01 February 2013

Ableism, Tone Police, and Hypocrisy

Trigger Warning: Tone policing; uncensored racist, heterosexist/homophobic, cissexist/transphobic, ableist, sexist, and anti-Semitic slurs.


Ableism, Tone Police, and Hypocrisy

  1. I'm going to write this post with numbers because I'm too upset to organize it more coherently into paragraphs in essay format. The numbers help me separate the thoughts.
  2. About two hours ago, I was standing in the lobby of the building where I live and talking to someone when another Georgetown student walked by and said, "Wow, that's really retarded." (She was speaking to yet another person.)
  3. And when I went upstairs and complained that "some asshole thinks it's okay to go around and say 'retarded,'" I was told that I didn't need to be "calling people names" or "stooping to her level."
  4. I've been called both "too angry/hateful/self-righteous/extremist" and "too passive/polite/politically correct," sometimes even over the very exact same thing. What gives? This makes no sense to me.
  5. There are two problems here. The first is the obvious ableism in the use of the slur "retarded." The second is with the tone-policing. What, exactly, is tone-policing, you ask? (For an example, reference the previous paragraph.)
  6. Argument from tone, or tone-policing, occurs when one person (usually a privileged one) tells another (usually a marginalized one) that they need to be more polite, more civil, etc. Essentially, the victim of tone-policing is told that xir opinions, ideas, thoughts, and feelings need not be expressed, and indeed, should not be expressed, if they are not expressed in a tone sufficiently pleasing for the person doing the tone-policing.
  7. When the victim of tone-policing is Autistic, it's particularly insidious because we Autistics are frequently fed the message that we're the ones with a social impairment (though we frequently do have communication and language impairments), and quite often, have difficulty integrating intent and tone of voice, whether in person or online. This leads to the implicit assumption that the reason we need to be scolded (oh, did I mention that this is paternalistic and patronizing, too, if not outright infantilizing?) is because we're Autistic and therefore because we're disabled it is autism that means we can't communicate "at your level" because obviously we are like little children being rude, defiant, disrespectful, and noncompliant rather than adults with agency, competent to make our own decisions about how we're going to express ourselves.
  8. Tone-policing is an arrogant, privileged thing to do. It can happen horizontally (see horizontal oppression) but is frequently applied across uneven power structures, where the person doing the tone-policing comes from a privileged position relative to the person being tone-policed. Now obviously, oppression and privilege aren't mutually exclusive when we're talking about whole people, but when someone belonging to a privileged group tells someone from the analogously oppressed group that their tone is wrong, the tone-policer isn't speaking as a peer or an equal. They're speaking from a position of structural and institutional power. And that makes it that much more fundamentally disturbing.
  9. For example, a gay white man has privilege from being white and a man but experiences oppression because he's gay, but a disabled Black Christian has privilege from being Christian but experiences oppression because xe's disabled and Black. Yay, intersectionality. But yes, there are multiple axes of oppression.
  10. Also, if you're going to accept that words like nigger, spic, cunt, faggot, kike, and tranny are -ist slurs, oppressive, and worthy of condemnation and excisement from your vocabulary, then why isn't retard on that list?
  11. I don't mean language reclamation by members of an oppressed group of historically oppressive and violent language. I mean use of that language as oppressive and violent. 
  12. The student who dropped the word retarded appeared to be Black and was female-presenting. Assuming that she does identify as Black and a woman, this looks like a fantastic example of horizontal oppression. That happens either when a member of an oppressed group contributes to the oppression of other members of the same group, or when a member of one oppressed group contributes to the oppression of another group.
  13. I know I made an assumption about the student's gender identity, but unfortunately (or usefully? but still unfortunately), it probably has a rather high likelihood of being accurate given the incredibly transphobic and binarist campus where I live. The very, very few androgynous, non-binary, and genderqueer people I know here are largely closeted and present themselves as fairly binary gendered. So I think I'm safe in calling the student a she. (If you're that student and you recognize yourself in reading this post, and I'm actually wrong, please feel free to call me out in the comments.)
  14. There's a huge difference in "name-calling" and using oppressive language. Is "name-calling" mean? Probably. Is it oppressive? Not necessarily.
  15. One thing that succeeds in infuriating me like no other is outright, blatant hypocrisy. How can people at a university supposedly dedicated to justice for everyone, a university where human and civil rights are everyone's cause, a university where "being active on issues" is like a badge of personal and social honor ignore the reality of ableism? You believe in fighting racism. You believe in fighting sexism. You believe in fighting heterosexism/homophobia. You believe in fighting cissexism/transphobia. So why isn't ableism on your radar? How can people who know it's not okay to drop racist slurs believe it's totally okay to drop ableist ones?
