Preferences, sexual and otherwise

I’ve just read this post by Heidi Cullinan on the subject of writing about socially marginalised communities. As ever, there are things here I agree with, but there are also a number that I disagree with quite strongly. I should probably say from the outset this isn’t really about Cullinan and I respect the fact that she pays attention to these issues, and feels they’re worth talking about. But, having read her post, I feel that we’re coming from very different places.

The elements that I had particular trouble with were her blanket condemnation of the term “sexual preferences,” particularly the authority on which she made it, and her assumptions about the activities necessary or sufficient to avoid offensively appropriating the lives of others.

On Sexual Preference

Let’s start with sexual preferences. Cullinan explains that she not only refused to read a book on the grounds that it contains the phrase “sexual preferences” in its blurb, but that she feels the author is morally obliged to ask their publisher to change it, even in existing print copies. She cites the GLAAD Media Reference Guide in support of this position. Here’s what GLAADMRG has to say on the subject:

Offensive: “sexual preference”
Preferred: “sexual orientation” or “orientation”

The term “sexual preference” is typically used to suggest that being lesbian, gay or bisexual is a choice and therefore can and should be “cured.”Sexual orientation is the accurate description of an individual’s enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction to members of the same and/or opposite sex and is inclusive of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, as well as straight men and women

The thing is, I flatly disagree with this. I’ve written about this topic before, but I feel that a major problem with the dialogue surrounding queer activism and queer rights in general is the extent to which it is defined exclusively by American interests in response to a framework dictated by the American Christian Right. To be fair to GLAAD here, all they are saying is that the phrase is used by unnamed parties to suggest that being lesbian, gay or bisexual is a choice and therefore can, and should, be cured. They aren’t saying that it logically carries this connotation.

At least I hope they aren’t saying this, because that would make no sense whatsoever.

As I pointed out in my earlier post on GFY, the public discourse about homosexuality is—to my mind harmfully—dominated by the question of whether homosexuality is a choice. My perception is that this stems comes from a very American context and one of the things to recognise about the Anglophone internet is that it is disproportionately dominated by American voices. The reasoning cited by GLAAD for objecting to the phrase “sexual preferences” is utterly logically inconsistent, so much so that I may have to resort to bullet points:

  1. Preference does not imply choice. I prefer tea to coffee. I have not chosen to prefer tea to coffee, I just do. This leads me to choose to drink tea, but it does not imply that my desire to drink tea rather than coffee is something I have actively selected.
  2. Choice does not imply curability, and non-choice does not imply incurability. If it did, the vast majority of medical research would be utterly wasted. We devote billions to seeking cures for cancer. We don’t do this because we believe cancer is a choice. Indeed, it is extremely unclear how a “preference” could ever be seen as curable. I don’t like football, but I’ve never had anyone try to cure me of it.
  3. Curability does not imply undesirability. This is my biggest source of concern with the doctrine that queer rights can only be served by the assertion that homosexuality is immutable. Are we really saying that the only reason it is wrong to try and cure homosexuality is that it wouldn’t work?

If a decade of arguing on the internet has taught me anything, it is that you lose a debate the moment you let the other side define the terms of that debate. By grounding our entire moral, ethical, and practical argument for acceptance in a falsifiable and religiously-derived assertion about the origins of sexual orientation (or, if you prefer, sexual preference) we are accepting the world view of the enemy, and specifically of the most extremist, most religiously bigoted branch of the enemy.

To massively oversimplify, sexual orientation can have a finite number of sources. It could be genetic, it could be environmental, it could be a personal choice, or it could – in essence – have a supernatural origin: that is to say it could come literally from god. If it is genetic, it should be treatable by gene therapy. If it is environmental, it should be treatable by behavioural therapy, or at the very least it should be amenable to environmental controls. If sexual orientation has any material cause then our inability to change it is merely a technological limitation. If, on the other hand, it is a personal choice, an individual will always be free to choose whatever sexual orientation they desire. The only source that sexual orientation can have that is necessarily immutable is for it to be granted at creation by an omnipotent deity. If we make axiomatic the notion that sexuality is fixed at birth, and cannot be changed, we implicitly accept a model of sexuality which centralises a being very much like the Christian god. And we make the argument purely about whether God wants gay people to exist or not.

Speaking as an agnostic, I strongly believe this is not the argument that we should be having. The argument against trying to cure homosexuality is not that it is impossible to cure, it is that it simply does not need to be cured. Any more than left-handedness needs to be cured.

On Terminology and Usage

For what it’s worth, I do think there is a difference between sexual orientation and sexual preference in that I feel sexual preference encompasses everything about your, well, preferred sexual behaviour (whether you’re straight or gay, whether you’re kinky or vanilla, whether you have a low sex drive or a high sex drive, whether you’re a serial monogamist or sleep around a lot). By contrast, I see sexual orientation as referring specifically to how you self-define with regards to your sexuality. As for the use of “sexual preference” in the blurb in question, honestly I think it’s a tricky one, especially because I haven’t read the book, and I don’t really know what it’s about.  But, given the little information available from Cullinan’s post, I can see some circumstances in which the term “preference” might be, well, preferable.

