Thursday 12 June 2014

The One in Which I'm Told 'Don't Censor Me!'

I had a bizarre twitter conversation with a left-wing writer last night which started when they put up a tweet which attacked Farage and UKIP, which I'd normally be all in favour of, but did it by way of likening him to 'the nut on the bus'. It wasn't the first time they had used a disablist term as a negative, so I tweeted

@Name_Redacted Do wish you wouldn't use that kind of disablist stereotyping.

Which I'd have been happy to leave at that. However they then DM'd me, protesting it was just a joke about Farage, 'But feel free to unfollow me.'

Sidebar: As the conversation they initiated was DMs, I'm going to keep their name out of this, but seeing as it ended up accusing me of attempted censorship for protesting disablist language, I feel perfectly entitled to use it to explore the issues around this. I'll paraphrase their replies, but use mine mostly verbatim.

I replied:
If I unfollow, how does that help me change the way society sees disability? To be honest, kind of language I'd expect from Farage.

Their reply told me I needed to keep things in context, that it was just a joke and not a PhD thesis. So I tried to explain the context for disabled people, hoping to get them to understand that what is a throwaway issue for them is nothing of the sort for us.

Context for me is around a dozen instances of on-street violence related to my disability. Difficult to see the funny side.

The reply to that was to tell me that Twitter isn't something I should feel I should censor and that things that happened to me doesn't give me the right to censor (remember, I only told them I wished they wouldn't use disablist terminology).

To try and illustrate the issue with a parallel I asked:
Would you give Farage a pass if he said 'thieving Roma on a bus'?

Possibly that was escalatory, but by this time I was feeling that there was a definite issue to paint me as the wrongdoer here. Their reply was to say it wasn't about giving them a pass and to challenge me as to whether I would say the same on a bus if it wasn't directed at me. I can't speak to the bus situation, but I know I do it regularly online, particularly if attacks are being directed at someone I know.

The next post, following straight on from the previous one, told me that the law limited what they said and that they didn't need an editor to censor them. I replied

I wasn't demanding the right to censor you, I was suggesting you consider the meaning of what you were saying, hoping you would self-censor

They replied that their words were chosen carefully, sometimes provocative, and that I should block them, but not deliver a lecture, and that asking someone to consider self-censoring was still a weak form of censorship.

And then they unfollowed me, which was unfortunate as I really wanted to bring in reclaiming the language and the N-word to try and help them understand the issue.

In many respects this is a storm in a teacup, but it directly parallels another twitter conversation I had a few months ago in which someone, again professing to be left-wing and to stand against anything discriminatory, used the R-word. I asked them not to do it, and rather than say 'Sorry, I didn't realise it was so offensive to disabled people,' he vehemently denied that there was anything wrong with saying it, an insistence that continued even when linked to multiple articles on the subject. I've seen similar reactions elsewhere (not initiated by me) that insist disabled people don't have the right to find disablist language offensive.

And, finally, here's my point. We know disability discrimination isn't as well understood by society as other forms of discrimination, but the reclamation of hate speech should be well known, at least among politically active leftists, through the example of the US Civil Rights Movement and the reclamation of the N-word. Yet try and extend the same principles to disablist terms, whether outright use of the R-word, or disparaging references to the 'nut on the bus', and some leftists will treat it as a personal attack, or portray it as censorship. If even leftists won't accept our right to the same accomodations in language as People of Colour, then we may have made even less progress in our fight for equality than we had hoped.

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