Michael Libby is a Guardian reader who enjoys sport. He is also a retired social worker who spent much of his career working with people who have learning disabilities. His background and his interests collided while enjoying an interview in the paper (21 January 2014) with Stuart Lancaster, England’s rugby union head coach, when he read: “Display any sign of selfishness and they will be out quicker than you can throw a dwarf off a ferry.”
A large part of his working life had been spent challenging the kind of language used around people with disabilities and he complained to the Guardian readers’ editor that he was “shocked and offended” by the use of the word dwarf.
“First, using the term ‘dwarf’ is unacceptable to many people, even if there are some people with restricted growth who have ‘reclaimed’ the word,” he said.
“Second, what sort of image and value of people who are ‘different’ is projected by such a phrase ? It can only be a very negative one which, at best, is very derogatory and, at worst, suggests they have little or no worth as human beings.”
He sought an apology and a commitment that the Guardian take more care in future.
Libby’s concerns were discussed with the author. The phrase was a reference to two incidents during the England rugby team’s tour of New Zealand of 2011, which raised questions about their behaviour. Several players allegedly spent an evening in a Queenstown bar where a “dwarf-throwing competition” was being held; and one player was fined for jumping off a ferry as it arrived at a dock in Auckland.
In conflating the two incidents, the journalist said, he was making the point that Lancaster is prepared to come down very hard on players who act in a similar way, which I accepted was neither gratuitous nor casual use of the word dwarf.
However, Libby felt that the conflation of two incidents into a sentence without quote marks would give no clues about the history to those unaware of past events and may lead some to believe it was an acceptable word to use.
Language is constantly evolving, and words and usages that were entirely acceptable even five years ago are no longer seen as so, especially by those at the sharp end of changing opinion, ie those who have disabilities.
In a similar vein, a regular commenter questioned why “when somebody uses the word ‘midget’ in their comments, the comment is not removed”. This complainant has recently completed a PhD that focused on the social experiences of dwarves and has had some personal experience on the effect of such language.
The Guardian’s style guide says some people find the use of the word midget offensive, sometimes more than dwarf, “so best to ask how people themselves prefer to be known”.
I asked Libby to come to the Guardian to discuss the issues with David Marsh, the editor of the style guide, and me. We all agreed that although the author of the Lancaster interview did not intend to offend, that wouldn’t clear the hurdle of responsibility for how it might be received by a reader.
This is important, because articles that appear above the line are monitored in accordance with the style book, while below the line the community standards and participation guidelines recognise the use of a more robust, demotic style of discussion. Moderation decisions are informed “by the context in which comments are made”.
In a world where the Guardian has taken the decision to post-moderate comments to facilitate conversation, this will mean that some words not tolerated above the line will occasionally appear below the line.
Libby made the point during the discussion that one of the reasons he feels so strongly is that efforts to change language around the issues ofdisability have lagged behind those relating to race and gender.
Another example: on 14 February 2014 we referred – in the online version of a story – to a seven-year-old girl as being “confined to a wheelchair”, despite our style guide’s strictures against. So, still a way to go.
Marsh and I agreed that, on reflection, we would have used quotes around the word “dwarf” to indicate that the usage was a reflection of an event rather than acceptance of a definition.