Words Are Like Weapons

Okay, so this one is about a problem I have, both with myself and with a particular rule of etiquette that we’ve adopted these days: we’re not supposed to use words that some people find offensive.

Now we all fall into this trap sooner or later. It’s virtually impossible to speak frankly about anything without offending somebody, even if it’s over something as meaningless as me boring you with my book-shilling practices; some people find it irritating. It’s an extreme and silly example, I’ll grant you. I’m just illustrating how easy it is to say the wrong thing to some people.

Anyone who lived through the 80s learned that racial slurs and put-downs were not merely rude but horribly offensive, and we took it upon ourselves to school one another not to speak them anymore. It didn’t work out quite as planned, with young people deliberately reclaiming these verbotten words into their own private argot of street slang camaraderie. Blacks can still be heard to call each other ‘nigger’ as a form of greeting; some men proudly proclaim one another to be a ‘dog’ or ‘animal’, despite the negative connotation these labels imply; women wear tee shirts with glittery letters declaring themselves to be a ‘100% Bitch’; and Gays and Lesbians call themselves ‘queer’, ‘dyke’, ‘queen’ or pretty much whatever else they like. The fact that most of these words are or were used to negatively characterise these groups of people in days of yore no longer enters into discussion; it is understood that the words have been re-appropriated, while essentially making it clear that only ‘club members’ can use these words and not be dismissed as impolite. It doesn’t correct the problem, but it renders the offensive terms harmless, and really, it’s by their choice.

However, there are a couple of groups that still have a reputation for taking the standard litany of curses to heart, and have not yet perceived to be able to reclaim the language for their personal use: the Obese and the Disabled. We have lots of very friendly terms we’ve been teaching each other in order to replace the hurtful ones, and yet, most people can easily recall at least a few insults when they’re feeling offended or inconvenienced by people whom, if we’re honest, most folks habitually look down upon, regardless of whose terms we use.

We’ll start with overweight people, because that’s actually a safer subject, believe it or not. I would like to go on record by saying that I am 5’6” tall and weigh 200 lbs, which makes me clinically obese. Not morbidly so, but still, I’m pretty big for my height. I say this to make it clear that I am not intending to be offensive or even self-effacing when I call myself ‘fat’. I wasn’t always so, and might not be for the rest of my life, but that’s beside the point; I’m fat. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s my problem, not yours.

I remember in the early 80s, at the dawn of the age of political correctness, when there was a rap act that called themselves the Fat Boys. It was clearly an attempt at appropriation, and I applauded it, even though it really didn’t seem to go anywhere, and they did sort of go a little too far in the direction of reinforcing certain ludicrous stereotypes (or at least, one suspects, were encouraged to do so by whomever their handlers were). I think Weird Al tried to take a stab at desensitizing folks to the word ‘fat’ with his song and video of the same name, and I think it was a valid attempt, but I suspect it didn’t work as intended, or at least, it wasn’t as well thought out as it should have been. Only so much you can do with a parody song.

There have been a number of acts over the years who have deliberately labelled themselves ‘Big’ or ‘Fat’ to give themselves some street cred, and I approve of this, but that sort of thing doesn’t really work for most people.

A large part of that is down to the fact that most of us refuse to respect overweight people, simply because we see them as fundamentally weak. The teaching of the cardinal sin of Gluttony and the austere notions of normalcy and self-control instilled in us in the 1950s have coloured our ideas about what people who aren’t thin must be like. We all remember seeing certain overweight people who simply looked pathetic in their ill-fitting clothes and their questionable hygiene practices. We don’t bother to think about how the clothing industry holds these same prejudices and refuse to make clothing that dresses people well if they are above a certain size. Most of us don’t know that the few designers who do clothe big people do so at a premium rate, which forbids most folks of meager means ever buying well-fitting clothes. How many of you just thought to yourselves ‘if they’d stop eating, they could afford better clothes’? If you could see the prices and the questionable fashions on offer, you’d know that it takes a fair bit more money than most folks have to dress well off the rack if you’re over a size 16.

We also don’t take into account that a lot of weight problems are brought on by physical or mental infirmities that make it difficult to manage their weight, even if—and many do—they’re practically starving themselves. I’ve seen it first hand. You don’t know what some of these people feed themselves in order to keep their weight down, but I assure you, the difference between the diets of big and small people isn’t as wide as you might think.

