Watching our language on mental illness and disability

[Content note: ableist language]

It was probably inevitable that in a post on The Standard about the differences in commentary style between leftwing and rightwing blogs, someone would come along and start saying things like:

Kiwiblog’s comments threads feature a great many angry retards, who mistake the laying out of their prejudices for thinking about a subject and presenting an argument on it. This topic attracts them more than most, and the thread was accordingly psychotic in tone.

When I pointed out that using words like “retard” and “psychotic” was unfriendly to people with mental health issues, it was probably also inevitable that I would be called a member of the “volunteer word police”.

The thing is, ableism is a serious issue. And I’m not ashamed to point it out when I see it.

If you’re unfamiliar with the word “ableism”, this is a good introduction.

There are two very good sets of reasons to not use that kind of language.

The first is the harm it causes. The way we talk about people with disabilities or mental illnesses contributes to how society treats them. We can use language which accords people some basic dignity and agency – like “wheelchair user” – or we can use language which pigeonholes them and defines them purely by what they “can’t” do – like “wheelchair-bound”.

And when we talk about judgemental, vindictive, aggressive, callous people like the standard commenters at Kiwiblog as “retards”, we’re saying that people who have severe mental disabilities are judgemental, vindictive, aggressive, and callous. Do you think that’s going to lead to anyone saying “gee, maybe I should be more open-minded and accommodating to people with mental disabilities?”

There’s a lot of highminded progressive principles which liberal/lefty people subscribe to, about treating people equally and not tolerating oppression. And we extend our analysis of power and exploitation to language all the time. We can all see the harm caused by referring to workers as a “resource” or telling sickness beneficiaries that “the best path to recovery is paid work.”

But when it comes to ideas like “don’t use ableist language” or “stop calling Paula Bennett fat” those progressive principles tend to fall down. Suddenly, we refuse to see the harm we cause with our language.

The second reason to avoid ableist language is, sadly, probably more persuasive.

That’s the idea that when we write off threatening, bigoted hate-speech as “retarded” or far-right and religious extremists as “nutjobs”, we’re downplaying the real threat they pose and cut ourselves off from being able to challenge their ideas or the people who propagate them.

Calling Kiwiblog commenters “angry retards” basically lets David Farrar off the hook for providing a platform for bigotry and hate. Talking about Cameron Slater’s mental health all the time mitigates the fact that he has built a following on deliberately destroying people’s careers and trying to threaten their lives. Writing off people like Anders Breivik as “crazy” stops us from examining and understanding the huge community of people who think, say, and may be planning similar violent actions. (And writing off that entire community as “crazy” is a great way to let them organise further acts of terrorist violence right under our noses.)

It’s easy enough to see why this language has a lot of currency. It’s so satisfying to be able to write off whole groups of people as being beneath us, isn’t it? But really it just hurts everyone else, including ourselves.

If that makes me a member of the Volunteer Word Police, I can only hope that the job comes with a shiny badge.

If you’re having difficulty figuring out how to stop using words like “retard” or “lame” in your day-to-day life, here’s a handy guide.

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6 thoughts on “Watching our language on mental illness and disability

  1. One of the issues I think that people have with ableist language (and I admit to having this issue myself) is that most words which describe someone not utilising thought processes which are quite up to the minimum required standard and thus, their opinions are below par have roots in illness or disablity.

    The use of the word ‘retarded’ is well known to be prejudicial, and the user should probably know better, words like ‘dumb’, ‘stupid’ and ‘idiot’ are all rooted in outdated medical terminology, and are used widely.

    This is not to excuse the usage, but to explain why someone may be more willing to use ableist language than say, any other form of prejudiced language – there is so much of it and so much of it has entered mainstream vernacular.

    • I agree – but then there’s the great example I saw ages ago of someone defending a description of Auckland’s weather as “schizophrenic” on the same terms, as though that’s a totally generic word which is completely divorced from a clinical setting … people, man.

  2. Recently I accidetnally used the term ‘schizophrenic’ to describe something that swung between opinions on the Egonomist. While I corrected myself, it was almost second nature.

    I think this might be in part because a lot of other prejudical terms are used as straight out ‘derogatory’ language, a lot of ableist language has crept in to what can appear to be inert adjectives.

  3. Historically, the word retard has been a term of abuse at people with intellectual disabilities not people who are mentally ill. I don’t know if it gets used against people with mental health issues now, but it kind of grated to see the two possibly being confused.

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