Part 12: Disability Corner: EuphemismsDisability Corner: Euphemisms
Hey, you remember this meme?
If you dont, dont worry, youre not missing much. Especially since its Jesus fucking Christ, this picture is old enough to vote . Way back in the Bush years, we olduns used this image to poke fun at his supporters, commonly stereotyped as racist, uneducated rednecks with a collective hard-on for violence. People associated a lot of -isms with this guy, anything we could come up with. Was anything we said about him true? Who knows? His mustache certainly isnt telling. All we know is he thought morans should get a brain.
Was he advocating the distribution of brains to those with IQ scores between 51 and 70? Probably not. Hed probably say thats how smart his opponents were. I know we said it applied to him. Someone we thought had terrible opinions. Using a deprecated clinical term invented by a fucking eugenicist. And one we thought was a fair description of him. As people who considered ourselves champions of tolerance and diversity.
The phrase euphemism treadmill describes what happens when people try to introduce polite terms for perceived problems that wont go away. Lets say, as a purely theoretical exercise, that theres a guy who thinks a one night stand with a disabled person is enough to spawn hundreds of ableist caricatures. He believes you can categorize disabled people by their rough mental age so reliably he gives those categories names: idiot for the youngest, already a term for those seen as stupid; imbecile for those in the middle, a word that previously referred to those with a physical or mental disability; and moron for the oldest, an ancient Greek word he mangles to fit his theory like a proper 19th century scientist. Lets say hes also one of the most respected mental health authorities in America and uses those words as part of the basis for modern psychiatric testing. That means theyll be treated as distinct, specific clinical terms, right? Nope. The moment people hear those words used to describe people they look down on, they steal them and start using them as insults. It happens. Constantly. And nobody cares. That hypothetical guy dies, claiming he wasnt actually advocating sterilizing people he didnt respect to his grave, but his categories outlive him as ways people describe other people when they think they arent as smart as them. Which is kind of what you get if you take insults and try to use them as medical terms
So after a while, views on what our definitely-not-real example up there called feeble-mindedness start to shift in the scientific community. Now, they want to recast things in terms of human development and developmental ability, even though thats literally the point of those relative age things. They decide to coin a more general phrase, one thats a little more scientific than the sort of thing that ends up misspelled on a protest sign. But what to use? If developmental is the word of the day, and if development slowing down is what you want to focus on, why not use something that reflects that? Well, there is a way to describe something that slows something else down like how fire retardant describes the material that slows burning down. Yeah, its the good ol r-word. It takes seconds for kids to turn it into an insult, and it doesnt help that, since schools are just starting to implement special education programs, they now have plenty of ready-made targets. Its new meaning so thoroughly overtakes the original that people start lopping off the first two letters and attaching it as a suffix to the names of groups they dont like. Belatedly realizing this might get in the way of doing their jobs, with the help of nascent disability activist groups run almost entirely by people without disabilities, they come up with a bunch of pleasant euphemisms: handicapable, diverse abilities, differently abled. Special. All of them supposedly emphasize their abilities, their value. And what do you get?
For those of you who cant read it or dont know the context, this comic compares the lions on various Scandinavian countries coats of arms. Finlands is described as having a special lion, one which has a sword through its head, unfocused eyes, and is messily eating flowers. Im pretty sure the artist isnt praising it.
Its astonishingly difficult to find any word used to describe below-average intelligence that doesnt have ableist roots. Even dumb describes someone whos mute because theyre too stupid to talk. The euphemism treadmill kept running, and every time somebody came up with a neutral term, somebody else immediately made it negative because the term changed nothing about the subject. All of those words are now its detritus. Id say it makes it impossible to talk about intelligence without people getting up in arms, but our conception of intelligence is bullshit anyway. But thats another story.
Let me know if you have any other topics youd like me to cover. I cant give you a timeline on when Ill get it back to you, but I love taking requests.