AS247: Ableist Language with Ania Bula

Here’s the somewhat more contentious part 2 you’ve all been waiting for! In this one, Ania is a bit more critical of some of the ableist aspects of society, including language used by your host. We got into a hearty debate on the issue, and then I comment on it after. I’m very, very curious to hear where people come down on this one!

20 thoughts on “AS247: Ableist Language with Ania Bula”

  1. I’m pretty sure it’s been shown that using words like gay, stupid, lame etc. to describe something as negative even if the intent is not to insult homosexuals, people with disabilities etc. that it can contribute to a negative image of those people. I am not sure how strongly it influences the image but it does happen. In the city where I live there was a bike shop called Cycle Path and a commercial they ran for a while said ” you’ve got to be crazy not to go to Cycle Path”. I thought it was somewhat amusing but there was a mental health advocacy group that spoke out about it in much the way Ania did in the show. I don’t think here position on this is fringe.

    1. Right. In the Sean Carroll episodes, I said Sean wasn’t listening to Thomas’ points on morality. Now I have to reverse that. Thomas wasn’t listening to what Ania was saying. Also, the arguments he agrees with for the slang term gay also apply to the other ones and for the same reason. It was frustrating he didn’t see that.

      By using these words we reinforce the negative connotations in the zeitgeist. That reinforced zeitgeist has a negative effect on people. One way is because other people do make that connection that Thomas says he doesn’t intend. I believe that the unintended consequences of our actions are something we would be responsible for. Not just blow off with an ‘I didn’t mean harm.’ Even when we say them innocently like Thomas does it can cause other problems. For example, just by reminding people other think of them in that way. Even if the person saying it is a close friend.

      But of course, I don’t think anyone believes Thomas means any harm. Or thinks he is causing harm. And most of us still use these words. (Now I cringe when I do.) But there are two types of harms I listed above. As someone who doesn’t want to do harm, I think being more specific in what we mean is a great idea.

  2. I loved Ania’s point of specificity. If for no other reason, I think we should drop these words to be more specific. This was at 23 minutes in:

    What do people mean when they say stupid? That someone is not intelligent, or being willfully ignorant? A stupid movie can mean just about anything. It could be poorly thought out or executed. Or it could be a movie that just not entertaining to the person. Or, people often say that a movie or documentary that doesn’t conform to their ideology is stupid. It could mean anything.

    If they say a movie is crazy, do they mean it’s a shocking movie or one with major plot twists? Or do they mean it is ridiculous? Or, if paperwork is crazy maybe it’s frustrating or unjustified.

    The fact is these words don’t convey good meaning. And conveying meaning is the purpose of language. Even if this was the only reason to move away from these words, it would be enough. (Though there are better reasons. Also, I’ll admit that sometimes from the context you can figure it out. I.e., a “good crazy” movie vs a bad movie.)

  3. I completely understand where Ania was coming from, but I didn’t entirely agree with her stance on the word “crazy.” Yes, that word may have started out as a pejorative for someone with a mental illness, but in common parlance, “crazy” is not the preferred term to refer to a person with a mental illness. It’s also used to mean “extremely”, “enamored with” or “enthusiastic about”, and “not in one’s right mind.” I actually think it would be insulting to refer to someone with schizophrenia, just as an example, as being “crazy”, because there is a neurobiological explanation for their behavior, and they are not just “acting out.”

  4. Also, I get why Ania wants people to examine the origins of certain words and understand their meanings, which I agree with, but just because a word may have had a meaning that no longer holds up to today’s use doesn’t mean we stop using it. For example, the word “goodbye” is a contraction of “God be with you.” Neil degrasse Tyson talked about this on Sam Harris’ show, and it gave me some food for thought. As atheists (I’m assuming most listeners of the show are), does that mean we should all stop saying “goodbye” because it implies a God that we don’t believe in? Thomas kind of touched on this about the word crazy, just wanted to give another example.

  5. What would be an OK way to use the term ‘crazy’? She said on the podcast “I’m crazy.” Does this mean she wants us to refer to mentally ill people as ‘crazy’ because that’s what it used to mean before it got assigned a negative connotation? Is this word now banned from every day language because of how it has evolved in meaning?