  16. More accurately. How can people who claim to be so progressive on social justice issues not realize that ableism, much less ableist slurs, exists?
  17. This is why I have problems with social justice people. There's a type of persona that goes with being an SJ person. (Amanda Baggs wrote about this in one of her posts, in which she stated that the social justice community has tried to claim her many times, but she does not consider herself part of such a community. There was something about a venom or a poison in it, that I don't remember clearly, and I don't have the spoons to find the post in question right now.) A lot of it is privilege. A lot of upper-class, white, Christian, straight people (or people who may belong to one or two marginalized groups while still having a lot of privilege from belonging to other groups) make up the backbone of a lot of social justice type organizations. And it's all about "let's try to raise money to fight homelessness" or "let's spend ten hours a week in an inner-city school with the kids," which while on the surface can seem totally fine, is actually pretty insidious, paternalistic, naive, and privileged.
  18. What I mean to say is that "social justice" people frequently (but not always -- this is not an absolutist, exceptionless generalization) see their work through a lens of optimism and idealism that doesn't recognize, much less comprehend, the complex systems of institutionalized oppression that will ensure that a fundraiser, a trip into "the community" (what the hell is "the community" anyway), or what have you isn't actually going to do much more than make you feel good.
  19. That doesn't mean that "community service" work is bad. There's nothing wrong with shelters or mentoring programs or fundraisers in themselves. But they can become extremely problematic ridiculously easily, and a lot of people ignore that.
  20. Social justice people are often also the ones who do the tone-policing. I've noticed that a lot.
  21. This doesn't mean I hate everyone in the world who cares about social justice. There are a lot of people who posit themselves as fighting for social justice who do admirable work in challenging and deconstructing oppressive systems. It means I have serious problems with a lot of organizations and people that are centered around this idea of social justice.
  22. When you tone-police me, you are attempting to de-legitimize me. That is not acceptable. If you have a problem with me, take it up with the substance of what I say, not the manner in which I say it.
  23. People who say "but a little bit of honey goes a long way" or "you attract more flies with honey" or any other variation of that idiom, you do not recognize the power structures that have given you the privilege that allows you to say that. When we're talking about disability, I as a disabled person do not have the privilege that a neurotypical person does, and you are not speaking to me as your equal as your peer (even if you -- rightfully -- want to be). You are speaking to me in the context of societal oppression. There is a power structure and it is important and must be recognized.
  24. There's also a lot of hypocrisy with these people. While I'll be told to hell and back that I need to be more civil and polite or else no one will listen to me, well, let me tell you, I have done the civil and polite thing quite a bit. I've done it in person; I've done it online; I've done it in classes; I've done it in meetings; I've done it in everyday conversations. And it's gotten me where? Nowhere. Not to mention a lot of the very same people will turn around and stop dropping profanity, yelling, making personal attacks, and all other sorts of nasty things. I have been screamed at during meetings by non-Autistic autism parents. I have been talked down to and treated like an infant by non-Autistic researchers and professionals. But someone, I'm the one who needs to be more polite?
  25. To the "don't stoop to their level" people -- you do not understand, clearly, that there are power structures in place that mean that I cannot and will never be "above" people who belong to privileged groups when I belong to the analogously marginalized groups.
  26. Asking you to not use the word "retarded" isn't about being politically correct or too offeeeeeeeennnnnddeeeeddddd. It's about basic human decency. The word is a slur.
  27. If someone uses the word out of genuine ignorance that it was a slur and then stops using it once educated, I don't have a problem with that person. (I do have a problem with the society that socialized that person into not recognizing ableism.)
  28. If someone uses the word out of genuine ignorance that it was a slur but doesn't stop using it once educated, yeah, I do have a problem with that person because now they know.
  29. The language you use reflects the attitudes and values that you hold. This isn't a matter of "petty semantics." It's a matter of attitudes. And you know what shapes policies? Attitudes. You know what lets people abuse? Attitudes. You know what causes hate crimes? Attitudes.
  30. If you were thinking about leaving a comment on this post, and your only comment was going to be something to the effect of "wow you need to stop being so over-sensitive/offended/politically correct," just go away now, please, and take your privilege with you.

