While chairing the TUC Disability Conference this morning one of the staff quietly spoke to me on my use of offensive language. As you might imagine I was mortified and began wracking my brain(s) as to what I’d said to offend someone, or people.
Probably blushing, I asked the official what exactly I’d said that had excited the complaint. “You said, ‘for God’s sake’” she replied grinning broadly. Of course, relieved, I laughed explaining that as a Catholic atheist some vestiges of my formative years of indoctrination had, sadly, stuck with me.
This conversation took place off mike. However, I was a little disconcerted not wanting a protracted off-agenda debate to take place; and asked whether I should apologise. ‘No’, was the response. Just as well really, for I may have apologised by saying “Good Lord. Did I really say that? I’m very sorry.”
This post isn’t an attempt to make light of the fact that language can offend and perceive to be offensive. Had I used ‘thank Christ for that’ or used the term ‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph’, which I often do when expressing my sadness and anger at some act of injustice or another, then fair enough; though, these were the Irish Catholic mild oaths with which I grew up.
They weren’t spoken in order to offend, but rather as an expression of exasperation or even sadness of a given event or happening.
As far as I recall on the issue of ‘disability language’ the only word of contention that I recall from the two-day conference was ‘vulnerable’. Although it was used on several occasions the context tended to be in and around two of the guest sessions, one on disability hate crime and the other was the BlackTriangle FaceBook social networking site.
Language can be a tricky tool; and, in the wrong hands quite dangerous. However, we need to be careful how we get our message across to other people. When someone uses explicitly offensive or hurtful language they need to be pulled up straight away and told they’re out of order.
Tell me, what we do when people use language, which to all intent and purpose is inoffensive, yet different groups within the disability ‘community’ find offensive. An example I’ve come across is ‘disabled people’ versus ‘people with disabilities’ (phrases that I interchange in speech). People have told me off for using ‘vision impaired’ instead of ‘visual impaired’ – I’ve use the former ever since a blind friend of mine objected to the latter on the basis that he regarded ‘visually impaired’ suggested he was ugly; and, he is of the opinion that ‘vision impaired’ is a more accurate description.
Recently, while taking part in a breaking down barriers education course another of the class members complained about the use of politically incorrect language and terminology. Considering we were all disabled and activists, the protestations seemed inappropriate. When challenged all she could come up with was the use of ‘disabled people’ instead of, in her school of thought, ‘people with disabilities’.
At this point I told the tutor that if we’re going to have every single thing we say dissected and politicised that I’d be off. Who wants to take part in a course where one person attempts to gag the majority on what are quite frankly issues of personal preference. Yes, there is a fine line between proper and improper language. And, where it is patently obvious that someone is being offensive, especially in a group of disabled people, in my experience, they’ll be brought to book in double quick time.
As things are with us now, we need, more than ever before, greater engagement with other groups of people under attack by this vicious Tory regime. Whatever alliances we forge must be on equal terms. And for this to happen we’re going to have to educate many people, especially in language and phraseology. My fear is that if we become overly proscriptive with people who wish to join forces with us, we could be in danger of, not so much alienating ourselves, but more putting others on the defensive, scared to say things in case they inadvertently ‘offend’.
So, going back to the ‘god’ expletive; was I the sinner or sinned against?