Cullinan mentions that one commenter defended the term on the grounds that the character is deeply in the closet. Cullinan’s response is that this would be acceptable only if the character’s use of language was challenged and shown to be wrong over the course of the book. This strikes me as reductionist and overly prescriptive. Again, I would argue that sexual orientation is a question of self-identity, whereas sexual preference is a question of just that: preference. A character who is unsure of their sexuality would, to me, be best described in terms of their sexual preferences rather than their sexual orientation. Indeed, the sexual orientation of a person who is questioning their sexuality could be seen as being in a state of flux. Again, I recognise this is a slightly unpopular attitude to take because the prevailing discourse of queer acceptance is that orientation is unchanging, and you merely discover it, but I don’t think the way people choose to articulate their identities and experiences should be policed on the grounds of political convenience.

And, obviously, we’re talking about a fictional person here, and while real humans should be assumed to have authority over their own lives, fictional humans are created by writers who are fallible beings. So it is very possible that this particular author just made a careless word choice and that “orientation” was the term they were actually looking for. But, to me, the appropriate word to use is the one that best describes what the author is trying to describe – that is, orientation would be correct if they were attempting to describe a facet (innate or otherwise) of the character’s identity while preference would be the correct term to use to describe things the character wanted or was drawn to, independent of the way they currently identify. This is very different from Cullinan’s argument, which is that orientation is the “correct” term and that “preference” is not merely incorrect, but morally wrong.

I should probably stress that I feel Cullinan has exactly the right attitude here: when you are talking about groups of which you are not part, it is important to pay attention to what members of those groups say, and to adjust your behaviour accordingly. I would absolutely rather people were over-cautious about their language than under-cautious about it. And, if nothing else, the fact that some people will be offended by a term is a reason to avoid it, although depending on the situation it may not be an overwhelming reason. For example, I tend to use queer as a catch-all term for marginalised sexualities and sexual identities and, while I’m aware that some people find it offensive, I’m aware that other people feel included by it.

On Appropriation

Where Cullinan’s conclusions don’t work for me is that they seem to treat social justice and social inclusion as being about a set of prescribed and proscribed actions derived from a perceived external authority. Again, I should stress I’m extremely pleased that Cullinan cares what queer people think, but I’m a little concerned that her post fails to distinguish between objective facts that can be researched (for example, how epilepsy works or the technical details of being a long distance truck driver) and more subjective issues of experience, like what it’s like to be gay or transgender or autistic. To me, these are very different things. And you could almost say that it is marginalising to treat a person’s identity as something that you can “get your facts straight” about. Human beings are messy and other people’s lived experiences are infinite in their complexity and diversity. Writing about a person who belongs to a group of which you are not part is not something you can ever really get “right”. There is no list of facts you can memorise and then walk away saying “now I know what gay people are like.”

In this context, I find her emphasis on research, and specifically on the perceived authority of organisations like GLAAD, profoundly troubling. In particular, I was deeply bothered by her assertion that:

marginalized groups often publish media guides and leave easily Google-able clues as to how they’d like to be addressed and dealt with.

Because, no, “marginalised groups” do not publish media guides or leave easily Google-able clues. Individual people with marginalised identities may publish media guides or, indeed, form groups that publish media guides. But GLAAD does not speak for all queer people, and treating it like it’s the homosexuality pope is as marginalising as, if not more marginalising than, simply not choosing to reference GLAAD’s Media Guide when you write your blurbs.

This shit is complicated.  Writing about a marginalised group to which you do not belong inherently runs the risk of appropriation but, to me, the crucial thing to recognise is that it is for members of that marginalised group to decide whether they feel appropriated. And it is very likely that different members of that group will disagree with each other, and this is okay, and it doesn’t mean that people should stop writing, or stop reading, or stop expressing themselves. And, obviously, it doesn’t mean that writers have no responsibility whatsoever to try and engage sincerely with the people about whom they write, but it isn’t as simple as following a few guides off Google, or getting the okay from your token marginalised friend. And perhaps more importantly it’s not just that these small steps aren’t sufficient, but that nothing is sufficient, and nothing is necessary. Writing about a marginalised group is not carbon offsetting. It’s not like once you’ve done so many hours volunteering at a charity for group [x] you’re allowed to write whatever you like about group [x]. You don’t even necessarily have any greater insights into group [x]. You just happen to have interacted with some people.

It is for individuals to decide whether a particular text marginalises and alienates, or accepts and speaks to them. And neither what the author does in their spare time nor what other people say about their work have any bearing on this. The fact that Michael Moorcock ran the rape scene in Gloriana past Andrea Dworkin does not affect the way other women react to the book, nor does it either support or invalidate people’s positive or negative responses.

Appropriation, at its core, is problematic because it denies the reality of the appropriated group, treating the people in that group as decorations, tools, or metaphors. An approach to appropriation that focuses on universalisable rules that can be internalised and applied uniformly only exacerbates that denial of reality. Rote adherence to a set of taboos and shibboleths does not substitute for, and can in fact detract from, an appreciation of the full humanity of your subjects.

