Words Will Never Hurt Me?

blog word cloud 7.10.15Last week I was privy to an interesting discussion in a Facebook group. The discussion was on quite a contentious topic, and one person (P1) left a comment saying they hoped those involved would acknowledge that we all have blind spots. A second person (P2) responded saying they wanted to call out the term ‘blind spots’ because it is ableist and comes with negative connotations in implying that people with visual impairment lack wisdom. P1 then disclosed that they themselves had a significant visual impairment, yet had no problem with the use of the term ‘blind spots’, and regarded it as a metaphor from driving rather than a discriminatory term. P1 asked P2 what language P2 would prefer to use, and P2 said ‘ignorance’.

Ignorance denotes a ‘lack of knowledge, education, or awareness’. For sure everyone lacks knowledge, education, or awareness, so in one sense it’s a statement of fact. However, it is also a term I have often heard used as an insult. As ‘blind spot’ is a metaphor, a little distance is introduced which in theory removes heat from the discourse – though evidently not always in practice.

Someone else (P3), who I know quite well in real life, has worked for years in senior roles in two charities for people with visual impairment. I asked P3 about this. P3 said that the beneficiaries of those two charities would have no problem with the term ‘blind spot’. In fact it is a term in common use among those beneficiaries, as it is for others. P3 told me their beneficiaries often use visual terms in speech even if they have no sight at all, saying to each other, for example, ‘Let me show you my new bag,’ or, ‘Have you seen Mary today?’ I have another good friend who has a physical disability such that their legs don’t function and so they use a wheelchair. This friend will cheerfully say to me, ‘Let’s go for a walk,’ or, ‘Shall we wander round to the pub?’ Of course these are not terms with negative connotations, but even so it seems to me that they could be construed as ‘ableist’ by someone with particular sensitivities.

The thing is, we all have sensitivities. Including me. I have grown to hate the current vogue for praising something by saying that whatever-it-is ‘never gets old’. I am getting old, rather faster than I would like, so I much prefer the valuing of maturity. (Especially when it refers to cheese, or wine, or ideally both together.) I also hate the casual ‘hope you’re well’ that seems to be the requisite opening for emails these days, as I live with two disabilities, rarely feel well, and am never going to be fully well again unless medical science really gets its act together. I get really fed up with people using the term ‘manning’ (the stall, the phones, the fort) when there are perfectly good gender-neutral alternatives (staffing, answering, holding). I have tried calling people out about these terms, but learned that it wasn’t worth the effort, and on reflection I think there are more important causes on which to expend my limited energies.

It is quite evident that there is no set of terms that meet with everyone’s approval. When we are able, it makes sense to find out which terms people prefer, and to use those terms where possible. It seems to me that it also makes sense for us to cut each other some slack at times. I am a wordsmith, I care about language, and I try for as much precision and fairness as I can muster from the imprecise raw materials of my craft. I know that the language we use in speech and writing affects the ways in which we and others think. So I do believe it is necessary to be as careful as we can with our words. Yet I also recognise that there are a lot of fights to be fought in this world, and the most important battle is not always over words and phrases.

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