Thursday, June 08, 2006

Really spastic, totally gay.

The following, for those who can't read the title, contains pejorative terms that may offend some viewers.

Been reading in the Guardian about some controversy that arose because a radio announcer in the UK used the word "gay" - in the sense of "lame, crap, rubbish". This is someone on a Government radio station, so people are writing in to complain, rather than just tuning in or out as their preferences dictate.

From what I can tell, the DJ is one of those unintentionally creepy thirty something year olds like Marilyn Manson and Hi Five who market themselves as hip and in and so on, and cultivate an audience half their age by using the language and imitating the interests of children.

Anyhow, I started thinking about the rights and wrongs of this and in fifteen minutes I managed to get myself utterly entangled up in "shoulds" and "buts" and "on the other hands". So I thought I'd share it with you. Anyone who can disentangle this for me, please write in.

First off, when I was ten, growing up in the wilds of Western Australia, we used to play sports every lunch and recess and every Friday afternoon. We played on the Nyabing sports ground. It was a roughly shaped oval of baked clay, hard and unforgiving, and in winter we played football in the slippery mud and summer we sunstroked our way through cricket in the sun. If someone took a spectacular mark, or scored fifty with the bat, they were "heroes", or "stars", or "legends". If they didn't, they were a lot of things: weak, girl, poofter... but most commonly they were "spastics".

"Spastic" was the most common insult. Children are by nature more expressive than adults, so we didn't just call our inept fellows "spastics", we flapped our hands in incoordinate motions, grimaced hideously and made moaning noises while shrieking "You spazz!". Drop an easy catch (that'd be me, by the way), bowl three no-balls in succession, or (I only did this once) grab the football, run twenty metres and kick a goal - having run the wrong way - and you get to hear that term a lot. But I used it a hell of a lot too.

Now, what did we mean by that?

I don't know. We meant it as a term of abuse, of course.

But were we saying anything about "real spastics" at all? Did we mean that "real spastics" - and at that time our contact with what would then have been called "real spastics" was limited to a five second shot of a lurching big eyed child on the telly, asking us to give them some spare change once a year - did we mean "real" spastics were ugly, useless, bad? Did we mean we wouldn't want one as a friend? Did we mean that real spastics were intrinsically bad people? Did we mean that they shouldn't be allowed to mix with us, or breed, or that they shouldn't be allowed to live?

I sat in the car at the lights today and I thought about this, and I couldn't aswer. I reckon maybe it's a non-question. For a start, what do I mean by "we"? None of us were all of us. We had a variety of views. Some of us were big hearted, automatically befriending the new kids in town, the ugly, the friendless - certainly would have befriended anyone in a wheelchair. Some of us wouldn't know what we thought. Some of us were protofascists, usually of the "for their own good" variety. Thrity five year old DJs aside, there is no voice of youth.

And second - is that the important question? Is "what we meant" the even important at all?

What about what people thought we meant?

Our friends, our peers, our school teachers?

What about the "spastics" themselves - if we'd ever seen any, of course, which we didn't, because they were insulated away in special homes and school and hospitals?

What about the boy who eight years later rode a motorcycle into the salmon gum on Collins Road and ended up in a wheelchair?

What about the girls who listened to us and later went off and had a child with a spastic paralysis?

I don't know.

The first person I even met who had some kind of spastic paralysis was my first wife's younger sister, Angela. Angela was smarter than me - I remember over one weekend getting systematically whipped in trivial pursuit, boggle, scrabble and some other weird word game I can't remember. She dragged her left foot when she walked, and her left hand she kept curled and close to her chest, something slim and soft like a flipper. And she was pretty funny, and like me she came back from Uni no longer a creationist - the only two non believers in a household of ten or fifteen - and just to further ensure my position in the Second Circle of Hell, she was quite the hottie, too. I walked in on her while she was getting changed after a shower once, topless and beaded with water, and the embarrassment and guilt and weirdly compressed desire have etched that picture more clearly in my head than almost anything else from that year.

I don't know. I don't use the term "spastic" now - except in the medical sense, a "spastic bowel" and so on - and I don't think I've used the term "gay" as a pejorative for ten years or more.

