Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A word on... words.

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.


  1. I want to thank Zaralynda for helping me make this article a better expression of how I feel about this issue. It is a real issue and cannot be ignored anymore. Thanks again Zara!!! :D :D :D

  2. I shudder at the thought of the things that I've likely said in the past. But we take what we're given and we make it better, right? That's the way that I see it, at least.

    I like being part of a community that will call me out on the bullshit that I do, because I'd rather be a better pereson than hold onto the things that I'm used to.

    1. 100% agreed, hence, the post :D Thanks for reading!

  3. *Blushes* Pleased to be of assistance!

  4. At the risk of hitting a comment that's a bit more controversial, I'd like to touch on the word "lame" for a moment. The word "lame" refers to more or less any disability, defect or other shortcoming - more often than not, I have seen it referred to people with a limp or less use in their legs. So, while I understand the comment behind it being an "ableist" term, I honestly have to question it actually being as such in this day and age, and not just hyper-political correctness. Did you know that the word "dumb" is also ableist in this case? It refers to people that are mute and cannot speak. And yet, people are more than willing to use this in every day pejoratives. While I agree with your post and your conclusions, I actually disagree some with whether "lame" is necessarily ableism. Even from an anecdotal standpoint, I rarely see the word "lame" outside of old literature being used to describe disability. Granted, this is probably part of the ever-increasing interest in being politically correct and doing whatever one can to not offend anyone.

    1. You are correct in that we probably, as a society, shouldn't refer to people as "dumb" as technically it is a disability. In regards to the "lame", that is translated from old english as "broken". If something is broken that is one thing, but to refer to a person as broken because they made a bad play in a video game... If I had known I would never have. As humans, we didn't always talk to each other in slang terms. We didn't use to talk at all. The language evolves, I can understand that. But we don't have to use negative connotations in ways which they weren't intended. We can have heated arguments and discussions using civil words.

    2. If lame no longer refers to a disability, why is the first (i.e. most common use) definition of lame in Mirriam-Webster's dictionary "having a body part and especially a limb so disabled as to impair freedom of movement"?

      I'm not willing to use that word when I mean that something is "bad" or "boring"; there are plenty of other available words instead. When I substitute a word that describes a group of people (lame, retarded, dumb, whatever) in place of "bad", I'm saying that I think that group of people is bad, and that I think you (as the listener) think that as well, otherwise my statement wouldn't convey useful information.

      I think more highly than that of myself and of the people I'm willing to talk to.

      Zara (frustrated at blogger's comment system)

    3. @Zara

      Thing is, a lot of things in the dictionary are that way. But using a mostly archaic term in current terminology is, at best, a little silly. It's not to say that it isn't incorrect, but that was kind of the point of my comment. How many people actually use the word "lame" when referring to a disability? How about "dumb" for mutes? Not very many, I'd wager.

      As Rhy pointed out below, our vocabulary changes so much. After all, "faggot" was once referred to as a bundle of sticks (though we don't use it in such a way now).

      On my end, I have to deal with being repeatedly called a "fag" or "queer" as if it's supposed to be hurtful. I also have to deal with racial stigmas for being an American Indian (most notably, the phrase "drunk Indian"). In part, I see where you're coming from. On the other hand, I think people need to get thicker skins, too, and not be offended by every little thing.

      Our language has evolved so much over the last several centuries. After all, our language came from several other languages, and we still borrow words from other languages. I think the connotation between "lame" meaning disabled and "lame" meaning bad are actually not one and the same for most people. I'd be willing to venture that most people aren't even aware of the prior usage of the word "lame."

      That isn't to say I don't have my own faults with regards to word usage (things that I try to improve on, though), but I do firmly believe that if everyone took offense at a word that we don't use in the same context anymore, then how much communication are we actually going to have?

      As a side note, using the word "bad" to describe doing something wrong could also be correlated to disability if we're going to look at things from a literal point of view. Strictly speaking from definitions, that is.

    4. Tomaj -

      I won't tell people what they can and cannot be offended about. This isn't about if folks should be offended by it. It's a personal thing - whether you find X or Y words hurtful.

      HOWEVER, there are plenty of places all over the internet were folks have said "this is hurtful to me" and if you are told that, why would you want to do it? You have the ability to chose your actions - why purposefully chose actions that are hurtful when there are plenty of other words available?

      I've decided to show respect to people around me. Unless I'm in an intimate situation (the internet isn't), I don't know if someone reading my words is differently abled, or if they're homosexual, or a PoC. There is NO REASON for me to use words that may hurt these communities. NONE.

      The English language is RICH with other choices. I've decided to use them and not the words that have a risk of hurting others.

      (I really have no idea how you're correlating "bad" directly with disability, unless you're approaching it from an ableist perspective; in which case.... D:)

    5. Okay - so why is it hurtful? I think that's the bigger thing. Using it as a pejorative normally means that it's not meant in the same context as a derogatory term. The two really need to be separated, and people that think if it's used AT ALL out of context are the ones looking at this the wrong way. That's like saying, "Oh that's so gay!" to someone - and actually meaning "happy" - and someone getting offended by it because it's "homophobic." It's ridiculous.

