Thursday, January 23, 2014

It's not about political correctness, it's about not being an asshole

Lately I can't help but notice there's a great deal of whining from people about being "forced" to use "politically correct" terms. Lots of hand wringing over the "word police." What's interesting is that every single time I see this kind of whining it comes from white, abled-bodied, neurotypical, straight people. Usually conservative but not always (a surprising number of my "liberal" friends don't get the problem with the r-word, and then defend their use of it).

Now let me just say this. If you are white, abled-bodied, neurotypical, straight, etc you have privilege. Period. And that means you don't get to decide what people who are not white, abled-bodied, neurotypical, straight get to be called. It really is that simple. You don't get to whine that you can't use racial slurs or gay slurs or disabled slurs. It's not about you . It's not about that five seconds that it takes to not go on about how you don't mean my kid when you ever so casually drop the r word.

Part of being in a position of privilege is having control over what words are used to describe you. Especially public words. And part of letting go of privilege is going to mean allowing those who are not in societal positions of power to dictate the language they want to describe themselves. It means letting go of what you want, what's easier for you, and about getting our your mental ass to relearn how to talk. It's okay if you slip up but instead of whining about the word police? Apologize. A simple "I'm sorry that was not OK for me to say" can go a long way.

Really it comes down to just not being an asshole. If someone doesn't want to be called gay or black or whatever don't call them that. When people who have intellectual disabilities tell you that when you use the r word as an insult or to denote something you think is unimportant or insignificant don't use it. There shouldn't be any space for trying to argue a position here. There is no position.

You're not being politically correct when you defer to someone asking to not be signified. You're ceasing to be an asshole.

I was just attacked on Twitter for "speaking for people of color" thus I took away any mention of race. I won't presume to speak for POC and I apologize if that is what anyone took from this post. I will continue to say that it is often people of privilege who defend using words that are considered slurs by others. I understand that I am white. But I am also not neurotypical, have children who are not neurotypical or white, and grew up extremely. This isn't a poor me commentary but rather a place to openly speak of who I am.


Crystal Rhew Staley said...

Exactly. 'Freedom of speech' is a two-way street. You have the right to say the words you say, but the people you offend have the right to tell you are being a dick.

S Calcano said...

It really is THAT simple.

Lori said...

Yes! I have made the same observations. I appreciate your clear and straight explanation.

30daysofautism said...

Yes! This! Exactly!!


Molly said...

So much this. SO MUCH. Also, of not playing the "you're oppressing ME by trying to change my language" card. NO, I'm just asking you not to be a dick. It's not that hard!

Tathar said...

Full disclosure: I'm a white male and mostly able-bodied, but I'm also an Aspie, transspecies, and my sexuality is hard to come up with a correct label for. These are just some of the labels I use for myself; I don't mind other labels that mean the same thing, and I don't feel I'd have a right to insist on one label over another.

I originally posted this over Twitter, so I'm sharing it here too so I could find an appropriate solution to my dilemma.

As an Aspie, I'm stuck in an impossible position of not understanding and being unable to seek clarification.

Keeping up with all the different labels people want me to use for them is impossibly difficult for me.

My ability to communicate depends heavily on a predictable set of words to use. I don't know if I can do this.

I'd like to add a few things to what I said in those tweets. No, I'm not trying to be a jerk, and I hope that my asking for help here doesn't cause me to be perceived as one. However, trying unsuccessfully to comply with this particular request leaves me mentally exhausted and points out limitations I can do nothing about. I'm ashamed to say it, but I've taken out my frustration on anyone who even mentions the word "privilege" to me, and I've done everything but call them jerks to their face. God knows I'm thinking it, though.

I'm ready to give up, but I want to give it one last chance, so here's a question I desperately need answered. If you're autistic and found yourself in a situation like the one I'm describing, how did you make it work?

Tathar said...

Apologies for the suddenness of my rant, but I've been treated as inferior for even asking this question before, and I hope to find a different outcome here, since I was pointed to this blog through @aspiemusings on Twitter.

