Warning: This post contains language that some of my readers may find offensive – I am discussing these terms in an academic sense, not using them as insults or modifiers, but they are still there (under the cut) so be aware!
Crossposted to Amplify!
Awhile back a conversation in the feministing comments over the use of the ableist term ‘lame’ got me to thinking about what is and is not appropriate to say. The conversation got heated with one side claiming that taking offense over the word ‘lame’ was overly sensitive, taking political correctness too far and the other side claiming that the word was wrong to use because it caused pain to differently abled individuals who feel ostracized by its use.*
Around the same time as I saw this conversation I read Dan Savage’s column, Savage Love, for the first time. In the unfortunate article I read Savage “apologizes” to a reader who feels offended by his use of the term ‘retarded’ in a previous article. Savage offers this response:
I’m going to turn over a new leaf […] and make a conscious, conscientious effort to break myself of the bad habit of using the word “retard.” […] From now on, instead of saying “retard” or “that’s so retarded,” I’m going to say “leotard” and “that’s so leotarded.” I won’t be mocking the mentally challenged, just the physically gifted. I will pick on the strong—and the limber—and not the weak.
In this case I can clearly say that Dan Savage was being offensive and disrespectful because of two factors: first, his intention was to mock – the apology was not written in a sincere manner, it was rude and took on a tone that made light of his reader’s very real concerns. Second, I think its important to note that in the context of our society ‘retarded’ is still a word that is actively used to demean a marginalized group. Those two factors together indicate an intentional hurt – Savage knew what he was saying was offensive but he said it anyway.
After sorting my thoughts on Savage Love I moved back to ‘lame’ – can it be considered offensive in the same way as a word like ‘retarded’? I think the current meaning of lame needs to be taken into account here, because it has a serious effect on the factor of intention.
Lame is defined as:
1. disabled or crippled in the legs or feet
2. weak; unconvincing: lame arguments
Going by that definition, of course, ‘lame’ is clearly an offensive term. However, when you consider the social context – how often do we hear ‘lame’ being used to describe a differently-abled person, rather than an idea or something inanimate? (Especially when compared with how often we hear ‘retarded’ used in that manner.) For all of my life I have only known lame as a word that describes something ‘not cool’ – I’m sure I’m not alone in that. When the social context is considered it becomes clear that ‘lame’ is rarely used with the intent of doing harm.
Now, I’m not saying that ‘lame’ is an okay term to use, given its true definition, its understandable how differently abled individuals and those who advocate for them would be offended by the term. What I am saying, however, is that people often are not aware that ‘lame’ is a hurtful word because of the social context surrounding it. It is our responsibility, as people who realize the implications behind the word, to educate others so that, even if they don’t stop using it, they know more fully what they are saying in that little four letter word.
The definitions offered by the dictionary — and as we all probably know from hearing the word “lame” used so much to mean something derogative — show that the word has migrated, as have most older or “archaic” words about disability, into a second, metaphorical meaning: ineffective, bad, incompetent, etc. I’ve written about this happening with blind and also with deaf. And now I’m blogging about “lame.”
Because “lame” has been “taken over,” if you will, by others using it to mean “weak, ineffectual,” it now seems like a slur even when used in its original sense.
Basically, your best bet with words like ‘lame’ and ‘retarded’ is just not to say them. Same goes for words that degrade gay and transgendered people (like using gay as an insult), words that degrade women (like bitch, pussy, c*nt, and so on used as an insult), words that insult men (calling someone a dick) and so on.
There are ways to express yourself that don’t involve oppression. For instance, I like the term douche-bag as an insult*** because douching is a practice that is (for the most part) unnecessary, archaic, useless, and potentially harmful.
I made the decision a few weeks ago to strike all of these offensive words from my vocabulary. (While I never use gay or retarded as insults, every once and awhile I’d find myself slipping with lame or even bitch etc.) At first I was uncomfortable with how few words I was left with to express discontent or anger – but then I got to thinking… why is that such a bad thing?
If I have fewer words to express anger/discontent then I am likely to avoid expressions of that feeling as often as possible, in order to avoid expressing those feelings I’ll have to avoid feeling them as well** which means I’ll have to work more to find the good in bad situations, and to understand people and find common ground with them, instead of getting angry…
Making offensive words off limit could actually make me a happier person, how’s that for a side effect to doing good?
ETA: The comments on this post at BITCH Magazine’s blog illustrate a typical debate over the use of the word lame. I really like what one commenter (Leslie) said:
“You write that, “In addition to disabled, lame ALSO means ‘weak and ineffectual; unsatisfactory’ and is perfectly appropriate in such context.” But that’s not quite true. Lame came to mean weak, ineffectual, and unsatisfactory because these descriptors have traditionally been associated with the condition of lameness, i.e. mobility impairment.”
* I don’t have a link to the exact conversation that sparks this, but a similar argument seems to crop up every time the term “lame” is used on feministing.
**I’m the kind of person who needs to say pretty much everything that comes to mind.
*** Although I try to avoid insulting people/things as much as possible, sometimes you just can’t help it – people can be douchebags