A Tale of Two Conversations

I was thinking about stuff this morning, and thought I'd share.  Enjoy.

It was about two years ago, when I was first coming to anti-disablism activism - albeit only in the most minor of language-based ways - that I decided to stop using "lame" as a pejorative.  After a month or two, it felt natural, and I'd begun to develop the instinctive flinch response to hearing other people use it like I had already had with terms like "retard" or "bitch" or the n-word.  It was around that time that two conversations took place.

Conversation A was with a young (20 at the time), cis, white, hetero, currently-able-bodied man I know.  We were hanging out, and talking about something - probably politics, knowing us - and he said something like "Ugh, that's so lame."  I flinched, and decided to speak up.  "You know that's kind of offensive, right?" I asked.  "Could you please not say that around me?"  He looked at me, clearly startled and affronted by my implying that he was doing something Wrong.  "No it's not," he replied.  I blinked a couple of times.  Um, I'm the one who actually studies and reads about and writes about and lives immersed in various kinds of anti-_ism activism, so who is he to be correcting me about something like that? I thought.  Silly me, I should have known the answer was "a Very Privileged Dude", duh.  But I argued back.  "Yes, it is.  It's like using "that's so gay", which I know you've stopped doing because it's wrong.  Same kind of thing.  Saying "that's lame" is prejudice against disabled people the same way as "that's gay" is prejudice against queer people."  And he argued back, too.  "No, it's not!  It's not the same thing at all."  And on it went, both of us getting quite loud and impassioned, I insisting that dammit you should probably be listening to someone who actually works with -ism stuff, please, and he insisting that he wasn't being -ist at all and I was just being oversensitive.  I finally dropped it, he still uses the word to this day, and I just quietly flinch and let it pass.

Conversation B was with another young (25 at the time), cis, white, hetero, currently-able-bodied man I know.  As we were driving somewhere one day, he sympathized with me describing some annoying situation by saying, "Oh, that's lame, I'm sorry."  I flinched, and took a deep breath and said, "Using "lame" that way is really offensive actually.  Can you not use it please?"  He looked surprised, and said, "Oh, I'm sorry.  I didn't know.  Um, could you suggest other words I could use instead?"  And the request for alternatives wasn't made in a demanding "educate me nao!" kind of way or anything.  It was simply that he trusted my judgment and vocabulary skills and hoped I might have advice for him on what to replace it with.  So we brainstormed alternatives for awhile, came up with several, and I only heard him use it once or twice more - swiftly self-corrected each time - before he'd fully eliminated the phrase from his speech. 

Two men, very alike in terms of privilegedness and upbringing.  Two very similar conversations centered around the same request and the same word.  And yet where one was stubborn and got all privilege-denying about it, the other was willing to learn and change.  So I guess my question is...For the love of all the gods, why can't most call-outs happen like Conversation B?  Where one person says, "Hey, you did this thing that is wrong/offensive/oppressive/bad," and the other person says, "I'm sorry, I won't do it again.  Do you have any advice or education you would like to offer while we're talking about it?" (While remaining open to the possibility that the answer may just be "No", of course)  How hard can this possibly fucking be, that it never just goes like that? 

For the record, here's how it ended: Dude A and I are still close, but I don't feel entirely safe around him and I have to be careful what topics come up when we're talking.  And it erodes our relationship a little every time something like this comes up.  Dude B is my best friend, around whom I feel entirely safe and respected, and our relationship is strengthened every time something like this comes up.

So, privileged people*: which Dude would you rather be?  Keep that in mind in your interactions with less-privileged people or allies. 

*Which really means basically everyone, cause most people have privilege on at least one axis.  Being oppressed on one axis doesn't negate your privilege on others. *cough*DanSavage*cough*


Bieeanda said...

I definitely try to be  a Dude B sort, though it can be difficult sometimes. Not in the sense of terms like 'gimped' or 'gay', which are easily construed as slurs, but more often constructions and plays on words, like using 'color blind' to describe a person or thing that treats people the same regardless of visible ethnicity. I rather like the latter and its ilk (I have an unhealthy relationship with puns and wordplay) but I have heard people complain that it's 'erasing'.

My roommate's a different case. She's physically disabled, but brilliant and highly educated, and this sort of language intervention drives her up the wall. I imagine she does it internally, since she will use terms like 'spastic' to describe herself in technical terms while avoiding misusing words like 'gay'. Meanwhile, she's recently quit a popular feminist blog because the admins have become increasingly apt to 'priggishly' (her word) chide posters over word choices.

...I think I came here to say 'I'd like to be more Dude B', but think I've managed to confuse myself beyond that point. Excellent and illuminating tale you've woven, at least. :)

Jadelyn said...

 I've heard the same, re "color blind" "deaf to criticism" and similar.  I can see it (no pun intended, heh).  Also with -phobia language - transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, words like that.  I've read some very interesting discussions on why terms like that are problematic, basically cloaking bigotry in the language of legitimate psychological condition, while conflating phobia with bigotry is offensive to people with actual phobias.  So I'm trying to use alternatives instead.  It's been an interesting experience, to be sure.

Interesting, about your roommate.  I'll say first off that self-identity words, especially if she's talking clinically when she uses "spastic" for herself, is a totally different ball game.  I call myself crazy sometimes, because I have a genuine mental illness, but that's my choice and it's different from other people using it.  It really bugs me when people get upset over so-called "language policing" though.  What's wrong with trying to choose terminology that minimizes offense/oppression/harm to others? 

At any rate, thank you for stopping by!  :-)

Bieeanda said...

 Totally my pleasure, you write thought-provoking stuff. :)

I'll admit that until recently I've clung tightly to foo-phobia terms, I suspect out of some smug 'If you hate it, you must fear it' reasoning. It really is terribly problematic, because not only does it co-opt legitimate psychological issues, it really isn't an effective weapon against bigotry-- accusing someone of cowardice doesn't have much of an effect these days.

Regarding the roommate, I think her attitudes might stem from early childhood. I know she had run-ins with the stereotypical sort of caregiver who treated all disabled children as if they were mentally challenged. I'm not a psychologist (I only visit them, natch), but I don't think it's a stretch to think that blog admins being (too?) aggressive in correcting language gaffes might seem patronizing to her in a similar way. I don't think it's a helpful way for her to react, but I'm definitely guilty of linguistic grumpiness and defensiveness myself sometimes too.

Jadelyn said...

 That, too.  "phobia" gives them cover more than anything else.

I can definitely see why a person might have personal issues with that kind of correction.  Also I'm pretty sure nearly everyone gets linguistically defensive sometimes.  I'm still negotiating with myself over "idiot".  >.<


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