(TW: reference to ableist slurs, by way of example.)
So. Someone on Twitter – whom I respect – blithely referred to me as “ableist” because I didn’t agree with them that the words “stupid” and “weird” are ableist slurs.
Do I understand the concept of ableism? Yes. Do I recognize ableist slurs? Absolutely. I’ve worked hard to get words like “idiot,” “moron,” r*tard,” “dumb,” “lame,” etc., out of my vocabulary. (NB: “dumb” does occasionally slip in, if it’s followed by the word “ass,” but I’m trying. Habits are hard to break, but I’m getting there.) I don’t use words like “crazy” or other mental-illness-related term, unless I’m using it in a reclaiming way for myself and my own mental illness or in reference to someone who has out-loud-and-on-purpose stated that they are reclaiming the term for themself. I am very aware of disability issues, even the ones that don’t affect me personally, and while I will not claim perfection, I do try hard to be aware of ableism in the world, and try to relieve it or at the very least not add to it whenever possible.
And yet I still don’t believe that those words are ableist.
For clarification: if you’re referring to a PERSON as stupid? No. Stop that. You are wrong; go sit in the corner and think about what you did. QUITE ASIDE FROM THE FACT that it’s a cruel and hurtful thing to say, it’s also quite ignorant of how intelligence actually works. I’ve seen students who were labeled as “stupid” – by others, but sometimes by themselves – thrive and succeed, because you know what? PEOPLE AREN’T STUPID. That is a misuse of the word.
Actions, however, can be hella stupid. It has nothing to do with ability; people with quick minds, who make logical leaps that other people pass up, with access to all the pertinent facts – with all the ABILITY, in other words, that someone could need – make some pretty stupid decisions. It doesn’t mean that the person is bad, or that they are incapable of making better decisions. (In fact, that’s practically a tautology – a decision can only be considered stupid if the decision-maker COULD, with their ability and their information, have made a better decision, and chose not to.) We need a word that sums up actions and decisions of this nature; “illogical” captures part of it, as does “counterproductive,” and I’m sure there must be others, but nothing expresses every aspect as succinctly as “stupid.”
As for weird… there’s a pitfall here, yeah. The argument could be made – and is made! – that “crazy” is often used in a positive sense these days, and has nothing to do with mental illness. And that argument might hold water in the long run! Never let it be said that I am not ALL ABOUT fluidity of language! However, here and now? Nah. The “new usage” of “crazy” is too new; the accepted usage, the one with centuries of history behind it, 100% means mental illness, and in a damning way, and is still being used to hurt and attack people. Mentally ill people can claim it to their heart’s content; college students describing last night’s party need to stop. So the claim that “weird” is not currently used in a predominantly derogatory way is not, by itself, enough to justify the term.
However, the history of the word “weird” goes back to “wyrd” – the forces of fate, and fate magic, in one’s life. As the word evolved, it retained the eerie, otherworldly qualities even as it started to pick up the meaning of someone or something outside of mundane day-to-day life. Linguistically speaking, the modern meaning of “someone who isn’t like me or what I consider normal” or “someone who doesn’t adhere to society’s standards” is relatively new, and even within that meaning, it’s been fairly equally split between someone using it as an insult vs. someone using it as a compliment or a point of pride.
Now. If you’re calling someone weird (or stupid, for that matter) due to a disability issue, THAT is ableist, yes. If you’re using those words to attack and insult someone, it may or may not be ableist, but it’s definitely rude, just because attacking and insulting people is rude. But just because a word CAN be used to hurt does not make it a slur. (Example: my southern mother, who uses the phrase “bless his/her/your heart” INTERCHANGEABLY as both a compliment and an insult.) I do not believe the words themselves are ableist; I do not believe that it makes you ableist to use them.
On a wider note… I’m a little disturbed by a trend I’m noticing. I really, really don’t like it when someone appoints themselves the Keeper Of The Words. As in, “I have declared that this term is Xist, and if you disagree, clearly you are Xist!” Like. No, dude, maybe I just disagree with you on the word. I can be 100% all-in dedicated to fighting Xism, and still not agree that Word Y is Xist. And ODDLY ENOUGH, insulting me is not really going to convince me to reexamine my stance.
Ana talks about this in this thread. Tl;dr version: “offensive” and “accepted” words are never set in stone; communities and identities are fluid and not a monolith. The fact that you find one person in community X who dislikes Word Y does not mean that Word Y is automatically bad. There may be a million other people in community X who adore Word Y and embrace it as their personal identity.
Beyond that, though… look, I was raised by a debate coach. Accepting something as true because someone else says so is, uh. Not what I do. I teach critical thinking; I am not simply going to swallow an unexamined proposition. If you are saying “Do not use this word for ME, I find it hurtful,” okay, fine. You are the one and only expert on you. But if you’re saying “this word is always harmful, never use it,” I’m sorry, but I’m going to need some explanation and some proof, and I reserve the right to decide “no, you are wrong.”
For the record, I almost always err on the side of not doing harm. I’ve cut words that I really loved out of my vocabulary because someone considered them harmful. But they actually convinced me that they WERE harmful. They didn’t simply lay down the law and accuse me of bigotry if I didn’t fall in line.
But lately I’ve been seeing a lot of internecine conflict; people who are ON THE SAME SIDE fighting with or insulting each other over points of purity. This isn’t a tone argument; I’m not threatening to walk away from the movement if people are jerks. But I absolutely will lose respect for people who can’t accept any honest deviation from what they have decided the standards will be.
I am not ableist – at least, I’m as not-ableist as someone like me can be. (Again, I do not claim perfection!) Disagreeing on whether a word is ableist does not automatically make me ableist. If I am factually wrong on the reasons I’ve presented, explain it to me. Convince me. It takes a lot of time and thought for me to admit that I’m wrong, but it DOES happen. But don’t just throw insults at me and think you’ve made some sort of point.