Tag Archives: othering

Them

I want to talk about words again. Specifically, one type of word – “they” or “them.”

I’m just going to come right out and say it -“they” is a risky word.

Just to be clear, it is not a bad word, by any means. The word ‘they” has lots and lots of uses, starting with a simple way to refer to a group of people and continuing on from there. It is excellent as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun, especially in a language that has yet to come up with anything better, or at least anything that has really caught on. ‘They’ or ‘them’ can be really useful words in many different contexts, and I am not trying to claim otherwise.

However, “they” can also be a divisive word. When you pair the word “them” with “us” it takes on a new meaning. ‘They” starts to mean “not us.”

This is when it gets risky.

It is very easy to use the word “them” when talking about a group of people of which you are not a part. I might say “them” when I’m talking about cisgendered men or allistic people as these are groups which are definitely not me. However, what if there was a good chance that I was also talking TO cisgendered men or allistic people?

From my perspective, it always feels a bit weird when someone is talking to me, and then refers to a group of which I am a part as “them.” Recently I had a short back-and-forth with someone on a forum who, while talking to me, repeatedly referred to females as “them” and “they.” It was odd. I think he perhaps did not realize that he was talking to a female-bodied person.

Now, that particular instance was not particularly offensive. It was just strange. However, it can get offensive, or at least bothersome, quite quickly and easily. Especially when it’s paired with an “us.” I think it is very important, when writing, to stay aware of word usage. To notice who we are referring to as “them,” to pay attention to the manner in which we are doing to, to notice if we are separating “them” from “us.” And then to think about if that’s something we actually want to do.

I mean, sometimes it is a thing we want to do. Sometimes I am explicitly addressing a very specific group of people. Or maybe there is a group of people who I really do not want to be addressing. Maybe I want to create distance between an “us” group and a “them” group.

But then, maybe I don’t. In which case, I need to be careful. When I wrote my post Autism and Race, it was something I put a lot of effort into. The “us” I wanted to create was everyone on the autism spectrum, regardless of race. However, because I am white it would have been very easy to start saying “them” when referring to autistic people of color. Doing so, however, would have created a divide that I really did not want. The same thing can happen when I am talking about disability. I want “us” to be everyone with a disability, regardless of visibility or severity. Sometimes, though, I am specifically talking about people with disabilities that I do not share, such as people with physical disabilities or people who are non verbal. If you are a part of one of those groups, I still want you to be part of “us.”

Which brings me to another important point – I generally assume that my readership is diverse (at least partly because I want my readership to be diverse). Do I want someone reading my blog to suddenly find themselves (gender neutral singular) as part of a “them?” Well… maybe sometimes. But mostly no, no I do not. So whenever I write, I try to keep this in mind. I think everyone who write should keep it in mind.

When talking *about* a group of people, referring to that group as “them” means that you are not talking *to* them. Is that really something you want?

It’s something to think about, at least.

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Filed under opinion, ponder

Erasure

I think I want to attempt to talk a little bit about erasure. It is something that has sat around on the fringes of my mind and I’ve talked about subject matters that have been experiencing erasure, but I have never actually named it. Nor have I explicitly pointed at something, called it out as erasure, and said that it is not ok. But I want to do so now.

First of all, it seems worthwhile to talk a little bit about what erasure is. Oddly enough, while the word is used often enough in various activism spaces, I was not able to find anywhere giving a basic 101-level explanation of what it means when people use the word. So I am going to take a stab at it, largely based on how I see it getting used. Disclaimer: this is a very broad explanation coming from someone who is new to activism. Not everyone uses the word in exactly the same way, nor does everyone define it the same way. So as far as I have seen, erasure is basically metaphorically erasing something. Perhaps it is whitewashing history to leave out the parts we would rather not admit to, or quietly pretending that certain groups of people don’t/didn’t exist or matter. It is explicitly or implicitly creating silence around an issue or a history or a people (etc).

I recently read an article comparing people’s responses to James Holmes, Adam Lanza, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. By and large, I did actually agree with the article. It talked about how Tsarnaev’s actions have been labelled an “act of terror” while the actions of James Holmes and Adam Lanza were not. It talked about the different ways people have been judging large groups of people. Because Holmes and Lanza have names that American’s tend to find easy to pronounce and belonged to a religion that most Americans find familiar, we do not demonize the race or religion that they belong to. We use different words to describe them and make different assumptions and say different things.

