Content warning: oppressed / disadvantaged people being used as insults, slurs against various oppressed groups.
There is a massive problem on social media, even in supposedly progressive spaces, of people criticising each other based on appearance, level of education and so on instead of on actual actions.
It’s disheartening to see this so often, and to realise how few people take issue with it.
Someone says something cruel or inappropriate – or just something that others disagree with – and the inappropriate insults come out in torrents.
Mentally ill. Crazy. Retarded. Stupid. Autistic. Disabled. Uneducated. Fat. Ugly. Gay. Tranny.
These insults do nothing to actually challenge what the person said. All they do is reinforce the idea that being mentally ill, unintelligent, uneducated, gay, etc is shameful and worthy of mockery and degradation.
They throw people – often oppressed / marginalised people – under the bus without doing a damn thing to dispute or deny what the initial comment said. They just add even more harm to the situation.
When a person chooses to say / do something unpleasant, they should be called out based on that action, and (if it makes sense for the situation) based on the system that upholds their unpleasantness – this would be appropriate if the person is being homophobic, racist, etc.
When you respond to someone’s unpleasantness with body-shaming, you are treating their body as the problem rather than their actions. The same goes for if you talk about their sexuality, illness, etc. And none of these things actually address why they chose to be unpleasant.
Being fat doesn’t make someone cruel. Being uneducated doesn’t make them unkind. Being mentally ill doesn’t make them a bad person. Being unintelligent doesn’t make them mean. Being gay doesn’t make them devoid of compassion.
There are plenty of people in each of those groups who are lovely and who do not deserve to be used as an insult or blamed for another person’s unpleasant actions.
Besides, if someone has done something unpleasant, there should be plenty for you to talk about already. You already have something genuinely bad and worthy of criticism to focus on. You can call them cruel, unkind or bereft of compassion without harming any decent people. So if you then choose to focus on mocking / criticising their (perceived or real) disability, level of education, sexuality or other such things, you’re not just making the choice to link decent (often oppressed) people to things that aren’t their fault, you’re also deflecting from the real issue.
So by all means, call a person ridiculous, bigoted, self-centred, prejudiced, etc.
But don’t call them crazy, fat, stupid, uneducated, etc.
Don’t treat decent people or oppressed groups as though we are to blame for other people’s cruelty. Don’t treat our existences as insults.
And if you find yourself thinking that the alternatives to the things you’ve been saying don’t pack as much punch, consider why that is. Consider why things that describe oppressed / marginalised people seem worse.
It’s because we’re frequently treated as far worse than the people who harm us. Our homosexuality, our disability, our neurodivergence, are the subjects of scrutiny and negativity more often than the prejudice and oppression we face is.
Our existences are the things parents don’t want for their children, that people avoid talking about because we make them uncomfortable, that people cause social media storms about when they see us getting even momentary representation on TV.
Many people are more willing to accept ableism, racism, transphobia and other forms of prejudice than they are to accept disabled people, people of colour, trans people and other marginalised groups.
This is firmly and constantly reinforced not only by people who are actively and intentionally cruel to us, but also by people who allow those cruelties to go unchallenged, who treat those cruelties as reasonable and allowable.
Sadly there are also many people who still do this even if they don’t realise it, even if they don’t have the intention of being cruel to us. These prejudices are so endemic and insidious in our society that people don’t even realise that they are promoting them.
Using our existences as insults is one result of this widespread prejudice, and it’s a result that too often goes unnoticed and unchallenged. People refusing to make small changes to the language they use (and how they use it) is an example of the everyday prejudice we face. Behaviours like that show that other people being able to use us as insults is thought of as more important than us being treated as decent and worthy of respect.
So if words that describe us feel like more potent insults than words like ‘prejudiced’ and ‘cruel’, it is because us existing is treated as far worse than being prejudiced and cruel is. We often face more consequences for having the audacity to exist in a way that isn’t deemed ‘normal’ and ‘right’ than other people do for being cruel towards us.
If you continue to use us as insults, know that you are contributing to all of this. You are contributing to us being viewed in negative lights. You may not be beating us up or harassing us in the street, but you are treating words that describe our existence and experiences as though they are inherently bad and shameful. Which means you are treating us as bad and shameful.
When we treat words like ‘autistic’ or ‘gay’ as though they are inherently bad and shameful, that can have an impact on the way people view autistic people and gay people. It can also significantly affect the way people from those groups view themselves. Even if you didn’t mean harm, even if you don’t actually think that we’re all bad, we don’t know that. All we’ve seen is you treating our existence as a bad thing, as an insult. And when we’re seeing that from so many people, so often, that can really get into our heads and make us question whether there really is something bad about us. Maybe I should feel ashamed. Maybe I am a freak. When you treat us as insults, this is what you do to many of us. And it’s not simply a case of us ‘growing a thicker skin’. If all or most of what you see about an aspect of yourself is people mocking it, insulting it, shaming it, then of course that could lead you to believe that that thing is genuinely shameful. Remember that many people from these groups do not have much support as they’re growing up, so it’s entirely possible that they might go for years without seeing / hearing anything positive about people like them.
And when people have been taught to think of themselves as bad, shameful, and wrong, they’re often less likely to reach out to others (for friendship, support, etc) in case those people think they’re bad and wrong too. People spend years, even decades, of their lives hiding these aspects of who they are or withdrawing from the world because they feel ashamed of who they are. That can have an immensely negative impact on them, on their mental wellbeing and their relationships.
Treating these words as inherently bad can also influence how children view and treat each other. For example, when we use ‘unintelligent’ or ‘stupid’ as insults around kids, it can teach those kids that any child who is (or seems to be) unintelligent is lesser. It teaches them to focus more on the child’s (perceived) level of intelligence than on whether they’re a nice person or not
If you use words like these as insults, rather than focusing your criticisms on genuine moral failings, you are raising your children to be bullies.
When we use these words as insults ourselves or allow others to do so without being challenged, we are raising children who are in those groups to hate themselves.
When we have a culture that treats being uneducated, or mentally ill, or trans, or disabled, or so many other things like those, as worthy of mockery and scrutiny…there is a lot we need to change.
When we have people who have grown up hating themselves for struggling in school, for being attracted to people of the same gender, for not having the most ‘perfect’ physical features, for not being able to do certain things that other people can…we are failing people. Very badly.
No-one should feel ashamed about those things. Do you know what people should feel ashamed about? Being cruel.
And yet (based on what I have seen) marginalised people are treated as insults far more than cruel people are.
There is something very wrong.