Some years ago, a lawyer pal told me about what happened when he and his wife went on a cruise. He had his sight for most of his life, but woke up one morning after a murder trial blind. It was shocking, but there it was. Diabetes was to blame, and despite heroic medical efforts to deal with it, it wasn’t going away.
There were forms to fill out for the cruise and one asked if he was differently abled. He answered that he was. When he arrived at the ship, he was met with a person with a wheelchair. His reaction was to inform the boat guy that he could walk just fine, but he was blind. Blind, as in he couldn’t see. Not blind as in he couldn’t walk.
The problem, he explained me, is that there was no way to inform the cruise line that he was blind because we had reached that stage of awareness where it was impolitic to ask whether someone was disabled, and if so, what that disability would be so it could be addressed in some useful fashion. An accommodation for his inability to see might have been useful, though he managed pretty well on his own. What he didn’t need was a wheelchair, but there was no socially acceptable way to ask or tell. Whatever feelings were at stake in the erasure of substantive information, it resulted in his being offered a wheelchair.
In his first column for the New York Times, Columbia linguistics prof and social commentator John McWhorter used the language of disability as an example.
This was how we got from “politically correct” to “woke.” This was the path from “crippled” to “handicapped” to “disabled” to “differently abled.” Certainly it can be about race matters, as “slum clearance” became “urban renewal.” But just as often, it’s things more race neutral. There was a time when one called a trade union a combination, and the draft was often called conscription. The old words had, for better or for worse, menacing associations that made it seem useful to sub in other ones.
There are different forces at work for language that raise different problems. When it came to disability, the shift from “crippled” to “handicapped” followed the former being used as a slur and the new word, handicapped, reflecting the more enlightened concern for people who “suffered” from a disability. But the shift from disability to “differently abled” came about for a very different reason. The thought process was that no one was “disabled,” which suggested they were less worthy human beings than “normal” people. At the same time, to have no word to describe a person’s issue would be to erase the person’s lived experience. You can’t do that either.
So the euphemism “differently abled” arose to cover the bases at the expense of being informative. Its use still made clear that the person was disabled, so it didn’t really change much of anything, but it served to conceal what that disability was so the person could be accommodated. Or as my old friend might say, “I’m not differently abled. I’m fucking blind.” As for the rest of us, we’re fine with using whatever word is demanded of a decent person with ordinary awareness of linguistic shifts to avoid needlessly offending anyone. But at the same time, it didn’t mean my old friend could suddenly see. He was still blind.
In contrast, the crux of McWhorter’s post is about how the word “woke” went from proud symbol of racial awareness and sensitivity to pejorative.
But if that’s the story, then why is wokeness now something so many people are more likely to disavow than own? Isn’t that the same old thing, a rejection of Blackness?
A rejection, yes — but of a kind too typical of what happens to words all the time to fit a race-specific narrative. We understand this when we see that the real wind behind its wings in the early 2010s was that “woke” served as a handy, nonpejorative replacement for “politically correct.”
Over the past few years, a variety of words have come to be used as a shorthand for people who share, to some degree or to an extreme degree, a bundle of ideological beliefs variously called “lefty,” “politically correct,” progressive,” “SJW” and “woke.” There are probably some others that I’ve left out. In each instance, the words were initially worn with pride until they fell into the hands of their detractors, whereupon they became pejorative. The shift can happen in a flash. The shift can be less about the word than about who utters it, or whether it’s used as a slur rather than a badge of honor.
Shorthand words are used for obvious reasons. But what happens when a shorthand morphs from an acceptable usage to a pejorative such that no one who seeks to challenge that ideological bundle has a word to use that isn’t dismissed as a slur? Over the years, I’ve used “social justice warrior,” only to be told that by calling someone an SJW meant that I was just an unserious hater. It didn’t matter whether the person labeled them self an SJW. They could. I couldn’t.
This would be fine, and I would be more than happy to use a different word for the sake of both clarity and inoffensiveness, but that was beyond the realm of possibility. Any word I used would be unacceptable, not because there was anything, per se, wrong with the word, but because the word in my hands was pejorative because I was not applauding the underlying ideology.
“Woke” has just undergone the same process: Those bristling at being accused of not being woke have pushed back to the point of leaving the term in bad odor. Certainly “woke” has a racial substrate, but the larger process here is the race-neutral euphemism treadmill, a term I am ripping off from Steven Pinker. A well-used word or expression is subject to ridicule or has grimy associations. A new term is born to replace it and help push thought ahead. But after that term spends some time getting knocked around in the real world, the associations the old term had settle back down, like gnats, on the new one. Yet another term is needed. Repeat.
I’m not a fan of euphemisms, particularly when they require me to use five words where one will do. I understand the argument that words carry connotations, and people who obsess over them sincerely believe that the shift from “disabled” to “differently abled” actually helps someone to be viewed and treated more humanely. But as I learned from my old pal, who liked to call himself “The Blind Guy,” he cared a whole lot less about what anyone called him than the fact that he was blind. And he really hated electric vehicles, particularly at the intersection of silence and run his butt over at a crosswalk, but that’s a discussion for another day.