Some Words Should Be Allowed To Die

CW: constant uncensored reference to s***id slut (and associated words), references to ableism

So there’s a common trend in certain marginalised communities of reclaiming certain slurs—I happily participate in this myself, by referring to myself as queer. In fact, I’m very proud of my intense queerness. I embrace that label with all of my queer little heart. Reclaiming something that was once a slur can be very powerful, but this is not the case in all circumstances. There are some terms that cannot be reclaimed as a positive—and some terms that can only be reclaimed by a portion of a community. One example of this is the attempt to reclaim “slut” through movements such as the Slut Walk. This seems like a positive move, since slut shaming has a seriously negative impact on the everyday lives of women and femmes BUT it ignores many intersections this word has with race. When the Slut Walk first began, Black women objected to the reclamation of the word, because for them, it had different connotations to those experienced by white women. Young Black women and girls were overly sexualised from tragically early ages, they were presented as innately sexual, whereas (wealthy) white women were often innocent until proven slutty. For white women, it made sense to reclaim this label, to attempt to find empowerment in sexual freedom. For Black women, the issue was far more complicated, because their sexuality had been used against them for so long. (Check out a copy of the open letter here for a more comprehensive discussion of these issues:

Language is very powerful, which is why reclaiming slurs can be such a positive experience. It takes a label that has been hurled at you in order to injure you and makes it into something positive. But not every word has that potential. The words I want to discuss today are “stupid” and “idiot”. Seemingly normal, everyday words. Normal, everyday concepts. And yet these words are used as weapons against neurotypical and disabled people, used to exclude and destroy. These words have immense power—all the more, because we don’t think they do.

Before I get into precisely why these words cannot be reclaimed, I want to point out that the neurodivergent and disabled community in general has already said they cannot. As the community affected by these slurs, they are the only ones who can decide whether or not something can be reclaimed, or if it is too harmful and should be allowed to die. As such, we need to listen and support this community, rather than telling them the oppression they face isn’t real, which is what we effectively do when we downplay the harm done by these slurs. However, if you want to understand why the neurodivergent community feels this way, please read on.

It’s barely twelve months since I first came across the idea that “stupid” was considered a slur. I’d begun to look into various forms of ableism for the first time, an area of social justice that is woefully neglected and that I took a shamefully long time to come to. As I read more accounts of the marginalisation of disabled and neurodivergent people, I began to realise just how insidious ableism is in our culture, in our very language. When we fail to notice something, we are “blind”, and this is considered a bad thing. When we mishear someone, we are “deaf”, apparently a very rude thing to be. When we make a mistake, we are “stupid”. When we trip over our own feet, we are stupid. When we misspell something, we are stupid. When we forget something, we are stupid. When we misunderstand, we are stupid. When we cannot conform to social standards because we are neurodivergent, we are stupid. Whenever we mess up, we are stupid. There is no “good” way to be stupid, nothing to be reclaimed, not in the way “queer” can be reconfigured into something positive. Stupidity is the catch-all descriptor for every human evil, from a simple slip-up to a troll encouraging someone to harm themselves online. It’s all “stupid”.

What makes it worse is that people, even people who’ve suffered from the negative connotations of this word and the concepts that accompany it, insist it’s no big deal. “Oh, I was just using it against myself, it’s fine.” “It didn’t originally mean what it does now.” “It’s just a word, there’s nothing wrong with valuing intelligence.”

Except the way we value “intelligence” and the way we vilify “stupidity” is precisely the problem. Let’s start by looking at our so-called “value for intelligence”.

Firstly, it’s not intelligence we value, so much as a particular level of education, a particular ability to speak a particular language in a particular way, the development of a particular skill set, the ability to conform to a particular group of social norms—in short, we value the average product of a wealthy, middle-class education system: well-spoken, decent grades, entry into university (and completion thereof), etc. We value the appearance of intelligence. We value a certain amount of knowledge, which doesn’t necessarily have a link to intelligence. If it really came down to it, how many of us could really describe what intelligence is? As someone who is both incredibly intelligent and a social disaster due to autism, I have paradoxically been marginalised for both these things. Past a certain point, intelligence ceases to be an asset and becomes a problem (this is especially bad in anyone who’s not a man). And intelligence loses most of its value if you suffer simultaneously from disability or neurodivergence—and this includes physical disabilities, because people tend to dismiss any sign of intelligence, knowledge, or sociability, and assume physically disabled people are “less than” on every level.