All people have authority over their own experiences, and no people and no groups of people have authority over the experiences of anybody else. GLAAD does not get to define which terms are offensive, or the correct way to talk about human sexuality. It can only express its opinion as a single organisation which operates within a specific, and specifically American, context. When you are writing about a group of people to which you do not belong, you can never “get it right” for the simple reason that there is neither an “it” to get nor a “right” to get it. And to imagine there are erases the individuality of diverse and heterogeneous groups of people.

Writing about socially marginalised groups is at once simple and impossible. It is simple because you don’t actually have to do research or volunteer at charities, you just have to sincerely remember that the people you are writing about are human beings. And it is impossible because human beings are unique and complex and, no matter how much work you do or how closely you feel you empathise, you can never know what it is to live in someone else’s world. The good news is that there are no dues you have to pay or boxes you have to tick. The bad news is that you can never say you’ve paid your dues or ticked your boxes.

And there probably aren’t any cookies either.


56 Responses to Preferences, sexual and otherwise

  1. julio says:

    outstanding. that closing paragraph about summed up everything that’s been scorching my grits lately.

  2. Andrea says:

    This rightchere: “… to me, the crucial thing to recognise is that it is for members of that marginalised group to decide whether they feel appropriated. And it is very likely that different members of that group will disagree with each other, and this is okay…” >>>> Essentially, we’re all human, all messy and complicated and trying. I can write about peeps that aren’t, well, me, but I can’t speak for them. Big difference between the two for me. It’s more important to have the discussion than not, but that does and will always mean disagreements, differences in feelings, interpretations, and on down the line.
    As usual, thank you for openly discussing. In this overly protective and defensive society we find ourselves in, some of that acceptance of differences not then meaning the end of the world or someone becoming an enemy because of those differences, has been lost.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you 🙂

      These sorts of topics are difficult, and complicated, and I’m always a little be leery about engaging with them because people can feel very strongly about them.

  3. Sadie Forsythe says:

    Yet another wonderfully thought out and insightful post. I find that i almost always agree with you. Thank you for being a sane, if occasionally dissenting, voice in the internet void.

  4. Thank you for posting this. I read Cullinan’s article the other day, and while I appreciated what she was trying to accomplish, it was really bugging me. It shouldn’t matter why I love somebody, man or woman. It shouldn’t matter if it’s a preference, or a choice, or the way I was born, or the way I chooose to live. There’s nothing wrong with me, and I don’t need to be “fixed” or “cured”. I hate watching a community arguing that they should be “allowed” to live the way they do because they were born that way. All of us should simply be allowed to live the way that we live and love who we love. Nobody should have to defend themselves in this matter.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I think it’s really difficult because the choice / innate rhetoric is really powerful. And, although I feel that it’s a strategic error to engage with it so much, for a lot of people it’s really really important. It’s essentially part of the way we teach kids it’s okay to be gay, and that makes it an unhelpfully integral part of a lot of people’s identity. And, obviously, while people should be allowed to self-describe as having a sexual preference, or having chosen their sexuality, if they want, they should also be allowed to to articulate it as an inherent part of their nature.

      I’m not sure, but I suspect a lot of it is to do with people trying to reconcile homosexuality with Christianity. Like Kristin Chenoweth, who I really love actually, is a staunch defender of LGBTQ rights, but her line reasoning is strictly “God made you that way, and God don’t make mistakes.” And that’s absolutely fine if you’re a Christian (and I’d rather Christians thought like this than like Westboro Baptist) but it’s still a line of reasoning that makes acceptance contingent on a particular model of sexuality that is actually scientifically falsifiable.

  5. willaful says:

    I think this may be the best post you’ve ever written. So many important, clearly articulated points. This all needed to be said, so very much.

  6. Mel says:

    I’m so happy you said all this!
    I’ve been wondering for a while now what this choice-not-choice debate is all about. Well, I guess I know where this is coming from (answering an argument from the adversaries), but I’ve always felt the argument was moot. As a straight woman (if I had to put a label on me), I’d never dare say it out loud, though.
    I don’t care if it is a choice or not, I don’t even think this can really be decided, all I care about is that everyone can live and love the way they want, chose or what word is most appropriate here. Because there is no need for a cure!

    • Alexis Hall says:

      It’s really difficult because people need to make sense of their identities within the cultural frameworks that they’re used to. And I should probably flag up that this is not a popular opinion so in terms of supporting people with marginalised sexualities it’s, well, it’s not a winner. It’s not that I’m turning around and telling people I don’t think they should say their sexuality is innate, it’s just I think that it’s extremely dangerous to base your argument for moral acceptability on a testable assertion about physical reality.

      It’s even more problematic because it’s so contradictory. The accepted doctrine seems to be that sexuality is in some way physiological but is nevertheless not amenable to physiological treatments.

      Basically I don’t see it as being scientifically impossible for someone to invent a “gay cure” that “works” and I’m very concerned that in the even that this happened every conventional argument for the acceptability of homosexual identities would essentially evaporate.

      • Mel says:

        Yes, I agree.

