Another progressive blogger and I have had a few discussions about how we don’t see the word “lame” as really a big deal. However, we both concluded, it wasn’t really our fight and the stakes weren’t as high for us as they are for disabled people. So, that’s fine — we decided we were willing to believe disabled people when they said the word hurt them, and stop using it on the blog, and try to stop using it in real life.
I think I’m starting to get it now, courtesy of reading this occasionally frustrating thread at Pandagon.
The Pandagon thread is a consideration of safe space, or lack thereof, and what kinds of language are legitimately policed (everyone seems to agree there should be no pejorative use of the n-word) and what kinds of language are not legitimately policed. It was really, really starting to bug me that there (and in another location where the issue had been discussed) everyone’s go-to example for hypersensitive use of language policing was the word “lame.”
“Ugh,” said the aforementioned fellow progressive blogger to me over IM when I pointed out this dynamic. “If people are going to make an example of what’s oversensitive PC policing, maybe they should gore one of our own particularly feminist oxes, rather than picking on the language sensitivities of a related but not identical out-group?”
(Yes, I just paraphrased the fuck out of fellow progressive blogger, herein called FPB for short, which is why hir dialogue suddenly started sounding like my academic writing.)
So I started in from that point. But people’s constant defenses of I! Should! Be! Able! To! Use! The! Word! Lame! kept coming thick, fast, and with ever-more-desperate indignation.
Some of it came from people who themselves identified as “lame,” and you know, I’m not going to pick on them. If they want to change the character of disability rights activism, then that’s something they certainly have the right to do, and if the consensus ever shifts, I’ll re-evaluate.
But a lot of the arguers weren’t themselves disabled people. They just really, really, really wanted to be able to use the word lame. It’s fun, after all. And colorful. And also ACCURATE!
It’s not okay to call a coward a pussy, or a bad thing gay, they argue, because there’s nothing bad about having a vagina or being homosexual. But there IS something bad about not being mobile! In fact, it’s no fun at all, just totally miserable. All other things held equal, isn’t it better to be not-lame than lame?
(Yep, I’m basically paraphrasing someone, but because these arguments are very prevalent, I don’t think it’s fair to either quote them directly or name them. My purpose here is not to shame an individual, but to describe and argue against a common attitude, even though this individual did happen to express it at a particular time that was meaningful to me.)
And you know? I think I’ve made those arguments before, though I tend to do that kind of reasoning things out in private rather than on blogs because of my beliefs about what allies should and shouldn’t do. (I do not think it is a productive ally action to complain about tiny details that the ally has no particular investment in.) Certainly, I’ve heard these arguments. Recently, I was moderating a discussion in person, and someone made the comment that “writers shouldn’t cripple themselves by…”
I caught another audience member’s wince.
“Excuse me,” I interjected, “Can you rephrase?”
The gentleman did. Later, I caught up with him at a party, and said, “Hey, thanks for taking that in stride.”
And he started to argue with me — “Well, you know, we should be able to use that metaphor, because it’s accurate, it’s not a good thing to be crippled and–”
I interrupted, “OK, but even if that’s true, we know that it’s hurting the feelings of people who are in the community. And we don’t want to do that. Right?”
He nodded. I smiled. I moved away.
But while that was the logic I was using for a long time — that it didn’t really matter what the logic behind seeing this as an insult was, or if I disagreed with that logic, I still shouldn’t be an ass by using words that a number of disability activists have made clear are hurtful and perceived as ableist — I think I get the deeper logic now. Finally.
Let’s start with that point from earlier that it DOES suck — in this society — not to have the same freedom of movement an abled person. (Although of course, here, we’re already starting in with ableist assumptions, because a big portion of the reason it sucks is because society is set up for people with bodies we consider normal.) OK, so let’s rephrase. Having functional legs is useful. Therefore, the state of having legs which are not as functional as other legs is not as nice as the state of having normally functional legs. (Again, there’s some ableism around the concept of normal, but moving on.)
But even accepting that impairment to mobility is itself a sucky thing, MAYBE DISABLED PEOPLE DO NOT APPRECIATE BEING THE CULTURAL GO-TO FOR THINGS THAT SUCK.
And maybe — since people have been historically all-too-willing to relieve disabled people of the burden of having to live through all that suckiness — just maybe disability activists know what the fuck they’re talking about when they say that the constant condensation of visible disability with “suckiness” as a metaphorical cultural touchstone has real, concrete, and evil ramifications on the lives of people with disabilities.
I think I’m starting to get it.