I love the concept of The Guilty Feminist: “the podcast in which we [Deborah Frances-White and guests] explore our noble goals as 21st-century feminists and our hypocrisies and insecurities which undermine them”. No human can be perfect, and owning that is such an important part of growing and becoming a better person.
It’s okay to talk the talk, and sometimes fail to walk the walk. After all, I can’t help it if it’s brainwashing, I really do love things like baking, wearing dresses, and the feeling of freshly shaved legs in clean sheets. The critical part that makes this okay is being willing to learn about the systems of oppression we live with, and the ways we perpetuate them, and try our best to improve.
The Guilty Feminist podcast usually does a really good job of this. A range of guests means a range of experiences. So it was hardly surprising that I was over the moon when I heard Deborah Frances-White correct Jessica Fostekew’s slurs (cr*tin, m*ron, and s*mpleton), and explained that she had recently recorded an episode with disability activist Carly Findlay where they talked about micro-aggressions, and how tiring these constant pejoratives can be.
Deborah explained that Carly ran through some slurs with her, before supplying her with options like ‘bananas’, or words from the thesaurus including ‘discombobulated’ and ‘phrenetic’. I’ve got to say, Carly is clearly much more erudite than me, because when I catch my brain supplying me with a slur to describe an experience, I usually end up replacing it with ‘wild’. Very occasionally I’ll get a bit more specific and use ‘flaky’, ‘weird’, or just plain ‘confusing’.
I’d even go so far as to say that I was wildly excited that Deborah was correcting her friend and amplifying the voices of disabled advocates.
Then the line came: ‘Behind closed doors there’s no one but yourself to offend.’ The audience laughed uproariously, and Deborah agreed before moving on to a different topic.
My hopes plummeted, and I felt like a door had just slammed shut in my face leaving me out in the cold. I can’t even begin to imagine what Carly must have felt like having given her time to the podcast and being mentioned in this conversation, before the show sanctioned disability slurs so long as no one disabled hears them. Then later, the joke that our personal choices about depilation have equivalent detriment as ableist slurs.
I can’t help but think the audience would not have laughed so raucously if Deborah had included a male co-host who had said that it was okay to say ‘sl*t’, ‘b*tch’, or ‘wh*re’ behind a closed door. So I was left wondering: why is it so much easier for us to condone ableist language than sexist language?
Possibly it is a misguided notion that gender is more easily visually identified than disability is. If so, I defy you to identify the people in any given room with a mental illness, autoimmune condition, or chronic pain that they’re scared to disclose to their boss, friends, and maybe even family. Not every disability is visible. (I didn’t even know that walking isn’t painful for everyone until I was nineteen, so I have no idea how you would identify that experience in someone else who may nevertheless be hurt by your words.)
I think the more likely answer is that it is simply difficult to change our actions to be more considerate of others when faced with compassion fatigue and a firm conviction that we will never face the systemic discrimination that these words reference. It’s much easier to pretend, possibly even to ourselves, that these hurtful words don’t mean as much as slurs that people use against people like us. This is made even easier when using disability slurs because disabled people are less likely to be able to advocate for ourselves than other marginalised groups, more likely to be drowned out by our carers, and less likely to be visible in public spaces.
Or maybe you think these words aren’t offensive because they are ‘just a medical term for what I’m describing’. The same medical terms that have been, and continue to be, used to institutionalise us, abuse us, and make decisions about our bodies without our consent.
The problem with all these excuses is that the words you use are a key indicator of your conscious and unconscious biases. If you want to be a part of reducing discrimination against disabled people, you need to change your language, not just your intentions. If you want to get science-y about it* you won’t weaken the neuronal networks supporting discrimination against disabled people unless you stop activating them, and every time you use one of these slurs you are activating them.
If you use these slurs in private, you are more likely to use them in public. Not only that, you’re more likely to act out your ableism, condone it in others, and teach it to the next generation.
Maybe you’ll be the cashier who serves everyone else before me because you assumed the woman in the wheelchair couldn’t be buying anything. Maybe you’ll be the bus driver who tells me it is inconvenient to lower the ramp to allow me to board. Maybe you’ll be one of the families that follow me around a shopping centre to distract your child from an impending tantrum.
I’d guess that you don’t think you’d ever do something like that because of ableism. It would be an accident, or a hard day, or a coincidence. If you used a slur in front of me, you’d say something like, “Oh I don’t mean people like you, Brianna. I mean those other ones who…” Or maybe, “Oh my goodness I never use that word!”
Dropping some coins in a Guide Dog fundraising statue doesn’t mean anything if your language consistently denotes disabled people as the worst adjective you can think of.
Just find a better word than your ableist slur.
It’s okay to get it wrong, but you need to acknowledge that, apologise, and continue to work to improve yourself and the people you have the power to influence. Making a comment behind closed doors doesn’t keep the discrimination in a vacuum. It just stops change getting in.
*Please refer to a person who actually has science qualifications after grade 10 if you want more info on this. Or one of the many book available about neuroplasticity — some of them are even enjoyable!