The other day I was talking with the delightfully insightful Zaralynda, about what I don’t remember, when I said something that I had said a dozen, hundred, maybe a thousand times before. I said something was “lame”. Zara was blunt with me when I said that, replying “That’s ableism and gross.” I wasn’t quite sure what I did, but I inferred by the speediness and tact of the reply that I had said something hurtful. I felt an immense amount of pressure and my stomach started knotting. I apologized first. Then I did some research, and, frankly, I am glad I did.
Go Google ableism. Go ahead. Or if you like, I can give you the link to the Wikipedia page. Read that page. I had no clue what ableism was. But if you read that whole page and some of the other Google links, maybe you will realize the immense amount of shame I felt after I said that. I thought I was the biggest jerk ever. And what’s worse, I was completely ignorant of that. For years. So I deleted my tweet, apologized to everyone, and hid in a corner for a while. I could not deal with that in that moment, knowing that I could say something so innocent, and yet, simultaneously, so hurtful.
I was quickly forgiven, which I appreciate. But it’s been nagging me, that I could be so insensitive to people less fortunate than myself, like it was no big deal. The sad part is that I am not alone. And while it’s not the most popular topic, it’s something that needs to be addressed, so here we go.
If you did not click on the Wikipedia link, then let me tell you what ableism is. It’s discrimination against people with disabilities. Any disability. It’s against the law. But more than that, it’s mean. After last week’s outpouring against mean people and bullies, I thought this would kind of go a bit synonymously with that theme. We have an opportunity to make positive change in our ever shifting war against bigotry and hate. Why stop now?
The hardest part for me, in all of this, is its prevalent everywhere. Guild chat. Trade chat. Chat chat. Skype. Twitter. Facebook. Television. Internet. Newsprint media. Get it? Literally, it’s practically everywhere. And if you think that’s bad, try explaining to someone why saying something is retarded is bad. I did. At work. Today. Some guy said our fees were retarded. I replied “that’s ableism, and not really cool.” He asked what ableism was, and I was saddened when I explained it. “Are you gay or something?” Then he drove off.
When did it become ok to talk like this? What time and age did saying ableist terms become acceptable? I wish I had the answer. The bad part is, people would be more offended by using the word “gay” as a slur. “Retarded” is just as hurtful. No hurtful word is any less hurtful than another. It’s like using the word “rape” like a joke. Except it’s not funny. These words are triggers for some people, triggers that could turn someone’s perfectly fine day into a spiraling nightmare. That’s the last thing I would wish on anyone.
And yet it’s prevalent in today’s culture. It’s funny to some people. Go play League of Legends. Sorry LoL players, but I’ve seen this in more than one game. If you know LoL, or know anyone that knows LoL, you will understand my analogy. You may get it anyways, so if not just bear with me.
You’re top lane; let’s say you go Udyr because you have Skarner jungling. It’s just an example; this would not happen in reality. So your enemy player has Kennen against you. He makes a mistake and burns all of his cooldowns. You think you have an advantage; minions are pushing him to his tower, so you don’t have to worry about tower agro. You get aggressive, go bear form for the stun, shift to turtle in case Kennen tries to burst, then Tiger for the damage. Except you forgot one thing. You have no jungle vision because you forgot to ward. The enemy Lee Sin comes in, Kennen gets all his cooldowns up, and you proceed to die. Had you not forgotten to ward, maybe you would have lived. If not, you could then at least argue that the enemy played that exchange well, and you and your team could discuss strategy going forward.
That almost never happens. What usually happens in the above scenario is the enemy team would taunt you in chat, maybe saying that you got “gangbanged”, while your teammates say you must have “down’s syndrome”. Why would anyone want to play a game with this kind of language, this kind of bullying? Why would anyone saturate themselves in this kind of culture?
Why? Because it’s popular. It’s considered cool to put people down after they make a bad play. It’s completely acceptable to act like for a lack of a better word, an idiot, and spew garbage out of your mouth at anyone who crosses you. It’s considered ok to taunt your enemies with sexual innuendo. In some circles, it’s considered part of the culture, viewed as normal, to harass your opponents/allies (as witnessed in the recent twitch.tv reality show fiasco, Google it if you're curious). And when there’s money involved, I believe that anyone will do anything they can to get any advantage possible, as large or small as it may be.