And let’s not forget that the average serving size in North America is designed for farm hands and factory workers, not office temps and bank clerks. This might seem to be that areas where self-restraint comes in, but what do you do when plate sizes and and glassware, to say nothing of fast food packaging, all have conditioned us to put more on the plate. We laugh when we see those old cartoons where the character sits down to a meal in a fancy French restaurant, only to be served three artichokes and a triangle of tuna drizzled with a vegetable-based sauce. We’re taught that ‘haute cuisine’ is for people who want to spend a lot of money to look important, refusing to be seen over-eating in front of company, but whom we all suspect go home to scarf down a turkey sandwich afterwards.

It’s this attitude towards eating that has enabled people with slower metabolisms to gain and have trouble losing the weight that, by rights, most of us should be gaining, based on the modern diet. That’s not to say that thinner people don’t eat more wisely; my immediate family serve modest portions that would have been just barely adequate for me even before I stopped doing manual labour and started taking medication that had weight gain as a highly probable side effect. I was about 135 lbs before I started therapy in late 2003. That’s an increase of 65 lbs most of which was gained in just the last few years, due to higher dosages and a bout of depression after switching meds a couple of times.

So the thing about fat people like me is, we have a lot of genetic cards stacked against us, and the chemicals we ingest in our modern diets and medical regimes do a lot to contribute to our condition. Does that mean we’re weak? I’ve seen big men and women do at least as much hard work and exercise as skinny people. I’ve also seen skinny people who would barely lift a finger to do so much as clean their house. It’s an overgeneralisation that all overweight people are lazy and out of shape. It can be true, but isn’t necessarily the case, and quite often isn’t.

I take very little exercise right now (switching meds again), but my wife, who is roughly 40-50 lbs heavier than me, hits the gym two to four times a week. She’s taller than me, but her body shape definitely doesn’t conform to the standard fist-fed to us by the advertising and Hollywood movies of the last thirty-odd years.

This year, my wife has lost almost as much weight as I have gained in the last five years of heavy meds and sedentary jobs. She will probably never have a classic hourglass figure; she’ll certainly never have the body shape of Audrey Hepburn. But she is beautiful and hard working and intelligent and funny and sensitive, and doesn’t deserve to be looked down upon by anyone.

And she describes herself, on rare occasions, as fat. But anyone else daring to dismiss her on those terms had better be wearing body armour. However, what she doesn’t seem to need is a lot of well-intended language policing. I know I don’t. We’re capable of sticking up for ourselves.

Now, the other issue, of words to describe disability, is a very touchy one these days, and with good reason; most of us feel that disabled people are essentially incapable of doing anything for themselves. That IS essentially what the word implies, after all.

But the truth is, there are many different kinds of disability, and the common denominator seems to be that disabled people have greater difficulty performing on the same level as physically able people are. Not that we can’t; just that it’s difficult, and we’re better served by being given jobs that don’t require us to work in the same fashion and at the same pace as others. We can still work, and work hard, but we need to have jobs that aren’t tailored specifically to the abilities and comfort levels of those who can stand on their feet all day or who can lift more than 40 lbs repeatedly or who can talk on a phone and solve complex stock portfolio problems at the same time for eight hours a day. We can do anything we put our minds to, but we need to have special considerations to how we go about performing our jobs.

Yes, I include myself in this group. I have a mental illness AND a bad back, the former a genetic condition, the latter brought on from years of hard manual labour under less-than-ideal working conditions. My wife has bad knees and ankles, due to injuries incurred over the years, that necessitate the periodic use of a cane. She also suffers from occasional bouts of depression, as most folks these days do, particularly in the winter months. And my brother is mentally handicapped, and has also had a kidney transplant that has made his health rather delicate, though he is stable, thanks to my mother’s keen grasp of medical procedures.

What I’m saying with all this isn’t that we need and deserve special treatment. We’re not asking to be coddled or wrapped in bubble wrap and handled with cotton gloves. What we are is people who do not operate in the exact same fashion as what we are told is the average. The peculiar thing about this so-called average is that, the more closely we look at it, the more this statistical average seems to be a myth invented by people with clipboards and more efficient procedures, who aren’t always equipped to deal with statistically-improbable Reality.

I don’t like people telling me I’m crazy. My wife is particularly sensitive to this insult. But there are a lot of so-called ‘incorrect’ terms and word usages which don’t bother us in the least. We use words like ‘weak’, ‘lame’, ‘retarded’, ‘gimped’, and ‘defective’, and many of us never once consider the wider implications of having the words used ‘incorrectly’ to describe something other than the physical abnormality or disability we are now being conditioned to believe is the absolute meaning of these words.

