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Ableist words
November 18, 2012 1:39 PM   Subscribe

Words like "crazy", "mad", "nutty", "idiot", "stupid", "dumb" and "weak" are often regarded as ableist slurs in Internet social justice circles. Is this view widespread or gaining currency in the offline world?

I often see such words deprecated or censored in Internet social justice circles (blogs, Tumblr, reddit). However, I've rarely encountered this view outside these realms or offline, even among progressives.

Curious as to how much traction this movement is gaining.
posted by dontjumplarry to Society & Culture (41 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
One data point: during the coverage running up to the US election, reporter Tom Brokaw described the voting patterns of some Americans as "schizophrenic." He was called out on it (mostly via Twitter, from what I understand), and after the next commercial break he apologized.
posted by danb at 1:47 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I went through training as a college RA in 2008-09, which was intended to instill a very high sensitivity to oppressive language, "weak" was actually recommended as an alternative to "lame".
posted by Clandestine Outlawry at 1:55 PM on November 18, 2012

It's not getting much traction in the UK, I can tell you that. What it is getting is much ridicule, often using "ableist slurs". Certainly I've noticed a huge increase in the number of online arguments/wind-up sessions between American people with this attitude and British people unable to quite believe they're being serious.
posted by Decani at 1:56 PM on November 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

I've encountered this offline, frequently, but only when they're tied to specific conditions. For example, "Crazy" finds no opposition, but "schizo" sometimes does. And, in particular, "idiot" or "stupid" is unopposed, but casual use of "retarded" finds real-world pushback.
posted by Tomorrowful at 2:02 PM on November 18, 2012 [14 favorites]

I've seen it in my social circle, but I don't cave to pressure. I called my meds my "crazy meds" and was called to task for using that term. The person suggested I call them my "sanity meds" instead. Too bad, so sad. They're my meds that I use for my craziness (bipolar) and I'll call them what I want.

I still hear lame, stupid, and dumb all the time as derogatory terms for things that are not good or up to par. I'm pretty sure I use stupid and dumb -- mostly stupid -- because that's what I think things are and I can't think of any other terms to use when I'm speaking at the time.
posted by patheral at 2:04 PM on November 18, 2012 [17 favorites]

I see it a little bit on Metafilter - certainly "retarded" gets firm and consistent pushback, and I think its casual usage has dropped a lot, but more and more I'm seeing pushback on the mental-illness-related terms - "crazy," "schizo(phrenic)," "bipolar," and stuff like that increasingly get a negative response.

I have seen less response (although not none) to "lame," and I can't recall any to "stupid" or "weak." "Idiot" and "moron" occasionally get a lone response that is generally not treated with a ton of sympathy.

Metafilter has a lot of social-justice-active people on it, but is not a social-justice-oriented site, and the vast majority of our users encounter those concepts for the first time (or at least the first time in any depth) here, I think, so it's probably not a bad bellwether, at least for the left-leaning internet. My personal observation is that if you have to stop and give an etymology lesson to the vast majority of listeners about a word, you will get a lot less traction than if everyone knows the word has a secondary (or primary) specific meaning.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:10 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've come across people at work objecting to "idiot" (as in "an idiot's guide to") and "brainstorm". This would have been five to eight years ago. But generally I agree with Decani that this is rarely brought up as an issue in the UK (though I don't think we use "dumb" that much anyway, apart from in "dumbing down").
posted by paduasoy at 2:11 PM on November 18, 2012

Never heard of this.
posted by dfriedman at 2:17 PM on November 18, 2012

There is definitely a (justified) push-back and against words that relate to a literal illness: "schizophrenic," "ADD," "bipolar" etc; and against words that refer to people with disabilities in a crude way, ie, "retarded."

But I have never heard of this in re: to any of the words listed, and I hang out with a fairly progressive crowd. And frankly "ableist slurs" sounds like a set-up for a joke about "Oh, those wacky PC people!!" If people were going to object to these words, I don't think anyone but the fringeiest of the fringe would use that terminology.

