usan’t always usee it correctly (thank you, my dear Mandarin-language melodramas). And I know that these words often don’t have direct translations to English.

For example, I once asked about same-sex marriage in Mandarin. Mandarin has a number of words for ‘marry’, two of them being (娶) and jià (嫁). is generally used as ‘he her’ and jià is generally used as ‘she jià him’. So I ask how would these words be used in same sex marriage. Some people answered that the more masculine party would the more feminine party. Some people answered that the true meaning of is the stronger party marrying a weaker party, and that the true meaning of jià is the weaker party marrying a stronger party. Thus, in situations where the woman is the stronger party she actually her husband; same-sex marriages can also have stronger and weaker parties. My favorite response, however, is that and jià are very patriarchal concepts, and that only more egalitarian words for marriage (such as hé…jiéhūn) should be used, regardless of whether or not it’s a same sex marriage.

See why I can’t really figure out how to discuss asexuality in Mandarin?

It would really help if I had contact with a Mandarin-speaking asexuality community. They could teach me how to describe asexuality in Mandarin, and would probably understand even my broken Mandarin. But I don’t know how to look for such a community.