    1. reclaiming slurs is a different conversation but very basic rules are slurs can be reclaimed by people to who it applies and only for themself. So someone with a mental illness can call themselves crazy but it would still be inappropriate to call another person with mental illness crazy and if it doesn’t apply to you at all, it’s not for you to use.

  6. “I don’t mean to offend anyone.” Yet you keep telling us our feelings about words that have been used to harm us over and over and over again are unreasonable.

    Why is unreasonable to use a myriad of other word in the English language that do not hurt people. When someone tells you something hurts them you don’t go “Oh well it shouldn’t and you are just being unreasonable.”

    Do you understand how that makes no sense? Do you see how you are being purposefully hurtful even thought you keep saying you don’t want too? You are being willfully ignorant and ignoring the lived experiences of people who are saying this word hurts.

    Do you use the slur “retarded”? It is in the same vein as “crazy” “stupid” “lame”. It has been actively used to hurt people, we are these people telling you this, please listen to us.

  7. This is frustrating. There is a difference between the origin of a word and the common usage of a word. Words carry different connotations and definitions in different contexts. Calling a kid retarded is negative, but saying that the motion of an object, or the kinetics of a reaction were retarded is absolutely fine because there are different definitions and connotations in each context. There are multiple different usages for these words. A simple google search shows the original definition and etymology for crazy or stupid or lame, and the original definitions do match the negative connotations that some associate with them. So where does one draw the line? There is obviously a line, but who gets to draw it? Also, the idea of owning the use of a word is something that we should be rid of. Only people that are mentally ill are allowed to use the word crazy? In every context and usage? A point Thomas made, how far back and to what depth should we research the history of the words that we use in everyday speech to make sure that we don’t unintentionally offend someone who happens to know the original 14th century etymology of a certain word?

  8. When I started listening to people talk about social justice and advocacy, I kept pushing back against the phrase “it’s not about you” which seemed so often to be the catch-all response to any objection or argument I could muster. It didn’t make sense to me that I was being asked to change my behavior, I was being called out on the things I said, and I was expected to anticipate everyone else’s possible interpretation of my actions, and yet, it was not about me.

    I feel like I’m hearing some of this familiar discomfort when I listen to the “contentious debate” and recap portions of this episode, particularly when you suggest that others ought to give you the benefit of the doubt or assess, based on your character, whether you intended to be offensive or dismissive with your use of a particular word.

    Jay Smooth has a great video on Youtube about discussing racist language (“How to Tell Somebody They Sound Racist”), in which he separates conversations about racism into “what they did” and “what they are” (i.e., discussing actions rather than speculating as to a speaker’s character/intent). I think it’s relevant, in so far as I don’t think you mean to offend or insult people by using ableist language, but your lack of intention does not discount the fact that this language does offend and insult people.

    As I understand the phrase “it’s not about you” now, I take it to mean that the default question should not be “did I do/say something wrong?” but rather “was someone harmed by what I did/said?” I don’t know if that’s helpful for anyone else, or just a weird semantic quirk that helps me, but I wanted to share it.

    I also think it’s important to note that there are broader contexts for the use of some of these words. Specifically, the word “crazy” (as well as the conceptualization of mental illness) has often been used to dismiss dissent and self-advocacy from marginalized individuals. Progressives have “crazy” ideas about the free market, women who want equal opportunity were “hysterical,” and most glaringly, individuals who fled their enslavement were said to have been suffering from drapetomania. There are very real societal repercussions to be being perceived as crazy/broken/mentally unfit. More-so than the off-hand chance I might unwittingly offend, I try to avoid ableist language so as not to contribute to the social disenfranchisement of others.

    Also, just as a side note, I would like to second Ania’s point about our use of words like “stupid” or “crazy” as easy stand-ins for more specific language, and to add that there is some evidence that vague language and categorical thinking is correlated with increased risk of depression and death by suicide. If for no other reason than self-preservation, it may be worth cultivating a vocabulary that more capably communicates the nuance of our experience.