It's hard to point to a specific group of people that are being slurred by use of the word "dumb," since it's almost never referring to someone who is literally mentally impaired, but instead to someone like George W. Bush whose ideas are objectionable or not well thought-through.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:21 PM on November 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

I've seen some of this off line, but not much? Partly, I think, because even within online SJ communities there's a lot of disagreement about these issues and where various lines should be drawn. Like, even with the word "crazy," many people push back against the idea that it should be a forbidden word beause it's a part of how they talk about themselves and their own struggles with their mental health, and they resent people telling them how to describe their own experience.

The only words of this sort that I've seen consistently frowned on IRL are "retarded," "schitzo" and sometimes "spazz."
posted by Narrative Priorities at 2:21 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and "OCD." That's a huge one. Many people seem to be exhausted by how it's become kind of a jokey, pop culture short hand for "very clean or kind of nitpicky."
posted by Narrative Priorities at 2:22 PM on November 18, 2012

Yeah, I think it's worth clarifying that the social justice angle tends to be about describing things that are entirely unrelated to the words used. Like, "schizo" describing a politician changing his position, not, say, someone who did something because he was literally hearing voices. (The question of casual internet diagnoses is a separate one.) But like many things, this tends to get blurred in translation and some people decide that these are Forbidden Words and anyone who uses them for anything ever is Doing It Wrong. The internet can be a fascinatingly tedious place.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:29 PM on November 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

I know not to say retarded. That's it. Not being able to say stupid seems a bit much.
posted by Area Man at 2:30 PM on November 18, 2012 [17 favorites]

Somewhat? I was called out by a co-worker for using "spazz" (I had no idea it was offensive until I read the Wiki page), and I've heard other people push back against using ADD and OCD as insults.
posted by third word on a random page at 2:35 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's not getting much traction in the UK, I can tell you that. What it is getting is much ridicule, often using "ableist slurs".

As a counterpoint, the first time I came across the idea of "abelist slurs" online was years ago in the Buffy fandom, when a British member of the fandom wrote about how offensive she found the word "spaz". The word doesn't carry the same weight in American English - or at least, it didn't a number of years ago. On the show, Willow even refers to herself as a "spaz", so it often came up in fic/meta. So that was some food for thought. It's not a word I tended to use a lot, but I don't think I've really used it since then.
posted by Salieri at 2:38 PM on November 18, 2012

Many years ago, I read that you basically wind up with four groups of people (and the piece I read used homosexuality as an example, so that is where my examples are coming from):

1) Folks who are prejudiced but won't use such words. I guess you could call them the PC crowd. They may be homophobic but they try to not show it too casually.

2) Prejudiced folks who use words like "fag" intentionally as a slur.

3) Folks who have become more sensitive, really genuinely don't want to hurt people and are cleaning up their language to reflect their increased respect for people who are unlike them. These are the folks most likely to get on their high horse if you say the wrong thing.

4) Folks who have come full circle and casually use words like "fag" because they genuinely have no problem with it and do not view such descriptors as slurs. Kind of like how "geek" has become a badge of pride instead of a slur.

For a number of things, I fall in category four. It sometimes gets me in trouble, which often baffles and surprises me since I am usually referring to, say, a condition one of my sons has. But people can get very up in arms about it.

If I figure out a particular word is a problem in a particular place/group, I try to make a mental note of it and avoid it. But it is inconsistent, so I haven't found a reliable List of Words to Not Use. It reminds me of something I read about prostitutes: They typically try to wait for their client to say something first because one guy will feel "dick" is the worst word ever but "prick" is fine and another guy will feel the exact opposite.
posted by Michele in California at 2:48 PM on November 18, 2012 [6 favorites]

As a person with an ADD diagnosis, I'm often amused by non-diagnosed people calling themselves "ADD," but I'd never call someone out on it.

