Saturday, May 14, 2011

Quote Able

"Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." Albert Einstein

A lot of people put quotes at the bottom of their emails, kind of a personal signature. I am a lover of quotes, in fact my new book, which I hope will be out sometime later this year, is a collection of quotes about disability by those who have disabilities. Our bathroom always has a quote book sitting beside the toilet and Joe and I are always hollering quotes out to each other when we find one that strikes us funny. So, I get it.

However, when I received an email from a friend of mine, a highly respected professional in the disability field, I noticed the quote which she used as a tag line. I'd seen the quote before but never really took in how it said what it said. Suddenly, with only a moments reflection the quote seemed to be full of ableist and disphobic attitudes. Now I don't think Albert Einstein was purposely setting out to denigrate the disability experience but in using disability as a diminishing adjective - it equates disability with something really negative.

I promised myself that I wasn't going to become like the 'language police' who jump on every possible violation of some very subjective code of linguistic ethics. I figure that we get rid of the 'r' word, I'm good. However, the woman sending the email was someone I knew to have a really high set of personal standards and a really deep awareness of issues around disability.

What to do?

What to do?

What to do?

Before I could think myself into doing nothing, I thought I'd simply trust my understanding of her nature and write her a brief note. Now, I've written corporations, I've written newspapers, I've written politician, I've written Madonna ... and all those letters were easy to do. Those letters were long where this email was short. And yet I don't think I've written a tougher email.

I didn't want to hurt my friend. I didn't want to insult her. I didn't want her to think that I was a nit picky nincompoop. (As an aside I initially wrote 'a nit picky nutcase' and then thought -whoa, whoa, careful about expressing myself at the cost of someone else's self esteem! It's so culturally acceptable to use disability or mental illness in this way. Yikes.) I wrote the email anyways, even with growing apprehension. I paused over the send button, then, hit it.

It didn't take more than a few minutes to get a return email. I was so relieved that my intent was taken at face value and she said that she'd remove it from the bottom of her email. She even kindly quoted from an earlier blog where I'd written that having a disability often meant 'pointing out the obvious to the oblivious' and said that she would take it off the bottom of her email.

Then, as I was reading that email another came in saying that she was going to wait until she found another quote, but couldn't and simply removed it.

I wrote her back saying that she was 'as cool as I thought she was' and expressed my relief that she had responded positively to my suggestion that she take another look at how ol' Albert expressed his opinion. Then I asked her something more, as I can be demanding, I wondered if she would mind if I wrote about our brief interchange, I wondered how many blog readers were finding themselves in my position of wanting to address something with a family member or a friend but was afraid to do so. I think, and I may be wrong, that the experience of finding it easy to take on a corporation but difficult to take on a friend to be a common one. A story of a relationship, not ruined but probably made stronger, might help.

This story only happened because I trusted the heart and the intentions of the woman I wrote to, it only happened because she was open to feedback. I imagine it won't always work this way. But what is friendship if it can't bear the weight of discussion and even disagreement? We all know the answer to that question.


Susan said...

Thanks for your post. I strive to be the kind of woman your friend is, able to maturely hear what a friend is saying without thinking 'how could they say that to me?' or getting "stuck" on the tone of voice, without really hearing the message.

Anonymous said...

The fight goes on.

In a recently aired episode "The Art of the Steal", the main character of USA Networks program "In Plain Sight", Inspector Mary Shannon, uses the word retard. While I understand her character is supposed to be a curmudgeon who holds nothing sacred, I was truly appalled. I contacted the network and am awaiting a response.

Perahps you and some of your readers will also contact USA Network and provide them with a little education about appropriate language.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reminder. Honestly, I believe I used the word "blind" when referring to a situation. I need to put more thought into my choice of words and analagies, so others are not hurt by my words.

Again, thanks,

Unknown said...

Wow, timely. Sometimes I choose to make waves and mention it to people (mostly on Facebook) that they're using really problematic words.

And it's sooooooooo fantastic when people think about it and decide that they won't use whatever-it-was anymore.

Melissa said...

It is so much harder to correct friends and family, than to correct strangers. I emailed a good friend about her use of the r-word once. It was an email I agonized over. And her response was perfect. She didn't just listen to what I said, she HEARD me. And it was an email I was glad I sent, to a friend I'm glad I have.

A longer version of this is on my blog. The post is titled "I felt bad".

CapriUni said...

Thanks for a great post.

I've recently started a new blog: Plato's Nightmare / Aesop's Dream, dedicated to exploring images of disability in folk tales and literature.

And I'm therefore repeatedly coming across the "old fashioned" use of the word "lame" as something simply descriptive -- being unable to walk without assistive tech (crutches, canes, etc.). Used in this way, it doesn't bother me. It's when it's used as a broad, undefined, insult that I cringe.

I'm actually considering "reclaiming 'Lame'" to describe myself (I have CP), in part, to remind people that it does refer to living humans, and we're here.

Jesse said...

At the risk of seeming like I'm arguing for argument's sake -- why assume Einstein would be so imprecise as to use those words as general denigration?

If he meant that science without religion lacks motive power, and religion without science lacks vision, would that be insulting? I don't think it would. Those words have meaning in the English language. To object to them as if they're inherently negative -- doesn't that convey the opposite of your position?

I hesitated to comment -- total stranger, disagreement outta the blue, is that a good idea? And I'm not physically disabled, so do I have a right to an opinion?

But I've had people tell me I shouldn't call myself a 'tranny', because it's derogatory. Except that it isn't. It's a short form of 'transgendered' and there's nothing wrong with being transgendered. I refuse to let people turn it into a swear word.

'Lame' and 'blind' aren't swear words.