      • Laura says:

        Oh, I agree with your whole post here, and also the GFY post earlier this year. But this —

        “Basically I don’t see it as being scientifically impossible for someone to invent a “gay cure” that “works” and I’m very concerned that in the even that this happened every conventional argument for the acceptability of homosexual identities would essentially evaporate.”

        — this is something that has been on my mind for a long time, ever since I really started to understand and participate in the debate for queer/LGBT rights. Because acceptance of the “inevitable/innate” goes away pretty quickly when it turns out the “inevitable/innate” can be changed. And then where will everybody be who doesn’t want to change or who has nuances of sexuality not as easily understood as gay or straight? The fervor behind the “god made me this way” argument is both deeply disturbing & entirely in keeping with the way questions of morality are fought in the US.

  7. Pam/Peejakers says:

    Ok, I am going to be typically & embarrassingly effusive, so please forgive me, but I have to, so let me start out by saying this: I just love you, so much, Alexis Hall 🙂

    As usual, you have taken these terms, concepts, assumptions & arguments apart down to sub-neutrino level & not only examined but focused your beam of Deep Thought* on them. I just love it when you do this! (*And no, that was not a reference to the computer in “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’, nor to IBM’s eponymously named chess computer!)

    I know you often say you over-think things. I do too, as you know, & it can be painful, particularly when directed at yourself. But I definitely think that kind of thinking, that way of not just accepting words & concepts at face value, & not just looking at them but deeply into them, & questioning everything about them, is exactly what is needed when considering incredibly complex issues, like these under discussion here.

    And of course I recognize that the specific things you talk about here are things you, perhaps, think about more because you are a member of the marginalized community in focus. But it’s not just that, because you do it with other stuff, and it yields some great insights. Like your perceptive analogy last month about writing/reading m/m equating to drag. Which was as much of an epiphany for me, & probably a few others, as it was for you. I never commented because I got lost in all the chaos of what I wanted to say, but I want to say now, belatedly, thank you for that 😉

    Anyway, back to the subject at hand: Not being a member of the queer community, I’m not sure how much my opinion matters in this & I’m certainly not trying to put some “stamp of approval” on what you say here. Except, you know, my individual one 🙂 But I just really appreciate your thinking & recognition of the complicated-ness of things, willingness to dig beneath the surface & courage talk about them. On this or any subject, but particularly when they are not necessarily the popular view of what constitutes “politically correct” & may generate some flack.

    In my opinion, the world could use a lot more of this kind of thinking.

    Now, to get specific about what I liked here: As usual, to really do that I’d basically have to just copy your whole post & paste it in as a comment, saying: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, all of this!!!” But, I promise, I won’t (quite) do that 😉

    So, here’s what I liked most:

    Your bullet points: Yes, yes, & yes. Your illustration of preference and choice with that tea vs coffee analogy couldn’t have hit the nail on the head any better. So damned perfect, so obviously true, yet it felt so illuminating.

    And this: “Because, no, “marginalised groups” do not publish media guides or leave easily Google-able clues. Individual people with marginalised identities may publish media guides or, indeed, form groups that publish media guides. But GLAAD does not speak for all queer people, and treating it like it’s the homosexuality pope is as marginalising as, if not more marginalising than, simply not choosing to reference GLAAD’s Media Guide when you write your blurbs.”

    Then this: “When you are writing about a group of people to which you do not belong, you can never “get it right” for the simple reason that there is neither an “it” to get nor a “right” to get it. And to imagine there are erases the individuality of diverse and heterogeneous groups of people.”

    Which is something that has troubled me forever about the way marginalized groups, or all groups, are looked at & portrayed. Often even by some people within a group. As in: No, all women do not feel this; all feminists do not agree with that; all black people do not think this; all queer people are not have that opinion; all Christians do not believe this, and so on.

    Also this: “This shit is complicated.” Which shouldn’t be a revelation. But it constantly strikes me how often people are only looking at the misleadingly simple surface of . . . well, everything. Not that I don’t sometimes do it too. I just think we need to really . . . try not to.

    And this, oh this: “If a decade of arguing on the internet has taught me anything, it is that you lose a debate the moment you let the other side define the terms of that debate. By grounding our entire moral, ethical, and practical argument for acceptance in a falsifiable and religiously-derived assertion about the origins of sexual orientation (or, if you prefer, sexual preference) we are accepting the world view of the enemy, and specifically of the most extremist, most religiously bigoted branch of the enemy.”

    And then, definitely this: “The argument against trying to cure homosexuality is not that it is impossible to cure, it is that it simply does not need to be cured. Any more than left-handedness needs to be cured.’

    The last thing strikes me as one of the most important things you’re saying here. Because, when you think about it, even if one does believe homosexuality, or anything, is a choice, aren’t we supposed to be able to make choices? And does anyone really believe it is okay to evaluate the acceptability or morality of any choice in terms of its popularity?

