Did you mean to say that?

‘Don’t think me ignorant but…’ is a common expression of a mate of mine. It always amuses me as what follows next is not linked to a lack of knowledge. I suspect it is a local saying that maybe has morphed out of something else. What she means is ‘don’t think me rude but…’, because what follows is invariably something that I could take offense to. I never have, but like many others, she is attempting to ward off hurt feelings by placing a rider to what comes next.

We humans are funny creatures when it comes to our use of language, which is quite ironic when language is supposedly what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. We rarely say what we mean, even if we claim that we are saying it straight – perhaps with the exception of a minority of people who have yet to learn this set of unspoken, complex rules that social conventions appear to dictate (e.g. the young, some with ASD etc). Even those who purport to be ‘real’ and accuse others who use social rules as being ‘fake’ are potentially as ‘fake’ as those who they are accusing, if you examine their use of language.

If I swapped ‘ignorant’ in my mate’s expression and substituted for ‘disablist’ (or sexist, racist or a whole load of other –ists), then you know what is going to follow is a discriminatory sentence. ‘I’m not disablist, but…. kids like that should be in special schools’. There we go, there’s the rider – ‘I am not disablist’. Well, sounds like you are to me because why else would you say ‘kids like that should be in special schools’?

It could be that the rest of the conversation suggests that it is within special schools that these children will access expertise that will tailor their education to them, or it could be that ‘kids like that’ spoil education for ‘normal’ kids. Are either versions non-discriminatory? To me, both examples are active discrimination, as both examples stereotype. ‘Kids like that’ is suggestive of a homogenised group of children who share a single characteristic, ‘they’ are all the same. It is a way of packaging a message to sound convincing, to persuade the listener to their [noble] cause and therefore becomes ‘normative’.

An issue with normative language is that it is ‘othering’. Teachers are expert at teaching. It is their job, it is what they trained to do. But are they ‘expert’ enough to teach ‘kids like that’? And who, exactly, are ‘kids like that’ anyway? Word-association becomes a big problem because with it, comes prejudice and discrimination.

Hubby has generally worked in factories, which are generally melting-pots of colours, genders and abilities. ‘I’m not racist but….’ is a common one. The conversation generally goes – ‘I’m not racist but…’, ‘what about X, he’s black’, ‘oh, he’s ok’, ‘and Y, Y is black too’, ‘oh yeah, I don’t mean Y’ and so on. When given a direct example, the speaker exposes a stereotyped response to a perceived set of characteristics. Yet, they will still go on and claim that ‘people like that’ behave in a certain way which is undesirable.

Another interesting part of discourse is attaching conditional clauses. ‘I’m not anti-inclusion at all if the child can keep up with the rest of the class, but if they are going to fall behind, then they should go to special schools’. What is the speaker actually saying here? Without further information, it would seem that the speaker is being discriminative towards any child who might fall behind, they’ve just packaged it up with a disclaimer to let themselves off the hook.

Where does your attitude come from? Theory of reasoned action suggests that your attitude towards a behaviour is determined by your salient beliefs about that behaviour – you evaluate the outcomes. If you change behaviour A, then B, C & D will occur so do I want D to happen? If I have a child with Down’s syndrome (A) in my school, D will occur. If you consider the outcome to be negative, e.g. all children with disabilities in the area will expect to come to my school (B) and it will cost a lot of money (C) grades will go down (D), you will not want to take that child. Alternatively, you may consider that having the child (A), will result in money for training (B) better overall teaching (C) and improved results (D), you will welcome them.

Subjective norms regulate actions – what will my important others make of my intentions? If others are using the ‘I’m not […] but […] if […]’ as a way of excusing discriminatory behaviours and you wish to refuse the child, have you just gained volition? ‘I’m not anti-inclusion, but […]’, ‘Yes, only if […]’, ‘then they should be in a special school’. And so it goes on.

What happens if the opinions of your significant others are at odds with yours? What if you would like to include all, but those around you do not? Reasoned behaviour theory would suggest that you are likely to align your actions with those around you, so you are more likely to capitulate and refuse the child. What if you want to refuse, but others around you are all for inclusion? Will reasoned behaviour theory win out, or do you, as part of the senior leadership team overrule?

Going back to the complex pink and fluffy stuff that envelops social communication, I have never really understood the rules myself. Social conventions have never been my thing, I would much rather people just come out with what they want to say, I am not good at all this dancing around the issues. I am much more inclined to say what I mean in the most direct route as possible, but then again, I am neither racist nor disablist. Sexist? Possibly. Other -ists? Perhaps, I would need to think about those. Humanist, I do try… no ‘buts’, ‘ifs’ or ‘thens’, I try my best to achieve unconditional positive regard.


Taylor, S. (2007) ‘Attitudes’ in Landridge, D. and Taylor, S. (Eds) Critical Readings in Social Psychology Maidenhead: Open University Press/Milton Keynes: The Open University


4 thoughts on “Did you mean to say that?

  1. Thought provoking read. I’m also another for coming straight out with things, often finding myself isolated from the ‘group’ as a result. My NT daughter is going through a similar thing in school just now because she dared to ‘step outside the group’. Perhaps social communication isn’t changing quick enough to keep up with the change in some elements of human development.


    1. I think it depends on who you mix with and how much you are willing to be influenced by others. I’m often viewed as ‘hard’ or ‘rude’ because I’m more of a free thinker/speaker, and yet others around me fit very well into the reasoned behaviour theory and don’t see anything wrong with what they say….


  2. One aspect of inclusion which does haunt me is the extent to which children can make friends and learn through interaction with peers-seeing a child with DS spending whole lunchtimes with their 1:1 or children “Who are good with her” I find difficult
    This isn’t to say there aren’t positives to mixing and being part of the local community.


    1. Surely the part of the role of the 1:1 is to provide social skills opportunities? If the school is not outlining a programme of supported social interactions at a whole-school level, what is it doing in class? I would hate it if the child is being babysat rather than receiving an equal education.


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