A couple of weeks ago, I decided that it was time to be serious about privilege-checking. I thought that this would be mostly a question of changing habits. I was wrong. Of course, there are some areas where this feels relatively natural. Race or gender are such things. It is easy to appreciate that being a white European and someone who is read as a woman and actually wants to be read that way, I am often in a pretty comfortable position compared to people who are visibly perceived as “not belonging” or “weird”. Therefore, I consider it beyond reasonable doubt that racial or gender-based slurs are an expression of this sort of privilege and born out of disrespect for those who do not enjoy these privileges.
Unfortunately, there are areas where I struggle. I encountered some serious inner resistance when trying to learn about ableism. The basic idea, again, is clear. Not everybody enjoys as much mental or physical health* as those whose voices are the loudest, and therefore, we should not demean them by, for example, carelessly using their condition as an insult. If you are a German speaker and still think that it is acceptable to use “behindert” (German for “disabled”) as an expression of your disapproval, you are being ableist.
My struggle began when I read that “stupid” was an ableist insult, too. I experienced all the common defence reactions: Denying the parallel to the (to me) very clear “behindert” case, justifying my usage with something like a “private meaning”, and probably others. I think the (or one) reason why I struggle so hard to let go of using “stupid” as an expression of disapproval is that I grew up with some pseudo-spiritual, pseudo-scientific, esoteric, and conspiracy-theoretical bullshit. Claiming intellectual superiority for myself and taking it for granted that being “stupid” was something bad, I found a way to distance myself from all this. This strategy actually helped me to express my desperation and it helped me cope. But of course, this is at best an explanation and not a justification for my resistance.
I still have some vague thoughts on how the “stupid” case could be an exception to the rule. How that might be okay. But I am afraid it might just be my personal version of shouting “Not all men!”.
*I have just realized that this might, in itself, be ableist, since I’ll talk about intellectual ability later and subsume it under “health” here. I am leaving it in the text as a proof of how much I still have to learn.