      Now, on the other side of the coin, there's really no reason for the people that might be offended by them, TO be offended by them. That said, I still stand by my statement: hyper-political correctness is bullshit, and to some degree, people need to get thicker skins. If they want to be offended or hurt by words, then that's their prerogative - same as it is mine to not be offended or hurt by them.

      However, I'd also like to point out another definition of the word lame:

      "weak; inadequate; unsatisfactory; clumsy: a lame excuse."

      In other words, to use it in terms of "bad" is not incorrect, nor is it ableism to do so. It just is what it is.

      As for bad, look at one definition of lame:

      impaired or disabled through defect or injury

      And for bad:

      of poor or inferior quality; defective; deficient

      From a literalist's point of view if it doesn't fall under "good," than it is an ableist word. /shrug. Take it for what you will.

      All that said, you can respect others, but you must also respect the definitions of the words you're trying to "presever" or the people you're trying to protect. In the same light, some of those people don't want that, and maybe some of them are trying to get past it. That's part of the evolution of language.

  5. Hm...I find this post rather fascinating, actually. As someone with multiple disabilities (including, literally, being "lame"), the word "lame" used in its typical context doesn't bug me at all. Aside from reading the occasional piece of classic literature, I don't think I've seen or heard "lame" used in its original context in years. To me personally, that one does feel a bit oversensitive, since the usage of it has shifted so far as to be totally unrelated to the original word.

    Using "gay" as an insult is an attack on both the insultee and the gay community, as the implication is that being gay is a bad thing, and thus a valid insult. Ditto for "retarded". I don't really see the same attitude in the word "lame". I'm fairly confident that nobody calling someone "lame" is literally saying "hey, you suck, and so do people whose legs don't work right"...and therein lies the difference, I think. Taking a word that's not in common use and re-purposing it versus labeling a group as negative.

    Word usage changes. Language evolves. In my opinion, the issue arises not when a word changes in use, but what the intent of that change is. Totally just my two cents here, and I respect the right of anyone else to disagree with me.

    (On a vaguely related note, out of curiosity, how do you feel about someone with a disability making a joke about said disability that includes this sort of language? For example, if I were to jokingly refer to myself as "the gimpy one"? Just wondering.)

    1. Thanks for your viewpoint. In regards to your question, I generally feel uncomfortable when someone refers to themselves in a negative connotation, but I tend to see the good in people rather than the negative (or at least I try). If you wanted to refer to yourself as that, then I certainly couldn't stop you, but I would suggest a different phrasing.

    2. That interests me right there, because you're automatically viewing my disability as a negative thing. Not trying to attack you here, so please don't feel bad -- just noting.

      In my experience as a person with disabilities, who interacts with other people with disabilities on a regular basis, the majority of us don't constantly focus on our disabilities as negative things. It's just part of who we are. An obnoxious/limiting/frustrating part of who we are, but it is what it is. This is not the attitude of EVERY SINGLE disabled person out there, of course (we run the full range of opinions, just like anyone else in any other group), but it's the common attitude in my experience.

      For me, making a joke at my own expense about my bum leg (or any of my other disabilities) isn't any different than someone saying "I'm so blonde!" when they do something ditzy. It's not a negative thing. My body is what it is, and if I can't laugh at myself, who CAN I laugh at?

    3. Folks can refer to themselves however they want to. No one can tell you that it's right or wrong to refer to yourself as "the gimpy one".

      It would be wrong for someone else to refer to you that way, unless you indicated clearly that it was okay (someone with an intimate relationship may have that privledge, but perhaps not a random person you just met; that's up to you). Also, because you identify as "the gimpy one", that doesn't mean you should project that identity on others with similar situations. They may also self identify as such, but that's up to them to decide.

    4. I never said anything about projecting a title on anyone else. I simply find it intriguing how other people react to someone with a disability treating that disability with a sense of humor. The human race never ceases to amaze me, and I get a particularly interesting point to observe from. :)

    5. Sorry, I didn't mean to imply that you would project. I just tend to ramble. You ask about identities, so I ramble about self-identification, identification of yourself to intimates and associates, and identity projection.

      In short, Zara says a lot of words!

    6. Rhy, I am happy that you look at yourself and your issues with stride, really that's awesome! It's good to have a positive viewpoint on the cards you're dealt. For me, I look at it from the viewpoint of the outsider, so I don't really have any great opinion or anything. On one hand, I want to show empathy and respect to someone with a disability, but at the same time I wouldn't want to make you feel like I was pitying you. There's that fine line, and if you're joking about yourself, it kind of blurs that line for me. Again, I think it's great that you have a sense of humor about your situation, but I want to take extra care to not offend. Like Zara said, if you want to refer to yourself in that way, ultimately that's your decision. I just will be treading lightly :D

  6. I dont want to sound like the insensitive ass in the situation, but I think that the definition of words evolve over time. I think that most people saying something is "gay" or "retarded" are saying something is dumb.

