Another round-up

// 19 June 2008

Are feminists “fine with being bigots if it’s just ableism”? Tekanji over at the Official Blog urges feminists particularly to confront the use of discriminatory language, such as “crazy”, “lame”, “lunacy”, etc.

Muslimah Media Watch considers the way this reporter approached some research on Muslim women in the UK:

Although this report answers many questions about Muslim women in the UK, mainly those within the South Asian community, it leaves us with many more questions about the assumptions and stereotypes of these women in the UK.

Meanwhile, MSNBC is carrying on the sexist and racist attacks on Michelle Obama. This time a talking head implies that she got where she is today thanks to affirmative action – see the video at Michelle Obama Watch.

Associated Press wants bloggers to pay to quote from their news stories. Boing Boing has more on this. The link to feminism? If every news organisation did this, the feminist blogosphere would be severely restricted in its ability to hold to account the media, government, etc:

Welcome to a world in which you won’t be able to effectively criticize the press, because you’ll be required to pay to quote as few as five words from what they publish.

AP’s approach probably breaches fair dealing provisions. However, which blogger do you know that could afford to contest this in a protracted and uncertain copyright case?

Lesbians and bisexual women are at greater risk of self harm, suicide and poor treatment on the NHS. More info at Lesbilicious.

Ammu Joseph profiles the film-making work of a group of women in rural India, tackling issues such as sustainable food production, over at WIMN’s Voices.

Is it anti-feminist to employ a cleaner? Feminist Avatar has a great post which examines some of the reasons why some feminists find the idea uncomfortable.

Condoleezza Rice is at the UN sponsoring a resolution on rape as a war crime. Um, sort of. Actually the word used in the Reuter’s report is “tactic”. Like Jezebel, I’m not sure how much good this does, but at least it’s calling attention to the situation:

Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert, a former U.N. peacekeeping commander, told the meeting: “It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict.”

And finally, some random period stuff. Jezebel linked up this service which emails you when your period is due! Of course, this works best if you’re kind of regular, one presumes. And if being emailed isn’t enough, The Countess recommends something that will make you feel better :)

Comments From You

Mwezzi // Posted 20 June 2008 at 3:06 am

I’m currently testing, and I have the least regular periods in the world. I’ve been trying to predict them for two years, to no avail. It has an algorithm which adjusts with every big of info you add, some people discovered they have alternating cycle lengths. It’s been close the last few times for me – not very precise, but it’s getting closer, and it gives me a bit of warning to start carrying a pad just in case.

Rachel // Posted 20 June 2008 at 5:44 am

Respectfully, I can’t get behind eliminating “ableist” language. Now, I don’t want to make people whose physical or mental abilities aren’t the same as mine, but there are some people for whom “insane” is a fitting adjective. I don’t believe that calling Michelle Malkin “insane” disparages anyone other than Michelle Malkin, and one could certainly make the argument that the word “insane” does not refer to someone whose literal sanity is at a diminished capacity, but rather someone whose rationality is impeded by them being unable to understand the world as others understand it (which is, I might add, a common definition of insanity).

Those with mental illness are not bad. They are not like Michelle Malkin (well, some of them might be). And I simply don’t think it’s justifiable to say “don’t use the ‘crazy’ word, you might offend someone” — yeah, the person you’re calling crazy. Chances are, you’re not going to call someone with a legitimate mental illness “crazy”.

Lindsey // Posted 20 June 2008 at 10:27 am

I was a bit disappointed that the Jezabel commentators instantly dismissed the ableist language articles. Although calling things ‘lame’ is so ingrained in my vocab I hadn’t even considered the connotations until recently that doesn’t mean it’s the best word to use. Now that a lot of people have started to replace ‘lame’ with ‘gay’ which does bother me it makes me question why we need to use it all, and if in the future we’ll look back on it in a similar way to how we now look back on diagnoses of hysteria and feeble-mindedness and casual use of the n-word.

Vicky // Posted 20 June 2008 at 11:17 am

I’m glad to see the f-word highlighting the problematic use of ableist language by feminists. I recognise that it can be difficult to practice – after all, many terms used to denigrate someone or something draw their linguistic power from the fact that they evolved to label and stigmatise marginalised groups – but I’m going to have to disagree with Rachel’s thoughts on the matter. Insane is problematic used in this context precisely because it is being used as a disparaging comment: the power of the term stems from the very real stigma that continues to be attached to mental health problems and using terms like insane or crazy to indicate your low opinion of someone or something perpetuates that stigma. I think if we were to rewrite Rachel’s passage and replace insane with a denigratory term like slag or bitch, and then argue that the term didn’t ‘literally’ denigrate all women but just the target of the insult, we’d all have a problem with it.