[April 2017: I have removed the image that used to be on this page. I no longer believe it was necessary to create, and that it inappropriately and highly disrespectfully conflated several types of oppression, implied that other oppressions are actually taken seriously (sometimes that's true, but in society at large, not really), as well as actually writing out slurs targeting marginalized groups that I don't personally belong to. It previously featured a graphic that included the n-slur against Black people, the s-slur against Latinx people, the c-slur against people with vaginas (mostly women), the f-slur against LGBTQ+ people, the k-slur against Jewish people, and the t-slur against trans people. Then it had said, "Offended? then why not for [the r-slur against disabled people]? time to check your privilege?"]


  1. Okay.

    One, the word "retard" has a long historical valid use tradition. This whole argument on your part betrays your inability to understand that it is the way a word is used, not the word itself, that is the problem. The word itself is derived from a Latin root that was used to denote reduction, delay, or lesser quality/quantity. So what, are we supposed to go back in time and slap linguists over the head? Give us a break.

    Two, using a word out of a good context and out of a proper usage is a common characteristic of the Human being that has gone on since before modern Humans existed. Children even today (*pointing at self*) use words experimentally in order to discern their actual meaning. In some cases, with disastrous and abusive results (*pointing at self again*).

    For instance, if I were to call the entire passive arm of the autistic "community" a bunch of logically-retarded jack-offs, my description would be a hundred percent accurate. They ignore people, even when those people are desperate to the point of deciding death is preferable to this life, and then when these people say "okay, I have had enough, I do not want to be among you anymore", they throw tantrums. Exactly what other description of their behaviour other than retarded fits, Lydia? You cannot have it all your passive way. People are being treated like they are refuse, and get further exclusion from the "please accept us, normeh" branch. If you cannot handle the blowback from that, tough luck so far as I am concerned.

    You are able to continue attending tertiary schooling and talk to people in positions of power. People in my position would kill to have your level of privilege. So if you object to me calling your making all of us look like limp-wristed cutie pies that are waiting to be exterminated retarded both in logical and historical awareness terms, tough luck as far as I am concerned.

    We are at war, and your behaviour is that of a person who has already won. I am not the only one it is helping to kill. And your refusal to see that means anything in the arsenal to make you see it is fair game in my eyes. Regardless of your IngSoc "umm-mum-ah! oo sed a bad wurd!" prattling. Good day.

    1. For a guy talking about logic so much, I sure as hell don't see any coming from you. How exactly is objecting to all the ways in which Autistic people are disparaged and abused rather than only some of them leading to more of us being treated like garbage and killed? I kind of imagined that to be the fault of the ableists who treat us like crap and kill us, not that of other Autistic self-advocates.

