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Disability Language: Respect Is a Feminist Value

Debbie says:

Feministing is a feminist group blog about which I have mixed feelings: they put up a lot of good stuff, they point out important issues, they pay attention to what’s going on and help me do the same … and at the same time, they’re frequently called out for being a home for white privilege, and not responding well when they make mistakes.

Recently, one of their bloggers used the phrase, “If having my car door opened makes me feel like lover man thinks I’m an invalid, not so feminist.”

Meloukhia at This Ain’t Livin’ wrote an open letter to Feministing on this topic. In the short letter, she points to her own excellent post on the importance of inclusive language

Feminism is useless, in my mind, if it fails to recognize an overlapping and intersecting collection of injustices. Even if all that you care about is “women,” I sincerely hope that you mean “all women.” As a movement, feminism is primarily focused on issues which involve white, Western, able-bodied cis women. Some of the gains for women accomplished by feminism, as a movement, have also benefited women outside this narrow category, it’s true, but a lack of understanding about the fact that all women experience life quite differently and may in fact have different priorities and concerns is exclusionary. And, again, if you care about all women, this is a problem, because it means that you are hurting other women when you do not consider things like race, gender, disability, and class to be “women’s issues.”

What do all of the following words or phrases have in common?

Bitch. Cripple. Grow a pair. Lame. Cunt. White trash. “He/his/him” as a generic when the gender of a subject is not known. Ballsy. Harpy. Whore. Female impersonator. Jewed. Real woman. Retarded. Slut. Dumb. Natural woman. Harridan. Witch. Idiot. Man up. Biological sex. Crazy. Tranny. Invalid. Psycho. Step up. Asexual (not in reference to someone who identifies as asexual). Breeder. Shrew. She-male. Gay (not in reference to sexual orientation). Moron. You guys as a generic greeting to a mixed gender group. Skank. Mankind. “Man” as a generic for “people.” Gyp. Halfwit. Insane. Schizo/schizophrenic. “Disabled” as in “the disabled.” Women born women. Ungendering by using “he” as a pronoun for a trans woman or “she” as a pronoun for a trans man. Fat/fatty (as an insult, not an adjective).

They’re all exclusionary. …

People who dislike being told that they should not use exclusionary language are often people who have something to lose if actual justice is achieved.

Since Meloukhia’s open letter was posted on Feministing, a few things have happened. First, the comment thread got long and unpleasant, and loaded with “people who dislike being told that they should not use exclusionary language” was eventually closed by Jessica Valenti (Feministing’s “lead blogger”) at the poster’s request. Now, Meloukhia says:

We are currently talking with Jessica about a group conversation with some representatives from the disabled feminist community and some Feministing staffers. Speaking for myself, I greatly appreciate that Jessica contacted me, and appears to be interested in a group dialogue with all of us. Hopefully between us, Jessica, and Courtney, we can have a productive discussion which will result in some changes at Feministing. I hope to be able to keep everyone updated about what is going on as things unfold, although there may be some radio silence while we work out the details of when/how we are going to have a conversation.

So, some progress. But, so far, no apology from Feministing (although the original poster apologized in email to Meloukhia). No explanation of how and why Feministing is going to work on this issue. In other words, they have not shown themselves to be good allies. (Link leads to Karnythia’s perfect list of how to be a good ally, of which the relevant one here is:

Don’t expect your feelings to be a priority in a discussion about X issue. Oftentimes people get off onto the tone argument because their feelings are hurt by the way a message was delivered. If you stand on someone’s foot and they tell you to get off? The correct response is not “Ask nicely” when you were in the wrong in the first place.

Maybe this is all happening in the radio silence. I hope so.

I understand the push to use exclusionary language. As a writer, I like to have a wide variety of words on my tongue and my fingertips. I like to think of language as a living entity that I can shape to my own purposes. Also as a writer, I understand that “sticks and stones can break my bones but names can really hurt me.” I’ve had too many friends hurt by words in their childhood, words in their workplace, words in their adult home.

Words matter. Using them thoughtfully is a genuine thing we can all do to help make change. It doesn’t cost any money. It doesn’t take a lot of time. (Allies need to spend time and money too, of course; but this is a comparatively easy ongoing piece of the effort.)

4 Responses to “Disability Language: Respect Is a Feminist Value”

  1. were-duck Says:

    This post has been added to a link roundup. Thank you!

  2. Miriam Heddy Says:

    Thanks for posting this and linking to it.

  3. Marlene Says:

    I saw the original post on Feministing and cringed a little. I’ve come to not expect much from them.

    Nice to see this taken as (yet another) an opportunity to explain (yet again) why this stuff matters. This incarnation of the “no, you can’t just say whatever you want” show is exceptionally well written.

    I’m not holding my breath for any apology. Feministing has never (to my knowledge) apologized for other instances of unchecked privilege.

  4. Having Read The Fine Print……: Dangerous Ideas Part 1_ See us as people not tools. « Raven’s Eye Says:

    [...] It involves writers who forget whatever the hell else you’ve heard. Know better . ESPECIALLY writers that claim to be for women. [...]

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