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This article appeared on January 31, 2017 on The Mighty under the title ‘How Comedians Can Stop Using Words That Insult People With Disabilities’
Editor’s note: This article contains language some readers may find offensive.
I have noticed an interesting phenomenon in comedy shows: the more a comedian talks about issues like racism, homophobia or misogyny in their act, the more inclined they are to use language that could be construed as being disrespectful to people with an intellectual / learning disability. It’s kind of like political correctness pic n’ mix.
Fun fact! The terms “moron,” “imbecile” and “idiot” were the classification system for intellectual disability from 1911 until the 1970s. (I figured “fun fact” would scan better than “preachy moment.”) They were ditched from clinical use after they started being used as terms of abuse. They were replaced, respectively, by mild, moderate and severe mental retardation until – you guessed it — the same thing happened with “retarded.” Then someone decided it would be a good idea to use “mentally handicapped,” which some people say has dodgy origins in the idea of begging with “cap in hand.” We’re currently using mild, moderate and severe learning disability in the U.K. and intellectual disability in the U.S.A., but it’s only a matter of time before what Rick Hodges aptly describes as “the euphemism treadmill” spews out another alternative once that becomes corrupted as well. The problem is we never confront the actual problem, which is societal attitudes to cognitive impairment and the idea that IQ is a valid measure of a human being’s worth.
Do I think all you comics hate people with a learning disability? No, I don’t. I freely acknowledge that you’re simply doing what most people do on a daily basis. Learning disability is at an earlier stage in its journey as a civil rights issue than other equality categories, including physical disability. You (hopefully) don’t use “spaz” or “faggot” or “wog” in your shows because we’ve all decided they’re no longer acceptable. Hopefully at some point in the future, we’ll wince at some of the pejorative language connected to learning disability still in regular use today the way we do at other words that were quietly consigned to the dustbin of 1970s light entertainment.
You may argue that asking you to reign in your language conflicts with your freedom of speech. If you’re totally cool with neo-Nazis parading in Charlottesville, I’ll give you that one. If not, consider that you might be applying a bit of a double standard. When you have an audience, you have certain responsibilities. You are setting the tone. You may be unconsciously contributing to prejudice against a vulnerable group, whether you mean to or not. (If you’re wondering how vulnerable, I see that #eugenics is trending on Twitter these days. I kid you not.)
You also have an opportunity. You can confront the current angry snarling soul-destroying negative narrative in a different way. Let’s bring back kind. Let’s bring back respectful. It worked for Gandhi. Let’s not fight fire with fire; let’s fight fire with a nice cup of tea and a custard cream.
Don’t cherry-pick the minority groups whose human dignity you want to defend. Drop offensive language that isn’t really necessary to make your point. The English language is a vibrant, dynamic and adaptable thing. There are so many words you can use that aren’t at the expense of any minority group. You guys are excellent wordsmiths, so why not have a go? If you’re genuinely struggling to think of a snappy alternative, have your people call my people.