I was called out recently for using the term "spaz." As others have said, I was completely stunned by the call-out (which was by a Brit), and I continue to use the word now. Within the world I inhabit and the vocabulary of physical people I have encountered, "spaz" does not have anything to do with cerebral palsy.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 2:52 PM on November 18, 2012

British member of the fandom wrote about how offensive she found the word "spaz". The word doesn't carry the same weight in American English

The reason it is offensive to the British is because the term "spastic" is commonly used for the medical condition, so it is offensive for the same reason that calling people "schizo" or "bipolar" is. In the US, we'd say someone has "cerebreal palsy", and because of that, calling someone a "palsy" would be considered very offensive, but calling someone a "spaz" would just fall under the category of merely not-nice name-calling.
posted by deanc at 2:52 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Depending on context, you can pull down a bit of flak with this sort of language. I would definitely avoid it in professional writing or work email. And really, it's always best to be mindful and try to use more precise wording. For instance, the thing you're describing as "crazy" is probably more "irrational".
When I worked as in Residence Life c.2001, that's pretty much the first time this came to my attention. When I worked for the BSA a bit later, this also came up in sensitivity training.
In the wild, no one has ever called anyone out on any of these, in my experience. But I notice when I do it and try to make sure to model better language for my kid.
I had never heard any objection to "weak" but now that you mention it I think that's a good one too.
posted by Straw Cab at 2:57 PM on November 18, 2012

Sorry to double post, but I've never, ever, called anyone out for calling themselves (or other people) bipolar. Though I have asked someone who said she was feeling "bipolar that day" what meds she was taking for that (or I might have said they have medication for that, it's been a while), probably because I, myself was feeling a little bipolar that day (hypomanic) and little things irritated me.

Seriously, if they want to call people bipolar as an insult, they are just showing their ignorance of the disorder -- same with schizo, ADD (my niece has this), OCD (several of my friends have this), or whatever. I just don't feel the need to get up in arms about it. It's like arguing with the Grammar police about the fluidity of language, a waste of time and energy I'd rather spend elsewhere.
posted by patheral at 3:04 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I got some pushback in a support group (from a person who does a lot of peer support work in the bigger world) when I called myself "crazy." When I told her I was on the fringes of the Mad Pride movement and was trying to reclaim the term for myself as a source of power in a world that insists mental illness means weakness and danger, she seemed mollified. That's the only time I have been called out on anything in the "real world."

In general, I find that among the mentally ill and mental health advocates (who, at least where I am, don't seem to have any significant connections to the broader self-proclaimed "social justice"activists,) there is a HUGE line drawn between things that are perceived as generically disparaging (stupid, weak, foolish) and things that are perceived as targeting/referring to the mentally ill, particularly the terms "crazy," "psycho," and "mad," and any specific diagnosis. The only older psychiatric diagnosis I can think of that still pushes buttons is "retarded" - "moron" and "imbecile" and "idiot" are generally OK with/ignored by everyone I've dealt with in person.

The people who care the most about this, as far as I know, are the people with (or focused on) the grossly misused diagnostic terms - stuff like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, ADHD, OCD autism and sometimes depression. And anyone who deals with very severe problems and/or treatments, like being hospitalized or getting ECT.

I am personally quite sick of schizophrenia-as-multiple personalities, OCD-as-liking-things-neat, paranoia-as-tin-foil-hats-only, bipolar as any-kind-of-thing-with-two-facets-and-any-quick-change-at-all-and-also-any-moodiness, and ADHD as wants-to-get-stimulants-and-not-do-any-work. I tend to call out my friends on these, when I work up the courage to do it. More frequently I point out instances in media that I find appalling. Especially bipolar weather. That one is really pissing me off lately.

Which is a big part of why I'm on the fringes of the Mad Pride movement.