While it would probably be possible to debate various points or conclusions that the article makes, overall I generally agree with the specific points about how we stereotype people of different races or religions. People who look different, sound different, believe different, and have different names.

Which brought up the question, why do I feel so ooky when I read that article? Where is this twisty, turny, unhappy feeling in my belly coming from? Then I realized – in not stating certain things that happened in response to Lanza, the article quietly implied that Lanza was an example of someone who is held responsible for his crimes independently of any group of which he is a part. That people simply did not demonize and hate a whole group of people due to his actions.

In reality, this is not how it happened.

There was very real ugliness in response to Lanza. Ugliness that prompted me and others to write about it in protest. It all seemed to start when news outlets implied a link between Asperger’s and violence, and implied that Lanza’s Asperger’s may have had something to do with what he did. From there, it all went to pot. People freely and happily demonized Asperger’s and aspies, and made ugly, hateful, and scary comments as such. People advocated violence against us. People yelled that we should all be locked away and the key be thrown away. There were people who, when finding that someone they are talking to is an aspie, would respond with “oh, like Adam Lanza?” There were aspies afraid to leave their homes for fear of violence and reprisals against them, for something they had nothing whatsoever to do with. People brought up the tired old empathy arguments, claiming that all aspies have no empathy and either implying our outright stating that this must make us all sociopaths. It was also broadened into demonizing mental illness in general, furthering the stigma and stereotypes.

It happened. It was scary and it was hurtful and it was bad. And this article is simply ignoring that entire history in order to make a point about race and religion. It is a point I agree with, but I am not ok with a very important history being ignored for the sake of that point. I am not ok with it being quietly but completely erased, leaving us with the quiet implication that when it came to Adam Lanza, nobody got hateful about an entire group of people, or implied (or outright stated) that aspies are more likely than others to be violent, or are continuing to do so.

It is true that Americans did not (and possibly could not) Other Lanza based on his race or his name or his religion. But they could, and they did, based on his neurology. If I wanted to, I could easily make my own point that no one is demonizing all allistic or neurotypical people based on Tsarnaev’s actions – but it would be wrong of me to ignore the impact that his name, his country of origin, and his religion is having. It is equally wrong to ignore the impact of neurology and how people will respond to that.

I also find myself wondering about why, or even how, it was omitted. I do not want to assume malevolence, but I am hard pressed to believe that the author was simply unaware of this history. It was not hidden or secret or difficult to find. It was all over the place. Even if it is simple obliviousness and nothing more malicious than that, it is still disturbing to me. Whether deliberate or not, there is still an undertone that the way aspies were maligned just doesn’t really matter. That it certainly doesn’t matter the same way that demonization based off race or religion matters. That we can go ahead and overlook it, even though it would be highly relevant in a conversation about how people will hate anything that is Other in this sort of situation. Regardless of how deliberate it was, there was definite bias here. This is not ok.

Don’t erase me. Don’t erase my history or my activism or my fear or my hurts. A whole group of people was blamed for the actions of one man. Do not forget it.

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Filed under issue, rant

I get it now

I’ve seen many blog posts and arguments and protestations from the autism community regarding empathy. Many of them boiled down to “yes, we have empathy!” stated in a most emphatic fashion. I will confess, I didn’t really understand them. Not so much the content, as the need for such posts in the first place. I mean, I knew that there are people out there saying less-than-flattering things about ASDs and empathy, but I also knew that I struggle with certain forms of empathy (since “empathy” is an incredibly broad word with lots of different meanings).

Then I read this blog post.

Oh.

Now I get it.

I have never actually read anything by Simon Baron-Cohen. I knew he was someone who said less-than-nice (or true) things about those of us on the autism spectrum. What I did not know was just how bad it was. Just how awful the things he says are, and by extension, just how harmful he is as a so-called “expert” on autism, as someone people listen to and take seriously.

He isn’t saying that we struggle with empathy. He says that we do not have any empathy, nor can we develop it. Plus, now I get to add him to the list of those that other us, and who say that being different makes us wrong. Similar to my puzzle complaint, now we also have that if I pull away from other people it’s because I lack empathy. Yet if they pull away from me, it’s because I’m wrong somehow. Similar behaviors from two different groups, but both get to be my fault because I am the one who is different.

For the record, I am tired of being othered.

In any case, I’ve decided that Simon Baron-Cohen needs to be added to my reading list. I think it will be useful to me to have a better understanding of the dialogue out there about aspergers and autism, including the harmful voices.

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Filed under personal, ramble