Bigotry and ignorance are not “phobias”

A very kind commenter recently pointed out to me that in using that word “homophobic” in my post about eliminating ableist terms from my vocabulary I was in fact (in an unfortunate irony) using an ableist term.

Phobias are, in fact, recognized mental health issues. Homophobia is not, in fact, a phobia, and conflating it with the very real experience of people with phobias is unfair. In many more ways than one. Let me explain.

The primary issue here is, of course, the unfair, incorrect, and damaging impact of comparing people with real phobias to bigots. Mental illness continues to be massively stigmatized, and people with mental illnesses are often portrayed as violent or otherwise inherently and uncontrollably abusive. By suggesting that anti-trans, anti-gay, anti-bisexual, anti-queer, and anti-asexual bigotry are “phobias” we are only contributing the idea that people with mental illnesses are bad people.

But I know that a lot of people are for some reason not convinced by this kind of argument, and think that because “everyone knows” that bi-, homo-, trans-, femme- and acephobia aren’t actually phobias that the use of the same terminology is irrelevant. So let me give you some other reason why it might be useful to avoid using these terms.

Referring to bigots as being “phobic” lets them off way too easy

The rhetoric of bigoted “phobias” carries the inherent implication that bigots can’t help the way they are, and that they can’t change. And, while I actually don’t believe most bigots ever will change, I also think it’s important to remember that the fact that they don’t change is entirely on them, based on a series of choices they make throughout their life (to not listen to other people’s experiences, to care more about their discomfort with learning than about the pain and death of other people, etc.) Bigots are responsible for their own bigotry and absolutely need to be held accountable, always. Calling them what they are (bigots), and calling their ideas what they are (bigoted), calling their actions what they are (bigotry) instead of couching it softly in terms of phobias is a powerful and necessary rhetorical move.

But it does even more than just holding people accountable.

Referring to bigotry as bigotry, and not as a phobia, makes it harder for the folks committing bigotry to derail the conversation

You see it again and again: someone points out that something another person said is problematic, and calls what was said (or the person saying it) ace/bi/femme/homo/transphobic. The person being accused of said “phobia” responds that they are not afraid of the group in question, and that they are therefore not “phobic”. Of course we know that this person knows that’s not what the word means. Of course we all know that no one thinks that anyone was actually referring to a real phobia.

But the conversation is derailed, just like that, and moves into a conversation about what it means to be whatever-phobic. Why give the person in question, the one who fucked up, such an easy out, when it can be so easily avoided? Call bigotry what it is, and close the door to this sort of derailment.

My commitment

All of this is really to say that I am making a personal commitment to no longer use the terms transphobia, acephobia, homophobia, and the like. I will instead refer variously to what is actually happening. There’s actually a plethora of better, non-oppressive, and more precise terms than “phobia” applicable to various incarnations of bigotry or just plain ignorance. Consider:

  • Acephobia may refer to:
    • anti-ace bigotry
    • compulsory sexuality
    • ace erasure
  • Biphobia may refer to:
    • anti-bisexual bigotry
    • monosexism
    • bisexual erasure
  • Femmephobia may refer to:
    • misogyny
    • devaluation of femininity
    • compulsory masculinity
  • Homophobia may refer to:
    • anti-gay bigotry
    • heterosexism
    • gay erasure
  • Queerphobia may refer to:
    • anti-queer bigotry
    • queer erasure
    • heterosexism
    • monosexism
  • Transphobia may refer to:
    • anti-trans bigotry
    • transmisogyny
    • cissexism
    • trans erasure

I mean, just look at the amazing list of more precise terms to refer to different kinds of bigotry and ignorance faced by LGBTQIA folks! There are so many options, and they are all so useful and way more accurate and direct than “phobia”.

I also plan to go back and edit references to phobias out of my old posts, although I currently barely have time to even sit down and write this out, so I’m not sure when I will manage to do that. I simply promise that it will happen.

I will, however, continue to use “phobia” terms in my tags, for indexing purposes. As a librarian, I understand that using the terms that other people use is sometimes important to make information searchable and findable. I am open to the idea of making sure that false phobias don’t turn up in the tag cloud on the right though, if that is potentially harmful or triggering for people. Please let me know if you have thoughts on this!

How I stopped worrying and learned to remove ableist language from my vocabulary

For at least a year, I’ve been making a concerted effort to stop using ableist language in my normal way of talking. This means not saying things like “crazy”, “lame”, “stupid”, “dumb”, and other words that are rooted in current or past ways of describing people with mental and/or physical disabilities.