    I think some of these words end up used amongst some groups of friends the way the "n word" gets used in some parts of black culture. By itself, it is derogatory and wrong. Used in certain contexts, it means something other than the actual meaning of the word.

    I am not saying people should walk around calling people faggot or saying "you just got raped", but in internet gaming culture where you can be anonymous and in friendly circles where ribbing each other is acceptable, terms that are offensive will always be thrown around.

    I dont use these terms, but to an extent I do understand it.

    Anyways, love your blog.

    1. The problem with that is that people may not speak up about something that bothers them. And while it may be understood within a circle of people that "gay" and "retarded" as they are used within that circle mean "dumb" or "stupid" the problem is that using those words in that way fosters a mindset that disable people and homosexuals are somehow less than an abled or heterosexual person.

      It's literally saying, "Look at you, you're so bad, just like a (gay/disabled) person."

    2. Furthermore, "will always" and "are okay to do" are vastly different things.

    3. But not even all gay or disabled people take it to mean that. There are some people that WILL mean it that way, but a lot of people don't. It's like saying if each insult were literal, then calling someone - for example - a shithead (one of my favorite insults) would be telling them they have poo on their heads. Obviously, they don't. But that's how insults work - they're just insults, and it's up to the person to decide whether they are actually insulted by it. Personally, I don't want anyone insulted on my behalf - it's not their place to be.

    4. @Henry: By deciding FOR gay/disabled/whatever people that "x is insulting", you're doing the exact same thing in a different manner: fostering a mindset that they're "less" than you, because obviously you know better than they do what is or is not insulting to them.

      Tomaj nailed it when he said he doesn't want anyone insulted on his behalf. By walking on eggshells and freaking out every time anyone says anything that could possibly be construed as an insult to a group you're not even part of, you're not only drawing MORE attention to the differences between that group vs the majority, but you're presuming to decide FOR that group what is and is not insulting.

      I think it's really up to a given group to decide what is and is not offensive to them AS a group. If the majority of mobility-impaired, for example, have no problem with the word "lame" being used to mean "uncool/boring/whatever", why should healthy people get to decide differently on our behalf?

      Frankly, I find it more irritating when people who aren't disabled go all PC about disability-related terms than I do when someone makes a non-PC remark about any of my disabilities. Presuming that disabled people can't speak up for themselves if someone is being insulting is an insult in itself.

  7. Tomaj - the problem I have with your argument ("let's examine why people are hurt") is that folks have a variety of reasons for why a given set of words may or may not be hurtful to them.

    Ableism bothers me particularly because of my medical, family, and social history. These stories aren't stories that I've found the strength to put on the internet, and I don't see why I should write them so that people like you could read them and decide for me whether I have a right to be hurt by ableism or whether I should "grow a thicker skin". More generally, there are lots of people out there who HAVE written their stories and HAVE said this stuff is bothersome and who are you to decide that their pain isn't worth worrying about?

    Rhy - Even when folks share a common attribute (perhaps a particular disability, or just disability, or dudes liking dudes, or whatever), that doesn't mean that their life experiences are all the same and that they'll react the same to things. As I said above, whether you find X or Y to be hurtful is an individual decision, and it should be based on your individual experiences.

    For both of you - there are a ton of stories folks have written about how hurtful this language can be, and I don't see any benefit that we get to using it. If there's no benefit, and there's a risk of hurting folks, I just don't see why you would want to use this sort of language.

    In short, be kind to each other. Why is this even a discussion that we have to have?

    1. Zara - in the same regard, who are you to decide that it is your place to be offended for me, my friends, or a complete stranger? It's just as offensive to say "OMG that's offensive!" when some people want to remove that category altogether.

      Whether it's a discussion that needs to be had, it doesn't make you any more right or wrong than myself or Rhy. I'm telling you that it's NOT OKAY to be offended for someone, either. You don't know how they feel, and it's wrong to try to project YOUR feelings onto someone else.

      Yes, there are people who let it offend them. It's also a conscious decision to let it offend them. So, yes, it's a question of the meta for it being offensive and why it's offensive. TL;DR: Some people are offended because they choose to be (not all, but some).

      Also, I never said it's okay, but I think that taking it to extremes is absurd, especially when you consciously ignore the multiple definitions behind words. In your example, lame. Lame DOES mean unsatisfactory or bad, which is unrelated to having a disability. Trying to use the excuse that using the term is "ableist" is ridiculous at best. It is just as ignorant to ignore that as it is to ignore the possible implications behind it.

  8. Why do you think I've decided for anyone else? Again, ableism bothers me particularly. So I told someone not to @ it at me on twitter.

    1. I agree with the idea of outright discrimination against anyone. However, the word in question was not being ableist. Your taking offense at it on behalf of other people was making that decision that other people should be offended by it, no matter the context or definition of the word. At the moment, it's almost as if you are refusing to see others' point of view on this. =\

    2. What part of "this language hurts me" confuses you? What part involves the feelings of people other than me at all?