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Words Mean Things. Different Things, Depending On Context.

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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.

Well, maybe.


About Paprika

Paprika Davis is a perpetually annoyed twenty-something college student waitress who would rather be a squirrel. The lack of commas in the previous sentence bothers her, but her laziness overrides her desire to improve the writing.

6 responses »

  1. The thing is,
    Words don’t mean things: they evoke things.

    and they evoke different things for different people

  2. It’s pretty frustrating that some people get so caught up in defending singular words out of context (like what happened at feministe) than the original point of the piece. Some words merit further discussions, “idiot” seems a poor choice to explore.

    Now “retarded children” on the other hand… <–Thats a joke

  3. Yeah, I was disappointed to see Futrelle’s post get so derailed too.

    @Uzza: I do get what you’re saying. I was a little worried about posting this, because I realize that it is an extremely delicate issue (rightly so), and because I was concerned about seeming callous. Feminism has not historically done well in re: people with disabilites, and I didn’t want to add to the pile-on. I hope I didn’t write anything that came off as assholeish; if I did, I hope someone will tell me so.

    The issue, though, is this: I am 100% opposed to using words like “idiots” in reference to people with disabilities. I would never try to pull any “I, as an able-bodied person, am reclaiming the term!” bullshit. If, moreover, an individual person were to say to me “I really don’t like the word ‘idiot’ and would prefer you use another term while talking to me,” I would respect that. However, I have real problems with attempts to ban the word on a large scale when it’s being used in other contexts. “Idiot” is a useful word. While it has one very offensive definition, it has others which, though hardly complimentary, do not attempt to marginalize an entire group. Used in those contexts, there is nothing wrong with the word, and trying to ban it has the potential to be incredibly silencing.

    I also think it detracts from the most important issue: the misconceptions and prejudices we have regarding the cognitively impaired. When we attack the existence of a word like “idiot,” we are addressing the problem in the wrong order; because if we can eradicate the prejudice itself, “idiot” will eventually lose its offensive meaning, while simply eradicating the word “idiot” (an impossible task, really), will just piss people off.

    The commenters at Feministe were bothering me because, first, many of them demonstrated a complete lack of understanding for how language works, how it changes and grows and evolves; and second, because of the all-too-present “holier-than-thou” attitude. There seemed to be a large split between PWD who had a problem with the word, and those who didn’t; and many of the ones who didn’t were castigated and insulted by those who did, which I found pretty disheartening.

    I appreciate that the feminist blogosphere has taken on the responsibility of using neutral language and trigger warnings, that so many sites have made real efforts at creating safe spaces. But this goes beyond creating a safe space; were this to become routine, writers would be reduced to using kindergarten vocabulary (“prejudice is bad”); the language would lose its subtleties and nuances, and the arguments would ultimately become less persuasive. So again, while I hope to see all racist, classist, sexist, ablist, homophobic, transphobic, etc., slurs disappear, and while I am totally willing to call out the people who use them, I simply don’t think that the word “idiot,” when used in a non-ablist context, is a word worthy of criticism.

  4. This kind of confusion makes me wonder if some people in the blog system actually want to learn and share, or if they just want to be annoyed and angry over something specific.

    I know plenty of people who derive personal gratification over their own invented drama. Pretty sad individuals.

  5. I think most of the commenters are earnest and well-intentioned–I didn’t get the sense that anyone was really trolling. Anyhow, I totally get where they’re coming from, I just have some disagreements in regard to language.

  6. Oh, and I should probably clarify that when I wrote about the “holier-than-thou attitude” of some of the commenters, I was referring primarily to those who were not PWD, but who apparently felt qualified to speak for the group.


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