Tuesday 30 June 2020

We are not "The" Vulnerable: the dangers of the definite article

Before you talk of "The Vulnerable", ask yourself by what means a significant proportion of the populace is rendered vulnerable


  • I propose that the term "The Vulnerable" is a depoliticized euphemism for people who require social security support due to structural injustice as much as to inherent disability

  • I further argue that applying the definite article "The" to minorities is a powerful method of othering them

  • While some of us may be inherently vulnerable due to heredity, injury, or life stage, as soon as we require government supports and services, this linguistic sleight of hand subtly strips us of our strengths, our agency, our capacity for choice, and our status as citizens

  • Thus reduced to the faceless"Other", we do indeed become vulnerable to stereotype, stigma, pity, and finally compassion fatigue

  • And when compassion for minorities is exhausted, all of us become vulnerable to being divided and ruled by the worst of populist demagogues

This came to me while I was listening to a presentation by an Emeritus Professor of Sociology who I admire for their life-long dedication to social justice. Though I am in awe of their work, I found my hackles rising as the speech went on. It soon became clear why. It happened every time they used the term "The Vulnerable", as in:

"We" must do more to help "The Vulnerable".

Now I knew this was well-intentioned shorthand for a birgeoning list of marginalized populations too long to itemize: including the many people at the bottom of the socio-economic heap who require require social security to survive: these include people who are: sole parents, disabled, carers, retirees without superannuation, public housing tenants, unemployed, homeless, indigenous, refugees, diasporized, working poor and more. BTW you may notice that many of these groups are overwhelmingly female.  

"Hello", thought I, "I am, or have been, all of the above except homeless and indigenous. But I thought I was part of the concerned and enlightened 'We' attending this symposium, not one of  'Them'!

Suddenly I felt like my sense of competence and belonging was at risk of being ripped away, revealing the tragic mask of "The Vulnerable". 

Theatrical Masks Tragedy and Comedy
Can "we" avoid imagining ourselves in the Blue Mask
when we consign others to "The Vulnerable" bin?
Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Well! I was damned if I would allow myself to be consigned to that nameless mass of the wretched of the earth, "The Vulnerable Others". I consider myself and many of my ilk to be smart, resourceful and resilient people who struggle to survive trauma and deprivation, and yet give back to society when we can. Whether via the energy we put into voluntary work, into caring for family, or in the taxes we paid in our working life, before discrimination, (you know the intersections I'm talking about ), unequal wages, carer responsibilities etc shut us out of paid work. 

So what does "vulnerable" actually mean? 

I disregard the concept of "showing vulnerability" as popularised by Brene Brown, since that is a personal choice, not something imposed from above.

From the definition on the right,  it is clear that while people in need of special care - due to youth, old age, or disability-  may be inherently vulnerable to risk, the rest of us rendered vulnerable by exposure to harmful agents or agencies

We are all vulnerable to having something done to us, whether by neglect, prejudice, greed, irrational belief in inhuman ideologies legislated by people with money or power. 

We are all vulnerable to the actions of unregulated enterprises, landlords and employers; predatory pedagogues and priests; inadequate social security entitlements,  the policies of neo-liberal ideologues, the incitements of tabloids, and more. 

People who are already inherently vulnerable are made more so by governmental failure to fulfil their duties of care, whether financial, or through a failure of regulation. 

I'd rather be called by the good old Aussie term, Battler. Because battling to keep our heads above turbulent economic waters is exactly what most of us do. 

Because what happens when everyone is lumped under the rubric of "The Vulnerable"?  I say it lumps everyone under the same heading of "there's something wrong with them" rather than "there is something wrong with society". Hello, Social Model... 

Some alternatives to "The Vulnerable" 

  • Battlers
  • Social Security Recepients (including those who should be but have been denied) 
  • People made vulnerable by social inequities and exclusions
  • Structurally Disempowered People
  • Socio-Economic Minorities
  • Be specific: unemployed people, sole parents, people shut out from labour markets by age or disability prejudice, people who cannot work and cannot survive on an inadequate pension.

Is "The" the most dangerous word in the English language? 

I have heard it described as such. Don't ask me where, but it certainly resonates.

