Monday, 20 January 2014

Just a Word

I have decided that a lot can be determined by a person’s choice of magazine. Or more the way that they read it.  There’s the brazenly open gossip mag readers, full of confidence, holding it up fully unfurled, elbowing you on the train.  Then there’s the secret folder-overs, who don’t want you to see the trashy title and swing between glee and shame in equal measure (that’s me if your wondering). 

I’m having a bit of an observational week you see.  I entirely blame the BBC for this.  ‘Sherlocking’ has become my game of choice whilst travelling to medical appointments on the tube.  Only all I have really determined is that a lot of people like the horoscopes in The Metro, most people travelling to the city on a Monday morning have a hangover and no one likes being stared at. (Although I’m fairly sure the guy by the door was an international criminal mastermind.)

But this has made me aware of my own choice of magazine, nowhere more so than at the hairdressers.  Now really…if I’m reeaaalllly honest I am just itching to read Closer or Heat.  Actually, that’s a lie, I even get a fair bit of entertainment from a good ‘I was impregnated by an Alien whilst watching Jeremy Kyle’ story from the three word titles (Pick Me Up, Take A Break…take your pick).  However, with someone hovering above me it, it all just feels a bit shallow and so at my most recent visit  I steered clear of the gossip mags (I say that Iike I go to that hairdressers a lot – it is actually a count-down-the-days-hope-they-are-busy-and-it–takes-a-while rare treat these days) No, instead this time I fully accepted that I am no longer in my twenties (it took me a couple of years to come to terms) and I opted for a health title.

The reason that I picked it up was the lead story.  They were running a story on autism.  It was a positive story about people with high functioning autism in the workplace and their successes.  I was reading away, thinking how nice it was to see disability presented in such a positive light, when I suddenly found myself prickle.  I read a word and jarred.  I don’t know why, but it made me feel uncomfortable.  In fairness to the magazine, it was taken from a quote, but in this quote, the phrase ‘autistic’ had been turned from a description into a noun.  It was referring to people as ‘autistics’.  Now let me be quick to state that I know very little about autism or the associated community, for all I know this is a completely acceptable term.  However, reading it with no background knowledge, it seemed to take the person out of ‘person with autism’.  To make the medical diagnosis the whole.  I quickly realised my hypocrisy on this - see I think nothing of describing my son as a ‘swan’ (standing for syndrome without a name), which does exactly the same thing. However, what makes it acceptable, is that it has come from within the disabled community.  It is a positively determined marker, something to give us a sense of belonging.  I think it is so important that language referring to people with disabilities comes from within those communities – and I sincerely hope that this term for people with autism is one that is owned by that community, rather than one that has been forced upon it.

But all of this has got me thinking a lot about language recently.  About the importance of language and the implications of its misuse.

It has really got me thinking about one word in particular.  A word that I have seen pop up completely innocently on friends social media feeds more than once in the last few months.  Usually in the comments section, where friendly jesting and joking has got to a fever pitch.  That’s when it gets unleashed.  The single most offensive word to people with learning disabilities.  Eek. - That’s a bit of a shocker.  Only nobody bats an eyelid.

I know what you are thinking.  Oh god…she’s not.  Really?  She’s going down this route?  You may be shifting your weight a little uncomfortably wondering if you really want to read on, or if it’s all going to get a bit GSCE Sociology meets a ‘we’re all the same, but different’ Disney script.  Fear not – I’m not here to lambast or rant.  I’m not going to get all ideolised and start printing slogan t-shirts. No…I just want you to think.  And yes, I know that I am probably the gazillionth person to blog on this topic, but that just demonstrates the importance.  Whether it is a term you have used, or one you wouldn’t dream of saying, the fact is that it does get used.  A lot.  And that means there is a lot to think about.  Only there appears to be less of a requirement to think in recent years.

You see, the worlds gone a bit mad on ‘PC gone mad.’  According to the press everything is too politically correct.  Certain newspapers relish a good story on those crazy liberals and their crazy language issues (…oops, better not say crazy.) I remember reading a story about a lollypop lady who wanted to dress as a large chicken for Easter.  The council objected and the story in the newspaper led with ‘PC GONE MAD!’  Well, erm, actually no.  The council’s objection was on the grounds of health and safety.   Her high visibility uniform wasn’t visible (which is kind of the point) and human size lollypop waving poultry is fairly distracting for even the most alert of drivers.   The council were not suggesting that her attire was deeply offensive to chickens, or insensitive to birds (who let’s face it don’t tend to do well with cars).  I was slightly disappointed.  I really wanted her to have a valid argument around political correctness and to start a movement of people headed to work dressed as animals  The thought of a stockbroker throwing his briefcase to the ground whilst screaming ‘it’s just PC GONE MAD’ at his boss when asked to remove his rooster outfit was just too good.  Sadly it was not to be…