As for:

‘Chances are, you’re not going to call someone with a legitimate mental illness “crazy”‘

It should be pointed out that people who experience mental health problems do not tend to go round with a large sign drawing attention to this fact; perhaps Rachel is unaware that around one in four people will experience mental distress at some stage in their lives? I’m not posting this through pedantry, but as a feminist with a research interest in mental health problems I find this attitude difficult.

Winter // Posted 20 June 2008 at 11:53 am

Good links, thanks.

Glad to see the lesbian self harm issue getting some attention too. I’ve come across so many young lesbian and bisexual women who self harm.

Soirore // Posted 20 June 2008 at 12:35 pm

Vicky, I have to say that I agree with Rachel on the use of language. Also I don’t think was ignoring that many people suffer with mental illness only that the words described as ableist cannot be simply defined as . I’ve never heard anyone with mental health issues complaining over the use of words like lunacy as it is something not used by themselves as a group, a term that doesn’t actually apply to mentally ill people, it’s archaic and poetic and not medical or cultural. I agree that words like lame, nutjob and retard are unacceptable as they imply a lack or weakness but it is rather too simplistic to lump all the words together.

Btw I am coming from an informed perspective on mental health issues. Some people may get insulted by some words and some not but it doesn’t mean something is abelist if it belongs to this group. Many of the words used to describe mental illness are not “owned” by that subject and are used in varying ways. For example crazy has a very diverse useage both positive and negative.

Vicky // Posted 20 June 2008 at 3:48 pm

I suppose the problem is that I do only tend to hear insane / lunacy /nutter / psycho etc being used in a pejorative sense, which reinforces the idea that mental health problems are something to be ashamed of. I’d be delighted if I frequently read articles which used these terms in a positive sense, but I don’t.

Admittedly, some people who experience mental health problems do try and positively reclaim works like mad or nutter. But this isn’t what we’re talking about is it? Because people here seem to be asserting that they have the right to appropriate the language and use it as a slur. While I think there is a general recognition that using homophobic or racist or sexist language is unacceptable, people often seem to have a blind spot when it comes to pejorative language which relates to mental health problems. ‘Gay’ has a multifaceted meaning; I still wouldn’t consider that I am entitled to appropriate the word as a term of insult. What grounds do we have as feminists to claim that we are insulted by sexist terms if we throw ‘insane’ around as a term of abuse?

The Countess // Posted 20 June 2008 at 4:04 pm

Thanks so much for the link! Yes, the HItachi Magic Wand does make you feel better. ;)

Jennifer-Ruth // Posted 20 June 2008 at 5:04 pm

On the ablist language post over at Feministe, I thought this was quite a sensible comment:

Soirore // Posted 20 June 2008 at 5:10 pm

I don’t think that I have the right to “appropriate the language and use it as a slur”. I don’t personally prefer to use insane to describe individuals but possibly to say something like “this government policy is insane”. That is very different as it isn’t connected to people. No matter what you say the kind of language used here has not been used to put down and insult people with mental illnesses for years. It does not come from a history of that kind of thinking so it is not the same as racist language like the n word for example. The reason that is so insulting is that it is tied to a system of racist beliefs. The word insane can be referred to people but can also be used to describe ideas unconnected with mental illness. I have a big problem with being told I’m bigotted for using a word in a way that is not, in my view after careful consideration, offensive. It is not being “appropriated” by anyone but being used in a sense that is subtly different. I find it insulting to suggest that these words are as powerful as racist or homophobic hate words.

In terms of crazy, it has always been used for people, ideas and objects. A crazy scarf would be brightly coloured for example and has no connection with any kind of slur. It is perfectly fair for people to say “I’m offended by this language” but this is not what the article was about. In this instance it seems as if language that can be used in a variety of ways has been labelled as “ableist” when it has a far more complex history and useage. I accept that some words are obviously offensive like retard or schizo and would never use them to describe a person but not all the other words fall into the same category.

Denise // Posted 20 June 2008 at 5:47 pm

As Soiroire points out, words like retard and schizo are obviously offensive when used to describe a person – horrifically, chillingly offensive.

I and people I know often say to one another ‘You’re mad!’ That’s not meant to say they’re literally insane, of course, and it can have lots of positive connotations, i.e. you buy someone a spontaneous present and they laugh or smile and say ‘you’re mad’. It can mean zany, forgetful, eccentric, generous, be a term of affection. Or even, ‘that’s a mad colour’ (like Soiroire said about the description of a scarf).

I’m ultra conscious of my language usage and am always eager to have my consciousness raised, as I’d never want to offend anyone, especially out of ignorance. But I honestly don’t believe saying ‘you’re mad’ to someone in the ways I’ve described are offensive. I would feel offended if someone said I was bigoted for using it.

Another thing; I know feminists are not supposed to say ‘lady’, but I was brought up to believe it was more polite than saying ‘woman’. That’s hard to shake. I just read in a novel that ‘lady’ originates from an Anglo-Saxon word ‘lafdig’ which means ‘she who makes the bread’!

