How words become offensive

In my day job, I quite often come in to contact with retards. Sorry, I mean handicapped people. Shit, sorry I mean people with disability.

(I’m discussing language in this post. If you’re so sensitive that you can’t even handle reading words like ‘retarded’ as they’re being discussed objectively, you may want to fuck off.)

Have you ever wondered why the ‘wrong’ words are wrong? Why is ‘retarded’ bad? Why is ‘mentally challenged’ bad? Why is ‘disabled’ fine?

Who’s choo choo choosing these words?

Well, there are some central bodies that appear to lay down the law. For example, People with Disabilities Australia has guidance like this:

We recommend using ‘people with psychosocial disability’ to refer someone living with a mental illness. We avoid pejorative terms like ‘crazy’, ‘mad’ or ‘insane’.

I’m sensitive to the needs of people living with mental illness — believe me — but I have to be honest, I’m probably never going to say “psychosocial disability”. There’s just no way I’d spell/pronounce it right.

PWDA helpfully offer more do/don’t examples like

‘people with autism’ instead of ‘autistic people’

which to me is utter nonsense and incredibly condescending, but in the same paragraph they offer a suggestion I’m less inclined to decline:

refer to ‘people with Down syndrome’ instead of ‘Mongol”

and also

‘people with learning disability’ instead of ‘slows’

Yes, they really say ‘Mongol’ and ‘slows’.

Hang in there, kiddo.

I could make fun of People with Disabilities Australia and the well meaning folk that follow their guidelines all day long for their ‘people first’ bullshit. To me it’s clear there’s no benefit to this language, and it’s equally clear that it creates a hostile environment.

Whether it’s the intention of the PWDA or not, they’ve created a world in which it’s OK to interrupt someone talking about their ‘autistic son’ to tell them they’re being insensitive and should refer to their own fucking child as a ‘person with autism’ because that makes all the fucking difference in the world and that was totally worth cutting someone down for.

Do me a favour, well-meaning-person, ask an autistic kid what they think of your ‘people-first’ speak.

Autistic Kid: Hi, I’m autistic.

Person Who Is Well Meaning: actually, Kevin, the correct terminology is ‘person with autism’

AK: Why?

PWIWM: By saying ‘person with autism’ instead of ‘autistic person’, we acknowledge the person before their disability.

AK: Why?

PWIWM: Well, it means that you’re not defined by your autism

AK: But I still have autism

PWIWM: Um, yes, but…

AK: So it doesn’t make any difference

PWIWM: Well, it doesn’t change whether you have autism or not, but a person’s disability should not be unnecessarily focused on.

AK: But we’re discussing my autism. We’re focusing on it.

PWIWM: It’s just a respectful way to speak

AK: You didn’t respect me before?

PWIWM: Sorry?

AK: You didn’t always speak like this. When you used to refer to me as an autistic person, did you respect me?

PWIWM: Of course I respected you, you are an…

AK: Did you respect me less?

PWIWM: Of course not!

AK: So why do you say it’s a more respectful way to speak, if you don’t respect me any more now that you speak in this strange way?

PWIWM: It’s, we, respect, proper, sensitive [head explodes]

(God I love autistic kids. Just massive amounts of awe and respect and sympathy for those little superheroes.)

Unfortunately, well-meaning people like the PWDA will spend weeks working out exactly one correct way to refer to a group of people, thus creating the largest possible number of incorrect ways to speak so that they have the maximum number of people to chastise.

They create an atmosphere where you can be accused of being disrespectful regardless of your intent.

They are making intent irrelevant.

Maybe one day one of these groups will come out and say “you know what, any language you want to use is fine, the important thing is that you show respect” — wouldn’t that be a thing!

But, there’s nothing witty about picking on the picky, so I will move on…

I looked up a handful of words on Google Ngram, (which shows how often the terms appear in books).

‘crippled’ never really took off

Let’s assume that, generally speaking, books are a reasonable proxy for ‘acceptable’ language.