Ten Easy Alternatives to Common Ableist Language: Say unreal, not insane. Say unbelievable, not crazy. Say jerk, not psycho. Say awful, not stupid. Say bad, not dumb. Say moody, not bipolar. Say ridiculous, not retarded. Say eccentric, not mental case. Say dismantled, not crippled. Say unruly, not mad house. From Upworthy

This has been…. harder than I initially thought it would be. There are a *lot* of words that are rooted in ableist attitudes. And they get used a *lot* in normal day-to-day conversation. So it takes work to stop using them. And I’m not even really there 100% of the time yet. But that’s not what I’m here to tell you about today. I wanted to dig into my reasons for making this change, (and hopefully to inspire at least some people to do the same).

For a long time I was a person who resisted this effort, in part because it was extremely daunting for the reasons described above. But also, I really felt like (at least this is what I told myself) at least some of these words are so far removed form their original ableist roots that they no longer are problematic. When people say something is “lame”, they aren’t meaning that it’s like a person who has trouble walking, right? Language changes, after all.

The thing is, I think that most people who at least dabble in caring about social justice know that this argument doesn’t necessarily hold water. Because most people who care about social justice don’t use the phrase “that’s so gay!” to describe things that they think are silly or absurd or bad. Because we mostly understand that that usage harms gay people (and queer people generally).

The thing is, the people who *do* say that things are “so gay!” will usually tell you that what they are saying has nothing at all to do with gay people. That’s not what that word means to them when they use it in that way. But we still understand that this secondary usage of “gay” is directly connected to the concept that “gay” could be synonymous with “bad”, which is directly connected to the idea that being gay is bad. And it is worth it to avoid perpetuating that implicit idea.

I think the reason a lot of people (me included) have trouble seeing this same connection as clearly when it comes to ableist language is because most of these words have a much longer history of having been used in the colloquial sense to describe bad things, uncool things, silly, absurd, and ridiculous things. And so they connection between them and their roots is no longer felt to viscerally. For many adults today, the usage of “that’s so gay!” is a new thing that has happened in our lifetimes, and is directly connected to the homophobia in our culture today, and that’s why it’s not a linguistic change all of us chose to embrace.

But ableist language is something we grew up with. It has been everywhere, our entire lives. It’s been normalized by literal generations of usage, to the point where we feel not only it’s totally natural and normal and unproblematic, but also somewhat immutable.

And that’s what I thought for a long, long time. But then I realized what it really means that these words have been so deeply embedded in our language for so long that they seem impossible to escape.

The pervasiveness of casual ableism in our language tells us something about how deeply embedded ableism is in our culture. How normalized, how so-very-naturalized that we don’t even notice. We think that that’s just the way things are, just the way things have to be.

This language, when you hear it, when people say it, it communicates something about just how long people with disabilities have been marginalized and oppressed, been considered less than, unworthy, synonymous with all things bad and uncool and ridiculous. The fact that we have been doing this for decades, for generations even, isn’t an excuse.

The fact that we have been doing this for decades and generations should tell you that we are way overdue for a change. It tells a story of generations of pain and oppression. And that should make you care more about stopping it now, not less. Historical ableism shouldn’t get a pass just because it’s old. And you don’t get a pass for saying things just because your parents and grand-parents said them – our parents and grand-parents believed lots of terrible shit, in most cases, and we do our best to be better than that, because we have the tools available to know better than that. We are more connected to more people with different abilities, and we know better than to dismiss them as synonymous this badness, uncoolness, and as worthy of ridicule (which is what ridiculous really means).

Being more thoughtful about the words you use has a lot of great benefits:

  • It can be part of a mindfulness practice that helps you think more consistently about and be more aware of ableism and to give more thought to accommodation and accessibility generally, beyond the language you use.
  • It sends a message to people with disabilities – many of them will notice that the words you use do not put them down, and they will appreciate that. Much like queer folks sometimes decide whether or not someone is safe for them to come out to based on whether they say “that’s so gay!” (even though often times the people who say it aren’t particularly homophobic, it’s impossible to immediately tell the difference between them and the ones who are), people who actually actively care about disability justice will take note of the presence or absence of ableism in your speech.
  • It also means using less euphemistic language a lot of the time, and saying what you actually mean more directly than most ableist language does. I’ve already pointed out the directness of “ridiculous” above. Why ridicule something by declaring it to have a disability of some sort (lameness, dumbness, etc) when you can literally declare it worthy of ridicule?

We can do better. You can do better. So what’s stopping you?

I know it’s daunting. But there is help! Below are some links to resources providing common ableist phrases that you might consider avoiding, as well as lists non-ableist alternatives to those words. Learn some new words! It’s good for you!