Words can hurt.
Words can flatter.
Words can insult.
Words may convey the opposite of what the speaker intended.
Take the word cripple, for instance. Many disabled people react with outrage if any person uses the word to describe themselves or someone else. But what does it mean?
1. Sometimes Offensive.
a. a person or animal that is partially or totally unable to use one or more limbs;a lame or disabled person or animal.
b. a person who is disabled or impaired in any way: a mental cripple.
Now I understand that many people born with certain differences such as being deaf, blind or without the use of limbs do not see themselves as disabled, just different. They are perfectly happy the way they are, wheelchairs, guide dogs and all, and don’t see themselves as missing anything. As one person I know put it, “I would turn a cure down.” That’s fine. I can see that they would object to the use of the word cripple to describe them since they don’t agree that they are crippled. But plenty of other people have through accident or illness lost the use of limbs, senses or other abilities, and they DO see themselves as crippled. Loss is the key part here – they have lost something that they once had, and are therefore crippled. If those people want to describe themselves that way, what right has anyone else got to stop them? I know several people that refer to themselves as cripples or crips, and they say it is fine because they are one. They make jokes about it. Once friend calls his cane a “crip stick”. Some other people have the word “crip” in their names on twitter or other internet forums.
The word crip can be used as an insult, but it is important to realise that it might be an insult only in the mind of the person using it. They look at someone, see less or different functionality in that person than themselves, and call them a cripple. They mean less or different, as in lower than them. The person on the receiving end of the insult may or may not think the same. People should be insulted by the other person’s intention behind the word, not the word that was used. In the same way that someone could mutter “oh, sugar” when they drop something. They meant the same as someone that would have said shit in the same situation, we know they meant the same, they know they meant the same, so does the use of a different word mean anything?
Recently following the Slutwalk movement in protest against victim blaming, many people have decided to use the word slut about themselves in a (to them) positive meaning. Can other people that don’t want the word used stop these people from doing so? There are plenty of examples like this. Gay – a sexual orientation, or an insult and a disparaging description? Recently I’ve seen a fuss made about the word “Retard” – see The Guardian: It’s time to cut ‘retard’ from use.
There are some cases where phrasing is important in order to be inclusive. When I write I am careful to try and write “sick or disabled people” when I talk about this group that will be affected by cuts to the welfare state. The reason why is obvious – some are sick and some are disabled, some are both, but all that claim Incapacity, ESA, DLA or similar benefits are in the affected group, and using only one word or the other will leave people out. Sue Marsh wrote a good article on this – Diary of a Benefit Scrounger: Sick or Disabled.
Ultimately, words are important to express inclusiveness, and to avoid insult. Unfortunately a huge number of people know nothing about these areas of other people’s lives, and do not know the words to use. Most will adjust their language when the reasons are explained to them. Some will not, through laziness, a desire to insult, or through just not thinking it important. Recently I wrote a blog post on gender. Soon after I wrote it, a friend contacted me to warn me that I had some subtle definitions of sex and gender wrong, and that some affected people would be angry because of this. I changed the wording, and know now to be careful when talking about the subject. Millions of other people still have no idea of the difference.
I will try to use the correct words when I know about them, and will listen and learn when I get it wrong. And I do still get it wrong, most recently writing “the disabled” instead of “disabled people” repeatedly because of habit. Unfortunately some people attach more to the use of words than others, which is a problem in political campaigning. I know of one disability rights group that will not work with another group because they don’t always get the language right, and because they don’t correct others that don’t get it right. I’m inclined to agree with the view that correcting technicalities of words is less important than standing together at the moment. (Although there are some situations where large groups have done nasty things, I agree about not working with them.) I try to use the right language, but ultimately my goal is to fight for our lives against the government. I want to win that battle first, and we can sort the words out later. Anything else could be a huge risk.