Language and Intent, Part 1 of 3: Unintentional Messages

Just a second.  I’ll be a minute. It’s amazing how often I hear these phrases, and I’m sure you do to, and I can’t remember one instance where the delay was actually a second, or minute.

It’s awesome.  It will change your life.  We hear statements like this so often that we don’t even really have words to appropriately express true life change and awe.

In the current American idiom, many expressions are fairly well divorced from their original roots, or their literal meanings.  I’m fairly certain that this is the normal progression of the English language, and one might think me a picker of nits (no longer referring to the eggs of lice) for mentioning it.

And yet, for loaded words, for particular expressions, that very forgetfulness, or unwitting ignorance, can become an issue of division and hurt.

He’s crazy.  She is a moron.  Virtually generic insults on the playground, and yet with such explosive potential.

Unpacking for a moment, we are reminded that crazy was and sometimes remains a derisive term for people with certain psychiatric disabilities, and moron was one of the disturbing terms used to lump, label, and dehumanize people with intellectual disabilities in an earlier era.

These loaded terms, used without intent in societal discourse, can be deeply offensive to people with disabilities, both because of their history and because of the notion that a label of a particular disability should be an insult.

My goal here is not to explore this phenomenon in-depth, because the idea is fairly simple, or to provide a primer about it, though I will direct you to an excellent list of offensive terms with a certain amount of explanation provided by Lydia Brown, a prominent autistic blogger.  Rather, it is to think about why it is offensive.

I think that part of the reason that such language is troubling is the lack of reflection represented.  Some of the items on Lydia’s list have obscure origins, but one needs no historical background to understand why using mental illness or intellectual disability as an insult might be offensive.  It takes little more insight to realize why an expression like “confined to a wheelchair” or “afflicted with cerebral palsy” might be offensive.  I don’t think many who know me would call me a confined and afflicted individual, for all I am a person with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair.

This, then, is my perception of the real problem that results when we take the American tendency to shy away from any sort of meaningful evaluation of our use of language and apply it to terms related to disability.  The very practice represents a lack of reflection on the underlying assumptions in the phrases.

Even this would probably not matter if disability discrimination were a relic of ancient history.  It is moderately interesting to find out that a cultural idiom results from a conflict that has been over for hundreds of years.

The problem is that the attitudes reflected in these expressions, even if not actively held by the speaker, are active in our society today and do great harm.  We still stigmatize the mentally ill and those with intellectual disabilities, and many who do not know me would indeed pass me on the street and presume me to be confined and afflicted, and we must battle those presumptions with mindfulness.

Tomorrow, in part two of this series, I will substantially reprint my earlier piece on person first language, and the importance of the attitude of the Speaker over particular phrases used.  Today I ask you to hold on to the idea that when the substance represents a lack of mindfulness of ongoing discrimination still suffered by a population, the inattentive phraseology can become a part of intent.

Think about it, read Lydia’s list, and think about the preconceptions that may be consciously or unconsciously conveyed in our word choices.  Then, let’s change our thoughts by changing our words.

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