Translation: that does not mean what you assume it means.

[Trigger Warning: ableism, sexism, etc.]

A lot of oppressive, micro- and macro-aggressive acts come from a lot of not thinking. Draw seemingly innocent statements out to their logical conclusion, and a lot of people are horrified at what they have said – or deny that the conclusion is accurate, or protest that this wasn’t their “intention” in making the statement, etc. We’re familiar with this, yes?

Every. single. fucking. time. I point out that using “crazy” casually is an oppressive speech habit, people say “well, I’m going to continue to use it in the broad sense,” or something similar. Which is really saying “I don’t care about the effect that the “broad sense” use of this word has on (1) people with actual diagnosed mental illnesses, (2) any marginalized person attempting to assert their personhood in the face of privilege (i.e. “that woman trying to tell me about how I’m sexist, what a crazy bitch”). “I don’t care about the human consequences of my actions and thinking.” “I don’t care about systems of oppression that permeate me and my community.” Also, it says “I don’t care to respect or understand opinions that are different from my own.” Furthermore, it says “I don’t care about folks who have mental illnesses and what they have said about their experiences, nor do I care to know anything about it.” Active ignorance in practice.

I get a very similar response when I object to the word “retard” – and I really get where it comes from. I used to be a defender of ableist terms using the shield of “but language changes over time and you know what I meeeeeeeeeaaaaan.” You know what? I was a fucking asshole, and I still struggle against reversion to using ableist terms because “everyone will know what I really mean.” Slang terms are culturally loaded shorthands that definitely affect how people perceive the person using them. I’m aware that my colleagues think I’m weird when I say “That’s wild!” or “there was quite a hubbub!” or “that thing Richard Dawkins said was totally oppressive and gross,” instead of “that was crazy!” – I know, because they comment sometimes, and often rephrase for me – “I know, it was crazy!” All I want to do is yell forever “NO, NO IT WAS NOT CRAZY, IT WAS CROWDED!”

This reminds me vaguely of a Dylan Moran bit, where he is talking about the devaluation of the word “awesome.” He mimes handing his child a bag of crisps, and plays the child saying “Chips! Awesome!” He mimes snatching them back and says as parent “NO! They’re not awesome, they’re CRUNCHY. If I opened them and haggard shafts of light and cherubs and music came out, they’d be awesome, alright?” Okay, I would agree in this instance – language evolves, man, deal with it. And I have that position on linguistic matters because a rigid sense of grammatical structure and vocabulary has traditionally been wielded by institutions to excuse marginalizing already marginalized populations (for a particularly obvious example, think of AAVE). However, chips-awesome from power-of-deity-awesome is not analogous to crazy-good from crazy-mentally-ill.

Bitch is a much better analogy except in terms of shock value and clarity, because people defend its use about as fervently as they do their right to use crazy. I support the right of women to reclaim bitch as a positive word, just as I support the right of folks who are neurodiverse to reclaim crazy (although I would like to note that a lot of women I know who STATE that they are reclaiming bitch as a positive identity turn around and call other people bitches in the derogatory sense, and that I have an issue with). However, my neurotypical friend telling me he plans to keep using crazy in the broad sense would be like a sexist man telling me he has a right to use the word bitch as he pleases, whatever women have to say about it. The best shock-value example I can come up with right now is, predictably, the n-word. Neurotypical-me saying I have the right to use crazy however I like would be like white-me saying I have the right to throw the n-word around as I please. What? I’m just “redefining language!” Except that language exists and arose in a highly oppressive context where the oppressor was/is people who are like ME. Which means I don’t get to mess around with that language and tell people whom I (or my society) have marginalized wielding that very language that they should get over it because most of the time I don’t use it in an oppressive way or I don’t have oppressive “intentions.”

No! Just…no! If someone tells you “hey this language oppresses me,” you don’t keep using that language casually, because “everyone does it.” And then you go on and you say to someone else “hey, that language contributes to a system of oppression that maybe you don’t want to contribute to,” – this is part of being a good ally. Social justice can’t just be a philosophy, it needs to be a practice, in actions as small or as large as you can.