Jess McCabe // Posted 20 June 2008 at 6:09 pm

I am still not sure what I think about this – does etymology matter? I’m not sure, but nuts apparently started out life meaning “be very fond of”, while “crazy” seems to originate from “shatter”, and originally referred to any “break down in health”. “Mad” also has the connotation “angry”, but probably it’s obvious from the context whether this is the use.

My instinct is that if people say a word is offensive, it probably is, therefore better not to use it.

Jess McCabe // Posted 20 June 2008 at 6:18 pm

Oh, and as for “lady” being offensive – I think the easiest way to understand why it can be problematic is to think about why it is considered rude to say “woman” – I see it as misogynist, because it relies on the notion that women are so absolutely awful that it is extremely offensive to identify a person as one. And it’s also dodgy in that in identifying a particular woman/women as “ladies”, you’re sort of saying “you’re the acceptable ones!” It’s classist, obviously, as well, given it still carries the connotation of being used to denote women of rank.

Perhaps it should be reclaimed though, for its Old English roots! It’s certainly better than the Anglo Saxon word for woman – “wyf”.

Vicky // Posted 20 June 2008 at 6:23 pm

I probably should explain that I come at this as a historian (study the history of insane asylums and you are left in little doubt as to the original meaning of the word – and you also become quite a bore on the subject, sorry!) I’ve also read accounts of how media appropriation of mad/insane to denote things as ‘bad’ (as well as the more obviously ‘offensive’ terms such as schizo / psycho) has detrimentally affected the lives of people who experience mental health problems, in short by cementing a belief that mental illness is a bad thing, both in their minds and in the minds of their relatives, and I found this upsetting. However, it’s not my intention to rile anyone and I can hardly claim to be perfect – I’m sure that I’ve used other terms in the past which could be construed as offensive. None of us like to think we might be behaving or speaking in a bigotted or offensive manner, but I like to be aware of the possiblity that I might be doing so, however unconsciously.

Soirore // Posted 20 June 2008 at 6:47 pm

“My instinct is that if people say a certain word is offensive, it probably is, therefore better not to use it.”

This is a good point, but many people have commented on the linked threads that they don’t find words like crazy or nuts or mad offensive, it’s certainly not a majority position and one that I don’t hold personally. However, even if I consider such reactions to be misguided and adding to the idea that mentally ill people need to be treated carefully. Even if I find it offensive to compare the language with serious hate language of racism, I guess that it would be the proper thing to avoid using the words. Because some people have decided so.

Denise // Posted 20 June 2008 at 10:50 pm

Take your as usual well-articulated points, Jess. Interesting about ‘wyf”. When I went to live in the Netherlands I was amazed (well, read “‘horrified”) that many people referred to women, even little girls as ‘wijf’ or ”wijfje”. When my neighbour called me ‘wijfje’ I was ready to punch his lights out, but my husband said no, darling, don’t do that, you don’t know the culture here.

EM // Posted 22 June 2008 at 1:40 pm

Vicky said “cementing a belief that mental illness is a bad thing”. Surely every illness, even if the illness itself or the healing process can have positive effects, is ‘ a bad thing’ otherwise we wouldn’t try to treat people.

What’s the point of pretending that being mentally ill a barrel of fun? I really think this thing of avoiding so many words can become unreasonable. I suppose I’ll be accused of reading the Daily Mail too much now but I do sometimes think political correctness goes mad. Take two examples, the Open University Student Association groupe for disabled students until recently preferred to call itself ‘enabled students’ and OU guidelines instructed people to use the expression ‘wheelchair user’ instead of ‘wheelchair bound’ . Now, while some disabled people might choose to use a wheelchair, many really are bound to it and would find the idea that they ‘use’ it like others use a wheelbarrow completely ridiculous.

Vicky // Posted 22 June 2008 at 5:27 pm

EM: I was struck by your choice of the phrase ‘wheelchair user’ as opposed to ‘wheelchair bound’ as an example of ‘pc gone mad’ (the latter a phrase I loathe). After seeing artist and disability rights campaigner Ju Gosling perform ‘wheels of fire’ this change in terminology made a lot more sense to me. Gosling who ‘uses’ a wheel chair would I think be quite furious to be described as wheelchair bound ( a phrase which has rather punitive connotations). She points out that most people who use a wheel chair are not literally ‘bound’ to it (95% of those who use a wheel chair have some ability to walk) and views her wheelchair as a liberating object which makes it easier for her to get around. The phrase wheelchair user reminds us of the agency of the individual who choses to use the chair and helps, I think, turn the discussion from ‘what can’t you do/ how are you disabled’ to ‘how can we remove barriers that disable you’. Rather than say anything more about it (because I’m hardly an expert), I’ll simply link to Gosling’s page on the ‘wheels of fire’ performance:

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