Sandy said...

This is full of so much awesome! Thank you!

Ginger Stickney said...

I'm not sure what you mean Tathar. I'm going to assume that you wouldn't call my kid a retard right? Or that you don't label your friends as gay if they doing something you consider not cool or whatevs?

I may be wrong but I am guessing that you are referring to things like "African-American" and PFL? I am not sure how to approach this. While I understand the difficulties I also understand that people who have have been oppressed with certain words would not wish to be signified by those words. I think explanation can go a long way in making that better but I do think that it's reasonable for anyone to get to choice their own signification.

But I am not sure how to make it work. I am not Autistic. My daughter is though and while we have not had a problem with her in terms of this language. We have dealt with public swearing though, and while not at the same level, it's the only thing I can fall back on to try to answer you. My daughter is aware when people recoil due to her swearing and she apologizes even if she doesn't fully get why it bothers people. She has learned to read signs of discomfort and her friends often just outright tell her.

Beyond this I"m not sure what to say. Maybe some of my other readers have more to offer.

Tathar said...

That's correct, but my reasons for those two examples are somewhat different.

For me, the r-word means something very different to the derogatory use anyway, close to "foolish" or "irrational," and only meant to describe individual behaviors, never people. I can see how offensive it would be to label someone this way, and it's always far from accurate. Is there even a person out there whose behavior is consistently foolish or irrational? Anyone would have reason to be offended. It's universal.

As for the "gay" label, my reasoning is similar. The word's meaning doesn't match the derogatory usage, and yet some people draw comparisons that don't exist. I recall a celebrity saying this very thing in a PSA, but I can't remember who she was. Again, it's universally offensive.

Where I'm completely lost is when people want me to use "African-American" over "black" or the reverse. I don't know what PFL means, but I assume that would be another example. At this level, it's not a matter of universal offensiveness, and the preferred term may not even be correct. I've personally had the experience of someone preferring "African-American," only to turn out to have a different nationality. It would be just as problematic if it turned out the person wasn't American. What's wrong with the other term? British people (as an example) can explain that "African-American" simply isn't accurate, but more often, there's no logical reason for it. It's far from universal, and I'm not able to keep up with these requests.

I have trouble with public swearing too, but I picked that up from my environment, and people around here aren't bothered by my use of it. As long as I don't use it in a personal attack, it's harmless. I completely understand where your daughter is coming from. In the end, it comes down to our inability to codify a rule for suppressing the behavior. If we don't have a consistent rule to follow that has a good reason behind it, then there's not much we can do. It's hard enough to change our behavior even when we have those things, thanks to working memory deficits, but the reasoning helps to remind us when we forget.

Ginger Stickney said...

I think the problem here is that you are trying to argue a position about your personal use of a word that a community finds offensive. I'll be honest here that I don't there is ever an excuse to use the r word once you know it's offensive. When so many people who have been labeled "retarded" say "This is offensive to me. It hurts." I think we all have an obligation to stop using it.

As for things like African-American, Latino/a, etc, I think that unless you are a person of color you don't get to have a say.

Tathar said...

I'd like to share a personal experience that's only superficially related to this conversation, but I still feel I need to share it, and this is as good a place as any to talk about it. Earlier this morning, I ran into a checklist claiming to gauge how privileged someone was based on several social axes, including race, color, nationality, and several others. Each label on that axis was assigned a point score, either positive or negative. It appeared to be written by a social justice activist, or at least someone concerned about biases and prejudice.

But this reduction of my eases and hardships into a number was troubling to me. I found it rather offensive that someone seemingly concerned with social justice would rate people based on their membership in various majority and minority groups. It didn't help that my asexuality was rated 0, as though the harassment I endured throughout school for not having a giflfriend didn't exist.