But I also feel its further stretching than that. I grew up in a small country type town, up in the woods. I hate to stereotype, but I feel like I have to here. It could have happened anywhere, but I believe my upbringing had a lot to do with what I thought was and wasn’t acceptable behavior. Up there, in those hills, if something was bad, it was “lame” or “gay”. If you did something questionable, you were “a retard”. If you were a boy and acted at all with any empathy, you were “queer” or a “fag”. It’s upsetting even typing these words out. I can’t imagine having to read them, let alone hear them, more so if they were directed at you. And they were directed at me. And I directed some of them to other people. I was young. I was unaware, ignorant of my own insensitivity to people who were less fortunate than I was. And so were many other people. Some of us were just jackass kids. Some of us, like me, honestly didn’t know any better. I never directed “rape” or “fag” at anyone, but I used to call unfortunate situations “lame” or “gay”. Even in my older age. When I was 18 I stopped using “gay” after I had hurt a friend’s feelings. He was, in fact, homosexual. I felt like such an ass, I profusely apologized and swore I would not use that word in a derogatory way again. Unfortunately, we didn’t speak much after that. To this day I feel terrible about it, absolutely terrible.
“Lame”, though, I never once had that word cross my mind until last week, when I really took a good look at it. In 30 years time I never one had anyone tell me why it might be even remotely bad to use that word in such a negative context. I never even had the foresight to think of it on my own. To think that I was so oblivious only makes me feel worse, but I have been trying to take it a day at a time since.
The thing I worry about is the lack of acknowledgement ableism receives, especially in our gaming world. When confronted about negative behavior, I find that if a person does not agree with the sentiment, and has no desire to see anyone else’s viewpoint, then they will most often be unwilling to consider how their words have an effect on others. And because of the prevalent use of these terms in these specific ways for such an extended period of time, it’s easy for others to assume that someone complaining about such a “silly or insignificant” thing is unjustified. But the truth of the matter is that it’s hurtful, and illegal, and shouldn’t be tolerated. The more this brand of hate speech goes unacknowledged and unnoticed, the worse it will be for generations to come. If you’re not worried about that, think about all the times you may have heard these terms directed at you or someone you cared about, and how it made them feel. No one deserves that.
We can stop this oppression, together. It will take some effort, some patience, and probably some banging of the head on the desk, but I believe the effort to take a stand, as we all seem to have been doing more lately, will pay off for those yet to tread these murky waters of life. First, we have to recognize the issue. If that means someone flat out telling you that using “lame” in a negative context is wrong, please do what I did: consider that you may ACTUALLY be wrong. Don’t get defensive; don’t jump to conclusions. Be calm, and if you’re confused just say so. It may be embarrassing, yes, but if you are being told by someone you trust, then TRUST them. They probably care about you as a human being and want nothing but the best for you. I understand how hard trust is; in this case it was well worth it and I don’t regret it, and was glad to be more the wiser.
Second, expect resistance. Most people, in my experience, don’t like being told they’re doing something wrong. This will go true IRL and in game. Neither will be easier than the other, in my opinion. I could argue that if you see someone regularly there’s a chance that daily reminders would be helpful. You could counter by saying said person may end up getting annoyed by the daily reminders and want nothing to do with you anymore, while ignoring the ableism altogether. You could argue that it’s easier to deal with confrontation online. I could counter by saying how personal these online connections can be, and how tone and inflection is not always accurately or easily translated via text. Both ways are hard and both are equally unpleasant. But it’s for the best so don’t be afraid.
Third, don’t be afraid. People may judge you differently or hold you in a different light after you bring ableism up. They may want to make more unsavory assumptions about you. But don’t back down for a minute; this is as important as any other hate speech and should be warranted as such. If your peers are unwilling, then don’t be afraid to go above them. If the managers or guild officers aren’t willing to comply, go above again. In real life, I would suggest HR. Remember, ableism is illegal, insofar as it is hate speech and can be construed as a form of discriminatory language. In guild, this may be trickier. The GL may be unaware of ableism or how discriminatory it can be. Even after education, the GL may be unwilling to budge on the issue for whatever reason. Realistically, at this point you can either ignore the offender as best you can, or leave the guild. Note: it's important that you ignore the OFFENDER, not the OFFENSE. Do not let your opinion be silenced, regardless of whether others feel it is valid or not. I realized this more so this evening in guild chat; and just how important it is to know how your GL tolerates this kind of language BEFORE you join a guild. Now I am possibly considering jumping ship, which will leave me feeling like I wasted $55 in what I thought was a good guild to start over with. This isn’t realistic for everyone, though, which makes the thought of even playing your favorite game, or leaving it, so discouraging.
Fourth, and important for the third, is to know that you are not alone. There are a few of us on twitter that are advocates against ableism, although I would consider myself more a junior advocate in training at this point. There are other resources, though; websites, blogs, support groups/forums, etc; aiming at advancing the idea that calling someone “lame” is hurtful, discriminatory, illegal, and not necessary at all. Remember, if we are going to end hate speech of all kind, we will have more success working together.
It will take some time, but I hope someday we can live in a world where derogatory language towards others subsides. I’d like to log into WoW or LoL or whatever next gen game comes and not be flooded with tells about how some quest or play or item is “lame”. Believe me, there are better ways to get the point across.