30 May 2012

On Language

In the last couple of months, I've received an unprecedented wave of feedback in which it has been implicitly or explicitly insinuated that my essays on language and terminology have constituted a form of "language police." I'm not and have never been obsessed with micromanaging the language of everyone around me. I do have clear language preferences and very strong language preferences, and I have arguments for them just as people who have different language preferences can have equally valid arguments for theirs -- yet not even everyone who uses the same language that I do shares my core beliefs. I do wish that more people would also agree with me about the kinds of language I use (no different than wishing, say, that someone agreed with me about anything else, because it's nice when people agree with you), but I do not want anyone to use language that I "like" just because "Lydia likes that language" or "that's the right thing to say," but because they actually agree with my argument(s) for the language or otherwise have an equally valid argument for preferring that language.

Yet is language the be all end all? No. Is language some kind of litmus test or loyalty test to see who's genuinely part of "the movement" and who's not? No. The core ideas and beliefs that a person holds are far more important than the language used to express those ideas and beliefs.

But language is powerful and language is political. And when I or others, whether they use the same language as me or not, discuss the significance of semantics, it is intellectually and culturally irresponsible to trivialize discussions about language as unimportant and shallow. Whether we like it or not, using different language in different contexts with different audiences or interlocutors invariably alters perceptions through nuance, connotation, and cultural baggage than if another type of language had been used.

That is why these discussions about language are not merely important but necessary. The problems engendered by the presence of these discussions arise only when language is used as an almighty litmus test or the means of disempowering an individual, or prioritized as somehow more important than, say, accomplishing actual work that immediately benefits real lives such as removing someone from an abusive situation, finding housing for someone in need of a place to live, or guiding someone toward meaningful, integrated employment. Practicality, pragmatics -- these things weigh far more heavily on me than questions about language.

In the academic setting, it's entirely appropriate to discuss and debate the use of language. But who would be so arrogant as to interrupt a person in crisis in order to correct language because it was the "wrong" language? To be a member of the disability rights movement or the Autistic rights movement, or to be an Autistic activist or advocate or self-advocate is not defined around what language you use to discuss autism and disability. Framing the rights movement in this manner would be an egregious fallacy. There are very good and powerful arguments for why certain language makes more sense in the context of a civil rights discussion (and equally valid ones for other language), but the disability and Autistic rights movements are defined around guiding principles and a vision for social revolution, not homogeneous, mindless use of language.

Every individual has the right to self-determination. That is a hallmark of the disability rights movement, from as early as Ed Roberts and Judy Heumann. That right is inalienable and absolute, which means that every individual has an absolute right to self-determination in the language used and preferred. One's rights end only when they infringe upon the rights of others. There is no right to use bigoted language or language that one knows will upset someone else while that other person is present. Similarly, no one individual ever has the right to coerce other people into changing their preferred language. Yes, we have the right to make arguments and offer reasons for choosing one set of terms as opposed to another, but we never have the right to impose our choices or preferences onto anyone else.

If someone were to stop using certain terminology and begin to use the terminology that I use and prefer, it would be better by a thousand times if that person's choice was conscious and borne of conscience. There are right and wrong reasons for changing language. It is wrong and meaningless to alter your language solely for the sake of pleasing someone else or attempting to pass an imagined litmus test as a true believer and fellow member of the movement. Ultimately, focusing your attention on the actual or perceived attitudes or opinions of others will lead to insecurity, lack of resolve, and potentially self-doubt and self-hatred. It is only positive and constructive to change your language if the decision is one you have made in the absence of peer pressure, and because you have reason, whether or not you can or ever do articulate it, to want that language, to claim that language, and to prefer that language. You might even take pride in your language.

So be careful. Neither my word nor yours nor anyone else's is absolute and infallible, especially when it comes to language. You must be the final judge for yourself. Familiarize yourself with the arguments. You might even read mine. A good argument will both explain its rationale and implore the reader to consider its merits and thus adopt the language argued on the basis of those merits. But ultimately, all arguments are the product of opinion, not truth, not scripture. My arguments and essays about the use of language are my opinion. Other people happen to agree with my opinions. But whatever you do, do not take at face value anything that you hear or read, because there is no language-specific creed to the disability rights movement. Within itself, and even among specific disability groups, there are varying preferences for language, and in connection to the broader disability community far beyond the rights movement, ideas and preferences splinter further. It remains to debate, appropriately, whether such disparity is positive because of its diversity or negative because of its disunity and fragmentation. Perhaps it is even more complex and nuanced than that -- this disparity and range of preferences for types of language creates both positive and negative ramifications for our intersecting communities. Either way, while the power of language is undeniable, it is imperative that those with genuine concern for the rights of others understand language in its full context and refrain from furthering the marginalization of those within the community solely on the basis of the language preferred.

And to those who've felt attacked or marginalized by my own essays, or who've felt that my emphasis has been misplaced, let me add this in closing -- my arguments are exactly that. They are mine, and they represent my opinions alone. They are constantly incomplete and in evolution. But they only represent one strand of thinking. No one has singular claim to "right" when it comes to language, only the obligations of mutual respect for others' preferences and of educating oneself to understand better one's own reasons for language. Beyond that, it is the community's obligation to ensure that no individual or group of individuals creates or holds a monopoly on "correct" terminology. The community must place a priority on emphasizing the pragmatic challenges that we face rather than the linguistic and academic ones.