In the 1970’s, the word ‘retarded’ was a word every bit as benign as ‘disabled’ is today. By the early 80’s it would be clear that ‘retarded’ was old school and ‘handicapped’ the new PC term.

Let’s imagine a world where ‘retarded’ and ‘disabled’ were switched.

Just think, ‘disabled’ would be the dirty word that made your skin crawl and “those whom are retarded” would be how sophisticated, sensitive people referred to the same group of people.

In fact, in this alternate world people would argue that ‘disabled’ is a dirty word because it implies that the person can’t do anything, like they’ve been switched off.

Whereas ‘retarded’ literally just means these people have been hindered a little, but you can’t hold them back. Go get ’em, retarded tigers! In this alternate universe it would be clear that retarded was positive and sensitive, while disabled was a nasty slur.

Unfortunately that’s not the way the chips have fallen.

But hang on, this is a very now-ist view of the world. We aren’t now ‘correct’ and modern and finally have it right and nothing will ever change again. We are but a point in time. Maybe if I zoom out a bit there will be something more interesting to show. Let’s just compare ‘disabled’ and ‘retarded’.

Sensitivity to language is a new phenomenon

It might be a bit of a stretch, but I’m going to say we can infer two things from this chart:

  1. For a long time, either term were acceptable.
  2. For almost 20 years, ‘disabled’ has been slowly falling from the lofty heights of mount acceptable.

I mean think about it, what do all the ‘incorrect’ words have in common? They’re old!

And we know with 100% certainty that at some point in the future, ‘disabled’ will be considered old. I would be willing to bet that within 20 years ‘disabled’ will become a slur.

Rather than take a wild guess at how the word ‘disabled’ will fall from grace, I’m going to talk about a word that is already becoming a slur: ‘autistic’.

There is a little sub-community online for people that play games. I don’t follow this stuff, but because of the sheer volume of people who do, posts in this community tend to bubble their way to the surface of my polite little world. (That is to say, they show up on the front page of Reddit.)

I was a tad shocked to see that autism is used as a casual-but-nasty insult. A lot. These kids (I guess) throw it around like I would the word ‘moron’.

Hmm, the word ‘moron’. If I recall correctly, like ‘autistic’ and ‘retarded’, the word ‘moron’ has medical roots. Referring to someone with “a mental age of about 8–12” (did you just think of the president of the United States? What a time to be alive).

So hey, this is getting messy but interesting. We appear to have four words at different stages of acceptability.

Disabled, autistic, retarded, moron.

I wonder if I can pull all of this together…

Dr Alex’s Word Rudeness Journey Map. (Featuring the world’s most annoying arrows.)

‘Disabled’ is — as all of these words were at some point — a purely medical term with almost no negative connotations. For now.

‘Autistic’ was in the same spot, but I’m afraid, ladies and gentlemen, that it has begun its descent into insult territory.

‘Retarded’ has been through these two phases already (having lost its punch as an aggressive insult in the early 2000's) and is currently just an offensive term on it’s way to being a harmless insult.

Lastly, good old ‘moron’ has been through the wash and is now a plain old everyday insult — not exactly a nice thing to say, but no one’s dropping their tea cup when you bring it out.

I believe all words will take this journey. And the time taken to move through the phases is speeding up as the world becomes more focused on unacceptable language.

So what’s the point of all this? Is there anything we can fix, anything we can do better?

Yes, I think so.

I think we can drop this obsession with the concept of wrong words and phrases.

People should feel safe to discuss mental illness and blind people and handicapped people without fear of being chastised for unintentionally using a word or phrase that has been deemed offensive.

What can you do?

If you’re just an individual, the next time you’re about to correct someone for using a term that is currently on the naughty list, stop for a second and ask yourself “Are this person’s intentions good? Do they deserve to be interrupted and made to feel bad? Do I want to create a hostile environment that stifles communication about the current topic?”

If you’re an organisation that crafts guidance on terminology, rather than creating long lists of unacceptable terms, perhaps assure people that they shouldn’t be afraid of using the wrong terms. That what really matters is how they treat people.

I only exist while you're reading my posts.