    I liked your “left-handedness” analogy , but because people can argue that handedness is inherent as well, I hope you don’t mind if I add a slightly different (& much longer – sorry) analogy:

    To me, it’s like (to pick an innocuous one): Favorite color. Let’s say mine is purple. Was that love of purple present at birth? Who knows, but lets assume it’s not. My liking for the color purple is a preference. My decision to wear purple clothing, drive a purple car, or paint my house purple, is a choice. But: Even if I am the only person in the world who likes this color, & everyone else hates it, does that make it okay for that majority to forbid, by law or other means, my choice to wear or otherwise display this color? Does that excuse or justify their discriminating against me on if I do? Does it give them the moral authority to bully, attack, imprison or even kill me for my choice, condemn me as a sinner, even try to convince me it’s wrong to like or wear it, or employ brain-washing techniques to make me like a different color?

    Well, of course not, because all of those are violations of my rights & my autonomy, as a living being, a human, an individual. My preference for purple, my choice to wear it, is an expression of my identity, which isn’t something that should be subject to outside control or suppression, let alone punishment.

    Or, in your words, though slightly out of context (sorry): “All people have authority over their own experiences, and no people and no groups of people have authority over the experiences of anybody else. “

    OK, now I need to stop all the quoting as I promised I wouldn’t reproduce your entire text in comments;)

    Oh, but one more, (last time, I promise!), this: “My perception is that this stems . . . from a very American context and one of the things to recognise about the Anglophone internet is that it is disproportionately dominated by American voices.”

    Yeah, well. That & everything else in the world, right? 😛 And I say that, speaking as an American 😉 I think, being inside a massively dominant culture, it’s very difficult to see that, uh, your world is not the whole world, that everyone doesn’t think & do & see everything as you do. There is this tendency to see your individual or collective, nevertheless finite experience, as universal, when it’s clearly . . . not. Something we need to work on.

    Oh, hey, it’s Americanormativity! 😛

    Point is, I really think people forget or simply don’t realize that this domination of the conversation on queer rights by the American Christian right & the struggle against it is an American cultural thing, not a world thing. At least, not yet. This attitude seems to be something that certain interests in our culture are scarily trying to export, & a far more dangerous one than pop-culture & fast-food.

    OK, I could go on & on, because (as always) you say all kinds of other thought provoking things here. But I do have to stop somewhere;)

    So, I will end with this: You know, how I told you before the way you think about stuff, even though the stuff is different, reminds me of my late, beloved & wonderfully deep-thinking brother, M? Yeah, well, that again. Somehow I can’t help but think he is out there somewhere in the universe, giving you a high-five 😉

    • Pam/Peejakers says:

      Um, looking back at this, I wish I’d also said that I also really liked your first paragraph right under the heading “On Appropriation” & also your very last paragraph. So, there, now I’ve said it 😉

      Oh, also, eek, I didn’t mean to celebrate “Americanormativy”! That 🙂 that was supposed to have been a 😛

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Gosh, thank you, so you liked it huh 😉

      I think, as always, the important thing is to have conversations about these things, and – as you say – to think critically about them.

      I do feel very ambivalent about the role of the internet in this kind of dialogue because it does often create this perception of consensus where none exists, or at least where there is greater dissent than one might imagine. As a very tangential and not at all my wheelhouse example, it’s pretty much accepted in internet social justice circles that the “correct” term for people who are not ethnically white is “people of colour”. Back when Frozen came out there were quite a lot of, well, people of colour who were quite angry that yet another Disney princess was a blonde, white girl (and, don’t get me wrong, I love Frozen to bits, but I do see where they’re coming from). And, in one of the posts on the topic, the author mentioned in passing that she can’t stand the term people of colour because it erases and homogenises a set of diverse identities.

      And, obviously, there’s not a huge amount you can do with that information because the internet consensus is the still the internet consensus. And there’s no term you can switch to that won’t be just as objectionable to someone, but for me it was a very timely illustration of the fact that the rules we sort of train ourselves to follow don’t tell us the whole story.

      Americacentrism is another really difficult issue, particularly when it comes to the internet. Again, to stick with the race issues that I am in no way qualified to talk about, I distinctly remember multiple occasions on which I have inadvertently described a person as African American when they did not, in fact, come from America. Our understanding of these issues are so filtered through American perceptions that we’ve somehow taught ourselves to believe its polite to misidentify a person’s country of origin.

      • Mel says:

        I have to say that I feel very insecure with ‘correct’ terms. So I avoid using them altogether, because I fear someone will be offended, which I do not want, of course. It feels to me that I just can’t do it right.

        • Alexis Hall says:

          It’s a difficult one – as KJ says below, I do think it’s important to consider your language, but at the same time – outside of very extreme examples – I often find there’s less consensus than people imagine.

          As always, the main thing to recognise is that the individual preferences of individual people take precedence in specific interactions – and, in my experience, most people are happy to tell how best not to offend them 🙂

          Like I use ask non-binary people what their preferred pronoun, because there genuinely isn’t a clear rule for that. I tend to default to ‘they’ but some people consider it dehumanising. But, ultimately, asking seems a lot less offensive to me than making a blanket assumption or playing pronoun roulette.

          • Mel says:

            Yes, that’s a good thought.

