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Derek Bowman

"Contra the assumption that many of the commenters seemed to make, language and discourse are not politically-neutral purveyors of value-neutral information and facts..."

I read the comments at Daily Nous, but I didn't interpret any of the commenters there as making any such general assumption. Rather, they seemed to be granting that language can be damaging, but arguing of some specific terms (such as "crazy") that those particular terms do not have the moral and political significance you would assign them. Could you say more about why you're interpreting them as making the more general claim?

(For whatever relevance it might have, I have suffered from and been treated for depression and anxiety, but I don't consider myself disabled because (a) I have been asymptomatic for a significant period of time and (b) other forms of social privilege ensured that I didn't suffer any significant social disadvantage as a result of my condition).

Shelley Tremain

Thanks for your comment and question, Derek. As the title of my post indicates, I think that linguistic (and discursive) practices are not neutral, politically, normatively, evaluatively, descriptively, and so on. Notice that my remark that you quoted does not commit me to the claim that (all of) the commenters think that all language and discourse is politically neutral and value neutral, but only commits to me to the claim that they believe at least some linguistic and discursive practices are neutral. In the post, I wrote: “It would be very strange indeed if, as some commenters seemed to suggest, linguistic and discursive practices were formative of other social inequalities, yet somehow remained outside of, apart from, and indifferent to, the domain of disability and ableist oppression.” None of the commenters offered arguments designed to justify a distinction between, on the one side, the term crazy and other language that has been identified as ableist and thus harmful, but which most of them regard as harmless and, on the other side, language that they do regard as legitimately harmful.

Thanks again for your response to my post.



Do you think all language is either good or bad? So for instance calling someone "tall" is either good or bad? It seems to me, that at least some language is morally neutral.

Shelley Tremain

Thanks for your provocative question, Mary.

My claim is that no language is neutral, not that all uses of language are either morally good or bad. The claim is that no language is without political, social, evaluative, cultural, or some other kind of import and thus is not neutral. Language is never merely descriptive.

Generally speaking, I think that the descriptive-prescriptive distinction, like the fact-value distinction (among others), ought to be collapsed. Any description is a prescription for the formulation of the person, practice, or thing to which it is claimed to (merely) refer. As I have argued elsewhere, truth-discourses that purport to merely describe phenomena contribute to the constitution of their objects.

This claim has implications for human action. The possible courses of action from which people may choose, as well as their behaviour, self-perceptions, habits, and so on are not independent of the descriptions available to them under which they may act; nor do the available descriptions occupy some vacuous discursive space. Rather, descriptions, ideas, and classifications work in a cultural matrix of institutions, practices, power relations, and material interactions between people and things.

Thanks again for your interesting question.

Derek Bowman

Thanks for your reply, Shelley (if I may).

I think it's false that none of the commenters offered any arguments aimed to distinguish ableist language from forms of language they consider harmful. Phil did precisely that, contrasting his personal experience of harmful racial epithets with his experience of the ableist terms corresponding to disabilities which he identifies as having.

While the other commentators who self-identify as suffering from some form of mental illness do no seem to directly address the question of other harmful forms of language, they too appeal to their specific experience of ableist language associated with their own disabilities.

I'm not suggesting you should be persuaded by these arguments from experience - as you suggest, those reported experiences may simply be the result of their having internalized pernicious ableist norms.

Even granting all that, I don't understand your basis for attributing to them a general thesis about the moral and political significance of language instead of the specific thesis that they expressed about the significance of particular terms. That generalized interpretation seems to ignore, rather than critically engage with, their reports of their own experience.


Thanks for the helpful clarification. FWIW, I'm not trying to be provocative but just trying to understand a literature with which I am not that familiar.

So if someone takes your view, can they say something like, "Yes, all language has some social and political import. However, some of this import is fairly mundane."

For example, what might be the import of a sentence along the lines of:

"Jim was born 3 days before Joe in the year of 1987"

Thanks -Mary

Shelley Tremain


Thanks for continuing the discussion. I’m happy to offer some clarification of my claims in the post.

I actually didn’t say that no commenter distinguished between ableist language which they regard as harmless and language that they regard as harmful. What I said is that arguments were not provided to justify the distinction that commenters in the Daily Nous discussion made.

