Intellectual Imperialism and the Vocabulary of Harm

The headline of a recent Medium post, “The Age of the Imbecile” caught me at a bad time. I’m immersed in examining the harmful impact of words on people who experience a disability. “Imbecile” is one of the terms developed by Professor Henry Goddard in 1913 to categorize people who he described as “feebleminded.” Known as the father of the eugenics movement he coined deadly phrases such as “the final solution” which seeped into the broader culture.

The author of the Medium post has a wide audience. Many describe him as progressive and inspirational. I’ve read his bio. He is someone I’d like to meet. His post went on to describe the varieties of what he described as catastrophic stupidity. They included, “human folly, gleeful ignorance, self-destructive greed, reckless spite, dim-witted cruelty parading itself as enlightenment” and “someone who cannot assign meaning to the world.”

A quick glance at his other essays reveals his insights into why the world feels like it’s going crazy, how to survive decline without losing your mind and an equation between mistrust and becoming  blind, deaf and mute.

That’s an awful lot of baggage for the world’s largest minority group, people who experience a disability, to carry. Especially since those descriptors have been the basis for excluding, oppressing, incarcerating and murdering them throughout history. Goddard’s eugenics arguments, for example, led to mass sterilization and influenced the Nazis deadly intent. They began their experiments towards their “final solution” with the widespread extermination of people who experienced physical and mental disabilities.

Of course the Medium blogger is not alone in his use of disability descriptors. We all do it. Innocently. Carelessly. Ignorantly. Unaware of the original context of our vocabulary. And why they perpetuate racism, sexism and ableism. A quick glance at my own writing flushes out similar descriptors and metaphors. And I should know better. I’ve been a family member of the world of disability for nearly four decades.

Here’s what worries me the most. The backlash against the populism that is on the rise around the world is leading to intellectual imperialism – to putting those who may not seem as smart as those with “superior” insight in their place. This is not a careless comment on my part. Over the past eighteen months I’ve heard civil libertarians and change-makers muse about putting limitations on who should be allowed to vote. And about bypassing the electoral process. Intelligence is a dangerous illusion. Goddard, undoubtedly a smart scientist, manufactured all his research to justify his eugenic conclusions. That’s right he faked it. Let’s not confuse intelligence with ethical behaviour, compassion or love.

So what are fair minded people to do?

Watch your language. Phrases and words such as “rule of thumb” (the maximum allowable thickness of the stick a man could use to beat his wife) and “savage” carry historical meaning that still harms. There is certain to be more that you and I don’t know.

Expand your vocabulary.  Men once thought it would be impossible to find a pronoun other than “he” to describe male and female. That’s no longer a challenge. We are capable of crafting our sentences using words that respect and nurture the complexities of life. Everyone’s life.

Meditate on Vulnerability. The truth is that it is very likely that you or someone you love will experience a disability at some point. The truth about vulnerability is that that’s who we are.

Pay Attention. People who experience a disability have an awful lot to teach the world about surviving and thriving in adversity. Sadly that wisdom is largely invisible and untapped.

Here are some insights to make you curious:

Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change. ~ Stephen Hawking, scientist

This word, it’s like taking a knife and sticking it in my heart and twisting it.” ~ Eddie Barbanell, actor, Special Olympian and campaigner to end the use of the “r” word

We all have different levels of learning, no one should put a label on that, no ones perfect, it’s like that saying don’t judge a book from its cover, it’s what is in the in side that counts, and that is a beautiful thing, the key is to lessen (listen) to one another. ~ Liz Etmanski, artist and poet 

Just because someone lacks the use of their eyes doesn’t mean they lack vision. ~ Stevie Wonder, singer

Losing my hearing made me a better listener. ~ Evelyn Glennie, award winning percussionist

Silence is the last thing the world will ever hear from me. ~ Marlee Matlin, Oscar winning actor

The white cane entrusted a sighted community with my care when all I needed was to be supported in learning through my non-visual senses. ~ Carmen Papalia, performance artist

My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings. All my works in pastels are the products of obsessional neurosis and are therefore inextricably connected to my disease. ~ Yayoi Kusama, most popular artist is the world 


White Men Can’t Jump and People with Disabilities Can’t Act

Yayoi Kusama’s Path to Infinity

Cultural Transformation, One Baby Gerber Step at a Time

Eyes Wide Shut, Carmen Papalia’s Guide to Democracy

“Saving” Ryan

Mental Fitness Touches a Nerve in Everyone

You Can Learn Lots about Social Innovation from the World of Disability

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it


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