I’ve been writing about the word “midget” more than usual this month, thanks to an Irish public service announcement and then GoogleTranslate. The taboo nature of the word in the dwarf community is almost amusing when we consider that the world’s largest dwarf advocacy organization, Little People of America, was originally named Midgets of America. No lie. (You can read about why I feel that the change was hardly an improvement here and why others do as well here.)
Minority names have been changing a lot throughout the last century. This social pattern has been dubbed the Euphemism Treadmill by psychologist Stephen Pinker. Toni Morrison has pointed out that it’s all about power: “The definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them.” But as names for minorities keep changing, many laypeople keep complaining about the seemingly convoluted nature of of it all:
“Can’t they just stick to a name and be done with it?”
“Why should I have to be careful if they’re going to be so capricious about it?”
“It seems like they’re just looking for us to slip up so they can call us out!”
It’s not hard to understand where this frustration comes from. No one likes being accused of insensitivity for using a word they had thought was in fact accurate and innocuous. But rarely does anyone ask why the names change.
In 2010, President Obama signed Rosa’s Law, classifying “intellectually disabled” as the official government term to describe what in my childhood was referred to as “mentally retarded.” “Mentally challenged” and “mentally impaired” were other terms suggested and used in PC circles in the 1990s. Already I can sense a good number of my readers wondering whether these changes were truly necessary. I can also sense, however, that few would wonder whether it was necessary to abandon the terms “idiots,” “morons,” and “imbeciles” to refer to such people.
“Idiot,” “moron,” “imbecile,” and “dumb” were all medical terms before they were insults, used by doctors and psychologists across the Anglophone world. But gradually laypeople started using them to disparage any sort of person they disagreed with. And now this is their only purpose. Instead of getting all of us to stop using these words as insults, the medical minorities have stopped accepting them as official names.
The names for psychiatric disorders and developmental disabilities are particularly prone to being re-appropriated by the mainstream to describe behaviors and tendencies that barely resemble the diagnoses. “Sorry, I wasn’t listening,” I once heard a colleague apologize. “I have such ADD today.”
“I think you’re becoming pretty OCD,” quipped a friend upon perusing my books, which are strictly organized by size.
“That movie kept going back and forth. It had no point! It was so schizophrenic.”
For over 10 years now, psychiatric researchers and patients have been working to abandon this last one. Using “schizophrenic” to describe anything that oscillates between two opposing views or behaviors can easily lead to widespread ignorance about the intricacies of the condition. “Psychosis susceptibility syndrome” is one proposed replacement, but the ubiquity of “psychotic” in common parlance may prove to be equally problematic. “Salience syndrome” was the term most preferred by patients participating in a survey at the University of Montreal and was published in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013.
This is the choice we have about labels for minorities: We either stop using minority labels to insult people, or get used to minorities asking us to use different labels to refer to them.
But if only it were that simple. Getting people to abandon marginalizing terms for minorities without fighting about it is as difficult as the word “political correctness” itself. There are two reactions all too common in any given conversation about political correctness and they both invariably botch the conversation:
- Libertarian Outrage: “You can’t tell me what to say! I can call anyone what I wanna call ’em and it’s their own fault if they’re upset!”
- Liberal Outrage: “I’ll humiliate you for using an old-fashioned term because PC is all about competition and it feels cool to point out others’ faults.”
Both reactions are based on a refusal to listen and a readiness to assume the worst of the other side. Plenty of anti-PC outrage is fueled by the belief that any discussion about names and language is hot-headed and humorless, and plenty of liberal bullying is fueled by the belief that honest-to-goodness naiveté is as morally objectionable as outright hostility.
Political correctness is not a competition, and if it were, it would be one that no one could win. A human rights activist may be an LP with SAD who is LGBTQIA and know exactly what all those letters mean, but they may not know that “Lapland” and “Fräulein” are now considered offensive by the people once associated with them. And it’s less likely they know about the taboo term in German for the former Czechoslovakia.
And as someone who’s spent her life having to decide how she feels about “midget” and “dwarf” and “little person,” I can tell you that attitudes are far more important than labels. Because even if the word often matches the sentiment, this is not always the case. There’s a difference between the stranger who told my father when I was a kid, “She’s an adorable little midget!” and the coworker who told my cousin recently, “The best thing about Game of Thrones is getting to laugh at that midget!”
I will always prefer to have an in-depth discussion with someone about the meaning of dwarfism than to call someone out for using a certain word. I will always prefer to hear someone earnestly ask me how I feel about a certain word than witness them humiliating someone else for uttering it.
Too often these discussions are diluted down into simple lists that start to look like fashion do’s and don’ts, and this is perhaps the gravest insult to the noble intentions of those who kick-started the PC movement. As one progressive blogger pointed out years ago in The Guardian, her lesbian parents are firm supporters of trans rights and, up until recently, used the word “tranny” without any idea that it is widely known among trans people as a pejorative. Too much sympathy for the couple’s ignorance could be harmful. When the mainstream insists that no one should be expected to know about newly taboo terms for minorities, it implies that no one should be expected to be listening to the human rights conversations that are going on about these groups. But conversely, too little sympathy for sheer ignorance is equally unproductive.
Because bigotry is not ignorance. As a wise man said, bigotry is the refusal to question our prejudices.