I can palpably remember every time I was called a “spaz.” Sometimes it was in gym class, with classmates screaming in my face because I missed catching the ball for the fifth time because my brain wouldn’t let me coordinate my hands. Other times, it would be uttered and whispered behind my back, with a raised eyebrow or two, when I struggled to cut my food during Home Ec lessons or found myself tripping over nothing for the third time that day.
Worst of all was when I was in my own world, forgetting for a moment that I stood out from everyone else and feeling content with my own company at recess, only for pinch-faced popular kids to hiss it as they walked past me, low enough to avoid the teacher hearing them. Being an autistic and dyspraxic (a neurological condition that affects your coordination and balance) person raised in the U.K., that word was a formative part of my vocabulary before I was even old enough to understand what neurodiversity or ableism was.
Calling something or someone out is very distinct from “canceling” them.
This is why it hurt me to see the word used in Lizzo’s song, “Grrrls.” For me, it encapsulates all the “otherness” that was put on me as a child, and like the “r” slur, the word is rooted in ableism. The epithet was historically used to describe people with spastic paralysis — a neurological condition affecting the nervous system — but the term soon became derogatory shorthand to describe anyone with a lack of control over their coordination or motor skills: which, of course, means these words end up being weaponized against disabled or neurodivergent people.
Calling out the use of this word in the song is important because if the word is used in a song by a widely popular artist, there’s a chance that it can become normalized again. It could lead to many other disabled people facing the same ableism I did. It also trivializes the word and its impact.
But calling something or someone out is very distinct from “canceling” them. As all of this unfolded on Twitter, I found that people were divided into two camps: those who wanted Lizzo to take accountability and change the lyrics and those who accused others of wanting to “cancel” Lizzo. In fact, the New York Post published an article saying the “cancel culture cops” were coming for Lizzo over this, but that simply isn’t true.
The problem with the internet is that our ability to look at things with nuance and have a discussion has been completely eroded. There’s no such thing as listening, understanding and having a middle ground: It’s just people shouting over each other because they see their point of view as the only possible objective truth. But that’s not reality, and that doesn’t help anyone.
Equally, some people who were supposedly on “my” side were just as bad. There were those who failed to acknowledge that the word has a different meaning in AAVE (a type of slang/dialect used predominantly within African American communities) and that Lizzo intended to use it in a way that wasn’t offensive to the disabled community. She noted this in an Instagram post after receiving backlash. “It’s been brought to my attention that there is a harmful word in my new song “GRRRLS”. Let me make one thing clear: I never want to promote derogatory language,” she wrote.
Given the double meaning that comes with the word “spaz,” especially with AAVE, countless social media users rightfully noted that Black disabled people should be the ones leading this discussion instead of white disabled people who, in some cases, overly centered themselves and didn’t have the knowledge of this important context. And then there were opportunists who were using this issue to dunk on a Black woman while failing to provide the same energy to other white entertainers who have used similar slurs, like Eminem, Brendon Urie and Taylor Swift.
There were opportunists who were using this issue to dunk on a Black woman while failing to provide the same energy to other white entertainers who have used similar slurs.
These people do not speak for me and don’t speak for the majority of disabled people. Yet, people on the right seem to like to act like these people are the majority because it enables them to use the term “cancel culture” as a weapon. Once upon a time, “canceling” someone meant holding them accountable for despicable acts they usually were only able to do because of the position of power they were put in: like Harvey Weinsten and the #MeToo movement. Given that he was using his position in Hollywood to harm so many women, it was only right that, as a result of his crimes, he no longer had the privilege of that position.
But somewhere along the way, it was decided that “cancel culture” meant that any minor critique of a person translated into a desire to completely ruin their life, career and to erase them from public consciousness. This is far from the case with Lizzo.
I loved and respected Lizzo as an artist before, during and after this incident. She’s funny, talented and an advocate for body positivity — something that especially speaks to me as someone who struggles with body image issues. I could see, too, from the responses of other disabled people online that they, too, love Lizzo. All they wanted was for their concerns to be heard and for the changes to be made.
Lizzo did just that. She listened to disabled people’s concerns, gracefully took accountability, and put things right by changing the lyrics of the song. And that’s really all there is to it. We live in a social media climate where every action and utterance is perceived in the worst possible faith, but mistakes exist, and they happen often. When we make them, we can either get defensive over it — blaming “cancel culture,” other people and anything apart from ourselves — or learn from it.
Lizzo did the latter; if anything, her career will be strengthened from this, rather than damaged. She demonstrated that she has a good character and is open to listening and learning. We should all be like that. But the “cancel culture” decriers are still raging on, talking about “freedom of speech” and how the snowflakes have gone too far once again, but let’s be honest about what they’re really criticizing.
Given that marginalized communities usually call out issues in mainstream media and entertainment, the buzz around “cancel culture” is an all too convenient way to ensure that these voices are disregarded and remain unheard.
This means writing off the issue with Lizzo’s lyrics as “cancel culture” is a very easy way to diminish the concerns of disabled people, and if we don’t open our eyes to it, then the future is bleak. It would mean that while disabled people won the battle to be heard, they ultimately lost the war.