When people say “You know what I meant!” or “I’m going to keep using it that way anyway,” what they’re really stating is their lack of willingness to care about the human cost of oppressive speech acts. Nonoppressive speech takes practice – a lot of practice, and a lot of reminders, especially when oppressive speech is so popular in our culture. I may not have a mental illness or a developmental disability, but I’m not the only person who will ever hear them use those terms, and many folks who are neurodiverse don’t look any different from me or you, so they can’t count on knowing in order to tailor their speech, even if that wasn’t horribly hypocritical!

I’ll come clean and say that, before I worked with folks who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, I didn’t feel this fierce about social justice issues that didn’t directly affect me. I felt fiercely about certain events – the Sandy Hook shooting, or Trayvon Martin’s death, but I didn’t feel a piercing emotional sense of injustice about most microaggressions that didn’t apply to me. I do now, and that is absolutely a gift I receive from practicing the unlearning of oppression at my job, and from the people who put their trust in my commitment to justice, to friendship, and to support their empowerment. The slur “retard,” and one man’s story of suicidality stemming from teasing due to his disability, absolutely deepened my connection to all humans, and my sensitivity to the way that the oppression of any of us contributes to the oppression of all of us. It’s not a gift I deserved or earned, and I will never take it for granted. And I’ll never take language for granted.

As a last point, these people who say that they use “crazy” in a positive way, or that they use some OTHER meaning of an oppressive term that isn’t the oppressive meaning (i.e. “I would never use “retarded” for someone who actually had a developmental or intellectual disability!”)…these people will turn around and use the oppressive meaning without even thinking about it. It’s particularly obvious with “crazy,” as it gets used SO OFTEN these days. I’ve had conversations where a person will go “I had crazy-good cupcakes today!” and in the next breath tell me about an asshole they encountered on the bus who was “crazy.” It’s just mind-boggling to me that I could not have seen these things for so very long, and continues to boggle me how others cannot see, or refuse to see, when I point it out. This boggling probably contributes to why I am not very effective at assisting people in unlearning oppressive speech habits.

I know this has been a rather rambly post. I called out a friend on his use of crazy and basically followed the script above. Another friend almost butted in to defend him, but thankfully his partner asked him not to and he relented. Writing this is part of my catharsis, as I sit alone and let tears run down my face. This has made me realize that I need more friends who have an active commitment to practicing social justice, and need to seek out more diverse environments in which to make friends. This “my life is pretty comfy, so I’m not going to think about sad things and how I contribute to them” friendship style isn’t working for me any more, if it ever did. Maybe I’m a little sad also because his words told me that he didn’t value my respect or my emotional trust.

I’m certain I fucked up somewhere in here. Please say something. Also, I’m trying to figure out a shorthand to differentiate “people who identify themselves as women” versus “people perceived by others as women,” a shorthand that doesn’t imply that I view trans* people as “not real [gender]” by qualifying the noun (e.g. women-identified seems to have overtones of “people who identify themselves as women but we all know their real genders, nudge nudge, wink wink.” This is something I struggle with when coming out to people as well – should I say “I identify as genderqueer.” or “I am genderqueer.” ?!) AAAH, words! They are hard!



2 thoughts on “Translation: that does not mean what you assume it means.

  1. This has made me realize that I need more friends who have an active commitment to practicing social justice, and need to seek out more diverse environments in which to make friends.

    This is exactly how I’ve been feeling lately myself. I’ve been making an effort not too use crazy like you’re saying (and it is hard and requires vigilance) and my boyfriend is supportive and is trying to not be ableist as well. But it would be nice to be around more people who see it as a worthwhile goal rather than political correctness gone too far.

    Posted by Kim | June 25, 2013, 05:06


  1. Pingback: Several More Points About an Ableist Term | Startled Octopus - March 21, 2013

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