"Fine, so the point values need to be adjusted. I can't ask too much of this." I kept going until I reached the Disability axis. Most of the disabilities represented were physical disabilities, and the R-word was the only mention of a mental disability. It was scored -200. I couldn't finish the assessment at that point and immediately expressed my protest of the author's insensitive use of the word.

This isn't an isolated case, unfortunately. I've encountered many cases where these people attack privileged groups, and many more cases where people protest against that treatment, only to be dismissed as scum that should die. I'm starting to believe that "social justice" as these people see it is really a matter of shaming people for their inclusion into privileged groups, and sometimes even actively attacking people for being in one or more majority groups. This kind of behavior is toxic to awareness of social issues and the social equality movement, because it villainizes those who aren't disadvantaged.

I don't want to play that game. It's hurtful and destructive, and it sets us back as a society.

Going back to the discussion, I think this particular incident shows rather clearly where I stand on the use of the R-word to label people with mental disabilities. What I'm asking about, as an autistic person seeking thoughtful discussion and clarification, is whether it's as illegitimate to use the word for its other meaning, which has nothing to do with mental disability.

Either way, I personally try to avoid the word because of how much damage the former usage has caused, and because the latter usage can dig up traumatic experiences for people affected by the former. However, many people don't do this for the latter usage, and the intent to harm people with mental disabilities isn't there when they say it. Is it possible for us to collectively decide as a society that the word just isn't going to have anything to do with mental disability anymore, or are the wounds too deep? You'd be able to answer that better than I could.

As for what you're saying about people of color, I can't really comment much on that. I don't know what the impact of that viewpoint is on the progress towards social equality, but care should certainly be taken to prevent the type of behavior that I described above. Saying that I don't have a say, because I'm an outsider looking in, definitely cuts off a potential source of balance, but if a minority group can self-police this kind of harmful behavior from inside, then I suppose it would be fine. Either way, "nothing about us without us" is good enough for me, so I can't see how it wouldn't work for people of color too.

I'd really like to hear what you have to say about this, because I'm still shaping my views on the subject even now, and I could use input from someone directly affected by the result.

Tathar said...

I just saw this tweet from the Dalai Lama, and I'd like to share:

It would help if there were greater understanding that anger never helps to solve a problem.

I realize that it's hard to be patient when I ask all these questions about implications and alternative options, but I really do need to ask them, because simply doing as I'm told ends up with me forgetting what I was told to do. I need my moral rules to come from within so I can call upon them when they're most needed.

On the plus side, all this discussion helps me to explain my position on this moral issue to others. If I just did as I was told, this wouldn't be possible.

Ginger Stickney said...

I am not suggesting that we chart privilege at all because privilege like most social constructs is fluid. However it's very clear that there are degrees. I think that saying the discrimination found for those who are left handed is the same for those as a poor African-American man living in the South is pretty ridiculous. Clearly there are levels and to deny that seems to be also a denying of privilege.

I agree there are always spots of privilege that go unseen. I myself was just made aware of the privilege of sexuality and I didn't respond by being nasty, sending death threats, etc. I responded with "HUh I never thought of that...time to do some rooting." I have found in my own experience that most thoughtful people respond the way I do whereas the mention of privilege often sends my more conservative friends into rather hateful rants.

Now the thing about defining. Why do you get a say in deciding what word a group wants to use to define themself if you are not a member of that group? I don't think this is so much about separation as about experience. Would you feel comfortable if I as a non-Autistic person decide what you should be called? I wouldn't like it as a fat woman for you to be able to pick the labels that describe me to others. I am married to a Latino man, and it's never once occurred to me to argue with him about what words he uses to describe his body and his experience with the world. Yet we are married, close, best friends even. IT's not about making us separate but about respecting his right to define.

Tathar said...

I might need to include a trigger warning here for anyone who has experienced discrimination and prejudice for not belonging to a particular minority group.

About defining, I mentioned in my previous comment that the outside voice is an important check against hypocrisy and radicalism within the group. The final decision on a word choice ultimately affects outsiders as much as those who are labeled by it, because outsiders are assigned a label by exclusion. It's a matter of recognizing all of those impacted by the word choice, and giving all of those people a voice in the matter.

