Treading on eggshells

How far should we go to avoid the hypothetical possibility of offending someone? The other day, I came across a video posted on the disability group blog FWD/Forward in which members of the Disabled Young People’s Collective, based in North Carolina, give examples of derogatory terms used on people with disabilities (and also mental illness), recount facts from disability history, and then deliver a rap about self-advocacy. FWD/Forward gave a visual description of what appeared in the video. I noted that the lady who appeared in one scene was the blogger who calls herself Cripchick, and suggested that they should have pointed out that this was a woman. The person who posted the article replied that she felt uncomfortable describing people as such without knowing whether the subjects identified as men or women (although, in the case of Cripchick, she definitely does identify as a woman). You can see the video here or at the FWD/Forward post.

The thing is that identifying someone as a man or a woman is normal human behaviour. Any time you were relating an incident involving a person of either sex, you would say he said this or she did that. In the case of a woman, she would not have to be dressed in what you would consider an ultra-feminine fashion (I used the example of Nanci Griffith circa Last of the True Believers, but you may have your own stereotypical example) for you to identify her as a woman. When I told them that, the poster replied that, even though she normally does the same, here she was “trying to not assume that so much as it so often erases non-binary people”, while another team member said, “you’ve no idea how cissexist and binary-normative what you’ve written is, do you?”.

I should explain here that the prefix “cis-” when applied to gender means that the person is on their respective usual side of the gender gap, i.e. a man or a woman who is born into their sex and remains there, as opposed to a transsexual or intersexed person or someone who has some kind of androgynous or “genderqueer” identity, which includes at least one of the regulars at that blog. So “cissexist” means anything that marginalises non-traditional gender identities. This isn’t the time to cast aspersions on the validity of such identities, other than that I make no apologies for calling someone a man or a woman unless they object.

The whole purpose of written explanations of videos is that they fill visually-impaired or hearing-impaired people on details they might have missed. Someone’s sex is among the first things any sighted person notices about another person, and while you can only include so much on a description of a video (nobody is suggesting that they include whether the trees behind them were ash or plane or horse-chestnut or whatever), and it wasn’t directly relevant to what the young people in the video were saying as they were not talking about their own disabilities (“Cripchick” is a wheelchair user, but was talking about Down’s syndrome, for example), it seems strange to write a description of a video for the benefit of visually impaired people, and leave out what most people would consider an important fact about the people in the video, sacrificing a group of readers who have a disability to an obscure scruple of gender politics. I asked a blind friend her opnion (this was not Ginny, but is indeed a woman), and she said she could usually tell from someone’s voice whether they were male or female, but sometimes had to ask. If this wasn’t really important, why would a blind person bother to ask?

I have no idea how many people there are whose identity is not male or female. I am aware of transsexuals or transgender people, who want to identify with the sex other than the one they were born into, and intersexed people whose physical reality does not fully conform to one sex or the other. Most of the latter do in fact identify with one sex or the other, usually depending on what their condition is (people with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome and those with ambiguity stemming from Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia usually identify as female, while those with Kleinefelter’s usually identify as male, for example). The number who simply don’t identify one way or the other, other than perhaps for a “bottom line” for official purposes, cannot be that many. It cannot be nearly as many as the number of visually impaired people.

Besides which, the idea of gender as binary is probably comforting to more people than it supposedly “erases”. Nobody can take it away from someone like a relative of mine that she’s a woman because her breasts didn’t grow as much as they supposedly should have done. Nobody can take it from me that I’m a man because I don’t fit their definition of masculinity (as one or two people have tried to over the years). Nobody can take it from someone who is infertile, or who cannot feel the parts of the body that identify them as male or female due to a spinal cord injury, that they are indeed a man or a woman. One of the women in the video (the blind lady at 0:37) is an apparently African-American woman who obviously looks female, but might not fit a traditional definition of feminine, and it has been common to cast aspersions on the femininity of Black women. Perhaps some might feel insulted that they might be presumed “genderqueer” rather than affirmed as the women they appear to be. Of course, it’s not insulting to call someone a person, but perhaps a young woman might appreciate being called a woman, rather than a girl, and being distinguished from her male peers rather than lumped in with them. It is ironic that they even do this to a blind woman, in a description of a video for the benefit of visually impaired people.

However, that is the attitude which prevails over at that website: the notion that it is necessary to tread on eggshells (or at least, outsiders have to do so) to avoid offending anyone, or inadvertently provoking someone to take offence on behalf of someone else. It seems so easy to cause offence with those people (or to be told one is causing offence, or might be); I’ve been told that using the word “female” as a noun is somehow dehumanising (they did not mention using “male” as a noun, although it wasn’t used in that discussion, but nonetheless I don’t object to it and have never heard anyone objecting). They also demand that words which could in any way be interpreted as referring to physical disability or infirmity of any sort be weeded out of the language, as if comparison and figures of speech were not part of every language, and as if people will not compare things going wrong with anything to things going wrong with our own bodies. They overlook it, of course, when the language is used by disabled people themselves, even when talking about conditions other than their own. After condemning “hysterical” in their “ableist word profile” series, they posted that video with the self-advocacy rap, in which the last word was “madness”. No, they weren’t talking about an 80s pop group. I’m not blaming the DYPC people for that (as I wouldn’t hesitate to use the word myself), but one would have thought the FWD people would have, as they are so sensitive to these things. Then again, they don’t have any compunction about using racial epithets either, just as long as the right race gets insulted. All part of the bizarre and confused politics of that blog.

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