Friday, August 17, 2012

Navigating the language minefield

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 15.)
Language is a social and political minefield, one that’s getting ever harder to navigate.

There was a time when the worst that could happen if you used the wrong word was that you would be exposed as uncultured or uneducated.
In the 1950s, an English linguist came up with the terms “U” (for upper-class) and “non-U” to distinguish between the language favoured by the upper crust and that used by the middle classes. His thesis was that you revealed your social status by the words you used.

Ironically, “U” people often used a more down-to-earth form of speech than their social inferiors, who thought that fancy-sounding words made them sound more refined.  Hence it was “U” to say “false teeth”, “pudding” and “napkin”, whereas non-U people favoured “dentures”, “dessert” and “serviette”, thinking they sounded more classy.
The concept of “U” and “non-U” was unknown to my siblings and me when we were kids but even so, our mother brought us up to prefer certain words over others, even if they were not in line with popular usage.

For example, we were encouraged to say “lavatory” rather than the more common “toilet”. Our house had a sitting room rather than a lounge and we always ate dinner, never “tea”. Mum was anything but a snob, but she was fussy about correct speech, which may explain why some other kids thought my family were up themselves.
Back then, you risked committing a social rather than political faux-pas if you used an infelicitous word of phrase. Things began to change, however, in the 1960s, when language became politically sensitive.

Black Americans had long been known as Negroes, from the Spanish word for black. But at about the time of the civil rights movement, Negro became unacceptable because of its long association with slavery and servitude. (It was also the source word for nigger, a demeaning term used by white-trash racists.)
“Black” became the preferred term, but it too fell out of favour among the politically correct, to be replaced by “African American”. (Ironically, “black” was once considered more offensive than “Negro” or “coloured”, showing that where language is concerned, what goes around comes around.)

With the advent of sexual politics, gender became a touchy language issue too. Feminists ruled that “lady” was belittling and “girl”, when used as a synonym for a grown woman, was quite beyond the pale – although strangely enough, the latter term is still permissible when used by women enjoying a “girls’ night out” or talking about the “girls” in the netball team.
But if the language of race and sex is fraught with difficulty, the language surrounding disability is even more problematical. This was brought home to me recently when the Radio New Zealand programme One in Five examined the issue.

What emerged was that while many people with disabilities have firm opinions on the language used to describe them, their views are not consistent. Neither do they always seem entirely logical.
As with the language of race and sex, the language of disability has become highly politicised. It’s generally accepted that words such as “cripple”, “spastic” and “mongol” are now out of favour. What used to be the Crippled Children Society got around this problem by renaming itself CCS Disability Action.

There may be nothing inherently offensive in these words but they are considered pejorative, so we avoid them. (Interestingly, my Chambers Dictionary describes “cripple” and “mongol” as offensive but not “spastic”, although the latter is more commonly used as a term of derision.)
Slightly more perplexing is the recent taboo on the word “handicapped”.  It is not, as far as I can see, a derogatory or judgmental term. For decades it was part of the name of the organisation that represents people with intellectual disabilities – it’s what the “H” in IHC (intellectually handicapped children) stands for.

My dictionary defines a handicap as a physical or mental disability that results in partial or total disability to perform social, occupational or other normal everyday activities. Alternatively, it’s something that hinders or impedes.
These are factual, neutral statements. To me the word “handicapped” carries no connotations that are not also conveyed by “disabled”. Yet “disabled” is acceptable to most people with disabilities (“impairment” seems okay too), but “handicapped” is not. I have to ask, what’s the difference?

Even “disabled” is too discriminatory for some, although the organisation that speaks assertively for people with disabilities calls itself the Disabled Persons Assembly. Many disabled people also bridle at the use of terms such as “special needs” and “wheelchair-bound”.
Sometimes the objections seem to come down to hair-splitting semantics. One disabled woman interviewed for One in Five admitted that she depended on her wheelchair, yet didn’t like the phrase “wheelchair-bound”. But it’s only a figure of speech – a slightly easier way of saying “wheelchair-dependent”, which in her case was literally true.

Someone else on the programme said we should look at the person first and the impairment after that, a position I can sympathise with. In other words you should say “a person who is blind” rather than “a blind person”; but in practical, everyday terms, it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to observe such fine distinctions.
And just to confuse the issue, it’s apparently okay to talk about “deaf people” because, as someone said on the programme, “they [deaf people] have their own culture”. But how can the non-disabled be expected to understand these finer points of difference?

The radio interviewer wanted to know whether people should refer to “disabled people” or “people with disabilities”, to which the answer was: “The jury is still out on that one”. All which makes it extremely difficult for non-disabled people to know which terms are considered acceptable (or in today's jargon, "safe").
People with disabilities seek respect and are entitled to it. They also want inclusiveness with the wider community and are entitled to that, too, as far as it’s practicable. But by creating uncertainty and trepidation over what language to use when dealing with them, they may be unwittingly erecting a barrier between themselves and the community they wish to interact with.

Listening to One in Five, it seemed to me there’s a real danger that the non-disabled will be deterred from engaging with disabled people for fear of causing offence with an unintentional faux pas. At that point the insistence on “correct” language risks becoming self-defeating. That’s how much of a minefield the language of disability has become.


brian_smaller said...

I was in the car ferrying three fourteen year old girls to a hockey tourney. They were talking about"chicks". I told them that it was common to use "chicks" to describe girls back when I was a teenager in the 70s. Then it became unfashionable and was deemed demeaning to women. Their response? "That is so 80s, and gay"

Blair said...

It's become more popular now in Republican circles to say "black American" instead of "African American", ever since Herman Cain declared his preference for "black". "I'm not from Africa!", he said.

Nicola M J Young: The Occasional Panjandrum said...

"Passed away" or, even worse, "passed" is another unacceptable way to refer to someone's death. Ghastly; like all (most?) euphemisms.

Kiwiwit said...

A friend of mine who is a "cripple" insists on being called just that. "Nigger" is de rigeur within the Black American community and the same is true to some extent of the term "fag" (if not "faggot") within the gay community.

JC said...

"Handicapped" fell out of favour because it had connotations of "intellectually handicapped".

How come you missed "differently abled"? :)


JC said...

Actually, words do matter. I've been involved in the disability sector for many years and after writing the above I had to struggle to remember what language I had become accustomed to.

For example I was talking to a bloke in a wheelchair last week, and if I'd said he was wheelchair-bound he might have said something like "Listen Bud, I'm "in" a wheelchair or I'm "using" a wheelchair and I also own and manage three manufacturing plants in three different regions and some weekends the boys and I go and build wheelchair ramps for people who can't afford them".. and thats quite true.. he simply wont let a wheelchair or a disability bind him.

I've met plenty like him.. they have positive attitudes and use positive words like "using a wheelchair" to display they are in control of their situation.. this really does change the perceptions of those around them.