Ableist Language

Recently we have seen the stirrings in the philosophical blogosphere of a campaign, spearheaded by Shelley Tremain, to highlight and increase sensitivity to the use of ‘ableist’ language. Ableist language stands to disability in the way that sexist language stands to gender. Just as we now avoid certain kinds of language because it suggests – and may inadvertently reinforce – the inferiority of women, so (Professor Tremain suggests) we ought to avoid certain kinds of language because it demeans the disabled.

I first came across the campaign in the context of a call to avois the phrase ‘blind review’, on the ground that “ it associates blindness with lack of knowledge and implies that blind people cannot be knowers”. Professor Tremain suggests that we replace ‘blind review’ with ‘anonymous review’. I must admit my first response was to regard the whole thing as silly. But I had second thoughts. I no longer think it is silly (to be clear: I think that the campaign against ‘blind review’ is silly, but the campaign against ableist language is not). Here’s one reason to be suspicious of this initial reaction: when women (and a few men) began to question the unthinking use of sexist language, I think lots of well-meaning people reacted by thinking that the notion was silly. The people I had in mind may not have been sexist, in their explicit commitments. Rather, they thought that words do not harm, that we should save our energies for fighting for equal rights, that the movement brought feminism into ridicule, and so on. But gradually people became sensitized to the use of sexist language and we now avoid it. Moreover, research in psychology backs up the contention that the existence of – independently of belief in – stereotypes has real world effects, both on the behavior of those who are stereotyped and on others too. Those who are stereotyped may suffer stereotype threat, where their performance on tasks suffers because the task is stereotype atypical, while others may judge in ways consistent with the stereotype even when they don’t accept it.

I remain unconvinced that the phrase ‘blind review’ is problematic. Still, it seems easy and costless to avoid, so why not avoid it (as Mohan Mathen suggests in comments on the post linked to above)? More obviously problematic is the rich language of mental illness as insult: ‘crazy’, ‘hysterical’, ‘schizophrenic’ (to mean two-faced), and so on.

However, I want to note that there are potential costs to sensitizing ourselves to ableist language in the manner suggested. Some metaphors are so dead that I doubt that they do any harm. ‘Sinister’, for instance, does not seem to me to be remotely harmful to left-handed people. But the problem with sensitization is that it spreads: it makes metaphors live, and increases the cognitive load.

Here’s an example of what I mean. There have been several recent controversies in the United States over the word ‘niggardly’. ‘Niggardly’ is a synonym for ‘stingy’. It is etymologically unrelated to the word ‘nigger’. However, a number of people have taken offense at the word, because they took them to be related. As a result of these controversies, the following situation has arisen: niggardly is, considered in itself, a perfectly harmless word, but because of the association that has arisen, it is a word that is now best avoided. The Wikipedia entry on the controversies surrounding the use notes that people now sometimes use it to have dig at others: they ask black people not to be niggardly, for instance (thus allowing themselves to be offensive while establishing a bit of plausible deniability). ‘Niggardly’ is etymologically and semantically unrelated to ‘nigger’, but it is now guilty by association.

The problem is once you are sensitized to possible associations and suggestions, it is difficult to stop. Double entendres are a classic example: make one inadvertently in a classroom and from then one everyone will hear one in every sentence you say. John Derbshire – not normally a fount of wisdom – notes how the ‘niggardly’ controversy might cause further words to be become suspect: he gives the example of ‘snigger’.

There is a cost to the raising of sensitivities. Linguistic self-censorship is time and resource consuming. It may make dead metaphors live once more, and thus lead to some of the very harms it aims to avoid. It may nevertheless be a cost worth paying – it was in the case of sexist, racist and homophobic language.

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3 Responses to Ableist Language

  • Wayne Yuen says:

    I wonder how many people with disabilities would be offended by the use of "ableist" language like 'blind review'. Often I think people are offended for other people, when the people who they are trying to protect from being offended, aren't actually offended by it.

    I'm not terribly worried about guilt by association words and phrases, after all, I'm more worried about offending people, not utterances. We should remember that language is not a static thing. Its constantly evolving, and if it evolves towards offense, then we should probably try to avoid it, regardless of whether the word itself has any guilt… Words will come in and out of favor… Fag was derogatory, then it was an empowering term like nigger amongst the black community, now I'm not sure what it is. Sometimes words become entangled… Hispanic, Latino, Mexican, mean the same thing to some people, to others they each have distinctly different meanings.

    But ultimately, I think I agree that we should be more sensitive, and try not to cause offense when it costs us little or nothing, except maybe feeling a bit silly. But like Plato wrote in the Republic, new things sound silly, but when those Creteans start kicking butt at all the competitions because they exercised nude, the silliness will give way to practicality.

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    "Blind tasting" “ associates blindness with the highest level of olfactory skills and implies that only blind people can be become wine experts.
    This, as Shelley Tremain so lucidly argues, is clearly oppressive and demeaning to normal-sighted people.
    I agree that we should remove the phrase.

  • Neil Levy says:

    Anthony, I agree that's the right thing to do, but alas, justice is blind.

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