I think the cure for this kind of thing, if there is anything wrong with it, is changing the situation as much as trying to change the language. If you know homosexuals and people with spastic paralysis and Aboriginals personally, work with them, maybe - horrors - work under them, then that's what's going to change things.

So is changing the language "top down", applying penalties to the use of the words any part of the solution? I feel it is, but I don't know. The same people we, and the powers that be, used to call spastics are now called "physically challenged" - the term carried irresistably along by what is known as the "euphemism treadmill" - but "physically challenged" is by the powers that be and by the schoolchildren. If you drop an easy mark now you're not "a spazz", you're "challenged".

Me, if I lose part of a leg, I'm going to call myself a cripple. It's got a fine historical pedigree, at's got that beauty that old words mysteriously accrue, like barnacles on a bottle beneath the sea, and it says absolutely nothing at all about what I can and cannot do.

Next post, in fact, may detail how in medical school one of my lecturers placed me among the spastics, the autistics and the dwarves. Be there for that one, it's a killer.

I don't know. Years after all of this I heard a commercial radio announcer, broadcasting from some place on the coast, telling fish jokes (no idea why). And he asked what kind of fish won't lend you any money, and told us it was a jewfish* - geddit? I still remember the calm, cold rage I felt, the hours of it.

So, I'm confused. I'm starting to feel that maybe trying to change language is part of, but not the whole solution.

And I don't even know that I have a right to speak on this - I'm not gay, or spastic, or whatever. I grew up essentially insulated.

And any attempt to change the language is going to have to face up to the fact that language is not a solid that can be cut and arranged into orderly or pleasing patterns, it is a fluid thing with tides and currents of its own. Maybe "gay" means "rubbish" to fifteen year olds for the same reason that "wicked" means "good", and "cool" means almost the same as "hot" - irony, exclusion of outsiders, novelty, whatever.

Gods it's complicated.

Anyway. I know as far as gay (in the pejorative sense) goes, I have an irremovable disquiet about the term. I don't like it, I doubt I will ever feel comfortable with it, no matter the intentions or avowed intentions of the speaker, no matter what those who hear it say they understand by it. I suspect a lot of the kids who use the term would violently disavow homophobia, and would say when they dismiss some tv show or unfashionable item of clothing or thirty five year old DJ as "gay" that they are not saying anything about sexuality.

And yet. I keep thinking of the constantly petrified kid in the back row, the kid who may be good at football, or may be crap, who is wondering how long he can hide things and what if his mates knew and how do you tell your mates you're gay - I keep thinking of him, and how he is going to react to the word.

Whatever. Fifteen minutes of a car trip and no further forward.

And what is my conclusion? What is unarguable about all this? Only a few things.

Language is complicated.

The fifteen year old demographic is important to a lot of radio stations, they spend a lot on stuff.

And most of them, like most of us, aren't gay, or spastic, or whatever.

And thirty five year old men, for a lot of reasons, are going to want to keep appealing to fifteen year olds.

And for the next couple of years the gay kid hiding in the back row is just going to have to deal with it.

Like I said. Explain this to me if you can. Because I can't.

Thanks for listening,
John

*The dhufish (the dhu pronounced as in Jew) is a popular table fish over here. Caught one myself off the coast of Albany, twenty years ago.

3 Comments:

Blogger Benedict 16th said...

"trying to change language", all I can say to that is double plus ungood

As for using the term "gay" in the pejorative, I would, I'd hope my intent would be a bit of trying shed some light on the "cognitive dissonance". But then I'm just a bit O.D.D.!

Benedict

5:35 PM  
Blogger Mack said...

You've obviously given this issue a lot of thought. Some people might think that you're a retard as a result. I don't. Keep on thinking a lot.

5:05 PM  
Blogger neil said...

I have a daughter with autism. Some people say she is autistic, some say special needs...

I just look at her and to me she is M.(her name), that's it. She is what she is, sure she needs extra attention, but at the end of the day she is a person that was put together a little differently; aren't we all different from each other?

5:02 PM  

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