Words are only part of the problem

[Content note: ableism, rape]

It seems everyone is losing faith in politicians these days, and you can see why when it seems every other week one of them is making headlines for having said something horrendously offensive. I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to get tired of public figures apologising for ill-chosen words, when usually the words they’ve chosen are only part of the problem.

Two days, two scandals. Both about words.

Today, Swindon mayor Nick Martin was told to apologise for using the word ‘mongol’ to describe people with disabilities having sex during – irony klaxon – a presentation about abuse that they might face.

“I have apologised for using a word I shouldn’t have,” he said, telling BBC Wiltshire that it’s a word he “was brought up with” and is “not a modern word”.

Words are powerful. Some words are made more powerful because they’re tied up with a history of oppression. ‘Mongol’ isn’t just an old fashioned phrase; it’s no longer used by most people because it’s an exceptionally ableist and racist way to refer to someone with Down’s syndrome. Because it’s offensive and hurtful, and you’d hope we’d moved past the mentality that it’s acceptable to treat people as anything less than equal, regardless of ability or sex or ethnicity or any other trait.

So his apology wasn’t enough. But it’s not just that one word that was the problem. The rest of the sentence was hardly innocuous – though it would have been grounds enough for resignation if it had. What he said was: “do we allow these mongols to have sex?”

So you can see why people are calling for his resignation. And I agree with them – I don’t want someone in power who refers to disabled people as though they don’t have the capacity to make decisions for themselves. Or that they need handlers letting them do things, like animals who should be kept under better control.

I don’t want someone in power who uses language that reinforces the them|us divide or suggests that a certain group deserves to be marginalised and kept at the fringes of society.

I don’t want someone in power who thinks someone’s disability makes their sex life his business.

I don’t want someone in power who thinks that when he does these things, his only problem was using a word he shouldn’t have. Do you?

Today’s second apology came from Tory councillor Barbara Driver, after she likened planners’ powerlessness in the face of a bullish council to rape in pretty much the most grossly offensive way possible: “when rape is inevitable, lie back and enjoy it”.

I’m not going to repeat what I’ve written several times before about the devastating effects of trivialising rape – you can read about that here, here and here. But it’s not just what she said in the first place that made me uncomfortable, but the apology as well.

“I was trying to put across – badly I will say – the fact of developers having not put much social and affordable housing in and the council saying we can’t do anything about it,” she said.

“But I used a term that I had heard years ago without thinking. It was totally dreadful. it was done without thinking about the rape bit. I know that sounds silly.”

‘Silly’? It’s not just that the analogy was crass, or inappropriate, or dismissed thousands of people’s traumatic experiences – though that would be enough. What makes it even worse is that it was used, as Driver explained, utterly unthinkingly.

I don’t want someone in a position of power who doesn’t think about the rape bit. I don’t want someone who doesn’t consistently have the wellbeing of the people they represent at the front of their mind to be making decisions on behalf of those people.

I want more from a public servant than the ability to choose words carefully in spite of their prejudices.

Words are only part of the problem.

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