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Safe Spaces

fenceLately, I’ve been thinking a lot about language, and hate speech, particularly how it applies to people with disabilities. There’s not a consensus on the seriousness of hate speech, as I’ve been reminded lately. Some believe that words only have the power that we as individuals grant them. If we’re offended, it’s a choice we make. Some feel that language is constantly changing, and so it’s a futile gesture to try to keep up with what is acceptable and what has transformed into an ugly slur, like a linguistic game of Whack-a-Mole. Some don’t believe in the concept of hate speech at all, and that free speech is the most important pillar of all. If people are hurt by words, some believe, it’s a small injury, and not worth undermining the freedom of expression that we all should enjoy.

I recognize the validity of all those philosophies of language. I’ve subscribed to some of them myself in the past. Let me share my own feelings as they stand now.

I believe that language creates spaces. The words we use build the narratives we create, and those narratives define the parameters of our lives. Stop and think for a moment just how much of our lives are driven by the narratives we’ve been handed all our lives. Our language and our communication shapes and defines those pervasive narratives.

And as language builds those societal narratives, hate speech creates safe spaces.

Hateful slurs are labels. They carry embedded meanings with them, ones that are coded into our psyches. They are a kind of short-hand for pictures of ugliness, ones that we dare not speak aloud anymore. When someone uses a word like “retard”, there’s an image they want to place in your head, a grotesque caricature of a person with an intellectual disability. Describing that caricature would be awful, and thanks to popular culture, low-brow comedy and the middle school playground, we don’t require description. The slur itself gives us the rest. Hate speech creates a space.

Those spaces matter. Those safe spaces are like fertile earth. When a word like “retard” lands unchallenged, as it usually is, it takes root, creates a small environment, maybe just between two friends. Or maybe between five friends. Maybe in a college dorm or a fraternity house, where it gets used with abandon and where anyone who is bothered by it probably doesn’t feel comfortable speaking up against it.

Perhaps it lives freely and protected in a comedy club, where a comedian feels no hesitation to impersonate people with intellectual disabilities and mock their humanity, declare their desires to be grotesque. Perhaps that safe space, that hate garden, now expands to the airwaves as that comedian’s work finds a premium cable channel to live and breath.

That safe space can be a twitter feed of an enormously popular comedian, making fun of the physical appearance of kids with a particular disability even as he advocates for funding to combat a health crisis. He’s doing something for the greater good, but the hateful language and cheap laugh or disability slurs are too tempting. His good work is tainted, but no one raises objections, because there’s a safe space.

This space created around hate speech and the loaded narratives that inhabit it, it extends to public policy, to cuts in special education and services for adults with disabilities. It creates a world where people with disabilities are almost certain to have difficulty finding employment, except in “pity pay” workplaces where they make pennies a day. That space holds room for pop culture to dehumanize people with disabilities, and it creates space for law enforcement to abuse or even kill people with disabilities whose motivations and actions aren’t understood without proper training, and who’s got time or money for that?

Hate speech and its environment protect a societal belief that only those who may contribute to society in a very narrow manner are worthy of citizenship and humanity, rather than just pity. We treat people according to the worth we grant them, and the hate speech that is so prevalent in our society affords them very little value. Simple words, thrown around casually and carelessly, like grenades, like poison seeds that will blossom where they fall.

Hate speech directed at those with disabilities creates safe spaces, from which very dangerous gardens grow.

I’ve spent the last few days, and really much longer than that, trying to make peace with the distance between my own feelings about anti-disability slurs and those of people who defend their use or at the very least dismiss the idea that language can be harmful, that words can yield a harvest. I’m trying so hard to find a positive track, one where new safe spaces are created to give our kids and our loved ones room to be who they’re going to be, and the freedom to develop their own unique talents and to find their loves and their thrills and their guilty pleasures.

Those are the safe spaces we should be creating. But it’s not enough to build them. They have to be nurtured and protected. We as a village are doing a very poor job of that.

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