    2. Historical context? "Nigger" and "negro" and other racial slurs used to have valid historical use, too. So did "homosexual," which is evolving into a slur (I say this as a bi woman who notices how "homosexual" and "bisexual" when used as nouns only ever seem to be used by those who would like to kick my head in). Historical use means nothing with regards to how it's currently used. May as well argue that bitch isn't a gendered slur because historically, it was validly used to refer to female dogs.

      A slur is a perjorative used to imply a group is inferior. Retard is a perjorative used to imply that people with developmental disabilities are inferior. Retard, thus, is a slur. Regardless of its historical context.

      Sorry to the OP: As someone who may-or-may-not be autistic (saving $$ for assessment) but who currently has neurotypical privilege, I usually keep my mouth shut on this blog, listen, and lurk. But I couldn't let that slide, since it betrays woeful ignorance on what exactly constitutes a slur.

    3. You're obviously still quite angry but I hope you're feeling less suicidal today. I was very worried about you earlier this week, stillfinditsohard, and am still quite worried about you. That high level of anger is not healthy and I want to do whatever I can to help improve your living situation because it sounds like the social safety net of your country is not doing its job properly. No one should have to live in poverty and squalor. It upsets me to see autistics thrown on the rubbish heap -- mostly because that's where most of my life has been lived as well.

      Could you just accept that there are people who feel as strongly about the use of the word "retard" as you feel about the use of the puzzle piece as a symbol for autism? I don't see a lot of difference between this word anger and your symbol anger and would think that you would find something to connect with here rather than pushing everyone further away.

  2. I wonder a lot about tone-policing in a parenting context. I see it as part of my job as a parent to help my kids use the tone that is consistent with the message they want to communicate. My son has a harder time with this than my daughter does, partly because my son is on the spectrum and my daughter is not. But at what point does parenting (good) cross the line into tone-policing (bad)? The power imbalance (between parent and child) is there, and it's not going to go away, even if it changes as children grow up.

    So when is my son responsible for his own tone? Same as any other kid? And when is that anyway?

    Thanks for listening. And thanks for educating others about how offensive the term "retard" is!!

    1. Yep- I agree it is difficult to draw the line about where to do quite legitimate "tone policing" to educate, so that kids/people come across as congruent in context. I hadn't heard of "tone-police" before today and just got accused of doing it, so had to do some assigned reading. As an adult with adult friends on the autism spectrum I HAVE been guilty of being the "tone police" in private with some of them and I honestly thought I was being helpful, giving hints on how to shape conversations by not starting arguments with newcomers etc. On the other hand, some of my (apparently neuro-privileged) other friends find my ASD friends quite off-putting. They don't understand that these people ARE on the spectrum and therefore there might be some holes in their conversation skills! On the other hand, I've come across a "radical autistic" subgroup who think everyone should just be happy with unusual or aggressive communications because that is how they want to conduct themselves in mixed company as their "right" not to adapt! My point of view is that we need to adapt our language to social contexts so we can "get on" with life. That is what you are teaching your kids and we shouldn't call that "tone policing".

  3. Here's my problem. I don't know where this leaves me as someone who wants to help protect my community from abuse of power...but who really and truly does not believe that back and forth name-calling is okay.

    No, name-calling isn't usually oppression, but that doesn't make it okay. No, it's not on the same scale as the harm caused by the broad acceptability of using an ableist slur, but that doesn't make it okay.

    Because I think people are more than the sum of their axes of privilege or oppression. Because I think that there are basic levels of respect that people are entitled to because they are people.

    Yeah, I think there *is* such a thing as "stooping to their level" that has to do with more than where in the broad power structures both people fall, because there is more to the *quality* of a person than where they fall in the privilege/oppression balance.

    And of course I wish that everyone understood their privilege and how abusive power structures operate, but when someone who's messed up or used a slur whether in malice or in ignorance hears what boils down to, as far as I can understand "It's not okay for you to do this to us, but it is okay for other people to do it to you because you're in power," I don't think that changes the *values* of the world.