The English language isn’t meant to be this inflexible. It’s been around for hundreds of years, and has been abused in fashions we hardly understand anymore, but what it isn’t is limited to one definition-per-word. I have to live with people abusing words like ‘ballad’ and ‘artist’, so why should people, most of whom do not suffer a disability, get upset if I use words that have effectively been used to describe physical states in colloquial terms, but are now held to be incorrect usages simply because we fear they might be offensive to people whom we are afraid can’t stick up for themselves. Have we asked them? If they said ‘please don’t call me that’ or perhaps (though I’m not at all convinced of this one) ‘please don’t use that word like that’, we can learn to make an exception for them. If enough of them ask us not to, of course we can make a practice of not calling them such things. But to declare common words that do not carry the same negative, pejorative connotations as known racial and sexual slurs do is really just an attempt, however well-intentioned, of sanitizing the English language. It may be justifiable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right. What’s right for one person may not be for another, and in the end, the only thing that is right is that we have the right to express ourselves as clearly as we know how, with whatever language we have at our disposal.

Being told that our opinions of people we don’t know properly is well within everyone’s right, even if it may be perceived as rude and self-righteous. However, the problem I’ve always been a little leery of where political correctness is concerned is simply that it frequently oversteps its mandate, and does so stridently and imprudently, all in the interest of making the world a better place for everyone. But really, isn’t the answer to how to make the world a better place a little more complex than simply taking the words out of our mouths and forcing us to use terms that sound wrong to our ears and shift the tone of our speech away from the vernacular and into the realm of Newspeak? When we learn to resent the very words we are expected to say, how honest and effective is our message? And can we truly be considered a society of equals when those who have a better grasp of the most recent usages of the language feel free to hound their less-educated brethren to think and speak in the proscribed fashion, or be declared unfit for society?

Not pointing fingers here. I mean that. Just a few ideas I’ve been bouncing around. Feel free to talk amongst yourselves. I’ve got to get back to work. Thank you for reading.

Eddie.

3 Responses to “Words Are Like Weapons

  • As a writer, I find the overuse of such words as “lame” and “retarded” grating on the ears and signalling a lack of creativity and originality. That kind of language always brings to mind schoolyard bullies with nothing better to do than swing their Brobdingnagian fists at developmentally disabled kids who can barely defend themselves. Definitely not the kind of voice I want to convey, I tell you that. That said, I don’t make a habit of policing people for using such words — indeed, I’m not sure this Orwellian “language police” you allude to even exists in the real world. I simply consider them bad writers and get on with it.

    • Whoa, are you the Charlotte Barclay who wrote “Internet Predators”? I loved that book. It’s too bad the movie adaptation was a bit of a disappointment, though.

  • Hi, Eddie. Lee sent me here; we’ve talked about this subject a few times, and he figured I might have a few things to say.

    I’m admittedly a bit of a hardass when it comes to language and slurs and oppression; all this time I’ve spent reading up on feminist blogs these last few years has really made me think about how what we say can hurt people. I like a lot of what you’re saying here, but when it comes to the disabled community, when you ask “have we asked them?” I’m not really sure the extent to which you mean that as a rhetorical question. There are, in fact, a lot of people on the internet who are speaking up about how ableist language specifically harms them (see http://disabledfeminists.com/2009/10/12/ableist-word-profile-lame/ for one example, and some links to others) and yes, not everyone is affected by the same words. That said, even if just one person sincerely says not to call them something, as far as I’m concerned, that’s enough. There are, as they say, other words.

    Mind you, I do recognise that language changes, and I’m all for reclaiming words. It’s more complex than putting a blanket censor on every word in the name of OMG POLITICAL CORRECTNESS. (See, I was born in the eighties, so I don’t remember what that movement was all about. However, as I often like to say: given our current conservative government, wouldn’t “political correctness” have more to do with treating minorities like crap?) I myself am a fan of “fat” and “queer” as self-descriptors, after all. At the same time, I wouldn’t use those words to describe anyone who asked me not to. I also realise that some words aren’t mine to reclaim. I’ve heard one heartwarming story about a developmentally disabled person using “retard” as a positive word to describe people he liked. I think that’s awesome. Yet, it’s not something I myself feel comfortable doing, because it’s not *my* word, if that makes any sense.

    Anyway, I hope it’s okay that I’m posting here. I know I’m a complete stranger, but I don’t mean to intrude or flame or anything like that. We internet activist types are not all horrible people, you know. 😛

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