So let me start by clarifying that I am not one of the PC brigade.  I certainly have no issue with words being used in their correct context.  In fact, I am just going to say it.  Retarded.  It is a word.  It has a correct use.  It literally means delayed.  Retarded growth is a correct use, retarded time even exists in physics and, as much as it makes me want to cry, mental retardation is, or at least was a medical term.  Although it is rarely used now.  Where I take issue is when the word is colloquialised.  When it is taken from an adjective to a noun.  No matter how jovially it is used, there is no doubt that ‘Retard’ is a put down.  It’s a word that implies superiority over another.  It reeks of subjugation.  No matter how casually it is meant, every utterance perpetuates its use.  And its existence impacts upon thousands of us.  It impacts my son, it impacts my family and it means that one day I am going to have to be a liar.

To understand that impact, I think it is a word that has to be talked about.  You see, the people who I have seen write and heard say this word would never dream of causing offence.  They would never use offensive language about other minority groups, yet for some reason, this word persists.   (to clarify – I’m not angry and I understand why you would think it is acceptable – society tells you it is).  Now I know some people will be thinking ‘what’s the big deal?  It’s just a word.’  Only it isn’t.

Language matters.  It really matters.  It Martin Luther King had just had ‘a vague musing’, it wouldn’t have been the same resonating, socially impacting statement now would it?  And yes, there are lots of words and names given to people in jest.  Lots that get banded around.  But there are some words that mean so much more.  They are the words that have a terrible history.  I have been wondering what marks a word as being unmentionable. What takes it from casual slang to a complete no-go.  Where the line is drawn.  Sadly, I think it is a line that is pencil marked by suppression and contempt.  Then permanent markered over when that contempt leads to violence.

Woah, you may be thinking.  That’s a bit heavy.  It’s just a little word for goodness sake. isn’t.  There have been several high profile cases of violence against people with learning difficulties, all of which I find to upsetting to detail. According to statistics from Mencap’s ‘Stand By Me’ Campaign, as many as 9 out of 10 people with a learning disability have been a victim of hate crime and bullying.  Ninety percent.  Just think about that number.  Ninety percent facing offensive slurs and bullying.  Just think about that statistic for a minute.  Think about what it means to the disabled community.  Think what it means to disabled people and think what it means to parents like us.  Because no matter what I do, no matter how ferociously I protect, basic maths tells me that one day my precious little boy is likely to fall in that ninety percent.

And I wonder.  When I see or hear that word, I wonder how it will happen. When someone chooses to use that particular turn of phrase, my stomach flips and I begin to question how it will happen. How he will first hear it. How old he will be. Will he understand? Will I be there, or will he be alone, his little blue eyes filling up with tears?  Will I wipe them from his cheek when he comes home?  Will he ask me how people can be so cruel and unkind?  Will I have to lie?  Probably.  I will have to look my little boy in the face and tell him an outright lie.  Tell him it doesn’t matter. 

I’ll have to tell him that ‘It’s just a word.

But it isn’t.  It means so much more.  It is a word that cannot be re-claimed by its own community.  Not fully.  And for that reason it will never cross fully back across the line into acceptable language.  Not for me.  Yet is a word that persists in popular culture.  That even wheedles its way into Hollywood movies and that inexplicably gets passed as a slur between the two teenage girls on the bus as they insult each other’s shoes.  No matter what the context, it is a word that has roots in the harassment of one of the most vulnerable communities.  It’s really quite ironic that it has persisted to be honest.  Because that community is one that each and every one of us could join at any point, without any control over it.  In fact many of us will.  The only thing any of us knows for certain is that we will get older.  And with medical advances many of us will live for longer than we ever expected.  If you feel confident that you’ll be exiting stage right with all of your faculties intact, then you are more of an optimist than me.

So if you have read all the way through this and you still don’t see what my problem is.  Then that’s fine.  All I said was that I wanted you to think about it.  If you see no issue with the use of that word, then, ok.  Fair play.  You read this far and I thank you for that. 

All I’ll ask is one last thing.  One final moment of musing.  Forget everything else I have written, everything else I have said.

And imagine it’s your child.

Then tell me it’s still just a word.