"Not autistic." "Cisgender." Without a voice, the outside group gets no say in the exclusionary label. If the included group decides on a neutral label, then this usually isn't a problem. However, if the label is taken as a laudatory term of praise, then the outside group is negatively affected by this word choice by exclusion.

The negative connotation of the exclusionary label isn't necessarily attached immediately, either. The word "cisgender" has recently been misused by a small, but vocal part of the transgender community to express spite, hatred, and justification for violence against the outside group. Personally, I've become so worried about this radicalized group that I'm hesitant to even describe myself as cisgender. So many things are assumed by that word, and being transspecies, a lot of the assumptions are false about me. The word's become a vector for hate, and I fear for my life when I'm around people like that.

Admittedly, when I was first coming to terms with my species identity, I did much of the same thing the radicals do. It didn't rise to a militant level, but I had so much pent up spite for humanity that it wasn't healthy.

Now that I'm older, I realize how much this kind of behavior is toxic to everyone, and I do everything in my power to prevent that kind of hatred for different people. Some of that requires me to give up some of the power I have to define myself. As long as it is accurate and non-offensive, I don't care what labels are used to describe me. I'll still use my own labels, but you have a say too, and if I like your label enough, I may use it myself.

Hopefully that answers your question. I'm guessing you were assuming that I wouldn't be so open to outside input, but I really am, and after what I've seen the opposite do to people, this works pretty well for me so far. It even gives me a good idea of whether someone has misconceptions about what I am, so I can use it as a jumping off point for clarifying.

Ginger Stickney said...

I can understand these concerns but I think it's important that you look closely at who I'm addressing this piece too. I'm addressing it to the conservative voices who rail against political correct language. At the people, who call my friend a pearl clutcher because she asked them to not use the fucktard. I think it's one thing to raise concerns about group identity when it becomes hateful, and clearly I am not advocating hatred here.

From what I am reading here you are a thoughtful person, and I am guessing that if you addressed someone in a way they felt was not okay you'd be ok with calling them what they prefer.

My frustration comes from having to argue these points with people who frankly don't give a shit about other people's feelings or their desire to have the power to define themselves.

Tathar said...

I see. Still, to be fair, not all conservatives are thoughtless. In fact, most aren't, but they generally need a thoughtful explanation for why they need to change their behavior. Giving up on them as a group won't accomplish needed societal advancement, but appealing to common sensibility will.

I actually know quite a few conservatives who support me for who I am. Many of them don't fully understand why it's important that I identify as a dragon, but they care enough to be mindful of offensive things. In fact, I can tell they try harder than most people to be sensitive to others' hardships. They just don't get a chance very often because they're villainized for their political views.

I guess what I've been saying all along is that we need to give everyone a chance. It's usually those who require the most patience who turn out to become the best supporters.

Horacio said...

Tathar- "Keeping up with all the different labels people want me to use for them is impossibly difficult for me."
So what you're saying is that, for example, historically in a place like here in Georgia-US someone could be excused from not wanting to "keep up" (since it is impossibly difficult) with self-identifying language of the times to continue calling African-American 'niggers', 'negroes' or other gems from the more simple, gentler past.

Horacio said...

Tathar- It's also very symptomatic that you use the term 'request': as in an ethnic group demanding that you refer to them as "African-American" for example.
A 'request' implies that you, indeed, have privilege and that is, therefore, up to you to decide if an ethnic group can self-identify and be referred to by that label.
The news here is that a) it is NOT a request.
b) Therefore it is not the case that you will, in turn, will politely acquiesce and start referring to an ethnic group by their label of choice.
RIGHTS ARE NOT GIVEN *NEITHER ARE THEY REQUESTED* THEY'RE taken. And YES it is usually privileged people that complain, question, and/or refuse to acknowledge this very simple fact.

Tathar said...