The fringes, mind you. I have an advanced directive that lets me be committed if my doctors think I need to be. Some of us object strenuously to people with mild forms of a disease insisting that someone with severe schizophrenia should remain homeless on the streets untreated because he doesn't want to take meds, far more than we do to random people using terms like "crazy" loosely.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 3:06 PM on November 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

In my corner of England, I've never heard anybody even say "ableist", and would be surprised if more than a handful knew what it meant. They certainly wouldn't regard anything like "crazy", "dumb", "stupid", or "weak" as ableist. That said, they would tend to avoid clear insults such as "spaz", "spakker", "mongol", "crip", and the like. There is respect and regard for the feelings of disabled people, but this doesn't extend to analyzing language in the most minute detail.
posted by Jehan at 3:07 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I consider myself on the very careful end of the spectrum. Offline, I avoid saying lame, retarded and crippled. Lame is kind of marginal for me, but so easy to avoid, so why not? I wouldn't use OCD, ADD, bipolar, schizo(phrenic) etc to describe a person without that disorder or as a noun; I'd certainly talk about "a person with bipolar disorder" or "X has OCD" or "I'm worried that X is developing signs of schizophrenia."

All the words you said: "crazy", "mad", "nutty", "idiot", "stupid", "dumb" and "weak" are fine by me. Dumb does have a history of meaning deaf/mute, but it's so divorced from that history at this point. I do think it's inappropriate to refer to a person who is mentally ill as crazy. It's different when a person uses crazy (or crazy-meds, etc) to refer to themselves.

If it makes a difference to you, I have a history of mental illness.
posted by insectosaurus at 3:42 PM on November 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is a "thing" in my circles (disability rights, Northern California). But, there is a consensus about only a handful of words -- the r-word, lame, spaz, maybe idiot or nuts depending on the context, plus the casual use of diagnostic terms -- e.g. use of schizophrenic, bipolar, sometimes blind, to describe something else (like, a discussion). There is little consensus over the words "crazy" and "mad." Including because lots of people with MH conditions use both re selves. And because lots of people use these words in casual and non-derogatory ways that do not seem slur-y (e.g., this is madness, or this is crazy-making, etc.).
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 3:45 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Words like "crazy", "mad", "nutty", "idiot", "stupid", "dumb" and "weak" are often regarded as ableist slurs in Internet social justice circles.

When I was a kid (like 10 or 12 years old, which would have been in the early-mid '90s), I had a friend whose parents prohibited the use of the word "stupid" — just as strictly if not more so than they would have prohibited any swear word. I don't know if this was because of any objection to "ableist slurs"; they might have just thought it's a mean thing to say. I actually think they had a good point. Anyone who uses the word "stupid" on a regular basis might want to stop and think about whether they're actually being informative or whether they're just saying it to be hurtful.

Language can be mean, wrong, or inappropriate without being offensive to a particular group. It's probably a good idea to avoid calling someone an "idiot," but not because you're offending
"idiots" as a class!

I have a pretty liberal group of friends (in the US), but it's hard for me to imagine anyone I know taking offense at the use of "weak," "lame," or "nutty." If you did, people would probably think you were either very prudish or joking.

Are there some people who are offended by the casual use of "crazy" or "insane"? I'm sure there are — but my understanding is that there is no formal psychiatric definition of those terms. They can only be used casually, since they have no precise definition. So those seem to be less offensive than using an officially recognized psychiatric term like "OCD."
posted by John Cohen at 3:53 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I should add: I mean it doesn't seem offensive to use "crazy" as in a non-psychiatric context, e.g. "This is so crazy it just might work," or "For some crazy reason..." This is in contrast with referring to someone who actually has a mental illness as "crazy," which I would consider offensive (unless it's someone being self-deprecating about themself).
posted by John Cohen at 3:55 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm just outside Toronto. I work in a public library and I have rarely heard any of my colleagues use those terms. Myself and a few other staff will tell customers that use that language is in appropriate (and I have kicked people out for continuing to use such language towards someone else, staff or patron). Basically, it is treated the same as foul language. We often work with emotionally disturbed individuals or people struggling with mental illness but our incident reports and comments to colleagues would never identify someone as "crazy"; on a rare occasion someone would finish a busy shift with the comment "what a crazy day ". We also do not refer to anyone's race but instead talk about ethnicity or cultural group; gender is another careful topic and we use gender-neutral language because of our population that is transitioning as well as common courtesy. We do not ask about marital status but instead refer to partners (all the lesbians I know love to refer to their wife those because even though it has been a decade it is still fun to hear). I know in the children's programmes if the book being read at story time has the word "stupid" in it, the staff replace it with "silly".

I also work in social justice circles and the use of non-oppressive language is completely second nature at this point - even really nasty arguments use inclusive language (we always have ombuds around, there is a chair to maintain order, we start meeting with an equality statement affirming everyone's right to be free of harassment). Because my children are around this barrier-free communication (and it is re-enforced at school) they do not use "bad words". I actually have a funny story about one of my niece's tattling on her younger sister for saying the "s-word". As my sister was complaining that she picked it up from my mummy (who for some reason really likes the word "shit") I asked that the "bad word" to be whispered - it was "stupid". They are teens now and they still don't use the word stupid.
posted by saucysault at 4:04 PM on November 18, 2012

I never even thought about "lame" until I used it in front of my then-preteen niece, who looked confused and quietly asked her mom what I meant. My sister, a physical therapist who works mostly with children with difficulty walking, very diplomatically explained it's an old-fashioned term that used to mean "disabled" or "differently abled," and that some people use to mean "not cool." She very markedly did not call me out for using the term, but she did give me occasion to think about the source of the word and the way hearing it might hurt one of her clients. I have since made a concerted effort to stop using words like "lame" and "spaz."

Since then, I have been injured and developed a chronic limp. I am, quite literally, permanently lame. I still wouldn't call out a person for using the word, simply because it's so common that most people will not think about it. But of course, that was once true of most derogatory remarks that originally targeted marginalized or medicalized populations. "It's a common expression" doesn't excuse the use of these words; it merely normalizes that use.

This is a "thing" in my circles

I'm just becoming aware of mental-health ablist language as being Totally A Thing. Starting just a few months ago, I started trying to replace words like "crazy" and "insane" as joking derogatory terms or as casual intensifiers (e.g., "it's crazy-cold" or "I'm insanely late"). I admit that it's been difficult for me to consistently avoid those words, partly because they're so ingrained in my casual speech.

I know in the children's programmes if the book being read at story time has the word "stupid" in it, the staff replace it with "silly".

I find myself doing that, too, especially around children, because in modern context, "silly" is a much less vicious word for kids to hurl at each other than "stupid." (Of course, "silly" once had a similar meaning: "simple-minded" or "feeble." But the distance of time seems to dilute the original meaning of some terms, which many people would argue has also happened with "lame.")
posted by Elsa at 4:14 PM on November 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

Therapist in a psych hospital here. I try not to use crazy, nuts, insane, etc., especially while at work; though I wouldn't challenge a patient who used such a term to refer to him/herself, I do challenge when those words are used to describe or attack another patient, or to describe our facility as a "nut house," in the same way I'd point out someone using inappropriate sexual language toward staff or another patient.
posted by catlet at 5:03 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm aware of the same phenomenon in internet social justice circles, but none of the words in your post are ones that I've ever encountered being frowned at outside of internet social justice grar. Stronger ones, like calling someone or something "retarded", referring to a cranky person as "bipolar", etc. certainly are frowned upon to people outside of the internet and rightly so, but I seriously doubt "crazy" or "insane" or even "stupid" will ever be regarded by the general population as being insulting to either people with mental health issues or the mentally disabled. Those words are really very divorced from any association with actual disabled people. When people say something like "having to fill out this form in triplicate is the stupidest thing ever", I really really doubt any of them are intending to compare it to being mentally disabled.
posted by katyggls at 5:07 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd say generally no, aside from the case of "retarded".

