Today my use of ableist language in a previous post, “Take Back The Net”, was called out by feminist allies both on Twitter and on The F Word. Those who called me out were absolutely right to do so – when the mistake was pointed out, I was mortified. Philippa Willitts, author of the post at the F Word, explained that when I wrote this:
It’d be nice to think that the rot of rank misogyny was confined to fringe sites populated by lunatics. Unfortunately, not only are men like White clearly at least minimally sane enough to hold down desk-jobs, their school of misogyny has become an everyday feature of political conversation online, particularly in the UK.
…It felt “like a punch in the stomach.
I’m sorry, Philippa. Here’s what I meant to say, what I wish I’d written: the use of terms like “crazy” and “mental” to describe online trolls is hugely problematic. There’s absolutely no correlation between violent misogyny and having mental health difficulties. Most of the people I’m closest to have at some point struggled with their mental health, and none of them have posted rape fantasies about women online. Writing off disgusting, violent prejudice as “crazy” is intellectually vacuous and perpetuates the worst sort of stereotyping. Unfortunately, that’s not what I actually wrote.
What I wrote was a crude, ableist way of describing the situation, for multiple reasons, not least because one should not need to be quote sane unquote to be able to hold down a job – that’s the kind of attitude that perpetuates the stereotypes that make employers push aside the CVs of anyone with a history of, say, depression. I fucked up, and I fucked up doubly hard because I’ve written for mental health publications in the past, I’ve been both a carer and a person with mental health difficulties, I’ve for godssake spoken at conferences about how and why ableist language, misuse of words like “schizoid” and “nutter” in the media, is unhelpful. In other words, I should know better.
I was originally intending to simply change the wording of the piece with a note, and if and when I’m called out in future I imagine that’s what I’ll do. The reason I’ve decided to explain the process at length here is that some people seem to have a big problem right now with a culture of online debate that allows people without large public media platforms to challenge those who do if and when they fuck up and play into lazy stereotypes. I don’t mean to hijack a discussion of ableism with my own hand-wringing, but this is relevant to wider issues of “privilege-checking” right now, so read on if you’re interested.
In light of my previous post, which was all about online ethics and silencing, I’m actually a big fan of the net culture that lets people call others out on their occasional fuckups and gives them space to change. Legitimate, useful critique is not the same as hate-trolling or censorship. The casual flinging around of words like “language police” and “thought police” is, apart from anything else, an insult to anyone with the least conception of the global fight against state censorship of the internet and the persecution faced by those engaged in that fight. If we are to deal with either of the extremely real, pressing problems of online censorship and of misogynist hate speech, then we also need to take ownership of our mistakes.