By now everyone’s probably read Jonathan Chait’s 5,000+ word diatribe about feeling alienated from a liberalism that includes and respects the feelings of diverse individuals. You can get the TL;DR version on The Belle Jar, if you still don’t understand why he’s wrong.

But why does Chait feel threatened by using language that doesn’t degrade the subject? What’s really so hard about saying “person with a learning disability” rather than “retard?”

It takes longer.

That’s right. The complaint is that it “takes too long” to use language that isn’t hurtful. It inconveniences the speaker. But it’s not really the inconvenience that’s the issue, is it? It’s uncomfortable because, in that moment, the speaker is forced to confront the humanity of the group they’re dismissing.

The other day an acquaintance, in response to being offered help, snapped “I’m not a complete retard.” There are plenty of other ways to say what he meant, but he opted for that one.

One alternative option would have been “I don’t have a learning disability.” Another is “I’m not stupid.”*

Let’s look at alternative 2 first. “I’m not stupid,” by putting the speaker and the adjective in the same sentence, opens the door to the possibility that the speaker might just be stupid. That’s uncomfortable. Nobody likes to think they’re not as smart as everyone else, even though (regardless of how you feel about IQ tests) there are people who are demonstrably smarter than others. Still. It’s uncomfy to not be as smart as the person you’re talking to.

Alternative 1 is just as ableist as the original statement, imputing negative qualities to a group of “others” and then dissociating the speaker from those others, but it’s harder to say. Why?

Because when we talk, we think about the things we’re talking about. The longer it takes to say what you’re saying, the longer you have to think about it, to confront the thing you’re saying, and the person about whom you’re speaking. Saying “people of color” takes longer than dropping that n-bomb. And you have to say “people” to say it. You have to describe the individual or group you’re talking about as a person, like you. You have to hold that humanity in your mouth, roll it around, digest it, and think about what you’re doing the whole time.

Most people think of themselves as basically “good.” It’s hard to confront that they’re saying something that’s prejudiced or hurtful, so they try to say it quickly, make it a joke and let the conversation move on. That doesn’t happen when you use careful, respectful language – and that’s why that language is too important to dismiss as “PC.”

[* – There is substantial disagreement in the anti-ableism community over whether “stupid” is ableist. Part of what makes “stupid” offensive is that it is an insult used to imply that people with learning disabilities are being wilfully ignorant rather than facing mechanical challenges. In other words, it’s offensive because it equates disabled with able individuals. Contrast this with “insane” which is offensive because it is often applied to able individuals exhibiting purposeful behaviors when it was originated to describe a specific set of mental disorders. Because “insane” imputes the qualities of disordered individuals as an insult to the abled, as opposed to “stupid” imputing able qualities to disadvantaged individuals to insult them, I find “insane” to be specifically ableist language and “stupid” to be an across-the-board insult that is not specifically ableist. You’re free to disagree.]