Obviously the definite article is hardly dangerous when referring to places and things: the garden or the desk in the study 

But when it comes to humans and their collectives (by ethnicity, gender, class, ability etc) history has demonstrated that the danger is real.

Why? Because "the" presumes that the thing being defined is already known, that "we" share a common understanding of its referent, that the meaning attached to it is obvious, self-explanatory, and thus must be universally acknowledged by all sensible people. In short, indisputable common knowledge.

The question is, who defines what this "obvious" understanding is? Who "owns"the stereotype? Too often, the "obvious" is defined by the dominant culture and is used to stereotype and devalue minorities.

For a more indepth contemporary explanation, check out "Linguistics explains why Trump sounds racist when he talks about The African -Americans". (though I think the author is being a little too polite to Trump... )

Thought experiment 1

Look at each item on this list. Shut your eyes. What is the first image, thought, or other sensation that rises in your mind? (Don't censor it. If something ugly comes up, don't feel guilty. Remember, you are just reproducing a socially implanted prejudice. It's not your individual fault. What matters is how you act on a prejudice once you recognize it for what it is)
  • The Blacks
  • The Feminists
  • The Gays
  • The Jews
  • The Neurodiverse
  • The Neurotypical
  • The Vulnerable
  • The Whites 
If you belong to a minority, you may use those terms positively, yet when used by the dominant culture they are more likely to trigger feelings of how you have been hurt by stereotypes. Even if the dominant culture uses them positively, it’s still dangerous. Who hasn't heard the following? 

I can’t be racist because I admire ... [... the Blacks for their athletic prowess, the Jews for their cleverness, The Neurodiverse for their uncomplaining productivity, the Autistics for their genius with IT, the Aborginals for their wonderfully primitive art...]

In short, a great formula for the exploitation of minorities, lest they try to compete with the dominant culture and excel in any field that has not been alloted them.  

An interesting note: we do not often hear “The Autistics”. Perhaps our culture is wising up somewhat. Certainly linguistic research suggests that this reductionist usage of the definite article is in decline. 

Thought experiment 2

Even worse, look what happens when we make the group name singular, so that a whole minority becomes telescoped into one single inndividual.

Without censoring yourself, what image was planted in your mind by racist cartoons depicting "The Aboriginal" “The Jew”, “The Negro”, "The Blonde". Were they old or young, male or female, dangerously clever or stupidly suited only to menial work, ugly or beautiful?

When referring to human collectives:
  • simply leave out “the”
  • turn the word into an adjective: the Gay Movement,
  • qualify it: a few/some/many/most disability activists



    Friday 19 June 2020

    Are these common socio-political terms doing more harm than good?

    Are these prominent taken-for-granted terms in the medical and sociological lexicon doing more harm than good? I've often wondered. I realise my chances  chances of shifting these entrenched concepts are slim, but I offer up these ruminations as  food for thought.  As always I  recognize that language evolves and my objections may not resonate especially with younger generations. 

    • Assess, assessment, assessor 
    • Dementia  
    • Race
    • The Vulnerable  
    • Welfare

      A list of specific arguments and alternatives for these individual term here

      Most of us use these words with the best of intentions of promoting health, wellbeing, and social justice.

      But I see these words as problematic for a variety of reasons. Including that some
      • breathe life into outdated and pernicious concepts that are best forgotten, 
      • are frequently misunderstood, 
      • some
      • trigger extreme emotional reactions and conflict or
      • embody the language of dominance and submission

      I base my ideas on Richard Dawkins' Meme Theory or Memetics

      Memetics are analogous to genetics. Memes are ideas and thoughts that reproduce similarly to viral genes. You could consider them as thought viruses, transmitted from host to host by discourse, i.e. by communicating them by any medium.  Once  we “hear” a meme, our minds become its hosts, ready to transmit it to other minds.  A meme's strength grows every time it is transmitted. 

      And here is the bad news for those who care about the common good: 

      Whether you are for or against a meme, as long as you transmit it, its power grows. It doesn't matter whether your intent is Pro-social or Anti-social. 

      The only way to attenuate a virus is to try to fade it out. 

