About words and how they matter

Lately I have been commenting a bit on MarkReads and MarkWatches. I’ve been lurking for a while, but now I’m getting more involved. (Mark is someone who reads books and watches tv-series for the first time and reviews them per chapter and episode. Right now he’s doing LOTR and Buffy.)

On those sites there is a strict rule not to use any kind of slur, which is a good rule because it makes people like me think about what slurs are. There are some words that I’ve never thought of as slurs included in the policy, most notably ‘crazy’  and ‘lame’. I like to think my English is very good, but clearly there are still meanings of words that get lost because I’ve never connected them with where they come from. ‘Lame’ is a word I’ve only ever come across used as a negative qualifier to an action or object. “Dude, that’s so lame!” To me it has always meant something akin to ‘boring’, because it is used that way all over the internet. I don’t recall having ever seen it used as a derogatory term specificly to people with a disability.

So when I came to Mark’s sites for the first time and read about that, I thought it to be a bit silly, but hey, his site, his rules. And then I started to read his reviews and the comments and in them I found talk about a lot of issues that made me think about these words and what they mean. It wasn’t until I thought about the literal translation of ‘lame’ to it’s Dutch counterparts (lamme, kreupel) that I truly realised how unkind the use of it can be, and how the use of it in a different context can be hurtful to people who’ve had it used against them as a slur. In Dutch ‘lame’ is never used as a substitute for ‘boring’.

I’m coming at this from an ignorant position. I don’t have any disability, so understanding how it feels to face such discrimination is not something that comes naturally to me, I have to work at it. (Let’s face it, I’m a white, straight woman who’s never been poor. If it wasn’t for sexism I would be as far out of my depth here as is humanly possible.)  I don’t even know many people with disabilities other then my deaf brother and his deaf friends. I can try to understand why words like ‘lame’ and ‘crazy’ can be hurtful by equating it with the horribleness of people saying ‘doofstom’ in Dutch, literally deafstupid. In English it sounds incredibly weird, like, why would you ever call someone something like that? But in Dutch it’s not that simple. ‘Doof’ = ‘deaf’, ‘stom’ can mean ‘stupid’, but it also means ‘mute’. That in itself is such a big problem! In my language people literally are saying that ‘mute’ and ‘stupid’ are the same. This is not okay, and saying ‘doofstom’ means you are also equating deafness with being mute and with being stupid.

This makes me rage so hard. My brother is not stupid, and his deafness does not make him so. The same goes for his wife. Neither of them are mute, they have the use of their voices. A deaf persons voice may sound strange to your ears because they can’t hear themselves, and they can take some getting used to. Even though, thankfully the use of the combined word ‘doofstom’ is lessening (I haven’t come across it in ages, in part because the deaf people I know have been very vocal about how that word is not okay), I still feel the attitude of hearing people toward deaf ones can be horrible. My brother and his wife are two of the most communicative people I know. They put in so much effort to connect, and to me that is a beautiful thing. Having hearing people shy back because to them deafness is weird and other and they don’t know how to deal with it is hurtful. Yes, it takes some extra effort to communicate with someone who’s deaf, and that’s hard especially when you’ve never had to do it before, but they are people and therefore worth that effort.
I realise that most people don’t know how to react when someone in their surroundings turns out to be deaf, because they don’t really understand. It’s ignorance on their part just as me using the word ‘lame’ in the past was ignorance on my part. But it’s sometimes hard to not get angry and to keep patiently explaining to other hearing people that interacting with a deaf person isn’t scary and how it’s okay to put in extra effort. Or how it’s totally not surprising that my hearing nephews sign to their deaf parents and speak Dutch to their non-deaf relatives. They’re just like every other child who grows up bilingual. If you’re not surprised that a child of immigrants speak their parents language at home and the country’s language in school, why are you surprised  that my nephew can both use Dutch Sign Language and spoken Dutch? I can barely comprehend that there are people who don’t realise that Dutch Sign Language is you know, an actual language!

That’s what it’s all about, language and how we use it. Languages are living things, they evolve and change and get influenced by each other. How we use words changes over time, it’s a natural process. But it is important to remember where words come from, and what has been their meaning and history. It’s very possible for one specific word like ‘crazy’ to mean vastly different things to different people based on their own history (for someone who has to deal with mental health issues it can be painful) and we should not lose sight of that. Especially when it comes to situations very different from our own. It’s hard to understand when something falls far outside our own comfort zone, but that is when we have to try the hardest.

I learn a lot about life experiences so very different from my own by reading Mark’s posts and the comments made by very many people. We are united in loving certain books and tv-shows, but everybody picks up on different things that resonate with their own experience. I think this is one of the best things about the internet.