Well, this is fun. Let’s talk about why valuing this intelligence/knowledge/education thing is a problem.

Well, not everyone is wealthy and middle-class, so this education isn’t accessible to any but a small, privileged minority. And race intersects with this issue as well, because the inherent racism in our culture paints non-white people, or non-English speakers, as less intelligent, regardless of the evidence. And even if we offered this education to everyone, we’re not all made the same way. Some people aren’t capable of this particular form of knowledge. Some people suffer dyslexia, some people’s brains simply process differently, some people suffer illnesses that prevent their participation, and so on (and so on forever). By valuing and privileging this form of education/intelligence/knowledge, we exclude and marginalise everyone who can’t fit that ideal. Because what is so wrong with being stupid? Who does it harm? Whose fault is it? Why is someone less valuable as a human being simple because they were made differently, or born to different parents, or taught a different language, or because they’re disabled? They are not! All human beings are innately valuable—yet we actively teach ourselves that the disabled are somehow worth less.

What is truly disgusting and terrifying, once you start to think about these issues, is how normal it is for people to argue that “it’s for the good of society”. Oh, they claim they don’t hate disabled/neurodivergent people, they claim they’ll “look after them”, but what they really want is for them/us to disappear. We are, first and foremost, a burden. Burdens who shouldn’t be permitted to breed, or interact with “normal people”. We are unproductive. We are drains on the national purse. We are the reason people want to do genetic tests for Downs Syndrome, and why they will abort a foetus if it comes back positive. I’m pro abortion, but that is horrific. And what makes it doubly horrific is how normal that is. We would rather mourn the loss of a wanted pregnancy than raise a disabled child. The government, our anti-abortion government, would rather fund an abortion than properly fund disability services and support families who need extra facilities etc. That is how much we fear disability.

I should clarify here that I support the right of all people to access publicly funded and universally available abortion without the need for justification or recrimination. Whenever they want it Whenever they want it, just because they’re carrying a fertilised egg and don’t want to be. This does not mean I can condone this common practice, which is a symptom of deep and horrific ableism in our culture, an ableism that is so insidious that it appears logical and rational to the vast majority of the population. In our country, disabled people are burdens. Only the truly angelic or the truly deluded would happily welcome a disabled child into the world. This is eugenics at its dark and dangerous heart.

Well that escalated quickly…

So where does something as small and seemingly insignificant as the word “stupid” come into all this?

Oppression begins in our language, the building blocks of our thoughts, of our beliefs. By painting “stupid”, always and forever, as the worst thing a person could be, by painting it as a universal wrong, a universal insult that can be used on all occasions, we contribute to ableism in its most basic form. Stupid is, at its heart, a slur. It is often aimed at abled and neurotypical people, but it is our fear of the disabled and the neuroatypical, or just those whose minds are different, that we express whenever we use it. When we call someone stupid for making a mistake, we really say “be careful you don’t keep doing that, or you’ll be no better than Them”. When we call someone stupid for being ignorant, we really say “be careful you learn better, or you’ll end up like Them”. We teach our children that it’s okay to fling this slur like a weapon at their peers who are slower or clumsier or less social or just different. And because we use it all the time ourselves, we fail to see the full, horrifying impact of the word across our culture. We fail to see the people this word harms, because while we are so used to seeing this word, we have taught ourselves to stop seeing the disabled, and the neurodivergent.

I’ve been told on multiple occasions that “cutting out stupid is just too hard”. That is how little the disabled are valued by our society. When a large portion of our community is writing and speaking about changing our language, when we are loudly proclaiming that stupid and idiot are slurs that are harming us every damn day, those outside the community insist that they are not. They would rather continue harming a whole community, a whole group of people already left behind by our society, than think about the words they use for even a moment. Mainstream society seems to finally be coming to a place where we recognise that “gay” cannot be used as an insult any longer. We need to look further, and recognise that we cannot stop this evolution of language here, we cannot pat ourselves on the back and say “we’re done now”. Our language is still inherently oppressive. And yes, it is uncomfortable and difficult to change the words you use to build your thoughts, your opinions, the world around you. But it can be done. It must.

All Rights Reserved to Cambrey Payne 2017.


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