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[personal profile] sunflowerp
A number of intersecting incidents in the past week, including (but by no means restricted to) responses both in comments and privately to my last post, have been smacking me over the head to tell me it's time to stop chewing on this and write about it.

A few months back, I had my attention called to a couple of "Don't Be An Asshole" 101-type things that were lists of inappropriate terms - "inappropriate" in context of the specific sort of anti-oppression they referred to, that is (IIRC, but I might not, one listed homophobic terms and the other listed ablist terms). Unfortunately - and this is part of why my intersectional e-quaintances were pointing them out - they were a bit too context-specific. The errors weren't quite as egregiously bad as, "Don't call something 'gay', that's homophobic; call it 'lame' instead," but that illustrates what kind of error was involved.

It occurred to me at the time just how often, when lists of inappropriate words are presented, they're accompanied by a corollary list of words to use instead - and on the rare occasions they're not, such a corollary list is asked for demanded by commenters: "But if we can't use those words, what words can we use?!?" they wail.

Zounds! What a pressing problem of social injustice! However shall we manage to do our insult-throwing, disparagement, and name-calling, if the words we're accustomed to using for this task are forbidden?

I didn't spot that right away; initially, I just had a strong but inchoate sense that there was more wrong there than just "the gay-rights folks screw up and use ablist language; the disability-rights folks screw up and use homophobic language." It was only after quite a bit of reflection that I realized the problem was with the very notion that substitute insults are necessary.

Observing the problem from up in Theory Tower (a useful perspective, as long as one remembers to come down from the tower), the idea that name-calling, insult, and disparagement are natural, inherent, and inevitable is a kyriarchic assumption. Such things are used to reinforce the kyriarchic pecking orders, to police others to ensure they "know their place", and to identify things as good or bad according to a cultural norm (when "gay" is used in popular slang, it virtually always identifies some person, object, idea, or activity as "my class/culture/subculture looks down on it, therefore I look down on it"). More, they're geared to make it unnecessary to think about why a person, object, idea, or activity is disparagement-worthy and/or needs to be "put in its place" - and I don't believe the discouragement of thinking is accidental.

Coming back down from the Tower, I'm not saying all is lovely in the garden and it's inappropriate to distinguish between that which you approve of and that which you disapprove of. Some things are disparagement-worthy. But I find that, if I wish to disparage something, I can do so far more effectively by considering it in some detail, determining what about it I disapprove of and why I want to put time and effort into active disparagement, and constructing my takedowns accordingly, than I can by simply throwing insults at it and calling it names.

Occasionally, I do in the end throw insults and call names - they're likely to be insults and names chosen to be accurately descriptive As a bonus, they're also more likely to be funny. (To nod back at things related to my last post, [political alignnment] + [reference to a once-common way of writing off the neurodiverse, both officially/medically and as a playground insult] != wit. Choosing a political alignment, even dogmatically, is not an indication of developmental disability; neither having a developmental disability nor being non-neurotypical in a way that might be misdiagnosed as developmental disability is an indication of propensity for political dogmatism - the lack of descriptive accuracy belies the purported cleverness, and defeats any possibility of wit.)

I'm doubly careful when what I'm considering disparaging is a person, rather than an object/idea/activity - because even when someone is being a grade-A number-one dyed-in-the-wool asshole, they're still a sapient, feeling being. OTOH, assholishness doesn't get a pass; sometimes ya gotta say, "That sapient, feeling being IS BEING AN ASSHOLE."

So, yeah, to some extent name-calling, insult, and disparagement are natural and inevitable. But doing so inconsiderately (and I mean that in the broadest sense, without considering) is not. In particular, relying on the language of oppression - whether sexist, racist, ablist, ageist, looksist, classist, homophobic, transphobic, fatphobic, religiously-biased, etc - as a source of names to call and insults to throw is not inevitable, it's intellectually lazy. Even - especially - casual use of common slang without considering (there's that word again) the *ism/*phobia in which it originated: the user may not intend offense, may even be genuinely shocked that s/he gave offense, but hir shock is a direct result of not thinking. Those sort of "good intentions" are well-known for their usefulness as paving stones.

Corollary lists of substitute insults aren't what's needed; compassion, a few brain cells and the willingness to use them, and a good thesaurus do a better job.
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November 2009


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