Why "I'd Prefer If You Called Us X" Isn't Enough of an Argument in My Book:

On the "handicapped" thread, Trevor Morrison asks:

My mother spent years as an advocate for the disabled. On the basis of her work there, I'm reasonably certain that people actually involved in the lives of the disabled tend to favor "disabled" over "handicapped." Your defense of "handicapped" relies on your account of the word's etymology. So is your position that the formal definition and origin of a word always defines its appropriate usage, or do contemporary changes in usage affect things?

A good question, which I think deserves a detailed answer.

First, let me make clear that I don't think etymology dictates meaning; my post about "handicapped" was a rebuttal to the argument that "handicapped has a pejorative etymology, therefore it's a rude term to use"; that argument, I pointed out, was premised on an inaccurate factual claim. But one can still argue that the term is pejorative even if its original meaning is fairly innocent. Let me also make clear that I don't want to fault anyone for trying extra hard to accommodate what he sees as the preferences of a group or some members of that group; if that's your choice, fine by me.

Rather, it seems to me that the interesting question here is whether people have some sort of good manners obligation to abandon "disabled" for "handicapped," "American Indian" for "Native American," "black" for "African American," and so on. I think the answer is generally no, unless the old term is so commonly used as a pejorative that listeners can reasonably infer that your use of it is pejorative, or possibly if the old term is so rarely used and thus archaic that listeners can reasonably wonder "what does he mean by that?" when they hear it (e.g., "Negro" or "Hebrew" as a noun to refer to Jews). The mere fact that some members of a group, or even a majority of the members of a group, prefer the new term doesn't impose on us an obligation to use the new term. Here are a few reasons why.

1. To begin with, note that Prof. Morrison cites the views not of the disabled generally (a hard group to poll), but of "people actually involved in the lives of the disabled." More precisely, I suspect that he is relying on the views of those people who are "advocates of the disabled" and who are outspoken enough to express their views as to the preference. This may well be a highly unrepresentative sample of the disabled.

Just by way of example, a 1995 Labor Department survey reported that 50% of American Indians preferred "American Indian" and only 37% preferred "Native American"; 44% of blacks preferred "Black" and only 40% preferred "African-American" or "Afro-American"; 58% preferred "Hispanic" and only 12% preferred "Latino" (no separate data was given for "Latino/a"). Matters may have shifted some since 1995, but not vastly; and I'm pretty sure that in 1995, the preferred terms among activists were "Native American," "African-American," and (here I'm less sure) "Latino," yet the actual majority (or, for blacks, plurality) preferences were different. (Source: U.S. News & World Report, Nov. 20, 1995.) Even if I thought that I had some moral or good manners responsibility to use the label preferred by a strong majority of the group, I see no basis for accepting such a responsibility to use the label preferred by a vocal minority, or even half of the group.

2. Moreover, shifting from an old label to a new label is not cost-free. It's not cost-free for the speaker. Sometimes the new term has shades of meaning that aren't quite apt for certain uses, and thus requires extra work to think through. ("African-American," for instance, isn't a racial group, but a racial subset of Americans; it thus isn't always an apt substitute.) Sometimes the new term carries an ideological literal meaning that the spaker may disliks evoking, even when it's fairly clear that he's using the term just as a label and not for its literal meaning. This is clearest for "differently abled" or "Latter-Day Saint" (I have nothing against Mormons, but I prefer not to call them Saints, even with the implied quotes). But it may also apply in other situations, such as with "disabled"; some people may genuinely prefer to stress the handicap (i.e., burden) under which a person labors rather than his disability.

Sometimes the word acquires a connotation of adherence to the ideology that spawned it; the word "womyn" may be the most famous example, though I suspect that these days it's so often used facetiously that people may want to avoid it for that reason as well. Speakers may then resist using the term because they don't want to be seen as proclaiming allegiance to an ideology that they do not adhere to. Sometimes the new term is just clunkier and sounds more stilted to many people; some, I suspect, take this view as to African-American, and I suspect that headline writers are especially unhappy with it.

3. But the more important cost to the speaker is that telling people that they should stop saying certain words, not because those words are likely to be reasonably interpreted as expressing hostility, but simply because some other people dislike those words, is itself something of an affront to dignity and a possible source of offense. Even the good-mannered among us cherish our freedom to speak as we please, and while we try not to be rude (in the sense of slighting others or saying bad things about them), we understandably bristle at being told to stop using this word and start using that one on pain of Being a Bad Person.

A sound explanation that shows why people are reasonably offended by a term (for instance, an explanation to someone coming from Russia, where "black" is insulting much like "yellow" would be, and "negro" is considered the proper scientific term, that in America "negro" is so rarely used that it sounds like a deliberate insult at worst or one of those what-did-he-mean-by-that? archaicisms at best) might soften the sting. But simply saying "most of us like this term, so stop using this other one that you've used all your life" is a legitimate source of offense for those whose speech people are trying to control. It's even more such a source if those people were once taught by then-representatives of the same group that "handicapped" was the better term, and some years later are now told that it's become bad. And it's especially so when the number of forbidden words grows and grows ("rule of thumb," "Chinese wall," "seminal," etc.).

4. On top of that, there's also another substantial cost to the "If you aren't a bigot, stop saying 'handicapped' and say 'disabled' instead" approach: It may actually increase how often the group that one is trying to protect from offense ends up feeling offended.

If handicapped people learn that some people say "disabled" and others say "handicapped," and that neither is evidence of hostility, a few might still bristle at one (or the other); but many will be satisfied by the explanation that decent people use both. But say that everyone is told that "disabled" is the one right term, and some decent people don't go along, whether because of force of habit, strong preference for "handicapped," or just bristling at being told what to say. Then handicapped people who hear the term may well become more offended, because they've been taught that the word is offensive.

People who might even prefer to shrug the term off might feel almost obligated to take it as an insult. If someone calls me "Gene" rather than "Eugene," I'm a little annoyed (that's just not the name I prefer in English), but I assume that it's just because they've fallen into that habit with other Eugenes they know, who do go by Gene in a way that I don't. I assume the speaker's intentions were good, and I think I'm happier for it.

But if someone started a campaign of insisting that calling me Gene is actually rude, perhaps even insulting (because the diminutive implies a diminution of my status), I'd both hear "Gene" a bit less often, and be much more annoyed when I do hear it, precisely because I'll worry that it's a deliberate violation of the New Good Manners Rule and thus a deliberate slight. Those who make the handicapped/disabled issue into a matter of identity politics rather than just a matter of apricot/apricot (or even Gene/Eugene) may thus increase the amount of hurt feelings on both sides.

5. So I think the approach that's more tolerant of speakers, ultimately more likely to avoid offense to the subjects of the speech, and less likely to be subject to the whims of a small minority of activists is generally to tolerate both the old terms and the new terms, and not consider either to be a breach of good manners.

There are exceptions. One, as I noted above, is when one term is so often used pejoratively that reasonable listeners might assume that the current user is using it pejoratively. Another is when the term is so archaic that it will make people wonder whether the speakers must have some ulterior motive in using it (the obvious motive, which is that it's a commonly used term that springs to people's minds naturally, being absent). There may well be others; rules of manners are often not competely simple and crisp. But as to handicapped/disabled, or American Indian/Native American, or black/African American, the let-at-least-a-couple-flowers-bloom approach strikes me as the clearly preferable one.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Handicapped vs. Disabled:
  2. Why "I'd Prefer If You Called Us X" Isn't Enough of an Argument in My Book:
  3. Handicapped:
  4. Picnic:
  5. Tar Baby: