Learning to be Skeptical of my Own Use of Language
By Alex Murcia
As we tell stories about the lives of others, we learn how to imagine what another creature might feel in response to various events. At the same time, we identify with the other creature and learn something about ourselves.” (Martha Nussbaum)
The loopholes allowing for legal discrimination against the LGBTQ community and against people with disabilities has been reduced in the past 50 years however there remains a great deal of subtle discrimination against the both communities as only 12 states and DC have laws protecting against discrimination based on sexual orientation and in 2016 the number of bills which sought to limit rights for gay lesbian and transgender people skyrocketed. For those with disabilities, federal law bars employers from discriminating based on a disability however overt discrimination remains very much the norm as employees often fear retribution from employers and are unwilling or unable to take legal action if they experience discrimination. Other concerns include older infrastructure which is not equipped with stairs or accessible curbsides and limits the traveling capacity for some disabled communities
Nonetheless, despite room for serious improvement, I believe overt forms of discrimination will continue to decrease with the help of advocacy groups and the introduction of progressive legislation. However there are other forms of discrimination which are much more insidious, and harder to eradicate as they are often difficult to understand. The remainder of this narrative will be focused on my experience in coming to terms with the notion that our very own language can serve to discriminate against those who are physically or mentally “disabled” and against individuals who do not identify with a gender other than their own. Given that it has been challenging for me to understand how this can take place I hope this narrative, written from the perspective of someone who struggled to understand this idea, helps others who are in the same position that I found myself
I’d like to begin by noting that identifying the exclusive or discriminatory components of language can be incredibly difficult because we can often see language based discrimination as natural or passé. But despite what appears to be the harmlessness of language there are often deep biases hidden below the exterior which can serve to discredit and devalue others. Linda Alcoff in her paper “The Problems of Speaking for Others” writes that when we speak for others and do not take their perspective into account the effect “is often, though not always, erasure and a reinscription of sexual, national, and other kinds of hierarchies.” What this means is that by speaking without understanding the experiences of others we run the risk of dismissing someone’s experiences despite the fact that they may be of value. I agree with Alcoff as not hearing the perspective of members in the LGBTQ and disabled communities speak about these challenges limited my development and ability to understand that language could be discriminatory. But, as we shall see, when I was exposed to their perspective it was much easier to understand how language can marginalize voices communities unable to speak for themselves
In 2015 I watched the film “The Examined Life” directed by Astra Taylor. The film is basically a bunch of interviews with eminent philosophers, it features the likes of Cornell West, Martha Nussbaum, and Judith Butler. When I first saw the movie the Butler interview was particularly striking for me. (Here’s a link to that section of the film).
In the interview Butler speaks with Sunaura Taylor, an activist and artist from Georgia. Taylor during the interview rides in a wheelchair as she was born with arthrogryposis and is unable to walk. Taylor begins the dialogue by bringing up the notion of taking a walk, or what she calls a “ramble.” Butler then proceeds with the interview by asking Taylor about what it means for someone like Taylor to take a walk (40 seconds into the clip). The words stuck out to me as I knew Taylor was physically unable to walk. In effect the rest of the conversation was built on the notion that what it means to “take a walk” is a concept which inherently subordinated the value of Taylor given her inability to physically get up and walk–an activity considered fundamental to to being human. This was a key moment for me as I was finally able to see how language could directly devalue someone as a result of their body or their lack of certain “essential” human traits.
The rhetorical choice which the conversation in the film also focused on was the very word “disabled” as it can also be understood as intrinsically discriminatory given that it connotes that those who occupy the rhetorical space in which we use the word “disability” are seen as less than able and therefore less valuable and less human.
Throughout the remainder of the interview Butler and Taylor address the ways in which queer people and people with “disabilities” have been marginalized by today’s society. For example Taylor notes that people with disabilities are excluded from certain types of housing or employment because they are unable to do things like climb stairs. Likewise Butler talks about how members of the LGBTQ community are subject to discrimination simply because of what they do with their body parts.
But despite this focus on overt forms of discrimination which characterized the remainder of the interview I was captured by the notion that even every day words like “walk” or “disability” could function to exclude some members of society from a definition of being human. Suddenly it was so clear to me that I had to be very skeptical about my use of language and the way in which exclusion of certain voices can lead to concepts which actively continue to exclude or devalue those voices. Likewise hearing from individuals who have experienced marginalization can serve to benefit individuals who are perhaps more privilege than others hearing the voices of marginalized peoples to bring to light social problems which are glaring to some but often difficult for others to understand.
In terms of this blog and the notion of making english a more diverse and accessible language this film gave me the tools to really understand the dangers which can come from one speaking for a community which is disenfranchised without taking in to account the perspectives in that community. In all I think this film also gave me the chance to look at myself and approach my own rhetorical choices with an internal skepticism which was largely absent beforehand–I hope my experience coming to this understanding can help inform my poems for the final project. I expect it will. I think the biggest takeaway for me, from this project will be the knowledge to limit myself, to be careful in what I say and how I say it. It may push my poetry to become more abstract so as to prevent inadvertent harm but it will also help it mature and perhaps reach the broadest audience it can.