Why I personally have an open policy on if we use ‘people with disability’ or ‘disabled people’.

[Alex Salmond said] Mr Abbott’s comments were “offensive to the Scottish people”.

The above quote (from Scottish independence: Australian PM Tony Abbott’s comments ‘offensive’)  got me thinking. The full offensive comment in question appears to be

“What the Scots do is a matter for the Scots and not for a moment do I presume to tell Scottish voters which way they should vote.

“But as a friend of Britain, as an observer from afar, it’s hard to see how the world would be helped by an independent Scotland.

“I think that the people who would like to see the break-up of the United Kingdom are not the friends of justice, the friends of freedom, and the countries that would cheer at the prospect… are not the countries whose company one would like to keep.”

I thought this was interesting, not, just because it appears to be a trifle thin-skinned from Mr Salmond, and not just because it was strategically silly (drawing attention to the fact that even the famously-no-longer-ruled-by-the-British countries like the US and Australia think that independence is a bad idea;  to say nothing of the fact that it’s hard to imagine Salmond as the statesman representing an independent Scotland on the international scene if he’s going to call the Australian PM a hypocrite), but because it’s interesting what people can find offensive. (I also presume Salmond actually means “offensive to the 42% of the Scottish people who look like they will vote yes to independence but actually pretty reasonably to the 58% who probably won’t”).

Offensive is an odd thing  – particularly when you consider that in the future our swear words and offensive language, will stop being offensive. Blasphemy is less and less of a thing (in the UK at least). ‘Blast’ now looks comic, ‘damn’ hardly better, and as years go past our existing swear words downgrade themselves gracefully like an ageing popstar that once sung about revolution and now accepts a OBE from the Queen.

This got me thinking about offensive language and I decided it’s probably worth putting down in writing one of the long standing house-style elements of this blog (In addition to such things as being ambivalent about American/British spelling, and disliking the less/fewer issue).

Long term readers might have noticed that this site sometimes uses ‘people with a disability’ and sometimes  ‘disabled people’. I get a certain amount of stick for this, appropriately enough about half the people complain about one of them (‘people with a complaint’) and the other half complain about the other (‘complaining people’).

Image from http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/File:EuphemismTreadmill.jpg

Image from http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/File:EuphemismTreadmill.jpg

This is actually a fairly though out policy. I understand and accept the rights of a group of people to asked to be referred to in a certain way but I’m a little alarmed by the “euphemism treadmill” .

If you haven’t heard about the euphemism treadmill, it’s a bit of a worrying thing. The idea is that it works like this.

  1. Medical(in the past) or social (more now) come up with a word to describe a thing. For example, In the early 1900s, Dr. Henry H. Goddard proposed a classification system for intellectual disability based  mental age. Individuals with a mental age of less than three years were identified as idiots.
  2. The word starts arriving in the common language by the normal osmosis becoming slightly twisted in the process. Leaving us with ‘idiot’ to be used as a general insult.
  3. The medical/social people decide they have to stop using the word ‘idiot’ because of the connotations  and so invent a new word ‘retard’. Very precise, very descriptive. Then they start using that. Except before long retard becomes a (triggeringly) nasty word and so the cycle starts again…

And every time we work through this cycle we finding a new set of ways to bully people. That’s bad.  

So on the one hand I understand that language does and should alter over time, refining aspects of culture, developing ideas, developing us as a society – I’m very very happy to drop the r-word.  But on the other hand, I’m not entirely sure I’m ready to pick a winner from ‘people with a disability’ and   ‘disabled people’ just yet. 

I think that claiming language is important to.  I think that as soon as a community lets go of a term it becomes a way to bully them.

So, until I get a compelling argument in favour of one verses the other (and there are some sensible ones about or the other being more apropos for certain contexts)  I’ll continue to have an open policy. 

(PS for more on the euphemism treadmill and the r-word – this is an excellent article)

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