Social Justice Jargon

I am amazed at the degree of linguistic inaccessibility in social justice spaces. Someone who isn’t already deeply involved not only in social justice, but the exact sub-culture of a particular blog or forum will have no way to meaningfully understand what is being said in many of these spaces. I guess that’s okay if we just want to talk to each other, but if the ignorant (that is, doesn’t know any better rather than chooses to act in a bad way) person in your life won’t understand your word choice or jargon, your words aren’t doing much outside of the group of people that share your language.

And most people don’t share your language.

Some examples of words or phrases I’m talking about:

  • Because reasons
  • AMAB
  • allistic
  • kyriarchy

Don’t know all of them? “Because reasons” is shorthand for “There are reasons for this, good or bad, but I don’t want to discuss them because whatever they are they aren’t relevant to this topic.”  I think. It seems to be used different ways by different people. A good alternative would be to actually say what you mean, like “I have reasons for this, but I don’t want to get into them here because I don’t believe they are relevant” or “She claims to have reasons, but I don’t know if they are bullshit or not” depending on how you use this.

AMAB? Assigned male at birth. I’m still not sure why this is as used as it is in social justice spaces, and I could write about some problems with it’s common uses – it can be really ugly (and not too far off from Janice Raymond, although I suspect most of the people using this term have never heard of Janice and her idea of privileged transwomen infiltrating and destroying women’s spaces because they grew up as men).

Allistic? This means non-autistic. Everyone understands what non-autistic means. A handful of people on the internet understands what allistic means.

Kyriarchy? This talks about all systems that are dominated/controlled by a group of people and where another group of people has a disadvantage. But few know that.

Of course part of the problem with this is that I probably exposed my misunderstanding of these words – definitions are hard, and understanding is hard. That’s the second problem: besides for these words not being known, they serve as a way of hiding misunderstanding.

I remember the first time that I, an evangelical (albeit non-traditional) Christian, had a discussion with Mormon missionaries. It became very clear quickly that we had many different ideas on some core beliefs regarding things like the trinity, resurrection, redemption, and heaven.Yet, we used the same words, just different definitions. So I could ask, “Do you believe in the trinity?” and the missionary would say, “Yes.” Yet we didn’t believe the same thing when we actually try to define what each of us believes – and the definition is very important to both my faith and the Mormon missionary’s faith. We could spend hours talking to each other, using this jargon, and never realize what we did and didn’t agree about, unless we defined our terms.

It’s kind of like someone saying, “I’m not racist.” Their definition of racist may or may not be as inclusive as someone else’s definition. They may say, “I’m not racist” and then say “But blacks just aren’t as intelligent as whites.” Their definition of racism would differ greatly from mine, which holds that blacks and whites have the same range of intelligence, and that not accepting this is one element of a racist.

But the biggest problem, in my eyes, is that this jargon turns social justice groups/blogs/spaces/forums into places that are hard for decent people to become part of, unless they are already in the group. It’s a form of exclusion and determining who belongs. Back to my evangelical vs. Mormon experiences, there are words and phrases that each group uses that reflect our culture and are not shared. I can spot, in less than 5 minutes, if someone goes to an evangelical church frequently. I’m sure the Mormons can do the same. A lot of how I can tell is based on language usage and how they use precise words that don’t necessarily get perceived the same way outside of the church community.

In fact, this cultural unawareness of Christians is a reason why many criticisms of Christians are ignored by Christians – the people criticizing don’t understand the language and thus assume it means something it doesn’t. A great example is when a Catholic official makes a public statement that says, “We need to welcome all people, including people with same-sex attraction, into our midst.” To a non-Catholic, that might sound like, “OH! Finally, the Catholics are going to let gays in!”  To a Catholic Bishop, it means, “How can we teach them they are wrong unless they come to our church? Of course we want them to come!” (key buzzwords: “welcome” doesn’t necessarily mean “we want these people in all parts of our church”; “same-sex attraction” means “We don’t recognize people are gay or lesbian, they just struggle with attraction to the same sex”)

So, this language can form a wall of separation between “us” and “them”. It’s not intended to do that (usually). But it becomes that.

There is another problem: linguistic accessibility. Yes, that’s an ironic use of jargon. Not everyone can access the right word that means exactly the shade of gray that a given piece of jargon means. Not everyone can remember all the jargon or wrap their heads around all these new terms. It’s nothing to do with intelligence, but rather simply with language ability. Some people are incredibly gifted and can adopt the jargon effortlessly and easily. Others cannot, but still have plenty of good things to contribute to you or learn from you.