"Stupid" was a forbidden word in my house when I was a young kid. I think more just because my parents wanted our house to be a place where people didn't put each other down constantly. Other words that were frowned upon were "shut up", "x sucks", and "screw x". My mom felt that kind of talk was crass. It wasn't anything about political correctness or disability awareness.
posted by Sara C. at 6:41 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

"crazy", "mad", "nutty", "idiot", "stupid", "dumb" and "weak"
With the addition of "bizarre", that would about sum up my feelings on the notion of these being "ableist" slurs. And just about everyone I interact with as well. I don't think this is a very common thing outside of very particular leftist/PC circles. Obviously, when applied to a particular disabled or mentally ill person, they have the potential to be rude, but I've never viewed these words as charged enough to be slurs out of context.
posted by smidgen at 6:41 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

(Of course, "silly" once had a similar meaning: "simple-minded" or "feeble." But the distance of time seems to dilute the original meaning of some terms, which many people would argue has also happened with "lame.")

Hundreds of years ago, "silly" used to mean "blessed". Then it changed meaning to "innocent", then "worthy of compassion", then "weak", and finally "foolish". The passage of time does funny things to words; "idiot" literally means "private citizen", and most people today are probably ok with using the word "bad", even if it might have originated as a slur against effeminate men.
posted by martinrebas at 7:00 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I work with kids who struggle with math, and I push back against the use of "stupid," which is used in a self-directed way by kids in ~95% of instances I encounter it. "Retarded" also pops up from time to time and is always called out. I can't say that the other words are on my radar in the same way, but I don't run into them nearly as much as the first two. I haven't heard the phrase "ableist slurs" before, but I buy it.
posted by alphanerd at 7:37 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I try to be more precise when possible--if I mean that something is illogical, nonsensical, or horribly ill-thought-out, I try to say that. If I think a decision is reckless or foolhardy, I say that.

It's rare that I really mean "crazy".
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:44 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I see this in two real life people, both of who's are somewhat ... self-appointed social justice warriors? Otherwise only on the internet. It's around, but not big yet. Imo it'll take a long time to change, if ever.
posted by ead at 8:25 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's not getting much traction in the UK, I can tell you that. What it is getting is much ridicule, often using "ableist slurs".
I have bipolar disorder and I can't get excited about the use of 'crazy' or 'mental'. (I do, however, get pissed off with people saying things like 'I'm a bit bipolar' or misusing schizophrenic., or phrases like 'her bipolar' but that might just be the pedant in me.) What I do see looked down on very much when used on UK message boards are 'retard' or 'spaz' ('spaz' is seen as a very offensive ableist slur here as it's related to cerebal palsy) - but less so words related to mental health rather than development. I'm really not fond of the word 'moron' and try not to use that, but that's more a personal than a PC thing.

A lot of people with mental health conditions here refer to themselves as 'mentalists' ironically - possibly why The Mentalist isn't such a big show here as people don't realise they're referring to the older meaning of the word - so maybe there's a movement to reclaim these words int he mould of 'queer'.
posted by mippy at 1:52 AM on November 19, 2012

Direct, short answer: I've encountered this online, but not offline. "Retarded" is not OK offline where I am, though it gets occasional use, particularly outside of progressive circles. I'm in a community of hippies, and "crazy" is probably the most popular insult I know among progressive adults.

However, I remember when "retarded" became Not Okay in my middle school. It took about thirty seconds for the kids to find a new word that maintained the desired in-group/out-group dichotomy. They simply started calling kids by the literal name of the educational program, "BOCE" (bo-see), or mockingly using what adults were trying to use as a reaffirming term, "special". So the whole exercise turned out to be a failed attempt to cure the symptom instead of the disease.

