Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Questioning Words: "Blind" and Ableism...

This post, over at Feminist Philosophers, has me thinking. It's actually one of the comments that's prompting me to post. The eighth comment down, by Shelley, posits that using the term "blind" as in the phrase "a blind review" (a review where the person doing the review doesn't know anything about the person who wrote the paper being reviewed) is ableist.

The putative explanation generally given for this use of the term “blind” is that this is a form of refereeing in which the reviewers cannot “see” the name(s) of the author or authors. Not seeing is blindness. Right? Wrong. That is not what is really going on here. What is actually going on is that blindness is being metaphorically equated with not knowing, with not having knowledge, or not having knowledge of something: blindness is not knowing, blindness is ignorance, blind people cannot be knowers.

Having read this, I sat here at my desk pondering that. Ultimately, I'm of two minds. On the one hand, I can totally understand her frustration. On the other, though, that's what the word means. The problem, here, seems to be that the word, blind, has quite a few definitions, only one of which is "sightless". In fact, "sightless" is one of the most recent meanings. The word originally meant "difficult to discern" or "confused". The word was later applied to people who can't see with their eyes.

So, in a sense, Shelley is half right. A "blind study" is not just one in which sight is prevented- it's one in which the identity of the writer is "difficult to discern". It's not a metaphoric shift, though- it's from the original (and continued) use of the word. If anything, the metaphoric shift was made when the word was first applied to people.

Still, this leaves me unsure of what to think. I mean, what's the right course of action here? It's not like I'm unfamiliar with the idea that words have power- they have tremendous power. And, I'm familiar with the prejudices that she describes. I've witnessed the ways that people treat my blind aunt, and how offensive people can be to someone with visual impairment.

Even so, my initial feeling is that, while I understand with her analysis, I don't necessarily agree with it, because the word has never stopped meaning those things. There are plenty of words that have shifted over time- nobody would seriously use "gay" to mean "happy" anymore. At some point, the use of "gay" to mean "homosexual" became the norm, and the other definition faded from use, but that's not really the same thing that happened with "blind". It's not that the meaning shifted from "confused" or "difficult to discern" and started meaning "sightless"- it's meant both of those things for around four hundred years.

It got me thinking about the use of the term "right" to mean "opposite of left" as well as "correct." Couldn't someone who is left-handed reason that "left" equals "wrong"?

As it turns out, they could, and they wouldn't be far off, in terms of origins. Since we've been using "right" in the sense of "opposite of left" for almost nine hundred years, though, does that change things? Does the fact that the origin of the word was offensive change the fact that we've got nine centuries of usage?

I don't know.

I don't think that we're going to stop using "right" and "left" as points of directional reference any time soon, and I don't really think we need to. I'd bet that most people don't even know the origin of the word "left", so that's probably not a problem, anyway. Does the fact that "blind" didn't start off as a word describing people matter in regards to how we should view he word? Does the fact the it's still used in the original sense, as well as a word to describe people, matter?

As it stands, I'm inclined to try to be understanding of the critique, but respectfully disagree. I think I can understand where Shelley is coming from, and I understand her reasoning, but, right now, I'm not sure that I can agree with what she's saying. I have to admit, though, that this is leaving me feeling sort of guilty. I certainly don't like the idea of using words that might hurt someone or that might offend someone, but... well... eh, I don't know.

Any thoughts?


Cara said...

I'm not really sure, either, Roy, but it's an argument I've heard before, though in that context it pertained to metaphorical "color-blindness" regarding race. The concept of color-blindness is, of course, fraught on many other levels besides whether or not the "blind" aspect is insulting to "blind" people. But I do think that it's something that we should at least consider. The problem, I think, isn't the belief that the word inaccurate to use. The problem seems to be that using the term blind in that sense while also using it to describe sight-impairment insinuates some pretty shitty things about those people. So yeah, I haven't come to a conclusion yet, but I'm musing on it.

baby221 said...

Eh, I generally come down on the side of the less-privileged when it comes to things like that. I may disagree, but it's hard to do so with any degree of critical honesty when I remember that my disagreement is coming from a place of privilege -- having my sight, for example.

