02 September, 2010

I was just wondering, does anyone think that caring about language is sort of stupid? It's a genuine question--I mean, I write really long posts sort of dissecting different phrasings and totally obsessing over it, but is this just a distraction from what's actually important?

Like, I tend to like person-first language, but I feel like if you look at it for more than a second it becomes really offensive. At the place where I worked this summer we were always being told, "They are a person first and a disability or diagnosis second," but I don't know what that means. If you have a developmental disability then it affects your personality and your life experience a lot. Lots of people at camp did things that few if any non-disabled adults would do, and sometimes it was these things that made a person awesome. Saying "they are a person first" and shunting the disability to the side seemed like a way of saying that a large part of who someone was didn't actually matter.

However, just as I think it was silly to constantly say "They are a person first," I also think it's kind of silly for me to make a big post about the problematic nature of that phrase, because I don't think the other staff I worked with actually lived its implications. So it didn't really affect anyone.

Last summer I really enjoyed the YouTube videos of icecoldbath, especially a series where she talked about the implications of using certain words about trans people. She made a video explaining why you should say "trans woman" and not "transwoman," since trans is just an adjective and combining it with woman implies that a transwoman is a whole other kind of woman, instead of just a woman who is trans. Before watching this video I guess I wrote "transwoman" and "transguy" without spaces, and now I use spaces, but now that I think about it I don't know if this makes me a better ally in any real way.

I mean, obviously there is a point where language does matter, which I'd place around "cerebral palsy sufferer" and "retard" and using the wrong pronouns, but I think that at some point it may stop. I mean, I love dissecting it but I don't know if it's useful.


  1. The intent of the words are what is important, although admittedly it is a challenge for me to figure out someones intent which is why I, and others who have ASD cling to the words themselves. I have talked to people about this before and in general my "normal" friends agree with me that word choice is very important but you can't implicate just the words without considering the intent. The funny thing is that it seems to be socially acceptable if the correct phrasing is used but the intent is still bad. Sort of like fake politeness. If you use the right words, ie. the polite ones, then you are off the hook for being a jerk. If you use the wrong words then it's your intent that actually counts, sometimes that intent is good and sometimes its bad.

    I stumble over my words all the time and I know for sure I use the wrong words and phrasings even though its important to me to be accurate with my words. In that sense I am grateful that most people will judge my intent first. The downside to that is I am hard for typical people to read and they often misjudge my intent to be a bad one. So yeah, I definitely try hard and put in a lot of effort into my words because I expect other people to do the same.

    To answer your question, I think it's useful for you to dissect language even if it's just to illustrate how your mind works and to expose the errors in communication for people with ASD and people without. There are certainly people who don't put much regard to their word choice simply because they assume that people with judge their intent but we know that this isn't always the case. So I guess what I am saying is that it's important but it's not a crime if a person messes up.

  2. I tend to think that when phrasing has problematic implications, that effects how people think. Like, people used to say "he" when they were talking about a hypothetical person (as in "A good student does his homework."). Now people don't do that as much because it's really sexist to make men the default in language, and using "he" for a hypothetical person reflected that. It also taught sexism to other people. I remember hearing about a bunch of studies that showed that women were negatively affected by language that made men the default.

    So by using the space, I think you are being a better ally, because a) you're using the terminology trans people prefer, and b) you're using language that teaches other people that trans people's genders are valid, as opposed to using language that teaches other people that trans people's genders are not valid.

    tl;dr: I think that prejudice shapes language, and the language that was shaped by that prejudice perpetuates the prejudice. Using less-problematic language breaks the cycle.