A few weeks ago I wrote a few words in support of #metoo – saying that it is incumbent upon men to take action and speak out against sexist abuse. But this is also part of a wider problem, and that we all have a role to play in challenging discrimination in all it’s guises. This isn’t about setting the agenda for other people – this is about listening to them and being a good ally to their cause.
Sometimes this means challenging a mate’s behaviour. Sometimes it is about reflecting on your own actions. And sometimes it is about challenging how we use words.
A week ago, whilst I was scrolling through Facebook late at night, I saw an old friend share a post about how you pronounce the word scone. Now, I’m from the west country and so have pretty strong views on this matter (it is, of course, scone to rhyme with gone). So I pulled up my socks and prepared to wade in to the fray.
But then I saw something that shocked me. The person who posted it had later commented “This meme only makes sense to people who don’t talk like a retard”.
Yes, that’s right.
I checked the calendar and *bingo* it wasn’t 1970. Society has moved on, and by common consent some words are so laden with meaning and discrimination that their use in any context is offensive. I was so shocked to see this word used so casually that I did a double take. Now, this isn’t just me being all PC – there is consensus amongst the disability community, and wider society, that this language is harmful. Indeed, until very recently I worked for an international human rights charity that dealt with the extreme end of the scale – representing people who were locked up, often in truly appalling conditions, because of the stigma that society created. So when I saw this stigma I felt I had to challenge it.
The first thing I did was post a public comment. It read:
“I was going to like this until I saw the language you used in the comment above. There is absolutely no call for such disgusting, abusive and discriminatory language. I really hope you decide to delete the comment. Language like this stigmatizes people with an intellectual disability and belongs to a whole different millennium”.
Now, you can tell I was a little tired when I wrote this because I missed the oxford comma and embarrassingly used the American spelling of stigmatises. I’ve since reflected on how I approached this, and although I stand by every word written I do wonder whether a direct message without such aggressive language would have been more effective. As it was, the response I got was short and not sweet. “Oh dear, how sad, nevermind”.
I replied with a personal message – “I like you, but I’m serious about the language you used. I’m happy to explain at length why its inappropriate but I’m sure you already know. Your better than this”.
The response came “I think it was a passing comment with no ill intent and you could do with chilling out”
We backed and forthed a few times – I was told to chill out, and responded by inviting them to do what I was going to – sleep on it, and then reflect on it in the morning. I didn’t want the issue to be our disagreement, I wanted the exchange to be about the use of language so offensive as to be taboo, and not appropriate even in passing.
We slept on it, and in the morning I followed up. I apologised for coming on too strong, and invited them to think about their language. Their response was to link me to an article on prescribing language (bear with me, we’re nearly at the end). I guess their point was a niche linguistic one – that it is wrong to be prescriptive about the terms that people choose to use in any given context.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_prescription). To this I say – bullshit. To hide behind a niche linguistic argument to justify the use of language that is offensive, obfuscates the point. There is a clear difference between trying to control language in an Orwellian fashion and agreeing not to use language that is intrinsically pungent.
This is where the story ends. I didn’t get anywhere. I considered reporting the language – maybe to Facebook, or to the posters’ current place of study. But I’m not convinced this is the right answer either. I’ve even considered unfriending them – but that also doesn’t solve the problem (and I’m no longer an emotional teenager). I know – and I’m guessing you do to – that this person is wrong. But how do I convince them?
Got any thoughts about how I handled this? Challenging discrimination involves conflict and I’m not very good at that, and I want to get better. Do comment or drop me a message.