            I feel it’s more difficult when I’m talking about someone or a group and have to hopefully find the politically correct term 😉

  8. KJ Charles says:

    Excellent post. I am hugely in favour of people examining the language they use, but it is easy for that to tip over into shibboleths, and that tends to harm people with good intentions far more than people who don’t care.

    Vaguely related experience: I had a row with an ex boyfriend over my liberal use of c*nt as a swear. He told me, with the most PC possible hat on, that it was degrading and offensive to women and not to use it, and flatly disagreed that I was entitled to a different view, or had a right to use the word without taboo. It apparently didn’t occur to him that trying to silence a feminist with whom he disagreed wasn’t exactly a feminist act.

    So yes, it’s vital to remember there is no one Vocabulary Council to whose authority we can appeal for an unassailable decree.

    • Alexis Hall says:


      This raises another deeply ironic point which is that all too often it feels like social justice issues are, well, appropriated by members of dominant groups as a sort of abstract means of point-scoring.

      Again, this is why I very much agree that reduction to shibboleths because unhelpful because then it becomes this sort of arbitrary memory test completely divorced from its social context. It becomes almost like using the right fork at supper or remembering that a spider is an arachnid rather than an insect. It’s a way for a person to demonstrate their access to privileged knowledge as a means of displaying social superiority.

      • willaful says:

        Yes, yes, yes. I remember being chided by someone when I was working at the library and directed her to the “handicapped” bathroom. Because the correct word is “disabled.” Well fuck you, both me and my son have special needs — another term some hate — and I think the word “disabled” is completely fucked. I would much rather acknowledge a handicap, which is thoroughly accurate, than say we are dis-abled. Who the hell thought that was a better word? I use it, of course, all the time, because it’s the common parlance, but I still think the concept is bizarre. But I put special needs on my GoodReads shelfnames because it’s completely encompassing. If you have an issue that requires help or accommodation, you have special needs.

        • willaful says:

          Let me amend, I use it all the time both because it’s the common parlance AND because I don’t think it’s worth getting into a huge snit about all the time. I don’t want to be that snooty person who chided me. Not that I don’t think words are important. But you often can tell, can’t you, when someone is genuinely offended and wants to educate you and when someone’s just being an entitled pain in the ass.

          • Alexis Hall says:

            Disability (sorry to use the word) is a particularly difficult one. As you’ve seen yourself, a lot of people really object to “handicapped”, I suspect mostly for social context. But I agree that, just looking at the words themselves, it’s peculiar that a word that specifically connotes an additional externally imposed difficulty is considered preferable to one that suggests a simple lack of ability.

            Interestingly, one of the rationales I’ve seen for “disabled” (and, specifically for “disabled people” as an alternative to “people with disabilities”) is that it suggests some kind of external disabling force. I think it’s very easy for society as a whole to assume that people with special needs are just sort of inherently less capable than other people, when actually its often just that specific artefacts (like, say, staircases) are designed in a manner that excludes them. I think the argument is something like that “dis-abled” is supposed to imply that a person is prevented from doing something by social conditions, rather than by a quality inherent to them.

            I admit it’s not entirely convincing. And you can make the same argument, perhaps even more strongly, in favour of handicapped. And in some ways I’d agree that special needs is a more encompassing term but, again, I think it has quite negative connotations in some areas.

            But, as always, personal preferable trumps everything. If you and your son don’t want to be called disabled, then that’s entirely your right.

          • willaful says:

            Honestly, I really don’t care… it’s more that I don’t think the word holds up to close scrutiny and so is not worth snarking at people about. Although the interpretation below of dis-abled as disabled by the world is an interesting one.

        • Pam/Peejakers says:

          Yeah, one of the things that’s always bothered me about some pc terms, is that my sense is that as soon as they become recognizably identified with the people or groups or issues they are intended to describe, they are discarded as “offensive”! It’s as if the term becomes “tainted” by too great an association with it’s actual meaning! And I suspect this happens because society keeps picking up the new term & using it in a derogatory or offensive manner – because they fear or hate or are uninformed about the people or issue it describes. But that’s a problem with society, not the term! Why do bigots & bullies & the ignorant get the right to control the meaning of words that describe marginalized people & issues related to them? Also, as term after term is discarded for this reason, we end up with words that are not meaningfully descriptive of what they are intended to describe. Which, to me, sends a message that there is, indeed, something “bad” about whatever special need or individual characteristic the term is intended to reference, & that the only way to be pc is to use a meaningless term that all but denies the special need or characteristic exists, referring to it in only the most veiled & euphemistic language. To me, that itself seems offensive, not to mention somewhat insane. One that stands out in my mind as particularly idiotic was “differently abled”. I mean, how useless is that? You might as well just say “Human” – I mean, we’re all “differently abled”!

          • Alexis Hall says:

            Once again, it’s a tricky one. I should get that on a T-shirt.

            I think you’re very right that terms do basically come to be seen as pejorative because often the accepted term for a marginalised group becomes insulting by dint of its association with that marginalised group. Spastic might be a good example here. I’m aware it’s fairly common accepted a mild and harmless insult in the US, because in the UK it’s very strongly considered to be a derogatory term for people with cerebral palsy. And what’s interesting in this context is that it absolutely did derive its power as an insult from its association with the group. There used to be a major UK charity called the Spastic Society, but the term became so widely used in a derogatory sense that they had to change their name.

