Good or bad word?

By Stephen Trumper

Back in the 1980s, Esquire magazine introduced a new monthly columnist. His name: Harry Stein. His topic: Ethics. I found the column engaging and thoughtful, humorous even. So did others. Stein became a magazine editor’s dream—a must–read columnist who subscribers and newsstand buyers enthusiastically talked about. There was even a T–shirt with “What would Harry do?” printed on the front.

Part of the column’s appeal was Stein’s informality. He was not overly pious nor prone to thunderous pronouncements about right and wrong. Instead, the reader, as a former boss once said, just followed “old Harry” around as he bumbled his way to making some kind of personal judgment on the dilemma of the month.

I thought of Stein on the way home one evening last autumn after taking part in a panel discussion at Ryerson University in Toronto, where I teach. The theme was “Language Matters,” and a few of us were brought together to put forth our thoughts and insights on the words used to describe people who have been somehow marginalized.

I was there to present the point of view of people with disabilities, which I did by talking about the not terribly earth-shattering point that language evolves from perceptions. I went on to show three short, counterintuitive (to this audience!) videos, one of which was an excerpt from a TED Talk by Stella Young, the late Australian activist who gained notoriety by bluntly discussing what she called “inspiration porn.” For Stella, inspiration porn occurs when, for instance, at the end of a newscast, following horrible item after horrible item, comes a story portraying the life of a person living with a disability. This adds a little moment of hope, a story of (pick your pet peeve word here) perseverance, courage or, of course, inspiration.

“I use the term ‘porn’ deliberately,” Young tells viewers in the video, “because [these words and images] objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people. So in this case, the media is objectifying people living with disabilities for the benefit of nondisabled people. The purpose of these [words and] images is to inspire you, to motivate you, so that we can look at them and think, ‘Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person.’”

I cannot even begin to count the number of times I have been called an inspiration, inspiring or, in a slight variation, a personal hero. Unlike Stella, such usage doesn’t get under my skin (although it once did), but I do realize how threadbare the language on matters of disability can be. It was never more obvious than during an excruciatingly earnest hospital board meeting I attended several years ago at which the supporters of “habilitation” battled it out with the backers of “rehabilitation.”

At the end of the “Language Matters” event, a former student zipped over to me. She looked troubled. “Mr. Trumper, I’m so sorry!”

I quickly realized why she wanted to apologize. At the end of the semester she had sent me a lovely thank you note, saying she had greatly enjoyed my class and learned a lot. She also used the “i” word, which bothered me not at all. She meant it as a compliment and I took it that way.

That is the trouble with language wars. In our well-intentioned advocacy efforts to change minds, perceptions and the language itself, we often forget that most folks are still using the old words. In the main, they’re doing so not out of malevolence, but out of a desire to connect. Clearly, this is what my former student was trying to do.

After the apology, the student, still embarrassed, departed into the milling crowd. I wish she had stayed a little longer so I could have tried to give her my perspective, although I doubt I would have been terribly articulate on the spot that night.

On my way home, though, I had a thought. Do what “old Harry” (who, in truth, was only in his 30s) did at least two dozen times: Write a column about that night. And pray that my former student sees it, reads it and understands why no apology was ever needed.

Stephen Trumper serves on the board of the Canadian Abilities Foundation. He is an independent writer and editor. He also teaches journalism at Ryerson University.