So the next time you think you should use all this cool new language you learned, ask yourself, “Who am I talking to?” If you’re talking to other people who know these words and share your definitions, it’s absolutely appropriate. But if you think you might be talking to people who don’t understand your definitions, or if you want to include people that may not have the linguistic skills to decode the jargon (and in this aspect, it is an accessibility concern), think about at least defining your terms, or, better yet, trying to find a short, but obvious way of conveying the concept the jargon represents.

I’m certainly not an expert on how to do this – I too find myself using jargon or otherwise writing inaccessible text. And I’m missing out on valuable discussion because of it. Learning to communicately clearly is a process, and I’ve only started that process.

Stereotypes and Advocacy

I’m sick of many of us in advocacy simply stereotyping people who are not part of our particular movement. Stereotypes and assumptions prevent us from communicating. Too often, rather than listening to what someone who is not one of us says, we simply assume that they believe what other people with a certain trait believe.

Parents, professionals, and therapists deserve to be treated with respect. As all people do.

Sure, a lot of time the people doing horrible things to autistics are parents, professionals, and therapists. So they don’t get a free pass just because they had a kid or have a professional job.  But, at the same time, before we pronounce someone guilty, we probably should make sure they really are guilty – not with accusatory questions, but by sincerely listening.

We don’t want to be tone policed in advocacy circles. If I need to express something happening to my people that is harming them, I shouldn’t be silenced unless I can say things politely. I agree with this.

That said, if I can say them politely, I probably should. I should at least try a decent interaction with people, with an assumption that the person may be a potential ally, not an enemy, who simply doesn’t know any better, who is doing something a certain way for a reason that negates my concern, or simply doesn’t know any better – but agrees that autistic people (or whatever other group) need to be treated decently. If they prove themselves otherwise, fine, be an ass. But let’s wait until they prove it, rather than having us assume it. There may be nuance that I don’t know about unless I ask.

I’ve had this in my own advocacy. Sometimes I see something in the advocacy world that I don’t think is particularly effective advocacy – so I speak up and say so. I try to do so respectfully, sometimes I do, sometimes I fail. Like all of us. But more often then not, the response isn’t to read my words or listen to my thoughts, getting clarifications when something is unclear. No, it’s to read one thing and then dismiss everything I’m about to say, on the basis of what stereotypes about people who say that one thing think.

I’ve seen this in my arguments against the widespread usage of the word “cis-” to refer to people who are not trans (ex: cis-male is a person born with normal male genitals and treated as a boy/man throughout his life, and who identifies with that identity). The initial assumption is that my actions are formed by the same ignorance and arrogance that causes some to fight against the word – but my thoughts are quite a bit more nuanced than that. But it’s hard for me to express them, because the initial assumption is that I’m full of shit and saying this for the same reason they’ve seen others say this (and there is a lot of bullshit on the web about what is wrong with the cis- prefix, bullshit that is horrible and wrong and definitely anti-trans).

Yet, I make an argument like that, and people make assumptions, without really listening to what I want to say. And, often, these people are advocates for some cause. I probably agree with them far more than I disagree, but they immediately put me in the category of “hateful, anti-trans bigot”, assuming that I hold a bunch of other views (on things other than cis- prefixes) that I don’t hold, because I hold a view on the cis- prefix that is contrary to some of the louder advocacy right now (that said, I’m not the only person that holds this view for the reasons I hold it).

I’ve seen it in other areas of advocacy too. People are fine making assumptions about you if you don’t say exactly the right words, exactly the right way. I might say I don’t support food stamps, which is an accurate statement of my beliefs (for people outside the USA, food stamps aren’t stamps anymore, but are assistance given by the government that can only be used to buy food). Immediately, I can sense my readership getting angry, about to tell me a few pieces of their mind. Some people stopped reading and declared me a conservative asshole. Others assume that I must never have been without food, because if I had been, I could never say something like this. A lot of stereotypes.