  9. Thomas, in your ending monologue you described ‘taking offense’ at these words as a multistep process. (Did she say she was offended? I hope not. I don’t think she did. I think she said it was causing harm. That’s my first point.)

    About the multistep process: from using a slang term for something to its harmful effect. Starting with the use of words like crazy, lame, or gay and ending with internalized negativity. (Either about your own group like Ania, or another if you are being a accidentally ableist.) But it’s not a multistep process. To believe that you have to think these are rational, thoughtful series of thoughts that the person is going through.

    The human mind doesn’t work like that. It’s based on heuristics and associations. We are not rational animals. (Maybe rationalizing animals at best.) Our minds use faulty heuristics. The multistep process you describe is how we would program a computer to make the same computation. But what Ania was describing would happen passively, via after the fact associations in someone’s mind.

    Every Time the word lame is used in a negative connotation the association forms or gets stronger. The association happens passively and automatically. It’s like the psychological effect of priming. These associations are subconscious and happen after the fact. But can still effect how we act and feel. We are now talking about these effects because we are now aware of them. But these aren’t conscious thoughts.

    It’s about heuristics.

  10. As a disabled person myself, I feel that I can speak with as much authority as the guest on the podcast. After all, there is no more expert on a subject than a person who lives it. I have heard arguments such as hers for years now, from people of all disabled stripes. I’ve heard that I, as a blind person, am harmed by metaphorical uses of the word blind. So when an article says that the president must be blind not to see the risk of invading Syria, I am harmed by that. What I have not heard, and what the guest, I’m sorry I don’t want to misspell her name by attempting it here, did not come anywhere near addressing, let alone outlining, is the mechanism of that harm.
    Yes, one can argue that there is some unconscious manner in which people who say that a man must be blind not to realize a woman is in love with him treats me differently, but that is nonsense. People do not treat us disabled people with pity and misunderstanding because they once heard someone say that a movie was lame, and so believe that all people in wheelchairs must be on the same level as that movie. That is damning the non-disabled world with a type of stupidity that would boggle the mind under any other circumstance. You must argue that someone is incapable, utterly and totally incapable of realizing that the word crazy, or blind, or lame, or crippled, or stupid, when applied to an object, or an idea, or an emotion, is different than when it is applied to a person’s condition. If anyone is that, and I use this word purposefully, moronic, please let them be removed from the gene pool as soon as is possible. For myself, I have far too much respect for my fellow adults as to think them capable of such everyday idiocy. I think everyone knows that there is a difference between calling a movie stupid, and calling a person with autism stupid.

    So then, people will usually retort with the idea that its up to the people insulted by something, or the people who are struggling with something to decide the meaning of their words. To which I say, no it is not. No one owns a word. I don’t own the word blind, the guest does not own the word crippled, crazy, disabled, or any other term. There is no such thing as our term. I, as a blind person, have just as much right to use the word sight, as you my dear unknown reader have of using it. Just because I don’t have it, does not mean I don’t have the right to use it. And yes, that is the logical conclusion of saying that someone has a right to a label. It means that the opposite is true, those without that label have exclusive right to the nonlabel. so sighted people have the right to use the word sight. so I could not use sight in a metaphorical sense if they cannot use blind in a metaphorical sense. And that is not something I, or the guest, would agree to. We cannot saddle other people unwillingly with a burden we are not willing to labor beneath ourselves.

