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Monday, May 5, 2014

Why I Don't Language Police.

I'd been trying to write this post off and on for a while. Trying hard to get it right and not offend, which is kind of ironic given the intention. Then I came across this, and it encapsulated a lot of the thoughts I'd been trying to get down.

I have a degree in social science. I appreciate the power of language and how it shapes reality for people. I'm trained in Narrative therapy and used it as one of my main tools back in my social work days. The words we use to describe our world and those in it creates meaning for each of us. Words are powerful, and can be used to inspire or hurt. I get that.

Prior to obtaining a social science degree I didn't really understand this. I come from a working class background, we didn't discuss 'ideas'. The concept that words can influence perception would have most likely been dismissed in the intellectual vacuum that was my childhood home.  The fact I didn't get taught to consider the power of language and to think before I spoke with the recipients in mind is not a personal failing, it's just what it was. Eventually I was taught about these things and adjusted my perspective accordingly. Most people don't get a formal education on this stuff and so I don't think its fair to expect everyone to understand instinctively how powerful are our personal, and group narratives, and how cultural sub groups create their own language 'norms'. The autism community offers an example, if somewhat fractured,  of a cultural sub group having it's own language rules based primarily around the aspiration of autistics as they challenge the deficit based medical model. People argue about autism first or person first language. Parents are accused of using 'not my child' arguments in conversation without necessarily even knowing what that means. If someone in the community uses the term disorder or disease to describe autism instead of condition they can be accused of pathologising difference.

But when we criticise someone for the language they're using rather than the substance of their comment we're often being, truth be told, patronising. It's a way of telling another, 'you don't know as much as I do', you are ignorant on the use of language in this context.  It's a point scoring tactic that doesn't address real concerns, unless the concern is about language of course.  It's also invalidating, and we get more than enough of that already in the autism community. I think given how vulnerable people can be it's imperative to let them speak without immediate censure,  allowing them to learn the reasons why I choose the respectful language I do by explaining, in good time, rather than dismissing anyone who doesn't use the same.

People express their internal thoughts through the words they have based on their capabilities and lived experiences, and education. People in the ASD world should get that more than most. I'm all for helping someone shift their thinking and so use of language, but I'm not for making that the first thing I focus on. I'm more concerned with the content of their words, the feelings, the intent, than whether or not they've had time to learn the language of disability activism yet. Linguistic semantics are important but I'd rather focus on ideas in this space. 


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Corrie. Great to meet another aussie blogger.

  2. The Sensory Spectrum is hosting a special blog hop of posts from bloggers in June and we'd love to have you participate! Just imagine a list of bloggers sharing their stories about what it’s like to have sensory kiddos! Read more here:

    Joining in on this blog hop will undoubtedly get your blog more exposure as people will hop from one blog to the next to read the stories. I will also be tweeting everyone's stories during the month and highlighting some on my Facebook page.

    I hope you'll join us!
    Jennifer @ The Sensory Spectrum
    (and you can find me @ The Jenny Evolution, too!)

  3. Sharon,

    As a writer, I totally get the power of the stories we tell ourselves and the words we use to describe each other.

    At the same time, I feel very strongly that we should stop getting hung up on labels. To a certain extent, there are words we should never use to describe each other. On the other hand, there's the complex issue of owning put-downs and giving them a new meaning; with the caveat that sometimes the way those terms are embraced lead (along with many other factors) to cultures that embrace the limitations and stereotypes the original words depicted. It's all very complex and messy and I get that.

    BUT in my experience, words have power only when we give them power. My children are children with autism, autistic children, children with disabilities, special needs children, autistics, autists, and more. I use these labels interchangeably, in part to demonstrate that the words alone do not have the power to shape my children's lives, because I won't let them.

    I do respect other people's sensitivities and there are words that I teach my children never to use. Some words have been abused and misused so much that any positive power they once could have had is gone.

    But I also try to teach my children to be more powerful than the words people use on them. I try to teach myself this and others, because it's a constant lesson to be learned. These words, these labels only have the power to cause us harm if we let them. It's hard to disempower words used against us, but it's possible.

    It just seems like a better way than constantly engaging in PC policing, when we keep having to change the "correct" terms, because the terms we've used have taken on negative associations.

    1. HI Stephanie, it's been a long time since connecting with you. Hope all is well, minus the gall bladder :)

      And yes I agree we have to teach resilience, and that means not getting hung up on the words others may use to frame us. I don't want my children allowing other's ignorance to define their thoughts about themselves, and there will aways be hateful or ignorant people to navigate.

    2. Physically, I'm fine. The rest of me is catching up. Thanks for asking!

      Yes, there will always be ignorant people. There will always be mean people. If only because the words will take on new levels of meaning if we catch some people up and others become more kind. There is room for variation -- I'm of the opinion it's a good thing. The key, as you said, is to build up the people we care for from the inside so they can take whatever the world dishes out.

      Of course, that doesn't mean we don't try to change the world as well, but there spheres of influence at work and we have to work on those closest to us first if we want to be effective.