    That doesn't mean that we shouldn't be angry or upset or emotional or rageful or that we just need to be more polite in the face of abuse or derailment. It doesn't mean we don't *fight.* I lost a friend who not only defended the JRC at length to me, but accused me of being unable to make an argument because I was, in fact, emotional about it.

    But I cannot believe that just turning the same back on the people who mistreat us is *right.*

    This probably leaves me in a minority of all of humanity and not just the autistic community. And I just don't know what to do anymore. People who are hurt and vulnerable lash out when threatened or triggered, and I think people who haven't suffered those experiences, persistently as we have, need to get that.

    And I really, really can't in my heart condone name-calling as okay. (And yeah, I've gotten a long way by refusing to do it.) It's not part of the world I'm working for, not just for the marginalized and oppressed, but for everyone.

    So I just don't know what I can do or say. I wind up just shrugging and being sad. I want the abuse of us to stop...and I can't ethically get on board with what a great deal of this community says is okay in order to do that.

    1. I didn't have the opportunity last night to address this aspect of the issue, but I want to make it clear that I don't necessarily find it "good" or "moral" to say nasty things about people -- like calling someone an asshole. But I think when someone is upset and does use such language, it's a lot more important to focus on why that person is upset than on what kind of language they're using. Otherwise, you're looking at the language the person is using without considering the thoughts that they're expressing -- not seeing the forest but for the trees, I think is the right phrase.

    2. Yes, people need to be cognizant that, when someone may seem to be overreacting, that that is a measure of how serious and hurtful the circumstances they're talking about actually are.

      I wish I thought that's all it is, but I don't. The viciousness and volatility of the "calling out" from some sectors is getting to be more than I can even stand to see. There are people I've had to cut ties with. There's a growing justification for "it's okay for us to behave this way and you need to be okay with it because privilege," and it's making me seriously question whether I belong in this community. I'm really starting to understand other people who have become alienated and quit.

      When I see it and say "no, it's not okay," I'm apparently undermining my community. When I stay silent, I'm betraying my own ethics. I don't know wtfh I'm even supposed to do.

    3. One will usually not be taken seriously unless they treat others with respect. As soon as someone hears someone being personally attacked the larger more important message is often lost.

      It is never okay to call strangers pejorative names when one does not live in their forest. Asshole or retarded are both equally offensive depending on the context of a person's forest. But that is part of my forest, my personal code of ethics that not everyone shares.

      This is an issue for both phrases. Some people don't think it is a big deal to call someone an "asshole", in conversations when the other person is not present, and some people feel the same way about the phrase "that's retarded". Both persons could have their personal thoughts and reasons underlying the pejoratives, but that can be dependent on the "forest" they live in.

      To a third party observer it can be more obvious that those forests do not intersect. It appears in this case the authority could potentially see that reality and acted appropriately.

      I don't think it would have been any different if the author and walked up and stated "that retarded person called someone an asshole". "That asshole called someone retarded" is no less offensive in the real world, the larger forest.

      The disability rights movement is invisible unless someone is aware of it. It is much more easily dismissed or discredited with pejorative terms or actions to fight for the principles of anything of ethical concern. In fact the reality is that pejoratives are of no use but to express negative emotion, and have never solved a problem.

      If one can imagine if a presidential candidate was ever caught on camera making their point with language like "f*ck them", they would likely never be taken as seriously again by anyone. It is part of the reason that only few could be a successful politician. I realize the author doesn't likely have plans to attain political office anytime in the near future. But you never know done the road things could change. Some caring school officials think about things like this when they provide advice, even if that advice stings. It can be the uncaring ones that ignore it.

      Ethical concerns can usually only be fought with ethical weapons if there are to be ethical solutions.

      If this is a fraternity house it is not much of an issue at all. If it is a disability movement it can be the difference in success and failure. As the disability movement is also often seen as an ethical concern, not just an issue of legal or civil rights.