    So then, we come to the argument that a word originally meant something, so we shouldn’t use it now. This, I feel, is the weakest of the arguments. doubly so because of my training and experience as an historian. I honestly feel that this argument is only used because one person decided to google a term to see where it came from, read a wikipedia article, and then decided they didn’t like it, so no one should use it. So now we have people thinking that because they have a mental disorder, and someone two hundred years ago with that same mental disorder was called a certain term, and that term is used now to mean something entirely different, that the term needs to be done away with. I actually read recently an article that claimed that because the writer had a great aunt who had died in a mental ward at the age of 25, that we shouldn’t use the word idiot because it was the label she was called by. A great aunt this writer had never met, never known, never interacted with, but who she felt sorry for because of her disability. Every word has an origin, if we stop allowing words to evolve, our language dies. So the word shit is no longer used as the acronym it originally was. No one is going to argue that because Thomas is not a sailor, he can’t use the word shit, because it was originally a sailing acronym. No one is going to stop using the phrase cake walk because of its racist routes. I’m willing to guess most people don’t even know what the word cake walk originally meant. So here, I think, is a simple rule, if you had to look up the original meaning of the word, it no longer matters. I had to look up the original use of the word geek, I’m willing to bet the guest had to look up the original usage of many terms she now deems unclean, and none of it matters, because if you live it, and you had to look it up, the people using it don’t know it either, and if they don’t know it, they aren’t doing you any real harm by using it because they clearly didn’t mean it in that sense.

    And that brings me to my argument. Treating the non-disabled people of this world in such a manner is not only insulting to them, but it is insulting to your fellow disabled people. For the guest, and many others like her I don’t want to make the argument that she is a lone warrior here, to argue that we are being harmed by words is detrimental to our striving for equal rights. Its putting the cart before the horse. African americans did not, by and large, protest the use of terminology. They didn’t argue that the voting rights act wasn’t fair because it used the wrong words. They argued that it was violating their civil rights as human beings. And we, as disabled people, are facing the exact same struggle now. In many places in America blind people cannot safely vote on their own. where I live, I have to have my trump supporting stepfather fill out my progressively liberal ticket because I can’t do it myself. We have a seventy-percent unemployment rate in the disabled community, seven out of ten people have no jobs even though they can work. People with doctorates would rather start their own business and have it fail because they won’t even get hired for a basic secretary job in an office they’re qualified to run, simply because they’re blind or in a wheelchair or on crutches or what have you. And while that is going on, we’re going to shriek about how we don’t like it when a romance novel says that a man was blind, or when a rock song says blinded by the light? That’s the hill we want to fight and die on? I don’t think so.

    That is one of the reasons that people view social protests today as silly, because we protest things like this. We don’t need to fight against the use of this word or that word, because if we win the other battles, those words will disappear. if we can remove the obstacles that society puts in front of us, those words will lose their meaning when applied to us. If we remove the words, we’ve done nothing to address the obstacles.

    And that leads me to one last point, and its probably the most controversial point. The guest frequently talked about how being disabled was seen as bad. I’m here to tell you all, right now, that being disabled in any form is bad. No, it is not the end of the world, yes, you can overcome them, but its still bad. Breaking your leg is a bad thing. Doesn’t mean you’re useless, but it means your life is harder. The only difference is that my broken leg is never going to heal. I will always have a harder life than the average sighted person. The guest is always going to have a harder life than a person who can walk without pain, or eat whatever they wish without worry.

    The thing is, this shouldn’t be that controversial, its something we all know. No disabled person, minus those with actual mental disorders that make them want to be disabled, will tell you that they enjoyed the experience of becoming disabled. I had cancer, its not something I want to go through again. The guest spent an hour, give or take, talking about the hell she had to go through in discovering her disability. If she had a time machine, and could do it all over again without the disability, she’d be an idiot not to accept. And yes yes yes, I know the whole argument that it made you who you are today, and its total crap. yeah, the hardships probably did change your outlook on things, but that does not mean you wouldn’t be who you are today. You might be slightly different, but you’d still be basically the same person.

    but that’s the reason we have the stigmas against mental disorders that the guest spoke of so many times. We have them because having a mental disorder is less desirable than not having one. Trust me, having 20-20 vision is better than having glass eyes. Any disabled person who tells you that they don’t think that their life is harder than yours, assuming you are not disabled, is either lying to you, or lying to themselves. And, given my experience, its probably the latter. We love to come up with halmark card phrases that make us feel better about our disability. we love to claim we can do anything you can do, but its a lie. Want prove, ask a totally blind person to take the wheel while you nap in the backseat on your next road trip. see how equal we are then.