            I think basically the conveyor belt of offensive terms tends to depend on a difficult mixture of linguistic and social factors. A term for a group will often be considered offensive because it was the way that group was described at a time in which prejudice against that group was endemic. Without wanting to open massive can of worms, there’s actually fairly good linguistic evidence that the N-word was considered a perfectly value-neutral way to refer to black people for the best part of a century. But, obviously, it became increasingly associated with a society that – let’s be clear – was pretty racist even when it wasn’t deliberately insulting people. And this, eventually, led to its evolution into a hate term.

            I do think some terms are more amenable to use as insults than others. I’m not a big fan of the overly euphemistic terms but I think longer polysyllabic phrases are less likely to be things that you shout at people in the street. “Non-neurotypical” or, for that matter, “person with cerebral palsy” are probably not going to catch on in the playground.

  9. Karen says:

    I usually run a mile from pitching in on anything ‘political’ for fear either that the language choices that I use could be seen as offensive or spending so much time using homogenised PC speak that it makes no sense at all.
    But what you’ve said here is so true, and reminded me that discussion and debate is how we can shake the world.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I’m always very ambivalent about the idea of PC speak in general, because I always get the impression that at least half of it is actually invented by bigots to make social justice look absurd. Just off the top of my head, I’ve seen people insist that the reason geological samples in museums are labelled “so many million years before present” as opposed to “so many million years BC” is because “something something Jesus something some Muslims” when, in fact, it’s just that – on a geological timescale – a couple of thousand years either way doesn’t matter, so before present has always been the convention.

      • willaful says:

        And all the “persons” when there’s usually no need for it at all. “Mail carrier.” “Waitstaff.” “Chair.” All perfectly acceptable terms.

      • Kaetrin says:

        As a completely tangential aside, according to QI, the “before present” is a reference to about 1950 (ish) when the carbon in the atmosphere became too much to accurately date fossils and suchlike.

        (you may file that away in useless random trivia)

        • Alexis Hall says:

          You have to take QI with a pinch of salt. I am 99% certain that fossils aren’t carbon dated because the half-life of carbon-14 is about 5700 years and so it’s not much use for anything more than about 100,000 years old.



  10. cleo says:

    Thank you for this post. I read the Cullinan post first, and I had this feeling like I’d somehow failed the test – I’m queer but I couldn’t figure out what was offensive in the blurb she quoted until she explained it.

    I also appreciate you pointing out the American bias in the whole choice/not a choice debate. As an American, I didn’t see that, but it makes sense.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      As far as I know, Heidi’s queer as well, so she has the absolute right to be personally offended by whatever phrases she finds offensive. But, obviously, queer people aren’t monoliths, and – to borrow your language – it’s really important that these things not be seen as tests.

      On the American bias thing, I might be talking complete nonsense. I’m going mostly by my personal experiences, and obviously those are very, very limited, but I’ve just never seen that whole debate outside of an American context. And, obviously, it’s difficult because America exports massively and we do occasionally get extremely homophobic preachers on the street corners of our town, but they do tend to have American accents.

  11. Darla says:

    BLISTERING post! You are so spot on with the notion of religion informing so very much of American ideology on this topic. I love the “Americanormative”. I couldn’t agree more – ‘this shit is complex’. Thank you for this excellent post.

  12. Kaetrin says:

    It’s amazing how much of US culture has drifted into the wider world. Relatively recently, I found out that the whole “life begins at conception” thing was something which came out of the American Christian Right in the 1960s when the women’s movement was strong and the Right wanted to Shut Them Up (as they still do) and Keep the Wimmenz in Their Proper Place (as they still do.) It’s not at all biblical but it has been accepted into canon and doctrine as if it was in chapter 4 of 1 Timothy or something. The Far Right Fundy Christians in the US have a lot to answer for.

    • Darla says:

      Truly one of the worst and most corrosive elements in America. Hangs head in shame…

      • Pam/Peejakers says:

        Oh yeah, I’m with you there. And at the risk of going too far into discussing religion & politics: And what kills me is that some genuinely good people fail to see that alliance of a church or religious group with a political entity does not empower religion in the political sphere; it “corrupts” it; it empowers the political entity instead, by allowing it to coopt religion & use it for it’s own agenda. I mean, uh, I seem to *kinda* remember a story about that in the bible: Christ rejecting worldly power because it’s price is worship of the devil, hello folks?