      And to Chavisory, this is not a personal ethical concern that I think you should feel a need to keep quite; it is the respectful disagreement that leads to positive change and makes communities and movements possible. I've never seen a real community or movement where people are afraid to speak their mind. Facebook is interesting as one can see the effect of that in real time.

      But regardless, you seem to be a thoughtful positive force that any good community should try to keep. I would suggest trying a place like wrongplanet where all reasonable points of view are allowed, before you let loose your ties to any online autistic community. There really is no disability or political movement there, just autistic people discussing and sharing interests, where no respectful or tactful opinion is turned away.

      I've never seen the author of this blog turn a respectful opinion away, I can't say I agree with the author on all issues, but I respect her very much for tolerating us stranger people on the spectrum.:).

  4. Wow is this timely. I've been working on a post to follow up some work I've been doing on applying feminist theory to neurodiversity and disability advocacy, and I was looking around for tone policing, intersectionality as applied to disability, etc. and found your post. Thank you. A lot of what you hit here is similar to what I've been trying to figure out how to say. (I too did not have the spoons to get an essay down yet, but I also did not have the rage as a motivator because my rage has been pulled in another direction this week.)

    Keep fighting the good fight, and thank you for your thoughts.

    1. Michael,

      Thanks for the comment! You may also want to see my post "Sexism, Ableism, and Rape Culture," if you haven't already.

      Let me know if that's of any use to you, too.


  5. The offender in question is fortunate she was not confronted in the lobby in front of everybody.

    To tone police you while venting is incredibly disrespectful, dehumanizing and just flat out hurtful.

    I am as big a Yoda fan as any, but these quasi-jedi, anti-anger philosophies appearing in all walks of life now do not relate to real life human interactions. It only serves silence the oppressed and maintain the status quo. Anger and complaint does not lead to the dark side, it leads to invention, empowerment, inspiration, solutions and change. Admonishing an adult for using colorful language to vent rightful anger is ridiculous.

  6. Great post. I think it would be useful to make a distinction between "tone policing" with regards to a person venting about injustice or unfairness, and "tone policing" with regards to the way Autistic people may communicate differently. I'm Autistic (or Aspergers according to diagnosis) and I am often accused of getting too loud or coming across as too intense when I'm speaking passionately about something or sometimes monologuing. I see other Autistics talking in that intense way, and I like them for it because I can relate to it. Neurotypical people don't like it though, I think it is because most NTs are too narrow minded to not be judgmental of different styles of communication.

  7. Also, if you're going to accept that words like nigger, spic, cunt, faggot, kike, and tranny are -ist slurs, oppressive, and worthy of condemnation and excisement from your vocabulary, then why isn't retard on that list?
    Maybe add the word prick to that list since its an -ist against men on a level with cunt.
    I don't mean language reclamation by members of an oppressed group of historically oppressive and violent language.
    Except that black aren't truly reclaiming the N-word if nobody elsse is allowed to use it without it being defined as offensive. That's not language reclamation, that's reverse racism. If you want to reclaim a word, then you should allow others to use it in non-derogatory ways, and be prepared for those who will use it as an insult in the same way I no longer mind people calling me a freak (I use the word about myself) and can answer back if someone uses it in the way that made me take the weapon out of their hands.

  8. This is all very true! People don't seem to see their hypocrisy and that is frustrating.

  9. I just found this post today (about 4 years late) because I wanted to post something to a group about tone policing and ableism (because we often hear about it with race, but not with disability), and OMG I could not be giving you a bigger standing ovation over here in my bedroom. Thank you for writing this. I'm a NT mom to an Autistic little boy, and I'm trying to do a lot of listening to Autistic people, and I'm so glad to have found you!


Hi! Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I manually approve comments, so sometimes it takes a few weeks, months, or even years to find and approve comments. This delay is normal. (Note that I also don't publish every comment, since this is my personal blog.) Unfortunately, anonymous commenting isn't available anymore since it resulted in over one million spam comments in a short period.