    1. Cody, I honestly haven’t read the entirety of your comment, due to its length, but as someone with over ten years of depression and an anxiety disorder, I’m going to tell you that you have it all backwards. No one here (I don’t think) is saying that someone who’s blind is the same as someone who has 20/20 vision. Someone who has to walk with a walker isn’t going to go as fast as someone who jogs every day. I repeat, NO ONE is saying that. I’ve lost years of my life to depression and crippling anxiety, where I could have done some really awesome productive stuff. Do I think that’s the same as someone who’s running at top efficiency? Hell no. But you know what? If society didn’t treat people with disabilities, physical or mental, with stigma, it wouldn’t be so shitty. That’s where you’ve got it backwards. Living with a disability isn’t inherently worse. There is no intrinsic property of the universe that says that being blind is bad. That is, unless you think the mindless process of evolution is a moral framework, which it definitely isn’t. If people treated each other with more respect for what hurts people, for what puts up barriers, physical or otherwise, that makes it more difficult for people to get help, blind people would get discounted self driving cars. People like me, who have trouble keeping up the pace of a 20 year old IT major would be allowed to easily find work in my area of expertise that gave me more time to finish stuff, because hey, depression happens. Your views are ass backwards. It’s the way society doesn’t bother to help us that makes disability shitty, not the other way around.

  11. Technically then, you shouldn’t even use the word “bad”, as it possibly came from the old English word “Baddel”- meaning “hermaphrodite or womanish man”. And everyone knows the origin of the word sinister. The problem is that any word with negative connotations probably has some nefarious beginnings, because people from the past who coined them were mostly bigots. I certainly wouldn’t want to intentionally hurt someone’s feelings, but if the word is now divorced from it’s etymological origins then it should be fair game, particularly if it has an almost opposite meaning- eg. like a lot of people, I would mostly use “crazy” to refer to something interesting or exciting. If I told all my friends with a mental illnesses, some who have spent time in hospitals, that I was going to stop using that word in that context to avoid offending them or others, they would laugh at me. Saying that, if someone was like “can you not use that word around me?” I’d be like “Sure thing buddy, no worries”

  12. I’m a little late to the show here, and I don’t know if this has been brought up, but one reason why I’ll keep using words like crazy, lame, stupid, etc, but not gay as pejoratives is that the former words actually do describe bad things and gay does not.

    It’s not wrong to think of being crazy, lame, ugly, fat, dumb, retarded, and so on as bad. Nobody really wants to be any those things. Even people who are actually are any of those things typically are not to happy about it. This doesn’t mean those words aren’t insulting, only that they are legitimate, non-bigotted insults, whereas gay is not a legitimate insult since there is nothing wrong with being gay!

  13. I agree with Thomas, some of these people calling others ableist for the everyday language about things which are not people are a joke.
    Here in the UK we have a thing called crazy paving, which is a type of pattern you can have on your paving, this has nothing to do with a person who has mental issues, and the policing of common language which with its usage is clearly not intended to be insulting is a joke. Can I say joke?
    Do you remember last year when Bennidict Cumberbatch got into trouble for calling someone either coloured or black, as that was the wrong word. In content he was saying there should be more roles for them, and gets pulled over as he used the wrong word, well sorry but we say black over here, as we don’t even have the phrase Africa British. Listen to what he’s saying, no insults, only good stuff, don’t pull him over the coals due to a phrase.
    Finally this thing about the word stupid so annoys me. People understand that actions cab be stupid and situation s can be stupid and people can both be stupid and act stupid, and if what is being talked about is not someone with mental health problems, then don’t take it as meaning someone with issues. There is this youtuber who used to have a series called ‘five stupid things’ where he used to go through both the stupid thing like, harmful things and silly things, and the word stupid fitted all these. Now he does not want to be called ableist and has change it
    But this does not change the fact the word does not only have a single meaning of degrenarating people withe mental health options.
    I find it so strange that people seem to think that they can go through life with the right to not feel insulted by anything, there is no such right. If this was the case the we atheist would never be able to tell them that there are no gods, or that this part of their holy book is evil, or just wrong, as it could hurt them, and I don’t want to live in that world.

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