Of course when I say I don’t support food stamps, I’m talking something else entirely. I agree with economists that food stamps are a wasteful, inefficient redistribution of income that doesn’t help the economy as much as it could, which doesn’t get people out of poverty, and which is inefficient for the person needing assistance. Oh, again, I’m in the conservative asshole category in the eyes of my readers! I also agree with the most progressive anti-poverty activists (who, ironically agree with the economists!) in that cash distribution is a much better way of helping poor people than earmarked funds are. Rather than giving a family $400 of food assistance, $600 of rent assistance, $350 of medical assistance, $200 of transportation assistance, why not give them the cash for these things? Maybe they can economically eat for less than $400 (I couldn’t if I had a family, but some people have resources I don’t have or abilities I lack). But to get that better job, they need $250 in transportation assistance. Why shouldn’t the people most connected with their needs make that decision? (hint on why people disagree with me: “What if they buy $1000 of lottery tickets?” And that’s a legitimate concern – what if someone runs out of money in the beginning of the month? We can’t let their kids starve. And I agree with that – I won’t get into details now, but there are solutions for that too that don’t involve kids starving; but that said, contrary to what most people seem think, most poor people aren’t poor because they are too stupid to spend their money on food and rent, but rather they are poor because they don’t have enough money – and will spend money they have wisely).  So my view isn’t “Cut support” but rather “Put people in charge of determining what they need, rather than us dictating.” This isn’t even a fringe view – most people who study this field (poverty) would agree with me, including people in government. But it is opposed from the right wing (“ABUSE!!! THINK OF THE ABUSE!!!”) and from other advocates who only read “get rid of food stamps” and immediately make some assumptions. So it probably will never happen.

When we listen to a parent speak, we need to be careful to not make any assumptions. Maybe the parent is an awful curebie who wants sympathy at any cost to their child’s privacy, so is fine posting exaggerated stories about shit smearing on their mommy blog. There certainly are plenty of parents in this category. But maybe they are talking about what they are talking about in a respectful, appropriate way that respects the child’s privacy.  Maybe the child is old enough to understand the implications of consent and has given it, but the mother didn’t know that she was going to be stereotyped as a “mother who wants sympathy” and thus needed to make it clear she didn’t fit the stereotype. But we should be listening, and asking non-accusatory questions, giving people not the benefit of the doubt, but simply recognizing “I don’t know here, but it’s important.”

Now, a good ally won’t be bothered by someone confronting them over a stereotype the self-advocate has about the group the ally is part of. Even if it’s done somewhat aggressively and rudely. They’ll recognize that a minority community has to put up with a lot of shit, and sometimes that is expressed in direct, up-front ways. They’ll see where the pain and anger is coming from. Or maybe the ally is wrong, and does need to be corrected, and is willing to be corrected (if they are an ally, they will listen; note that I don’t believe an ally to autistics has to agree with any one autistic on anything, either – and that’s where things get complicated and messy).

But at the same time, I think sometimes we get a bit too aggressive in our advocacy, seeing enemies that aren’t there. Advocacy is very nuanced much of the time, and not about just the big major things. It’s not just about whether JRC is giving electric shocks to their prisoners (they are, and, yes, it’s wrong). It’s about an assumption that “more intensive” treatment is the right answer for “more severe” behavior. And that “more intensive” treatment works better and quicker for all types of behavior than less intensive. It’s the assumption that the more effort put into therapy, the more positive results. It’s the assumption that behavior X and Y are maladjusted and need therapy. Sometimes they do, but sometimes that “behavior” is just odd but okay.

I’ve also seen the reverse – I’ve seen it assumed that an autistic who speaks on advocacy is anti-parent, angry, and even militant. I’ve had all these things used against me, and while I can’t speak for their accuracy in an unbiased way, I work very hard at channeling my anger appropriately and recognizing the importance of good parents. I certainly don’t see “parents” as the enemy, nor am I trying to wage a war. I’m trying to help people understand and trying to make sure my people can fully participate in and enjoy society – nothing more. So this isn’t exactly a one-way set of stereotypes.

So, when you hear something you disagree with today, I’ll give my thought on what your response should be: Consider whether there may be nuances you aren’t aware of. When someone says they want to get rid of food stamps, are they saying, “I want the poor to starve” or are they saying, “I think the poor know where this money should go better than I do?” When a parent says their 18 year old son wears a diaper, is it possible their 18 year old son has agreed to share that for a shared advocacy reason? Let’s not assume that’s not the case. No, I’m not saying to assume it is the case either. But we should listen and ask true questions, not just jump to accusations.

Making the Privileged Feel Better

What kind of things do physically disabled or blind persons need?  It’s simple: access to society.  The specifics are different – the wheelchair user might want to be able to go to school or work without having to literally drag themself up a step.  And the blind person might desire websites that are usable with screen readers.

Of course, these aren’t the only things desired – there’s a lot of inaccessibility in society as a whole that needs to be cleared up.

So, what do social justice minded, but non-physically disabled, non-trans, and non-blind people come up with? We need to worry about our language. We need to avoid saying, “Let’s run out to the store,” because that erases the existence of someone who rolls out to the store. We need to avoid saying, “Did you see that movie?” because that’s abelist and erases the existence of people who experience movies without using sight.

