Now don’t get me wrong. I have no time for Owen Smith. I think he is a loathsome, opportunist creature that barely merits the designation “human being”. But the massive, outraged response to his use of the term “lunatic” on social media and some of the non-mainstream blogs and media took me by surprise. “Lunatic”, along with “cretin”, “moron”, “idiot” and many others, are “ableist”.We’ve got to get two million people who actually voted Tory, 12 months ago, to vote Labour, in 106 seats.
And what you won’t get from me, is some, you know, lunatic at the top of the Labour party, you’ll have someone who tries to form a coherent narrative about what’s wrong with Britain.
One of the more sober critiques is on TheCanary: http://www.thecanary.co/2016/08/24/owen ... ins-audio/.
Okay, so most of the members here who have endured my posts over the years will probably be able to guess where I stand on the careful use of language. Fact is, I have been very conscious of sexist and racist language in particular since way back in the late seventies. I was arguing the case for “chair” when most people thought it laughable. I quickly dropped large numbers of designations for ethnic groups, people of different sexual orientation, people with disabilities and so on from my vocabulary. We all used them back then, and nowadays we are all keenly aware that they are deeply offensive slurs. I was pretty quick on the uptake and still generally respond quickly when I realize that someone finds a term I use offensive. Quite frankly, it is mere politeness. I don't always get it right, but I try.
But “lunatic”? “Idiot”? I do find this difficult. While I have long avoided “cretin”, and to a lesser extent “moron”, I have difficulty with the idea that “lunatic”, in the sense and context in which Smith used it, is “ableist”.
Of course, there is a way in which “lunatic” can be used that is deeply offensive to people who suffer with mental health issues, namely when it is used as a designation for those people. We no longer talk of “lunatic asylums”, and the term “lunatic” has been removed from most, if not all current UK legislation, and this is a good thing. It is a deeply disparaging term that was used to isolate, label and deprecate entire groups of people. It would not cross my mind to refer to the patients in a psychiatric institution as “lunatics”, and I suspect that this is true for the vast majority of people.
But this is not what Owen Smith was doing. He was using the metaphor in order to call into question Corbyn’s facility for rational decision making. This is, of course, the common meaning of the word in modern English. Calling Jeremy Corbyn a "lunatic" is offensive to Jeremy Corbyn in the same way that it would be if he had called him "stupid" or an "ignoramus". And by association, it is insulting to those who have supported Corbyn. But it is not "ableist". The lack of decent residential care for those with mental health issues is ableist. Cuts to benefits to those who are affected by mental health issues is ableist. A failure to provide wheelchair ramps in public buildings is ableist. The use of the "lunatic" metaphor is not, in my opinion, ableist.
Now it is argued that such metaphorical usage that harks back to and reverberates with older, disparaging meanings is, in itself, disparaging to a particular group of people, even if the words were not actually directed at that group.
Let’s step back a moment. After thinking about the issue for a while, I spent some time trawling the Web for articles on “ableist” language. And there are a lot. Some would have it that if you describe someone as “paralyzed by fear”, this is ableist. As is “deaf to any rational argument”. Or “blind to the facts”. Indeed, pretty well all body metaphors are perceived by some as being ableist. I even saw an argument that the term “a fat lie” was “sizeist”.
Yes, the regulars here can see where this is going. For me, the most interesting arguments were that we need to avoid terms like “blind fury” (which happens to be my handle on a couple of other forums), “insight”, “I see” in the sense of “I understand” and no end of other sight-related metaphors. This made me laugh. At least until I thought about it and it made me angry. Very angry.
Do you know something? I actually (slightly) object to being referred to as “visually impaired”, which is the most widespread “acceptable” term nowadays. It stresses the fact that I have an “impairment” far more than ever the term “blind” does. Even worse is the term “VI”, as in “the VI community” (although many blind and partially sighted people choose to identify themselves as “visually impaired” or “VI”, which is fine - I happen to disagree, but that's fine too). I am blind, or more accurately, as they put it on my certificate “severely sight impaired (blind)”. I do have a disability. And there are things I cannot now do that sighted people can do easily. I cope with it more or less well, depending largely on the state of the weather and the mood my dog is in. What I do not need is still more euphemisms for the disability that I have or the patronizing assumption that I am too stupid to realize the difference between offensive language and good, useful metaphorical language.
It has been an eye-opener for me to spend time with people who have been totally blind since birth and listen to them using language such as “I watched a film last night”, or to have me tell them exactly what colour a ceanothus bloom is. There is a glittering array of metaphors in the language derived from vision, the ones in this paragraph being shining examples. Are we to drop these from our vocabulary because these blind people (poor lambs) find them offensive or are incapable of understanding the meaning of them? To me at least, it is blindingly obvious that disabled people find it far more discomfiting to seepeople tiptoe over eggshells, watching their every word in an attempt to avoid the appearance that they are being insensitive about someone's disability. This is far more patronizing and places the focus firmly on the disability and not the person.
For me at least, I would be far more interested in being able to get a national newspaper or magazine in Braille (which I cannot), or to see platform announcements reinstated at my local train stations, rather than read the patronizing drivel written by self-appointed protectors of these poor disabled people in respect of what may or may not be offensive. I am confronted with quite enough verbal abuse on a day-to-day basis (my favourite one recently was “Look what you are doing with that stick, you blind c**t”) to worry one iota about people using perfectly good visual metaphors that relate to a sense that I have largely lost now.
But to return to Owen Smith and his “lunatic” metaphor. Should I be upset by this? The answer is yes. But not because the language is “ableist”. It is not. It is metaphorical, and this metaphorical use has been the only use in English for many years now. I am upset because once again Owen Smith has dragged the political debate to the level of playground insults. But what can you expect from a benighted ignoramus?
Point out the errors of my ways. Show me where my thinking is obscure or even opaque. Enlighten me if you can. Explain to me where my vision of an intelligent and careful use of language breaks down. I challenge you.