      • Alexis Hall says:

        Oh come on, some of my best friends are American 😉

        • darla says:

          The USA is just soooo big and so full of ignorant people. And everywhere you go, you just find more USA–even in the really bizarre tiny places that are the MOST bizarre places, it is still the “USofA”. The Fundy Christian Right is a large extrapolated version of not only many large church bodies, but also tiny religious societies in both rural and urban USA–people who need their Bible interpreted on such a personal level (uneducated) that they form ‘home’ churches so they can have what is really just derivative cult religion that can change as often in tenet/thought/interpretation as with the flavor of whatever artificial creamer is being added to the house coffee that day. One must travel to high density urban areas to relieve oneself of the giant cloak of homogenized religious thought that pervades whole states throughout the USA to the tune of the idea that if you aren’t going to Church on Sundays you are being a Bad Person. Really. True. And sadly, this yawning maw of the Fundy Christian Right is so huge and pervasive that ‘responses’ to it do become ensconced in this particular way that it appears to be the only response. And, it’s like the volume has to be turned to 11 because that yawning maw will not shut. You just wouldn’t believe how women’s reproductive rights and sexual rights are being challenged and trod upon daily in this country. The USA is a very sex-negative culture–the Religious Right basically doesn’t even want straight people to have sex, much less other marginalized groups! It is a crazy state of affairs and laws vary from state to state. Oral sex is part of the sodomy laws still on the books in certain states and is used against LGBTQ families to take children away, etc. It is shameful, but religion/ignorance/intolerance drives much of this cultural cum political phenomena. It is so discouraging. One can hardly hear an individual thought/idea above the roaring din.
          That said, some of us do make very good friends. grin.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I hadn’t heard that before, but it does make sense. A surprising amount of stuff that’s sort of vaguely accepted as part of Christianity now seems to have its origins in various bits of America. I’m not sure, but I think Young Earth Creationism is another good example. As far as I know, neither the Catholic Church nor the Church of England claim the Earth was created 6000 years ago (obviously I’m aware that these aren’t the only two non-American Churches, they’re just the only two I’m really familiar with).

      • Kaetrin says:

        Well here’s another random fact for you. It’s not from QI this time (so maybe it’s right! :D). I heard it on the Sleek Geeks podcast – a couple of nerds from Sydney. Apparently James Usher from Dublin in 1650 thought he’d try 3 methods of working out how old the earth was from the bible. 1) with all the begetting and begetting 2) from the references to all the kings and 3) from the various historical events and he came up with this number of 6000 odd years. In 1701, the Bishop William Lloyd of Winchester, without Usher’s permission, got the publishers to put that date in the great edition of the King James bible. Suddenly it was there in the margins of the holy book and ever since it’s kind of been accepted as fact. But it was never intended to be. (ref Sleek Geeks podcast 22 July 2014 Teh Number 12, Skeptics and Ice Beer)

  13. Beverley Jansen says:

    ‘Writing about a marginalised group is not carbon offsetting. It’s not like once you’ve done so many hours volunteering at a charity for group [x] you’re allowed to write whatever you like about group [x]. You don’t even necessarily have any greater insights into group [x]. You just happen to have interacted with some people.’

    Oh I loved this post and the passage above really resonated with me. I am now allowing myself to write, and I write about people. Whilst it is always preferable to aim not to offend anyone, I find it offensive that people should read a politically correct manual and think they can now write for me or any other group. If we agree ‘love is love’ we have to agree that people are people, and whilst I have blonde hair it doesn’t mean I feel or think the same as another blonde, but I may share another blonde’s pain of having my hair turn green in the swimming pool or being thought of as dumb.

    I think this also ties in with being called an ‘Ally’. I am allied to causes, ideas, I am also against many injustices and political wrongs but these are things I choose to do, not who I am.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      It’s difficult because while I disagree with a lot of what Heidi says, I agree with the general thrust behind her post: which is that if you’re going to write about a group you don’t belong to, you owe them a certain duty of respect. My issue is with the assumption that this duty can be discharged by reading certain specific prescribed bits of the internet.

      And obviously people have the right to write about groups they don’t belong to, they just don’t have the right to claim authority or standing over the best way to represent that group.

  14. Bucletina ミキ (@Bucletina) says:

    Hi Alexis! Nice to meet you. First, i wanted to say sorry in advance about my english. I will try to be understandable. Second, this was exactly what i needed to read after weeks struggling and being furious, and wonder why anybody couldn´t read behind the surface.
    I’m from Argentina, which explains the context in which I grew up. Last week I finished reading a book by the author, the first. And my reaction was of complete anger, anguish and despair.
    My question was:
    How nobody but NOBODY could noticed the huge and gigantic prejudices the book (and the author) had with certain social issues, holding in turn a great speech against those who suffer the gay community?
    Nobody else noticed how the author has some serious preconceptions with immigrants? And with people living in very poor districts?
    The only conclusions were:
    a) Being an immigrant is equal to live in an isolated ghetto and therefore have some genetics to attack a gay person, assault, steal, etc.
    (“There are places I have to be careful, sure, and some of the immigrant communities are downright dangerous because they brought their prejudices with them”)
    b) If you’re poor, you live in a horrible district, probably demolished, to which all are afraid and throw warnings as if it were the very end of the world.
    c) You can not trust a poor person (if also an immigrant, worse), because surely mistreat you, you say “fagot” you out of your house and steal.

    You can´t make a character the nicest one, but returning everything else unpleasant. Like i said, I’m from Argentina, and like all my fellow Latin Americans, victims of decades of abuse, vilification, violence, and prejudice.
    So thank you so much for this post. For your last paragraph. For understand. I feel so good right now.

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