And that sounds good.  It sounds good to say, “Did you experience that movie?” or “Let’s go to the store” rather than the abelist, yet common, alternatives.

Yet, I’m going to cry out and say, “ENOUGH!”  Not because I think these are bad things to think about, but because, too often, what is behind these suggested changes is a bit more sinister than it appears. Sure, it could be a sincere desire to think about others. But where it fails is in actually listening to others.

For instance, my (albeit limited) circle of friends includes a couple of blind people who “watch TV” (their words, not mine), and neither would notice (or care) if the TV picture was present or not.  My wheelchair using friends “run to the store” occasionally, in their words. It’s important to listen to their words.

Sure, there may be people who are blind or physically disabled who dislike words like “see” and “run.”  But most blind or physically use these words exactly like the rest of us: as something other than literally seeing or literally running.  Few non-physically disabled people literally run to the store: we hop in our cars and drive, or, if we don’t drive, walk or use transit.  But little actual running is involved. As for “seeing” TV or  a movie, a better word would likely be “experience” to reflect literally what is going on, but seeing, in context, basically means the same thing.

Now, I recognize I’m privileged, and could be an ablest pig now – and hope that people (particularly people who aren’t privileged in the same way) speak up and let me have it, if they believe it’s appropriate.  I can demonstrate my true character by listening to what is said.  But, at the same time, I do believe I’ve listened to disabled people and that this type of language is not viewed as insulting, as it seems to be used by the vast majority of people for whom it is supposed to be insulting.

It’s also – ironically – appropriated words like look, see, run, walk, etc, which have a general meaning, and made them into words that can be used only when referring to the privileged classes! In essence, privileged people have decided when these words are appropriate or not, rather than allowing the non-privileged people to tell us what they find offensive and how we should respond to that.  That’s both arrogant and dismissive, and the utter opposite of respect.

But it feels good.  It feels good to look at yourself and say, “I’m more progressive and social justice minded, because I know there are wheel chair users in the world, so I avoid using phrases like, ‘take the dog for a walk’ or ‘running to the store.'”  It’s the same old thing that always makes privileged people feel good: being better than someone else (in this case, it’s mostly the other privileged people who aren’t so liberally minded, but it is done by “walking” over the top of the very people for whom this language is supposedly changed for).

I’ve written about this in a different context – the use of the prefix “cis-” to refer to non-trans people.  While I can find some trans people who do feel people should use the cis- prefix to identify themselves, and it’s a lot harder to find wheelchair users or blind people who object to the language such as “run” or “watch”, I find a striking similarity. I don’t like the term cis- because I feel it erases the existence of binary-identified trans people, particularly post-op transsexuals, and their self-identity. But I get shit for that stand. Ironically, I’d say 99% of the people who have a problem with my word choice are binary-identified and passing as – and thus taking the role of – someone with binary, “cis-gender” privilege.

Now, I recognize the social implications and difficulties faced by minorities trying to express upset towards something the majority does.  So I recognize that even if I was being offensive to trans, blind, or physically disabled people (among others), it’s very likely they would say nothing to me about it. Thus it would be wrong to assume that I’m not wronging them. But it would be equally wrong to not listen to the people who are speaking and advocating from a minority group and to find out what their concerns are, rather than simply assuming that I know what their concerns are, and thus can tell people how to treat “those people” with respect.

It’s actually got a lot in common with the “autistic” vs. “person with autism” debate, which comes down to whether or not autistic people get to define their terms and decide what is or isn’t offensive to us (most of us have decided “autistic” is not offensive).  Yet, well-meaning, socially minded people will actually argue with us and tell us we’re wrong – that we should be offended by “autistic” and should be glad to be referred to with the much-more-respectful “person with autism” label. In other words, they know best about our lives and experience.

Well, they don’t.  No matter how good it makes them feel to think they do.

A Tip for Typers

This is a really simple tip if you want to communicate better (and who doesn’t?), but I suspect not everyone knows this.

typing

Yep, that’s my hand typing on a decent but not great keyboard.

The type of keyboard you use is important. It’s even more important if you use a keyboard to communicate with others.

Sometimes I type to communicate, although, mostly, I use my spoken voice today. But I remember some speech devices, despite being nice speech devices, just didn’t seem to work for me.

I use typing to communicate to break through a “block” that helps me communicate. I’m starting to think more and more that this is a form of initiation/continuation movement difference that I have, although I also realize that’s controversial. But, regardless of the reason, I find speech difficult sometimes, and I typically find typing easier.

