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Monday 17 May 2021

Changing Words is Hard

 Using the right words is not especially easy. I should know; I help people do that for a living. I also try to make words do things to say stuff and express my feelings. 

Content warning: I allude to slurs in this piece, citing a couple of them, and also discuss ableism.

Sometimes those feelings are angry, contemptuous, dismissive, or that sort of thing. It's useful to have ways to belittle or express aggression towards people - say, for political reasons, or to express helplessness, fear; there's a constellation of reasons to embrace both negative emotions and negative communication. 

When that happens, it's easy to reach for words like "idiot," "moron," "stupid," and other things. But the origins of these words and their deployment in modern speech is often against people with disabilities - or those perceived as inferior. In the same way as calling someone "blind" to express that they're actually being stubborn, making a bad decision, or deliberately ignoring something is actually inaccurate, it also demeans people with visual impairments. 

There's been a popular push to stop using slurs - first and most easily, of course, is the n word (with or without a hard r on the end; if you don't know which word "the n word" is, you're probably beyond my help). The word "retard" and "faggot" are also falling out of use, and have been for the better part of a decade, for good reason. The latter and the n word are used rarely and in acts of reclamation by particular communities - but that's a different matter, and not one that requires policing - least of all, by a white woman, even a queer one. 

The type of language I'm talking about encompasses more than the most infamous slurs, though - it includes more ordinary words, which can easily pass unnoticed for those unaffected by particular traumas.

Why bother?

This probably sounds like needless nitpicking - I'll be honest, I've had that exact thought in the past - but the way we use words and language shapes the way we think. More educated people than myself have talked about this at length.

Although I have sometimes grumbled about this very topic, it ultimately aligns with my principles to avoid ableism and try to reshape my language. One can have a bit of emotional attachment to words - the sharp slap and sting of particular insults and curse words is very pleasing and useful. But what are humans if not innovators? It's one of our primary advantages as a species.

Sometimes it's also useful to reach backwards and time and see if there's anything to offer - generations of teachers have made use of this particular list to engage students' attention, and frankly, it works pretty darn well. Some of these do definitely fall in the "derogatory language" pile, insulting perceived intelligence and whatnot, but a lot of them are pretty darn fun, satisfying, and useful. 

Who cares about this? 

A lot of people, actually. I'm far from the first person to talk about it, but I thought bringing my own perspective to things - and being honest about my own limitations in adopting better language - might benefit some people. I've peppered references and links throughout my essay, as usual, but a quick search of ableist language on Google will reveal millions of hits and articles. A lot of people care about this.

The fact of the matter is, existing with a marginalization or multiple marginalizations makes the world feel like a hurricane of gravel. One gets inured to the storm, but that doesn't mean one's tolerance for pain is endless or infinite. And if we can reduce that careless pain for others - and refine the precision of our own language, expressing more in the process - is there really a downside? Sure, there's some inconveniences, and it's not always comfortable to examine our own internalized prejudices, but the benefits ultimately outweigh the costs. Yes, it's more work. Yes, it's uncomfortable. But not watching friends' shoulders tense up after a casually-deployed slur is rewarding.

Is this censorship?

In a word, no, but let me explain why. First of all, the process of censorship refers to government or organizationally-sanctioned or rejected terminology. In addition to the fact that different groups will reject and accept particular terminology - for instance, conservative groups tend to avoid queer-affirming language when they discuss things like anti-trans legislation - the intent here is to provide tools for anger that do not cause additional harm. 

There is a strong difference between internally rejecting the use of something and being forced to do so by an external body or power. Choosing the words we use is very different from being told we can't use particular words. 

Interestingly, none of the sources or sites or people I've talked to about this issue were against swearing; neither did they express a refusal to tolerate emotional anger or angry expressions. 

To provide yet another comparison, it's a bit like using a focused attack rather than an area-of-effect attack in Dungeons and Dragons - to quote a common internet witticism, "an arrow may have your name on it, but a fireball is addressed 'to whom it may concern.'" Why use a fireball, and risk the chance of friendly fire damage, when we can precisely target our opponent or the source of our frustrations? 

