Watching our language on mental illness and disability

[Content note: ableist language]

It was probably inevitable that in a post on The Standard about the differences in commentary style between leftwing and rightwing blogs, someone would come along and start saying things like:

Kiwiblog’s comments threads feature a great many angry retards, who mistake the laying out of their prejudices for thinking about a subject and presenting an argument on it. This topic attracts them more than most, and the thread was accordingly psychotic in tone.

When I pointed out that using words like “retard” and “psychotic” was unfriendly to people with mental health issues, it was probably also inevitable that I would be called a member of the “volunteer word police”.

The thing is, ableism is a serious issue. And I’m not ashamed to point it out when I see it.

If you’re unfamiliar with the word “ableism”, this is a good introduction.

There are two very good sets of reasons to not use that kind of language.

The first is the harm it causes. The way we talk about people with disabilities or mental illnesses contributes to how society treats them. We can use language which accords people some basic dignity and agency – like “wheelchair user” – or we can use language which pigeonholes them and defines them purely by what they “can’t” do – like “wheelchair-bound”.

And when we talk about judgemental, vindictive, aggressive, callous people like the standard commenters at Kiwiblog as “retards”, we’re saying that people who have severe mental disabilities are judgemental, vindictive, aggressive, and callous. Do you think that’s going to lead to anyone saying “gee, maybe I should be more open-minded and accommodating to people with mental disabilities?”

There’s a lot of highminded progressive principles which liberal/lefty people subscribe to, about treating people equally and not tolerating oppression. And we extend our analysis of power and exploitation to language all the time. We can all see the harm caused by referring to workers as a “resource” or telling sickness beneficiaries that “the best path to recovery is paid work.”

But when it comes to ideas like “don’t use ableist language” or “stop calling Paula Bennett fat” those progressive principles tend to fall down. Suddenly, we refuse to see the harm we cause with our language.

The second reason to avoid ableist language is, sadly, probably more persuasive.

That’s the idea that when we write off threatening, bigoted hate-speech as “retarded” or far-right and religious extremists as “nutjobs”, we’re downplaying the real threat they pose and cut ourselves off from being able to challenge their ideas or the people who propagate them.

Calling Kiwiblog commenters “angry retards” basically lets David Farrar off the hook for providing a platform for bigotry and hate. Talking about Cameron Slater’s mental health all the time mitigates the fact that he has built a following on deliberately destroying people’s careers and trying to threaten their lives. Writing off people like Anders Breivik as “crazy” stops us from examining and understanding the huge community of people who think, say, and may be planning similar violent actions. (And writing off that entire community as “crazy” is a great way to let them organise further acts of terrorist violence right under our noses.)

It’s easy enough to see why this language has a lot of currency. It’s so satisfying to be able to write off whole groups of people as being beneath us, isn’t it? But really it just hurts everyone else, including ourselves.

If that makes me a member of the Volunteer Word Police, I can only hope that the job comes with a shiny badge.

If you’re having difficulty figuring out how to stop using words like “retard” or “lame” in your day-to-day life, here’s a handy guide.

David Farrar gets it wrong on abortion law in NZ

Oops, two posts criticising DPF in a row, that’s a little weird – a consequence of the Labour Party’s leadership dominating the news, and my reticence about wading into that issue, I suspect!

But I have to correct him on this. In a post today about abortion rights around the world (linking to a really good interactive graphic from The Guardian) he says:

Oceania is low also, but in NZ we effectively have abortion on request – but not as a legal right.

Farrar is wrong. We don’t have abortion on request in New Zealand. Not literally, and not “effectively.”

Admittedly, abortion is a topic which doesn’t get a lot of coverage. Like most “morality” issues, it gets treated as taboo, dirty, not Proper Conversation. But it does get raised every now and then – The Wireless did some fantastic reporting as part of their “free” theme – so really, there’s no excuse to keep making these kinds of incorrect assumptions.

As ALRANZ’s “16 reasons to change New Zealand’s abortion laws” factsheet states, our current laws dictate an onerous, expensive, dehumanizing process, where people have to see up to four different medical practitioners, often involving huge amounts of travel and time off work and childcare,

As ALRANZ says in another factsheet on the law, the reason some people have relatively good access to abortion services is because there is a strong network of doctors and providers in some parts of the country. If you’re not in an urban centre, it gets much more difficult.

And the current situation is repeatedly threatened by anti-abortion activists mounting legal action.

That isn’t “effectively abortion on request” at all.

Now, if we really did have easily-accessible abortion on request, even if not in name, I’d still have a problem with our laws. People deserve to be treated with dignity. Women (the majority of people who get pregnant are women, but not all) deserve not to have laws which explicitly assume that they as a class can’t make decisions about their own bodies, and can’t be trusted to tell the truth (rape isn’t included in the grounds for abortion, because – isn’t it always? – it was assumed women would lie about it).

But this isn’t just about the wording of our laws. This is about people having to crowdfund for tickets to Melbourne in order to get an abortion, in 2013.

Our abortion laws are outdated and harmful. And it’s not going to change if high-profile commentators like David Farrar keep spreading misinformation about it.

(Disclaimer: I am a proud member of ALRANZ.)

Creepy behaviour from David Farrar

It wasn’t at all surprising to me that David Farrar is scathing of students who have to seek hardship grants to pay their bills, categorising them as bludgers who “say yes to free cash“. Nor that he believes that every journalist who reports on the cost of living should demand “a detailed break down of income and expenditure, so readers can judge for themselves the situation”.

(David Farrar isn’t a journalist, so he’s not bound by such ethical considerations – or he might have considered linking to the actual UCOL policy on hardship grants which makes it clear it is definitely not just “free cash”.)

It’s a typical rightwing attitude which reinforces the idea that lesser people – beneficiaries, students, parents – just aren’t allowed to have nice things. It assumes that survival is good enough – not being able to live a life with some dignity, nor understanding that human beings aren’t just automatons who you input fuel into to extract productivity.

What’s disturbing is this bit, where after completely misrepresenting an interviewees’ statements (she commented that she was speaking generally, not of her own situation; Farrar reforms this into wholesale journalistic inaccuracy):

I’ve had a look through the Facebook pages of Lauren and Karn. They both seem very cool friendly people, and in no way are they political activists for a cause. They seem very typical students. I would note however that contrary to the perception in the article of starving students (and I am not blaming them, but the story) they seem to have pretty good social lives judging by the photos, and references to Big Day Out etc.

We’ve seen this before, of course, with Paula Bennett unashamedly releasing the personal details of beneficiaries who criticised her ill-judged, mean-spirited decision to cut the Training Incentive Allowance. And there have been many similar cases of people having sick leave cut because they looked happy in a couple of Facebook photos.

It’s a really nasty intimidation tactic – silencing people by threatening to embarrass them publicly, undermining their experiences by attacking their credibility. If you’re not dressed like a Dickensian urchin covered in chimney-dust, the argument goes, you can’t really be struggling to pay bills week-to-week.

David Farrar is saying no more and no less than this: if you do have political leanings, your argument would be invalid (he pretends to be generous in pointing out that they don’t); if you do have a social life, you must be lying when you say some students are trying to get by with $2 a day to spend on food sometimes. And don’t even think about attending the Big Day Out in February if you might be short of cash in September or you deserve to go hungry, you horrid, reprehensible bludgers.

It’s par for the course for our government and its bloggers, and it needs to be named for what it is: unacceptable bullying.

Edited to add: a few responses on Twitter which highlight that this is repeated behaviour from Farrar, and why it’s irresponsible for him to expose young women to the lecherous creepiness of his commentariat (which he keeps promising to clean up).