Criticisms of Ableist Language: Empirical Commitments?

Written by Neil Levy

As I have discussed previously, there is a growing concern about the use of ‘ableist’ language. Ableism is discrimination on the basis of disability, when disability is not in fact relevant. There has long been a move to eradicate sexism from our language. Most of us do not think it’s appropriate to use ‘effeminate’ as an insult; many of us object to the use of language that makes maleness the standard (‘mankind’). Similarly, many people object to the use metaphorical language which associates negative qualities with disability (while I am ambivalent about the use of trigger warnings, I take the opportunity to mention that I will mention some egregiously ableist slurs below the fold).

For instance, it is ableist to describe someone (disabled or not) as a ‘retard.’ The term is offensive in itself, and it is independently offensive to use it to describe someone whose performance you disapprove of. It associates (perceived) failings with disability, which is paradigmatic ableism.

While only trolls would use a word like ‘retard’, concern with ableist language extends much more widely. There was a time when lots of educated people, with no intent to offend, used words we now regard as sexist, like ‘mankind’ or the male pronoun as a universal. Some of those who used this sexist language were actually supportive of gender equality, and failed to see any connection between their words and reinforcing gender hierarchy. Today, this attitude is much less common. Those concerned with ableist language claim the cases are closely analogous: many of us unthinkingly use words that are ableist without recognizing that fact. They want to alert us to our ableism and have us change our linguistic usage.

For instance, they claim that phrases like “turn a deaf ear to” associate deafness with ignorance; that to call someone or something “lame” metaphorically is to associate walking difficulties with an unrelated (perceived) defect that reduces value; that to describe someone who acts unthinkingly as “dumb” is to inappropriately associate communication difficulties with mere foolishness.

It seems to me, though, that there are important differences between the many words which have been described as ableist. Language is pervasively metaphorical (the word ‘literal’ comes from the Latin literalis and is itself metaphorical). But many of these metaphors are dead (as we say in metaphorical language): they are no longer understood by their users as referring to disability or disabled people. ‘Retard’ is very much alive. I suspect that lame and dumb are dead: not only do users not associate them with disability, in many cases they are unaware of the words’ origins. ‘Deaf’ is by no means dead, but it may be dead in the context of the phrase ‘to turn a deaf ear to.’ That is, users may not associate the phrase with disability or disabled people, and using it may not tend to reinforce ableist patterns of thought or behavior, or ableist institutions.

I am conscious, however, that there was a time when defenders of locutions like ‘mankind’ claimed that their usage was not sexist. In effect, they were claiming that the ‘man’ in ‘mankind’ was dead (this is more plausible in words like ‘chairman’, which we often use in a way that seems gender neutral). Compare to this the decline in ‘mankind’. It strikes me as progress that ‘mankind’ has declined; perhaps in a decade a comparable decline in ‘lame’ or ‘halting’ will strike me the same way.

The question I want to ask here – not answer – is this: what are the empirical commitments of those who urge that we stop using language like ‘halting’? Is the concern for such language predicated on the language not being dead? If so, what does it take for the language to be dead? Unusually, here being dead might come in degrees. A locution is slightly dead if its reference to disability is known to users (perhaps on reflection) but not automatically associated with disability. ‘To turn a deaf ear to’ might be an example. A locution is moderately dead if it is neither automatically associated with disability nor known by users to refer to disability. Perhaps ‘lame’ is an example. A locution is completely dead when its link to disability is beyond revival (reminders of the link might cause the association in people’s minds, temporarily or permanently, in some cases but not others). Does it matter for the ableist case whether the language is dead, and how alive must it be to be a worry?

Ableism-consequentialism would be concerned primarily with the impacts language use has on disabled people, directly or indirectly (it may also be concerned with the impacts it has on non-disabled people: making them more callous, for example). It seems that ableist-consequentialists will be concerned with whether the language is dead or alive. But ableist-consequentialism is not the only ethical position one might take on the issue. Ableist-virtue theory (for instance) might regard ableist language as intrinsically wrong. It is not clear to me, however, that ableist-virtue theorists can entirely avoid questions about their empirical commitments, because how alive a locution is might be relevant to whether it counts as ableist in the first place.

Again, I don’t have the answers. I want to hear from those who have thought more deeply about the issue than I have. Does the movement against ableist language have empirical commitments? What are they?


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