To shame or not to shame? That is the Question.

As the parent of a child with Down Syndrome I am only too aware of plethora of derogatory language surrounding my daughter’s condition that is present in our culture.

To compound this, I studied linguistics at University, which gives me an insight into the etymology of words. It also allows me to see the power of words, their influence and the damage they can do. I have a ‘radar’ for language that is derogatory towards people with learning disabilities and a little siren alarms in my mind when it appears. On social media, we can report comments through the platform’s official channels. We know this is not proving to be very effective, which is why #RaiseYourStandards campaign aims to get social media companies to liaise with us, as the Down Syndrome Community, to work together on how to make social media safer for us. This aside, reporting a comment is a response to having discovered an example of derogatory language. But what about if the person using the language is someone you know? A family member or friend?

This situation is tough to navigate. Nobody likes being told they are wrong. Nobody likes being criticised. Yet, essentially, in order to educate others about language use, this is what we have to face doing. We can’t boycott those who are close to us, like we would the product or work of a celebrity who chooses to use derogatory language. For example, I will never buy or engage with any of Ricky Gervais’ ‘comedy’ as I refuse to assist him in making more money from jokes about people with Down Syndrome. But when our friends or acquaintances choose to use derogatory language we have 2 choices. We can either a) Ignore it and pretend it didn’t happen or b) Explain to them why they shouldn’t use language like this. I am firmly in the category b option. Not addressing prejudiced language doesn’t help the problem and as a parent of a child with a learning disability, if I let words go unchecked I am promoting the idea that derogatory language is acceptable. It’s not.

Recently, my ‘radar’ alarmed when I saw a post from a friend discussing how she would be called a “libtard” for having views that equality and human rights should be the same for all. My friend is a kind, progressive and moral person, which is why I was surprised to see her using the word. I was reminded of when I had seen a well known comedian use ‘libtard’ in a sentence on Twitter. I asked him not to use it and explained why. He refused to acknowledge that he was in the wrong. He received a lot of criticism over it, but at the same time was defended by those who felt ‘comedy’ should have no boundaries on language used.

I started to type her a private message to explain that this word isn’t appropriate to use. I’ve learnt from past experience that it’s always better to speak to friends in private about language they have used. I used to call them out publicly, but people don’t like being told their wrong and, more often than not, they just don’t realise the historical prejudice the word they have used is loaded with. We can either antagonise someone by publicly reprimanding them, damaging friendships, which in turn reduces our positive impact on society. Or, we can sensitively address the issue privately. Then I looked a bit closer at the context she had used it in and realised that she was actually making a point about the irony of the people using the word to denigrate others. The word was in speech marks to ensure that she wasn’t normalising its use. She was discussing people who claim to be morally upstanding, using the word to dismiss people like her who fight and advocate for those with learning disabilities. It is a complex issue to wrap your head around. Groups of people, who claim to be morally upstanding, using derogatory language directly contradicts how they view themselves and their own ethics. Using a word that is historically derogatory to people with learning disabilities to supposedly further your own upstanding moral views directly opposes them in nature. I’m glad I re-read the post before I challenged my friend. I’ve done that in the past, called someone out for using inappropriate language before ensuring I understood the nuance and it’s a bit embarrassing.

Since then I have been pondering on the whole situation of campaigning to eradicate derogatory language. It has had me thinking. Is it ok to use these derogatory words in the context of educating others, such as my friend did and I do frequently? How else do we highlight that their use needs to be stamped out? When doing this we also run the risk of people who aren’t aware of the derogatory meanings behind these words seeing it being used and thinking it’s acceptable. The second facet is that if the issue we are explaining is a complex one, the fact that the word shouldn’t be used can get lost in translation and, again, lead people to think we are happy with derogatory language use. Thirdly, by using the word to educate others we are using the word. How do we change language use without using the words that need to be eradicated? Answer is. We can’t.

The reason behind this is that only a small portion of people understand the reasons why some words shouldn’t be used. Once you understand the historical significance of derogatory words, that were often medical terms for people with learning disabilities, now used to put down others, then you understand why not to use them. I have heard people say countless times ‘I didn’t realise that’s what it meant.’ And this is the reason we need to be sensitive when addressing language use. Most people aren’t aware of the meaning of the words.

Then there are always those who do know the meaning of the derogatory terms and continue to use them anyway. We’re called ‘oversensitive’ or ‘snowflakes’ for asking for change. I’ve even had a conversation with an acquaintance who directly argued that stopping derogatory language use towards people with learning disabilities is curtailing freedom of speech. I remember looking on in disbelief after I had patiently explained how derogatory language is classed as hate speech, which in turn fans the flames of hate crime towards people with learning disabilities. What do we do in this situation? What can we do? Answers on a postcard please!

It is hard as an advocate to type out an offensive words and it’s even more difficult to say them. But we can’t pretend they don’t exist. Ignoring the negativity surrounding conditions such as Down Syndrome is not going to eradicate it. We have to be brave, face the prejudice head on and call for it to stop. We have to use them in order to educate others, who in turn will pass this level of understanding on when they encounter hate speech. Cascading.

I would like to say that at some point in the future we won’t need to do any of this. That we will have evolved to become an inclusive society where language reflects respect of each and every one of us. We can’t get to this point without social media companies listening to us and cracking down on hate speech, which is why  are campaigning for Twitter to work with us on ways of curbing hate speech on their platform. We need standards improved. But we don’t just need social media companies to change their behaviour, we need every single person to #RaiseYourStandards

To find out more about MCC #RaiseYourStandards please email –  enquires@makingchromosomescount


Article written by Rachel Mewes


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