I've philosophized about this ever since. I recognize how ineffectual the straight-censorship approach is, yet I also am in fact opposed to calling people or things "retarded", whether they're just someone or something you don't like, or whether they actually are mentally handicapped and you're just shaming them. I understand the value of teaching children (and adults) the harm they do with their words. I get that. I'm on board.

But I think it's important to have invective. I think it's important to be able to express disapproval, dislike, and disagreement in casual and non-literal ways. Socially outlawing "crazy", "lame", "stupid", and so on down the list worries me on this axis because, well, what words should I use to say when Todd Akin says something I vehemently disagree with and which I don't even comprehend how he could think it? How do I say that I really don't like such-and-such piece of art without being overly literal? "Crazy" and "lame" seem accurate. The other reason we need viable alternatives is that it seems to me the only way to really get traction with changing the usage of these words in the majority of people.

I considered the usage of "sucks", "fucked" and other curse words as alternative insults, but those aren't acceptable in many types of interactions, they're more intense than desired, and, well, those words have meaning too. The method of insult-scrutiny seems to be "what does that word you use actually mean? Is that what you meant to say is bad?" Devaluing oral sex, or sex, or people who are on the receiving end of sex, is definitely not what I intend.

So I thought about the fact that while the objection used generally uses concepts like "harm" and "hurt" to people around us, perhaps the real issue is that insults can and should reflect our moral values as a society and a person. We value intelligence, so we use "idiot" as an insult (even though it isn't used clinically as it was in the past). We valued physical capability at a time when "lame" meant someone on crutches, so in it went.

So I thought, maybe I should use terms that actually describe what I find offensive. I have been jokingly using the term "racist" as a casual curse for a while. (Thingamajig not working? "What a racist thingamajig." Person I disagree with politically? "I hate that racist.") It scores lots of Ironic Points and is a little jarring, which is fun. But doesn't that devalue real racism, and make criticism of actual racists harder? So that doesn't work. Other hyperliteral insults like "misogynist" would have the same pitfalls, though perhaps "lazy" or "unhealthy" would work.

I'm still at a loss. Saucysault's solution strikes me as ideologically consistent but stuck with an Orwellian inability to express strong negative opinions without writing a research paper. I want to encourage people to care for others around them, but the fact of the matter is that to express negative opinions about something is to hurt someone's feelings. Perhaps the literal path is the only logical one.
posted by daveliepmann at 5:54 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I work in the health sector in the UK and at a recent team meeting we discovered it might be wise to reconsider the term "brainstorm".

In the typical understated UK way no one was forbidden from using it, it was introduced as a jokey "oh, I hear the latest alternative for Brainstorming is "though-shower", isn't that cute" the 80% of the team who were looking bemused and who did not get any official memo about the term brainstorming (because no official memo was sent), observed the seniority of the person saying it and made a mental note not to use the term in their hearing again.
posted by Wilder at 5:56 AM on November 19, 2012

I've often wondered whether 'brainstorm' being verboten is similar to the myth that 'blackboard' is 'banned' in the UK (it isn't, but schools barely use regular chalkboards these days). It's used as an example of overly-PC but I think replacing it is more of an office jargon thing than a not-wanting-to-be-ableist thing.
posted by mippy at 6:33 AM on November 19, 2012

Many years ago, I read that you basically wind up with four groups of people...

But that;s using words people know are discriminatory. These are just adjectives to the vast majority of English speakers. "Stupid" doesn't mean someone who has an illness or disability, it means someone who had an ill-conceived plan or just didn't think about it much before going forward. It's a "thick concept" in that it includes a negative judgment, but it's not referencing a prejudice in ordinary language.

If the goal is to avoid expressing (negative) opinions about people's actions - to avoid (negative) thick concepts at all - that's kind of a whole other ball of wax. Just due to being generally derogatory I don't know that people use them in professional settings to refer directly to other people that often, but in casual settings or to refer to something indirect or inanimate, I doubt most people offline give it a second thought.
posted by mdn at 7:48 AM on November 19, 2012

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