Meaning and Demeaning

In today’s New York Times we see, in response to an article about the difficulties faced by working diabetics and their employers, the following letter (it’s number six in the linked collection):

To the Editor:

Thank you for your article. But you do a disservice to all those with diabetes by referring to them as “diabetics.” We are not our diseases; we are individuals with lives and families. Such a reference is demeaning and promotes just the discrimination you were reporting.

We are all aware, of course, that diabetes is only a disease, and that those who suffer from it possess other attributes as well. In the article under discussion, however, the individuals chosen for consideration were selected precisely because of the salient characteristic they share — namely, that they do indeed suffer from this cruel affliction — and the word “diabetic” summarizes this distinction with precision and economy. The use of the term in such a context should not be seen by those with diabetes as diminishing their humanity — which, as nobody should have any reason to doubt, is surely as dignified and multifaceted as anyone else’s — and to eschew it in favor of some euphemistic monstrosity such as “the pancreatically challenged” would serve only to draw another pint from a language and culture that are already well on their way to becoming quite utterly bloodless.

I have seen firsthand the suffering diabetes can cause, and sincerely mean no disrespect to its victims. But the letter’s author might do well to read this post, by the noted curmudgeon Deogolwulf.

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