Phil contrasted his experience of harmful racial epithets with his experience of the term ‘tone deaf’ and then proceeded to discount criticisms of ableist language more generally, arguing that no one other than a ‘subcommunity of disability advocates’ finds these terms harmful. For instance, he said: ‘I think it bears repeating that, though this language (“crazy,” “daft,” “tone deaf”) could qualify as “ableist” in some sense, it is not problematic in any interesting sense, and it does not “hurt people a great deal,” as HFG suggests above.’ He also said: ‘I don’t want to live in a world, or occupy a community, where getting people to say “insensitive to such-and-such subtleties” rather than “tone deaf” is considered an accomplishment, or where getting people to say “anonymous review” rather than “blind review” is a “huge victory,” to use the example that Professor Tremain provides below.’

As I suggested in the original post and in my initial response to you, I think that what was missing from the discussion is this: reasons why we should believe that ableism (a pervasive apparatus of subjecting social power) does not condition language and why language does not reconstitute ableism, although language is related to other forms of subjecting power (such as racism) in these ways, as many philosophers of race, critical race theorists, Black feminist theorists, and others have shown. More would be required to show that ableist language is not socially harmful than expressions from individuals according to which they are not bothered by such language.

I think that if you re-read my response to your initial comment, you will see that I have addressed your concern according to which I have attributed a general thesis about the moral and political significance of language to the various commenters in the discussion made. To reiterate: I did not attribute a general claim to them, but rather stated my own position on the role of language with respect to social power, the social construction of language, and so on.

It is not at all surprising to me that few disabled people in the discussion at Daily Nous perceived the term ‘crazy’ and other ableist language to be harmful. Ableism is naturalized and normalized throughout contemporary Euroamerican societies and cultures, including in philosophical discourses. Feminists who have studied the relation between language and sexism have shown how sexism works through language, how language (re)constitutes sexist social relations, what sexist language looks like, the connotations of language with respect to gender, what terms to avoid, and so on. Other subjugated and marginalized social groups are engaged in similar endeavours designed to educate people about the harmful consequences of seemingly harmless rhetorical devices. Those of us who advance critiques against ableist language are engaged in this social movement. We are concerned with the discursive and concrete effects of these rhetorical devices, including the implications that they have for the job prospects of disabled people, for their educational opportunities, for their access to friendships and intimacy, and so on.

Thanks again for your comments. If you remain unsatisfied with my responses, please feel free to write again.

Shelley Tremain

Hi Mary,

Thanks for continuing the conversation. My views on the constitutive, socially-embedded, and politically-potent character of language have been influenced enormously by Foucault (and others, including Judith Butler, Ian Hacking, Ladelle McWhorter, and Jesse Prinz).

Such an understanding of language encompasses a variety of phenomena, practices, and associations that have not typically been taken into account in dominant philosophical analyses of language and meaning.

Consider the sentence you offer as an example of a statement whose import is mundane. The statement is, on the understanding of language and discourse that I assume, far from neutral with respect to (for instance) its associations with other statements, with social and cultural practices, apparatuses of power, and so on.

For instance, the sentence is gendered masculine, given that the names supplied are traditionally ascribed to men and thus the sentence invokes a host of associations with mainstream male gender identity. The sentence also uses the calendar of a certain dominant culture, obscuring the relationships to the passing of time of other cultural groups.

In other words, the sentence is situated in a complicated network of signification, practices, material relations, and so on.

Thanks for another interesting question.

Derek Bowman

Shelley, thanks for your response.

I guess I still have a hard time reading the "contra the assumption..." clause as not attributing general commitments about the significance of language to the commenters. But I can see now that this disagreement is largely beside the point of your post, which was primarily to explain and defend your own position, rather than to interpret those commenters.

As for the strength of their reasons, hopefully some of those commenters will decide to engage here. I was simply pressing the interpretive point that they took themselves to have reasons to make that distinction (reasons based on their own (lack of) experienced harm), which is perfectly compatible your arguments that the reasons suggested or provided are not sufficient to justify such a distinction. So again, I think it turns out the point I was pressing doesn't have much bearing on the substantive claims that are your primary point here.

Shelley Tremain

Thanks for your remarks, Derek. I hope that you will continue to read our blog and will return to comment again!

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