August 31, 2005

Legislatively Challenged

Last week, according to a widely reproduced AP story, New York Governor George Pataki vetoed a bill that would have required the use of politically correct terminology in laws, regulations, and charters when referring to people with disabilities. Pataki said that he vetoed the bill because it established "vague and subjective" standards and observed that not only do preferences change over time but that people with the same disability disagree as to what terminology they prefer.

I'm afraid that I have to side with Governor Pataki on this one. The bill isn't about avoiding obviously and egregiously offensive terminology like gimp and crip. To my knowledge not a single New York law or regulation uses such terms. According to its sponsor, Harvey Weisenberg, the bill would have required the disabled to be called instead people with disabilities. Hunh? I see no relevant difference in meaning betwen the two. The main difference is that expressions like people with disabilities are longer and in many contexts will be more awkward and less readable. Yet another impediment to clarity and readability of laws and regulations is somethng we really do not need.

The bill also reflects the assumption of a form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Assemblyman Weisenberg is quoted as saying:

By using the correct language in legislation, New York state lawmakers can make a positive impact on how people with disabilities are perceived by society,

I doubt it. It could be true, but I find it striking that this and other similar ideas are put forward by serious people without a shred of evidence.

I have no idea what disabled people, and people with disabilities, think about this. Their thoughts on the matter, if any, are not mentioned in any of the news articles and do not turn up on casual Googling, but I know from my own experience that well-meaning people seem to come up with non-existant distinctions that mean nothing to those they are trying to benefit. An acquaintance once explained to me that he thought that one should never say that someone is a Jew, always that someone is Jewish. He thought that He is a Jew. is somehow offensive, while He is Jewish. is not. I don't know of any linguistic or grammatical principles from which this would follow, nor of even a smidgen of evidence that anyone else shares his perception. I certainly don't, and I am a Jew. That's how I put it. If anything, I prefer He is a Jew. to He is Jewish because I associate the latter usage, rightly or wrongly, with people who wrongly consider being Jewish to be purely a matter of religion, like being a Baptist or a Hindu.

Posted by Bill Poser at August 31, 2005 11:31 PM