Language, Rhetoric, and Expression: There’s Power There

back fenceLanguage is a peculiar thing.  It can be twisted, turned, spinned, mangled, mutilated.  Connotation and denotation are explicitly different things, and we rarely stick to the denotative meaning (and our connotations are almost always at least subtly different from another person’s). Communication is fraught with difficulties, and when we remove the context and the nonverbal communication, it can be an epic disaster.

Much of the autism wars, beyond the confirmation bias, affect heuristic, and availability heuristic, oh my, going on between the two sides (“Damnit, I know it’s the vaccines!” — “Ummm, no, Science says there’s no link!”) can be seen in this connotation/denotation war.  One side says a word means one thing and the other side says it means another.  Oh, it’s not that simple, but it’s a part of it.  Even when discussing something with people on the same side of an issue, these connotation misunderstandings occur.  And then, it can and does move beyond the connotation differences to real differences of opinion on the use of certain words themselves.

Language can’t be separated out of context, and we ought to, if we’re outraged at something, stop a minute and look at the context.  Maybe the context makes a difference, maybe it doesn’t, but at some level, we ought to at least consider the other person’s perspective as we attempt to make our own clear.  If we have our own background and experiences we’re bringing to the table, so, too, do they.

Recently, Kowalski posed the question, “So you really think you’re smarter than Jenny McCarthy?” in response to some parents venting on a facebook thread about the McCarthy article over at Huff.  We covered McCarthy’s article at Countering and EDHF, with Louise lending her considerable talents to a discussion of Miss Fussy Bosoms, an attempt which I think was humorous without venturing into the offensive, although I suppose if you are fussy-bosomed, there might be some objectionable content.

Kowalski raised some good points on that facebook thread, but so did some parents, and her post at Here Be Dragons is well worth the read, as are the comments.  Thelma and Louise write occasionally over there at that blog, and all four of the ladies of RFID consider her to be a dear friend, so when she offers her perspective, I think we all take it seriously and reflect on it.

Language is a peculiar thing.  That’s worth repeating. It is the surface structure through which our attitudes can be inferred.  How we talk about things reflects on how we feel about things, and Facebook, on friend’s walls, has come to approximate the old-time over the fence chattering that we used to get to do.  So, it approximates, many times, quick utterances that are not perhaps thought out fully.  So, perhaps self-censoring doesn’t occur.  Or maybe it’s person dependent. I try to remember that comments I make will live on in the interwebz, and my intent, while it may be to make some waves and trouble-make, isn’t to hurt someone else.

It’s messy, this relationship and dialogue, through the use of the written word, with strangers all over the globe, who may not understand the contextual background of our words (because they do not know our history) or are not aware of the connotations of words.  One of my first dialogues was with a man from Eastern Europe who thought autism was evil.  Once he explained his meaning, well, it led us both to understand that we’d misunderstood each other.  We’re still on opposite sides of the whole cure stance, but at least I now know that he didn’t mean autism was the work of the devil.

Kowalski’s first exhibit on her post was about special needs, that the disabled’s needs are not special; they are the same as anyone else’s.

Yes, of course, everyone has the same key needs:  to belong, to have a place at the table, to have the freedom to express themselves and live meaningful lives on their own terms, to be protected from harm.  But are my children’s needs beyond the core needs, special?

My oldest is twenty years old and my mother worked (and works) for the local state-supported assisted living facility when I was a child, so most of my life (that I can remember) has taken place around the disabled.  I have witnessed the change in official terminology used to describe the disabled, and special needs arose out of a well-meaning attempt to use non-pejorative language when describing the disabled.

Person-first language arose out of an attempt to force people to see the person first, so psychological papers are unwieldy things as the language attempts to be non-stereotypical, non-characteristic, non-offensive. Even the terminology discussing the subjects in a study was specific.  Person-first language is an admirable attempt, but it’s clumsy at best, and many of the people involved may think it’s silly.  You’ll see me, depending on my mood, my mode of writing, and my audience, cater my language to person-first at times, and at times to the shorthand version, with no insult meant, and with the awareness that it won’t matter which I use, as I’m bound to piss someone off.

I’ll use special needs, as well, at times, as it’s still the relevant language used in the educational setting in many places, and that’s a world I operate in.  My college uses the terminology for students with disabilities who will need accommodation.  Attitude behind the words and deeper meaning are far more important than the word itself.  I know that often all we have on the internet is a surface structure and that readers will place their confirmation bias onto my words, anyway.  It is often a no-win situation.

I think we should be sensitive to people to a fairly large degree, and if we know the word we’re choosing to use hurts a minority, we should try to avoid it, but there’s no perfect way to avoid offending everyone, nor do I think we have an obligation to be politically correct.

We should be sensitive that our language does not incite violence and saying you want to punch someone ultimately is an incitement.  Studies actually show that releasing and venting your aggressive feelings in fact promotes more aggression.  With that in mind, we should perhaps think as we’re figuratively talking over the fence with our friends in what we think should be relatively private chatter, that it may not be private and that perhaps it’s not the healthiest or most productive way to vent.  Yes, we are undoubtedly free to say whatever we wish, but we are not free from the consequences of our words.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. — 1 Corinthians 13:11 *

When you know that your words hurt a sizable group of people, when you use those words knowing that, it becomes an act of intentionality to hurt.

When you use language that you know will hurt a friend or family member, you use it with the intention of causing the hurt.

We have an obligation, when we know that something we have said hurts the very people we advocate for, to change our language and our underlying attitudes. If we don’t, then we show that we do not hold them as equals.

I also know that slips of the tongue occur, that prejudices change slowly, and that the neural connections underlying those prejudices take longer to alter than our conscious self represented in our frontal cortex.  So, I cut some slack when I or another slip with our language, I look for context, I forgive, and I work harder to do better.

* My readers who know I am an odd little atheist who talks to the accidental cosmos that I call god may snort when reading this and note that I’ve managed to pull in the Bible twice this week.  I have not done so with disparagement, though.

Language, Rhetoric, and Expression: There’s Power There first appeared at Countering Age of Autism.

on 03/17/10 in featured, Language | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. abfh says:

    Very well said. I’ve ben trying to tone down my natural tendency toward snark, at least to the extent that readers might take it personally and be upset. The point usually can be gotten across just as effectively in other ways.

  2. KWombles says:

    Thanks. Snark can be satisfying, I know. :-)

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