That's not to say I'd be an active advocate of changing the language, but I'd definitely think twice before using the word in that particular way again, at least around that specific person. Obviously they take offense to it -- I'm not about to argue that -- so it's something I'd just feel more comfortable finding a substitute word for.

With different audiences, though, it might not be such a big deal. (My friends, for example.) Like, I know I've pretty much trained my friends out of using the word "slut" around me, but that doesn't mean they won't use it when I'm not around, and to a degree I'm cool with that because ... well, baby steps, you know? Although maybe that's not such an apt analogy because pretty much everybody these days can agree that "slut" is a highly offensive term except in very specific situations.

I dunno, overall it's just a very fine line ...

Jender said...

Fascinating discussion, Roy. I've been really puzzling over this as well. I altered the post, because it has been made clear to me that some find it offensive, for reasons that I respect. But I remain unsure about this case and related ones. Your examples are really interesting. I wasn't aware of the history of 'blind'. I think the left/right analogy is an especially interesting challenge. I would like to become fully convinced that you're right. I find it incredibly hard to stop using 'see' to mean understand: I very nearly responded to Shelley with 'I see your point' before I caught myself. I would like to believe that this sort of usage is OK. But I'm not fully convinced. I think it's enirely possible that negative connotations of words like 'blind', and positive connotations of words like 'see' could be damaging to an already very disadvantaged group. Perhaps the reason nobody is asking us to stop using 'right' to mean correct is that left-handed people are no longer very disadvantaged. But back when left-handed children were forced to write with their right hands, criticising this meaning for 'right' would have seemed like a good idea.

Eloriane said...

Hey, this is totally unrelated to this post (although it is a good post, and something I hadn't thought about before), but I couldn't find an email address:
Roy, you deserve a cookie. I've just spent hours reading your feminism-related articles, and while I agree wholeheartedly that men don't deserve praise for basic human decency, you go WAY beyond that. You write very thoughtfully, and strike the perfect balance between sympathizing with women and acknowledging your own privilege. And the post where you admitted you were wrong and changed your stance on sex workers--I was truly impressed. You come off as a REAL nice guy, sincerely trying to get feminism right, and I thought you deserved to know that it is really, really appreciated.
So, here's a cookie for you!
(imagine in a freshly-baked gooey chocolate chip cookie here)
You have my thanks and admiration,

Brooklynite said...

I find it incredibly hard to stop using 'see' to mean understand: I very nearly responded to Shelley with 'I see your point' before I caught myself.

I've never gotten the impression, in a face-to-face encounter, that a person with a disability objected to that kind of metaphor. Quite the opposite --- it's been my sense that a lot of folks find non-disabled folks' squeamishness about such phrases to be annoying and distracting.

That's just my experience, though.

Michael said...


Isn't there a sequence in "James and the Giant Peach" that puts that see/realize connection together? I love Roald Dahl, but it really does come off as mocking the blind.

Nique said...

Hmm, this has really got me thinking.

My first reaction was "give me a break, they're just words, lighten up." But then I thought about it some more and acknowledged that words have immense power. I myself often bristle at anti-woman words (like using the word girl as in insult).

But then I thought, as you point out, that the definition of the world blind doesn't just mean to be sight-impared, but to not understand. So it's ok right, because it's a proper useage of the language.

But then I had to reconsider once again when I read a different blog that used the term anemic as an insult. Now the word anemic can reffer to the blood disorder but it can also mean "weak, listless, lacking vitality". So using it as an insult is correct and appropriate right? Well... I guess so. But I just can't help feeling offended when I hear it used in that way because I myself am anemic (a hereditary form, not acquired). I hear the word anemic used all the time to describe things that suck and every time it hurts a little bit. I never call people out on it because it IS proper English. But I do consciously have to double-think myself into getting over it each time it happens.

So... maybe I won't use the word blind to mean lack of understanding anymore.

Thanks for.... I was going to say thanks for opening my eyes... is that problematic too? I seriously don't know.