Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Dear Anonymous

The other day I got an interesting comment on my post regarding the obnoxious new colors on my blog.

On Fri, Mar 12, 2010 at 1:29 PM, Anonymous wrote:

"Hey Kim. I know you didn't mean any harm, but there are many folks in this world who find the use of the word spastic to be offensive. Some things never reached Salina, I realize, so just check out this link FYI...


or google it for the full picture. "

Obviously, this person didn't leave their name and I don't know who they are, so I'm unable to respond to their comment privately. I could just let it go, but I kind of feel the need to defend myself, so I'm just going to post my response here.


Dear Anonymous,

I don't know where you're originally from, but my guess is it's not the United States. Per the BBC article you cited, "spaz means something different in America." In this country and in my generation, we've never used spaz or spastic to reference someone who is disabled. Ever.

In our vernacular, any sudden movement could be termed as spastic, per the definition from yourdictionary.com:



1. of, characterized by, affected with, or produced by a spasm.

I referred to the changes on my blog as either "springy or spastic" because although they might be spring-like colors, because of their brightness and my haphazard use of them, I was afraid they might bring about some sort of spasm in my readers. Specifically, as I mentioned, I was afraid their eyeballs might freak out, per the definition from dictionary.com:

spaz out

1. to overreact to something; to become overly excited about something.

Since I've obviously used both of these words according to the actual definitions, I'm honestly having a difficult time understanding how either "spaz" or "spastic" could be offensive in this context. Neither term was used here to describe a person or their actions, which is the only way I can think of that the words could be used derogatorily.

Now with that said, in our small corner of the world, we do use the terms spaz, spaz out, spazzing out, and complete spaz quite frequently, and I can see how those might be offensive to someone who has grown up hearing them used in a negative way. In our culture, we use them more in a goofy way, often referring to our selves and our loved ones. I've described my own behavior as spazzing out on many, many occasions, in response to exciting basketball games, scary movies, or surprising good news. I've called many of my more hyper and excitable friends spazzes, and just the other day I lovingly referred to my dog as a spazoid. I use the term to describe people I love all the time, and I have no intention of trying to change the definition of the term in my country just because it's used offensively in the UK. It would be just like me telling a person from England that they shouldn't use a common British term for cigarettes because many homosexuals in this country find it offensive. It just doesn't make sense.

While I certainly don't mind being informed of slang that might be offensive in other countries, what I find offensive is the implication that my hometown has anything to do with my dialect. First of all, I haven't lived in Salina for 20 years, and I take offense to the idea that who I am now depends on where I'm originally from. I have considered myself a Lawrencian for almost 16 years, and I am extremely proud that I live in the most well-educated and progressive city in Kansas.

Second of all, the implication that Salinans wouldn't know about the political-correctness of a particular word because they are somehow behind the times is extremely offensive as well. While that might have been true 40 years ago, today there's this thing called the Internet. It allows information and news to travel around the world instantaneously, so anything of importance can be shared with anyone and everyone everywhere instantly. Salinans can also watch important news on television, as well as read it in newspapers and magazines. If Salinans don't know the word spastic is used in a derogatory way in other parts of the world (much like the British term for cigarettes is used derogatorily here), it because it's a non-issue. Again, per the article you cited, the story was not reported widely in America, and even a disability-rights organization hadn't heard about the "misuse" of the word by a popular sports star. This is because it's never been used as a negative stereotype in our culture.

As I read through the comments after the BBC article, I saw one from a fellow American who shared my sentiments exactly.

"Speaking as an American, I was shocked to read this article and find that Britons use "spaz" to refer to cerebral palsy. Over here, it's a very mild insult used generally to refer to someone who is uncoordinated or graceless. There's no implication of a physical handicap. What this article really demonstrates is that Europeans once again have failed to appreciate that Americans have their own culture."
Darrell, USA

There are so many words and phrases in the English language that have totally different meanings in British culture--sod, sack, shag, waffle, etc. Spastic is clearly one of those words. I guess it's too bad that the British find it so offensive when we use it so commonly, but I certainly don't think we should change the definition in Webster's just because they've associated it with a negative stereotype. Hopefully, if we can come to accept each others cultures a little more, no one will have to overreact (or spaz out) about differences in vernacular.



cw said...

Well put.

Beth said...

Not to pull rank, but as a school psychologist, I have heard a LOT of offensive terms for people with disabilities from individuals who are mean, insensitive, or just plain misinformed -- from both children and adults. I have Never heard the term spaz used in the disability arena. Ever. This just isn't in an American's vocab of nasty terms for anyone with a true disability.

It is almost exclusively used in a friendly, funny, and joking manner. Americans very frequently refer to an excitable or clumsy friend like that, but they never mean it to be derogatory, or implicating a true disability.

That being said, I am sure that Kim never meant it offensively, or even insensitively.

Tish said...

while i'm seriously for educating the uninformed, i find it obnoxious to go seeking blogs so you can pooh all over a good thing for shits and giggles. it's annoying...more so because it was anonymous.

this is THE one thing about blogging that makes my ass twitch

Jen said...

Who knew? I surely didn't. I use the word all the time. I also use "special" and "brave" when I speak positively about something or someone. And those words were in the top ten worst words according to that article.

Erin said...

well said Kim!