(I typed this from my phone while on a moving train. Thus, please forgive any typos or weird punctuation. I haven't checked.)


  1. I appreciate reading this. Lots to think about.

  2. Excellent, excellent post! I agree 100% I also think that people have the right to be called whatever THEY wish to be called. If you want to talk to them about why you prefer what you prefer then fine, but respect their right to choose.

  3. Usually, the cry of "language police!" comes loudest from people whose language is just plain WRONG. In fact, one time very recently when a person pointed at me and cried "grammar nazi" because I tried to make a guess at what on Earth they were intending to write, I told them that I used to write like them, but then I turned thirteen. (This, by the way, is not true. If there is one thing that being autistic and a child during the 1980s teaches you, it is that you must never leave your enemy any room to pretend they do not understand you.)

    But there are some who really need to learn the difference between a right and an accommodation. Take religion for example. Although most, if not all in some way religious people have had the choice made for them, religion is not like being autistic. It is voluntary. All it takes to get rid of it is to up and walk away, and the effort that entails. (Yes, I have been watching the previous season of True Blood too much. "[Insert protest here]... our religion!" is a great way to delete any sympathy I had for a character.)

    Rights also come with responsibilities, and conflict with one another in ways that sometimes require one to be removed. (There is a point to this.) Anyone from China or India will tell you that the "right" to reproduce freely has come into increasing conflict with the rights of Human beings to live without starvation and/or preventable disease. Those two countries being the two most heavily populated and the ones to have addressed this conflict by repealing the right to reproduce freely, sad to say, is NOT a coincidence.

    You might think you have a right to call "yourself" whatever you want. (Note that by "you", I mean a general audience, not any specific you.) However, I have a right to live without the trauma and fear that accompanies being threatened with the removal of an essential component of my identity as a core part of me. Your so-called right not only conflicts with mine, it conflicts to a degree that might as well be a complete disregard. I am not obligated to tolerate that. Call me an adult with autism, and hellfire will be coming in your direction with gift wrapping and a big smile.

    My next to last journal entry (it is about how people can have accessibility problems, ostensibly) covers this subject in a little more detail. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who entertains the thought that the "person first" crowd should not be nailed to a wall.

    1. I don't think I ever said the words "language police", but this post is at least partially a response to something I wrote. I suppose a person could say I have bad language. I may be eloquent on some topics, but it comes with a struggle, and most topics that I know in my head are not topics I am capable of writing about. The thing I wrote that this post responds to, was a first attempt to put something into words that I find very important. Something that has considerable depth and complexity that my language skills continue to leave me unable to address. Sort of morbidly funny that my language problems leave me unable to fully address a matter having to do with language.

      I hope that one day -- maybe today, I hope? -- I'll become able to talk about the rest of what I meant. In the meantime, I hope it will become clear that sometimes when a person has language problems (of certain specific kinds, and not always things that are superficially obvious) they come from a trait that can also create insight into the weaknesses of language. Not that I ever meant language can't be important, whatever it looked like.

  4. I read your posts about language and liked your point of views, they were similar to mine and gave me things to think about, I agreed with what you wrote and I could notice that was your opinion, not an absolute truth, nothing about what you wrote sounded like language police, it was clear that was your opinion and that you wanted to explain your choices in language giving others interesting ideas to think about their use of it.

    I read people that accused you of trying to control language and didn't understood, including because I see you calling people what they want, you have a post about identity first language but called someone on this blog person with autism because they asked fo be called like that, how is that language policing?

    I think discussing language is important because there are ideas behind language, we don't use language based on nothing and there is a context for the use of all terms. I am marginalized by language in the autistic "community" because of the ideas behind the language people use about my autism and other identities, I wish more people would analyze their ideas and the language they use especially the terrible and constant use of ableist language and ideas on the autistic "community".

  5. You've articulated this so well.
    I often find that people struggle to talk about language as powerful and political because they feel like it detracts from the importance of their beliefs and behaviour. But you've put them together so well, if only I could articulate myself that well in conversation...

  6. "Usually, the cry of "language police!" comes loudest from people whose language is just plain WRONG."

    Amen stillfinditsohard

  7. The last 2 paragraphs I felt as though I was writing it, only you articulate it brilliantly on paper!

    An incident happened at school several months ago (4th grade), wherein an autistic boy was on the playground with his school friends and said the word "n!gger". He was immediately taken out and parents were called and spoken to. Here's the problem, a week before the school class had read a book about the slaves and that word was in it. There was no notice to the parents alerting them and asking them to discuss this with their child. INSTEAD, at the beginning of the year we were sent a letter asking if our child could partake in listening to President Obama speak. I thought of the two and it doesn't make any sense.

    I am often a person sensitive to children's ears when adults or teenagers are around and feel there is a risk to exposing a child to profanity. The problem is about language. Unfortunately "Common Sense" is one of those things that are akin to that socioeconomic community. I often think people should have common sense when it comes to language etc, but that's subjective as you say.

    I cheshired after reading your article and thought, yup, my opinions are as you explained. I stated it perfectly.


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