So, why were some devices difficult to use? It’s simple: the keyboard. The more “mechanical” (and “clicky”) the keyboard, the easier I can type. I do worst with silent on-screen keyboards – they are almost as bad as speech! I do best with the old-style mechanical keyboards (think IBM, loud, heavy, and clicky). What I’m using now on my primary computer is a somewhat clicky (not nearly an IBM, but I don’t want to wake the neighbors), but much more firm action than the standard keyboards I was using – and I’m finding it’s much easier for me to think and continue my thinking process as I type.

The reason for me is simple – it’s about the rhythm. I’m not sure why rhythm matters, but it does. When I hear my rhythm, I can continue onto the next letter, word, sentence, paragraph. It may also be related to a discovery I made when I was a child – that if I blocked out outside noise, so I could only hear my own voice (such as hearing it amplified and played to me over headphones), I found it much easier to talk. I need that feedback.

And I suspect a lot of autistic people do. So if you use electronic devices to communicate, and you can try a different keyboard, do so. I recommend something like this keyboard although it may be beyond some people’s budgets for a keyboard (but, if you can afford something like this, but just think that it is too much money for a keyboard, consider that it may improve your communication – and make sure it’s still too much). Most keyboards have rubber domes – the current Apple keyboards, anything from Dell, etc, will use these. They don’t provide significant feedback.

If you use a tablet, I suggest turning on key clicks – just try it for a bit and see if it helps, or if it doesn’t. And consider trying to use a real keyboard as well and validate that the tablet input system really is the best input system for your unique needs. For me, tablets aren’t nearly as good as a real keyboard – and it’s not just that I’m a very fast touch typist, but rather that I get “blocked” when typing on them. I simply have a harder time getting words out (although key clicks being enabled help significantly).

If you are a parent or speech therapist, helping someone who uses electronic devices, I encourage you to try mechanical keyboards (the louder the better) and turning key clicking on, no matter how much some teacher might not like the clicking sound. If it doesn’t make a difference, switch back to something quieter. But if it does, you may be opening more communications for someone. That’s a really awesome thing and worth any amount of click noise.

This is Autism

Everyone has definitions of autism. Professionals define it, advocacy organizations define it (too often in a way that excludes self-advocates), schools and government define it. And these definitions always miss some really, really important elements – they miss the sensory distinctions. They miss how we process emotions and empathy (or they say we don’t have emotions or empathy). And they miss our culture.

Yes, our culture. And our “alive.”

You want to know what autism is?

It is when I visited another autistic and we both sat on the floor across from each other, typing, flapping, gesturing, and pointing. It was when this other autistic brought some stim toys and blankets, threw the blankets over me and gestured at the toys, knowing after a long trip I probably needed some rest. That’s something most neurotypicals can’t pick up on, but another autistic knew immediately.

It was on another trip, with a different autistic, when I was also on the floor, not communicating with words at all, but still seeing, still listening – and having food just appear in front of me, people knowing that’s what I needed right then.

It’s finding others that think like you do. Not just intellectually, but on that more human, basic level. People who carry no expectation (unless they’ve been taught!) that I need to “look them in the eye.” People who understand why I’m stressed out in a certain environment, why I’m calm under my blankets, why I might not be taking care of my own needs (like eating). Mind you, these other people are other autistics, often who have their own difficulties with similar things – but somehow, when able, they are more then willing to help.

Now this is one type of autism – there are many others. Oh, no, not like you might think of high and low functioning or other bogusness. No, there are autistics I can’t relate to, but for different reasons. You see, one thing people would learn from us is that there are different kinds of autistic people, but not different in the sense of IQ, communication, or any of the things that non-autistic people seem to often notice. No, differences at a much more basic level – maybe that autistic IT professional and the non-speaking autistic with full-time support are closer to each other than two autistic IT professionals are!

I’ve seen autistics open their homes, their wallets, their kitchens, and their hearts for me. These are not the actions of people without empathy or human connection. I’ve traveled the world – literally – and met autistics in other countries. We desire a connection.

This isn’t to say life isn’t challenging for anyone. But, it’s life. Life can be beautiful one day and hell the next. For anyone. Anyone can lose a loved one. Anyone can be hurt or abused. Anyone can fail to achieve a goal. But autism isn’t just failure and pain, anymore than humanity is failure and pain. There’s also the joys, including the joy of connection.

The most significant day in my life was the day I married my – autistic – wife. Two autistics in one house. Sometimes I help her, sometimes she helps me. Sometimes we both somehow get through the day having difficulty together, but at least with someone to share it with. She knows me in ways that only someone who has lived as I have, and thinks as I do, could know. It’s beautiful and wonderful and love. I’ll say this: I’m living. Not just existing. But living. Autism is alive. Autism is love. This is autism.