I can’t help but find the wave of media articles lambasting Edwina Currie for her thoughtless tweet about the Italian Paralympians terribly depressing. Not because of what Currie said, I had thought we were years passed having to care about anything she had to say in any case, but because I think the coverage is part of a rather counter productive trend.
While the insensitivity of her tweet is quite obvious to many, it is clear from her comments that it isn’t obvious to her, and that she in fact still doesn’t understand what it is that she did wrong.
What also seems apparent is that she didn’t mean any harm. She thought she was saying something nice, in the same way as Boris Johnson did when he expressed his enthusiasm for wheelchair basketball over ‘so called real basketball’ in a Channel 4 interview. A clumsy but well intentioned comment that I also saw roundly criticised by some on Twitter.
I can understand why those who have been hurt by cuts to benefits, the ATOS fiasco, and the portrayal of disabled people in some sections of the media, have been quick to jump on these faux pas and hold them up as further evidence of Tory antipathy towards the disabled. But I think taking this stance comes a cost.
In completely ignoring the fact that these comments, as well as a lot of the insensitivity directed at people with disabilities, are born of the speaker’s lack of understanding of disability, and of the fact that the language we use when discussing disability issues has changed along with social attitudes.
Edwina Currie is nearly seventy-eight years old. For the vast majority of her life is was deemed perfectly socially acceptable to refer to people with physical disabilities as handicapped or crippled, and people with intellectual disabilities as spastics. When she was born it was normal for people with disabilities to be excluded from society and for children born with disabilities to be hidden away.
Now you might say that someone in her position should know better but there are many of her contemporaries who are not media savvy and who have no regular contact with people with disabilities. These people have had no particular reason to notice that the words that we use to discuss disability have changed. And even those who are aware of the shift may not be quite aware of what things are and are not appropriate to say.
Most people have at least one older family member who would fall into this category. They aren’t bad people, they would never intentionally wish to cause hurt or offense, but they will sometimes make statements that make us cringe and it won’t be at all obvious to them why. All they know is that it used to be a perfectly acceptable thing to say.
We need to be engaging and educating these people not attacking them. If we teach them they may learn, but when people are attacked they become defensive.
And when people feel defensive they retreat back to what feels safe and familiar. Prejudiced attitudes which reinforce the negative feelings that they have just experienced, in relation to whatever other minority group they have just been talking about, seem increasingly appealing.
I’m concerned that many such people will see the reaction to Edwina Currie’s tweet and do just that. Revert to their old attitudes and the old language, because they are afraid to try to say the right thing for fear of getting it wrong, and being shouted down for it.
My mother does this a lot. She complains frequently that she’s not allowed to say anything about people from different backgrounds to herself anymore, and she feels prejudice towards them as a result.
It frustrates me and I find it ridiculous. She can say whatever she likes, it’s just that someone is likely to then exercise their own right to say whatever they like and disagree with her.
But she gets this idea from seeing stories such as this one about Edwina Currie’s tweet in the media.
By all means throw the book, the whole library, at people who are intentionally offensive or discriminatory.
But my mother is only fifty-four. There are twenty-three million people who are over the age of fifty in this country. We can’t afford to alienate a significant number of them by knocking down anyone who hasn’t quite caught up with the rapid pace of the social and linguistic changes that have taken place here over the last twenty years.