Last night my use of ableist language in a previous post, ‘Take Back The Net’,
was called out by feminist allies both on Twitter and on The F Word. I think that those who called me out were absolutely right to do so – when the mistake was pointed out, I was mortified. Philippa Willitts, author of the post at the F Word
, explained that when I wrote this:
“It’d be nice to think that the rot of rank misogyny was confined to fringe sites populated by lunatics. Unfortunately, not only are men like White clearly at least minimally sane enough to hold down desk-jobs, their school of misogyny has become an everyday feature of political conversation online, particularly in the UK.
…It felt “like a punch in the stomach.”
I’m sorry, Philippa. Here’s what I meant to say: the use of terms like ‘crazy’ and ‘mental’ to describe online trolls is hugely problematic. There’s absolutely no correlation between violent misogyny and having mental health difficulties. Most of the people I’m closest to have at some point struggled with their mental health, and none of them have posted rape fantasies about women online. Writing off disgusting, violent prejudice as ‘crazy’ is intellectually vacuous and perpetuates the worst sort of stereotyping. Unfortunately, that’s not what I actually wrote.
What I wrote was a crude way of describing the situation, for multiple reasons, not least because one should not need to be quote sane unquote to be able to hold down a job – that’s precisely the kind of attitude that perpetuates the stereotypes that make employers push aside the CVs of anyone with a history of, say, depression. I fucked up here, and I fucked up doubly hard because I’ve written for mental health publications in the past. I’ve been both a carer and a person with mental health difficulties, I’ve for godssake spoken at conferences about how and why ableist language, misuse of words like ‘schizoid’ and ‘nutter’ in the media, is unhelpful. In other words, I *should know better*.
I was originally intending to simply change the wording of the piece with a note, and I imagine that’s what I’ll do if and when I’m called out with justification in future. The reason for explaining the process at more length here is that – well. Some people seem to have a big problem right now with a culture of online debate that allows those without large public media platforms to challenge those who do if and when they fuck up and play into lazy stereotypes. I don’t mean to hijack a discussion of ableism with my own hand-wringing, but this is relevant to wider issues of ‘privilege-checking’ right now, so read on if you’re interested.
This is not, as some people have already suggested following my brief apology on Twitter, about language-policing, or about letting the internet dictate what you write and think. People toss criticism at me all the time (really: ALL THE TIME) that I don’t respond to, because not all of it is meaningful and some of it is disingenuous, uninformed, or comes from a place of hate. However, in light of the “Take Back The Net” post, which was all about online ethics and silencing, I’m actually a big fan of the net culture that lets people call others out on their occasional fuckups and gives them space to change.
Legitimate, useful critique is not the same as hate-trolling or censorship. I know other people have different opinions on this, but personally I think that if we are to deal with either of the extremely real, pressing problems of online censorship or of harassment and hate speech, then we also need to get used to taking ownership of our mistakes.