      A perfect example:  I have often said to people who want to stamp out the Neurodiversity Movement,

      As long as you keep talking about the Neurodiversity Movement,  you are the Neurodiversity Movement!

      The Race Meme

      One well-known thought virus is the idea of "Race"

      While the term "Race" has a long history, its current usage as a tool of discrimination dates back to the pernicious "discoveries" of 19th century pseudoscientists. Their claims that there are vast genetic gulfs between different ethnic groups, have long been  refuted

      "Race" is not a biological fact. It was socially constructed for anti-social ends, as an artefact of European colonialism which need to justify its enslavement, exploitation and robbery of the "Other" and ended up in the horror of the Nazi holocaust

      Nevertheless as long as the word exists, it continues to spark bigotry.

      We have a problem:  while Race is not real, Racism is

      Therefore in order to fight Racism we are inadvertently keeping the bogus concept of Race alive. 


      Scientific racism, sometimes termed biological racism, is a pseudoscientific belief that empirical evidence exists to support or justify racism, racial inferiority, or racial superiority. Historically, scientific racism received credence throughout the scientific community, but it is no longer considered scientific.Wikipedia

      To reiterate the Bad News: whether you are a Racist or an Anti-Racist, as long as you keep mentioning Race,  the false idea that “Race” is a biological reality persists and grows stronger

      Possible Solutions: 

      • Use Prejudice, Bigotry or Hatred instead because they can be qualified by their objects. e.g. Prejudice against [Minority Group]
      • Always put scare-quotes around "Race"

      Assess / Assessment/ Assessor

      What’s wrong with it?

      The current usage of Assessment has segued from its official meaning below,  to the accepted term for the process by which the Helping Professions diagnose individuals, often for the purpose of determining their eligibility and entitlement to benefits.

      But check out the dictionary meanings e.g. 

      The dictionary.com definition of the verb "Assess" 


      To assess means to oversee a complete set of information and make an overall judgment. 

      It's fine to assess inanimate objects: documents, sites and situations. But one flawed human cannot “judge” another human in their entirety.

      This language signals an awkward power relationship especially when Helping Professionals are in theory ethically required to be "on the side of" their client, and their interests. Yet when they take on the role of Assessors, they are placed in the difficult position of serving two masters. They become the gatekeepers of  "welfare" systems 

      It is dehumanizing to treat humans as objects to be assessed.  Especially when it involves the reduction of individuals to fit to criteria or boxes to tick which in most cases, and especially in NeoLiberal, are chiefly concerned with minimizing taxes and welfare expense. 

      Thought experiment: 

      Visualize the scene of an Asses
      r assessing the Assessee: Who sits where? What is their spatial relationship, and what does it signify

      This is NOT a criticism of individuals - often social workers and other helping professionals, mostly women, I imagine. In my experience, helping professionals do their best not to dehumanize their clients but to make the welfare system work for them.

      My criticism is of neoliberal "welfare" systems and their language of “power over” 


      • Consultation
      • Social Security Eligibility Interview
      • Social Security Advice and Advocacy Service


      What’s wrong with it?

      Dementia is one of the most terrifying words in the English language, that's what! It's up there with Schizophrenia, though it isn't as scary to look at. 

      Dementia is un unhappy ending you can start dreading just prior to turning 30.

      It terrifies by implying a total loss of mind.

      It is soaked in stigma. Especially as it is horribly reminiscent of demented (crazily dangerously insane), or “dementors” (fictional evil beings).

      The reality: most often a gradual loss of memory and functionality and a part of Neurodiversity. 

      Whether this loss of cognitive functions becomes a negative or positive experience is largely dependent on the kinds of accommodations that are  offered and the attitudes of the people around you. 

      But like everything that affects the human mind/body, it doesn’t mean that some people won’t suffer. Im not against a cure. I just want to say to the psycho-medical profession, “Change the name” and stop terrifying us. 


      • Semnesia (loss of memory due to ageing or premature ageing)
        • Vascular Semnesia or 
        • The name of the specific syndrome. e.g Alzheimer's Syndrome

        The replacement should evoke respect for elders, suggest a gradual turning inward and withdrawal from the day-to-day in preparation for death and a gracious acceptance of help by those who have made their contributions to society and more…


        What’s wrong with it?

