The power of labels — is it time to move on?

This month, Philip shares his perspective on language and labels, and muses that it might be time to move on.

A while ago I posted a meme, which said, “Better to have lost in love than to live with a psycho for the rest of your life.”

I liked it of course, otherwise I wouldn’t have posted it. Eleven others did too, some commenting on Facebook, “Amen to that,” and “Definitely!!”

Then this: “Hate it. It’s beat up on people with mental illness time again. Ever had the amazing person you love tell you that they just can’t deal with your mental illness anymore? Our society is totally phobic about people with mental illness having intimate relationships.”

Label saying "Who are you?"

Woah, that came a bit out of the blue. I hadn’t made the link between “person with a mental illness” and “psycho”, otherwise I wouldn’t have posted it. It didn’t say, “Better to have lost in love than to live with a person with a mental illness for the rest of your life.” I had linked “psycho” with the often weird, unspoken assumptions people make when in relationships, which have kept me out of long-term relationships all my life.

It made me think though. Suppose it had read, “Better to have lost in love than to live with an idiot for the rest of your life.” Would that have been a slight against people experiencing unique learning function?

Probably a more accurate meme would have been, “Better to have lost in love than to live with an arsehole for the rest of your life.” But that’s not what the image said.

For the record, I have had someone I loved tell me he couldn’t cope with my unique physical function anymore. It was hard to hear, but ultimately he was the one who lost out. And I know intuitively that many would-be lovers haven’t even gone there — again, their loss and my gain, because why would I want to be with anyone so closed-minded?

The power we let labels have over us can be overwhelming. If I had a dollar for every time a person called someone a “spaz” in my presence, I’d be wealthy. If I got offended because “spaz” is a shortened version of “spastic”, which is one of my diagnoses, and I got another dollar for that, well — I’d be angrily living in the Bahamas, you ablist bastards.

I think the evolution of language — and the generalisation of words like, “gay,” “spaz,” “idiot” and “psycho” — creates the opportunity for them to lose their charge and liberate us from their stigma. By allowing them to continue having power over us though, we re-traumatise ourselves every time we hear them.

Words are symbols and they change meaning over time and in different contexts. But only if we let them. I celebrate that “gay” means “not for me” rather than “fag”; that “spaz” means “over-reacting”, not “crippled”; that “idiot” means “unthinking”, not “retarded”; and that “psycho” means “someone with weird, unspoken assumptions”, not “a crazy person”.

By letting words change meaning for us, we are redefining diversity and creating social change. It’s not a case of, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” It’s recognising that, unless someone is looking directly at us menacingly, calling us gay, spaz, idiot or psycho, we’re not in their minds — they’ve moved on.

Maybe it’s useful for us to move on with them.

 

This blog was originally posted on www.philippatston.com.  It has been reposted on DPSN with permission.

Advertisements

One thought on “The power of labels — is it time to move on?

  1. Lovely to meet you at the MA conference Philip. I agree that words do change meaning over time, but I feel that a lot of the time those words are used in a negative way, indicating that society still holds negative associations about the people those words refer to. Ever notice that ‘spaz’, ‘fag’, ‘bitch’, ‘psycho’ and other slurs never change their mainstream meaning to become really positive words, or compliments? It’s not a case of simply asking individuals to change their language, it’s about looking at the internalised ableism, misogyny, homophobia etc behind the use of those terms to mean bad/undesirable, and addressing that. The language will then change naturally.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s