I believe the previous comments I made adequately explain that I don't use that word. I'm uncomfortable thinking about it, so I won't say it by name.

The problem is when the preferred language isn't universal. That word is universally offensive, so I have no trouble at all remembering not to use it. What is problematic for me is how some people of that race use that word to describe each other and themselves. That shouldn't be tolerated, even if they should have a voice in deciding their self-identifier. I call them out on it every time.

Tathar said...

Ginger, thanks for the worthwhile discussion we had, and maybe in the future we'll get to resume it. However, I can't talk about this further in my current emotional state.

Horacio, I really feel uncomfortable with the tone you use here. I made a series of thoughtful and compassionate comments on this subject, yet you respond with open hostility. I can't have a discussion with you on this subject unless we can treat each other as equals with valid concerns and needs. I'm afraid that can't happen while you treat me this way, so I choose to disengage from this discussion for the time being.

Horacio said...

Tathar- It is important to remember that the very concept of 'universal' is an idea that was conceived and deployed by the dominating western paradigmatic epistemology (ie white europeans of the eighteenth century). The concept of 'universal', in turn, meant that the people dominated and/or enslaved by them (african slaves, natives of the 'new world') were unable to produce such all encompassing (universal)concepts.
So what you're saying is that, indeed, language/concepts that are not a direct product of that 'universal' should not be acknowledged or used socially. That, my friend, reeks of privilege. One needs only to remember why the "Indians" were known as such for centuries... It was Columbus (thinking he had reached the shores of India and not the island of Hispaniola) who labeled them: their right to self-identify was not of Columbus' interest, neither did it fit the 'universal' of Columbus' times which really was... European. So, it's pretty simple Tathar--- don't navigate around the world thinking that you hold the 'Universal'.

Tathar said...

I'm not playing this game, Horatio. Hostility is exactly the wrong way to try to convince someone to listen to you. We can discuss things thoughtfully and with respect for each other, but I won't put up with this hostility much longer.

I don't get why you're doing this, to be honest. I've already explained that I largely agree with you on the important points, yet you're nitpicking and using minor differences and obscure etymologies to attack me. This isn't furthering social equality. It's exerting power over people who are different from you, and that's not acceptable. It's also being an asshole, and it hurts everything that has been done to further social equality. You don't want to keep doing this, and I don't want to listen to it. Stop.

Horacio said...

I have NOT used ANY insults in any of my comments. Period. I am not the person who is disrespecting others by using profane language. Adieu.

Tathar said...

Horatio, I hope that in the future you will understand that there is more to hostility than insults, and I hope that once you learn this important life lesson, you'll avoid displaying this inappropriate behavior. I can't help you with this, but I hope you learn it sooner rather than later.

Until then, I wish you health and wellness, and I'll leave it at that.

Ginger Stickney said...

First, I have to ask that personal name calling not be used. It's not okay to call someone an asshole unless you're being very general. It does NOTHING for the conversation. Second, Horacio, not Horatio, was not writing anything inappropriate. He was respectfully addressing the concerns you brought up. They may be hard things to hear but they weren't presented in a way that was insulting or demeaning. Your resistance to the idea of privilege flies in the face of historical experiences. The reality is that we live in a place where universasl were indeed created by those in positions of power. To ask that we go back to them is very much a denial of the experience of the minority.

This is the last comment I'm going to make on this issue. Being able to NOT be in a minority group, making the decision to not be a part of a group is an interesting idea. What do you do when you have no choice? I mean, what if you are forced into that group because of the color of your skin? I'm not saying that one with a disability gets to choose to step out but you mention not being in minority groups or being forced out or just leaving. Not everyone has that ability or choice. My children do not get to decide to be white. They are already placed into a minority group by those from the outside. I think a central problem with the resistance to the idea of privilege is this idea that we all somehow choose to be in a minority. We are signified by those outside, and when we are denied the power to be a part of a conversation about our own identities that signfication becomes very dangerous.

Tathar said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.