I certainly can't think of a good reason to casually inflict harm on people I care about, and if I can insult someone just a little better, it's going to be more satisfying. 

Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer and editor. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partner-in-crime and their cats. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and learning too much. She is currently working on other people’s manuscripts, the next books in her series, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.
Find her all over the internet: * OG Blog * Mailing list * Magpie Editing * Amazon * Medium * Twitter * Instagram * Facebook * Tumblr * Paypal.me * Ko-fi

Tuesday 11 May 2021

During Disasters, Life Can Still Crash

I have not been okay lately. 

In late March, a dear friend's husband passed away. In April, I almost had the chance to acquire a home - something rare for Millennials and even many Gen Xs - but due to family reasons, it fell through. Then friends' pets kept passing away or getting very ill. As mentioned a few times here, I have thanatophobia, a rather unpleasant phobia of death. In addition to being pretty empathetic and caring about my friends, this was all rather hard. My co-author and dear friend's Greater Swiss Mountain Dog also died rather suddenly, and despite our locational differences, it was rather hard. 

Normally, I like to present a clever conclusion or a flourish of words, a solution or suggestion that might benefit people both individually and at large. I'm not sure I have one of those today. Despite the fact that vaccines are rolling out in rich countries, my own included - I got my first shot of Pfizer yesterday - this pandemic is not going to be over any time soon. In addition to personal struggles, the world is in the middle of a very prominent and unavoidable crisis. 

Instead of trying to fix it, something beyond my power, all I can say is that it is time to learn how to accept things being not okay. It's not just the serenity prayer bit about accepting what you can't fix, changing what you can, and knowing the difference. It's about understanding the scale of this situation, and also the value in merely enduring and surviving. In order to do both of those, I know that I personally have to adjust how I talk, as well as what I say.

What's wrong with me

It's not just about diagnoses or individual situations; it's about the way life continues on after a situation ends, or changes. Just because the initial situation of harm is over doesn't mean that the after-effects vanish instantly. 

After talking to local friends and online friends, I can say this - making room to just not be okay is extremely important and valuable. Furthermore, though, not trying to perform happiness or okayness or tranquility is extremely important. It's so easy to just shove those feelings in a box or hide them from others or just not talk or be present when one is in a bad place. I don't just mean this in a cute, self-care-y kind of way; I mean it in the "getting by day-to-day" way. Personal and international ongoing crises are persisting, and they will persist after the pandemic - and the culture I've grown up in is particularly ill-equipped to handle that. So I find myself trying to make a better way, and sometimes grappling with direct lacks and absences in my frame of reference.

Do words really matter for therapy? 

Although we can't change the pandemic directly, there are unhealthy, dangerous, and unhelpful thoughts that we can challenge. After all, one can talk about society and culture - but we are also part of society and culture, and what we change in ourselves is a gift we can offer to others. Being able to destroy social constructs we've internalized, and which are harming us, is useful. 

A friend of my counterpointed, "but shouldn't we just say 'fuck society' and get on with our lives?" 

The problem with that is that we carry society with us. There's so many little tiny things and rules that I picked up to survive, and I know other people have learned the same. So if I can build forge tweezers from the stuff in my soul - I'm gonna hand them to someone else when I'm done. Sometimes you gotta pry ideas out of yourself like the head of a tick lodged in skin.

There's a good side, though - I am not alone, and neither are you. Humanity's greatest gift and weapon is our requirement for others. We are social animals, and although Rousseau and many others saw other people as our chains, chains can also be used to pull something out, not just hold it down. 

Some chains must be broken. Others can be forged. The work does not end, but new works can still begin. 
Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer and editor. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partner-in-crime and their cats. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and learning too much. She is currently working on other people’s manuscripts, the next books in her series, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.
Find her all over the internet: * OG Blog * Mailing list * Magpie Editing * Amazon * Medium * Twitter * Instagram * Facebook * Tumblr * Paypal.me * Ko-fi