        It is loaded with stigma. It shames and devalues individuals
        It hides structural injustice - the reasons behind individual poverty


        • Impoverishment reminds us that social forces often cause poverty, and not necessarily the fault or choice of an individual 

        The categories of Intersectionality

        In my original work I proposed a new category "Neurodiversity"  to be added to the "Intersections of Class, Race, Gender, Disability". This was before I had heard the term "Intersectionality". I now have reservations about Intersectionality and Identity Politics, even though I was an eager early participant. But that is a huge topic out of the scope of this blog post. 

        The original Intersections were Class, Gender, Race, Ethnicity. Disability

        These are unlikely to changed in the near future, but FWIW this is how I see them.

        It seems to me that Intersectionality refers to the categories of Heritage. Thus my favoured terms are Asset Heritage, Genetic Heritage, Ethnic Heritage, Deep Heritage

        I have singled out Race because it is the only descriptor that has no scientific validity, either within the natural sciences or the social sciences. It is thus an especially harmful and pernicious memetic concept that should ideally be dimmed out of our consciousness. The derivative "Racist" however is of some utility if the original meaning of  "race" is forgotten. 

        A disclosure of my status on these is on my To-Do list in the biography of this blog. In the meantime it  can be gleaned from my book. 


        How I see it


         Asset Heritage differentiated as
        •   Inherited Capital Assets
        •   Inherited Cultural Capital    

         Genetic Heritage

         Disambiguate into

        • Ability
        • Difference
        • Impairment
          Race and Ethnicity       




        Combine into Ethnic Heritage

         Differentiate into 

        •  Deep Heritage or  GeoHeritage  
        •  Ethnic Identity  
          • Dominant ethnic groups
          • Minority ethnic groups   



        Differentiate as
        • biological sex including intersex  
        • gender identity
        • sexual orientation

        So-called "Race"

        What’s wrong with it?

        The term is irretrievably mired in an ugly morass of misconception and the worst of human impulses. While science shows there is no such thing as “Race”, we cannot deny that there are clusters of superficial traits of appearance that originate from our early geographical dispersal, which allow the identification and mistreatment of minorities. 


        • Deep Heritage
        • GeoHeritage
        • Diaspora Minorities

        To my mind, Deep Heritage resonates with deep respect for our ancient origins, our extraordinary adaptations to the diverse planetary regions our ancestors dispersed to, and the rich cultural styles they developed. It is a constant reminder of the genius of human creativity. 

        But what about the derivatives, Racism, Racist, Racists?

        Since the noun ‘race’ is discredited, why use the derivatives?

        Because they remain useful in political action. 

        On the other hand,  the adjective Racist is so overused that it has become the subject of endless denial and fruitless passing the moral hot potato.  We've all heard

        “I’m not a racist, but...”

        Which switches focus from the big picture, that hatred of the “Other” eventually rebounds on all of us, to a defensive individual reaction that derails further discussion and entrenches prejudice. 

        Thus the association with science legitimizes it amongst those who use it ignorantly. 

        Do we need replacements?

        Language is dynamic and we do not remember the origins of the words we use. The best hope is that the derivatives are decoupled from the pseudoscientific R-word as it is gradually forgotten. Replacements need to signal strong cultural disapproval, thus:

        • Bigotry, Bigoted, Bigots

        Or, as  #BlackLivesMatter shows there are other positive ways to fight for minority rights for diaspora peoples


        Thought experiment

        Imagine a person or people “on welfare”, imagine a government "welfare" agency. What images come to mind? 

        What's wrong with it? 

        Like the word “vulnerable”, Welfare suggests passive recipients who are devoid of agency, initiative, and capacity for choice. 


        • Social Security
        The word security reminds us that this is a form of insurance
        Social Security is that portion of the tax that most of the currently “able” pay forward against future incapacity or misadventure whether to themselves or their families. It also comes out of general revenue, which is why it is important that business pay their taxes, and why corporate tax-dodging is so reprehensible.