So this comment thread over at Feministe was a bit of clusterfuck.
I read it while sitting at Pepper’s kitchen table, drinking tea and eating crackers. And I was very vocal about it. I was waving my hands around, getting all irate and shit. Because it didn’t just make me annoyed, it also made me feel like I was being an asshole for feeling annoyed in the first place. I don’t want to be That Jerk Too Mired in Her Own Ablist Privilege to Get It, but I basically think that comment thread was crap.
Because there is a huge difference between, say, the n-word, which has never been anything other than a racial slur, and a word like “idiot,” which has evolved into its current, common usage. I can never use the n-word, unless I’m, say, sitting in American Lit and directly quoting Huck Finn—but “idiot”? That’s a word I’m free to say. Words mean things, yes, but sometimes, those meanings change. That’s how language works. And most words have numerous meanings; the word “set,” for example, has four hundred and sixty-four. You don’t get to hand-select one definition and then yell that nobody else should get to use that word ever, simply because one of its meanings has a negative connotation that (allegedly) renders the entire word unusable.
I mean, by that logic, I could request an outright ban on the word “hysteria” due to its troubling sexist history, its past use as the term for a psychological disorder almost exclusively attributed to women, and the fact that it is still commonly used to dismiss women for being too “emotional.” But I don’t do that, because I recognize that it is not an exclusively sexist term, that it is a useful word in the right context.
So while it would be wrong for me to call a person with cognitive disabilities an idiot, calling Scott Adams an idiot is just plain accurate.
There were several people on that thread who argued that it would be “easy” to stop using the word “idiot,” so that’s what we should do. But, first, we shouldn’t have to, because “idiot” has multiple meanings, only one of which is ablist—and second, no. No, it wouldn’t be easy, because there are no true synonyms in English. Every word in every language means something different. It has to, because if two words with identical meanings were to come into being, one of them would die out. Faced with such a scenario, words will fight each other to the fucking death.
So I won’t stop using the word “idiot,” because sometimes, “idiot” is the word I need. I will refrain from using it in reference to the disabled, because I’m shockingly not an asshole. I won’t use words like “crazy” or “insane” to refer to individual people, because of the universally negative connotations associated with those words, the embedded implication that mentally ill people (myself included, I suppose) should be silenced and institutionalized. However, I have no issue referring to certain mindsets or situations as crazy, because then I’m not attacking individuals.
The point is that English is far too context-based to undergo so many restrictions, and that no one gets to attempt to unilaterally ban a word simply because it has one negative definition. But that same person can request that people stop using the word in its pejorative sense and expect to have their request respected. For example: if there is a chink in one’s armor, I am free to observe this fact. At the same time, I would never use that particular noun as an ethnic slur. This distinction really shouldn’t need to be made, but apparently the commenters on Feministe disagree.
I really, genuinely do not want to be the oblivious asshole who thinks y’all are being too oversensitive, you know? But calling a disabled person an idiot simply is not the same as calling Scott Adams an idiot, and an attempt to strip the language of such a common word simply because one of its definitions is pejorative is an attempt to strip the language of its richness.
It’s also pointless. Pointless because it’s impossible (words either evolve or die out, generally speaking), and pointless because removing the word “idiot” will not remove any negative sentiments regarding the cognitively impaired. The word itself, even its most pejorative sense, is not the problem; the problem is a culture that sanctions the use of that word against a marginalized group, and the way we think about the cognitively impaired overall. Were our perceptions to become less ablist, the word “idiot” would lose its pejorative meaning, and this wouldn’t even be an issue. We could keep using the word “idiot” to mean “that misogynist asshat who writes the Dilbert comics,” and Feministe could stop annoying me.