Is Beyoncé’s Recent Ableist Slur A Linguistic Idiosyncrasy Or Something More Sinister?

Over the past few days, social media has been set ablaze by Beyoncé’s use of the word “spaz” in the song “Heated” – a title co-written with Canadian rapper Drake and forming part of the multi-award-winning artist’s latest album Renaissance which dropped to critical acclaim on July 29.

The song was released with the lyrics, “Spazzin’ on that ass, spazz on that ass.”

Shockingly, it is the second title in just a few weeks to face criticism for the use of the word, which is slang derived from the word spastic or spasticity which has its origins in medical terminology to describe conditions in which the muscles of the body cannot be controlled leading to uncoordinated movements.

Over the decades, the associated terms have entered popular culture as a pejorative to describe someone lacking in physical competence and are particularly hurtful for those living with cerebral palsy – a neurological condition in which spasticity is a prominent feature.

Back in June, female popstar Lizzo came under fire for using the lyrics: “Hold my bag, bi**h, hold my bag/ Do you see this sh*t? I’m a spaz” in the track “Grrrls” from her album Special.

Following an outcry from the disability community supported by charities and advocacy groups and led by Sydney-based disability rights campaigner Hannah Diviney, who has cerebral palsy, Lizzo removed the word from the song.

Beyoncé has now done the same for all digital versions of Heated with the lyric changed to “Blastin’ on that ass, blast on that ass.”

Announcing the alteration, Beyoncé’s team simply said, “The word, not used intentionally in a harmful way, will be replaced.”

A direct apology, however, was conspicuous by its absence.

A slap in the face

Diviney also spearheaded the social media campaign calling out Beyoncé, stating on Twitter:

“So @Beyonce used the word ‘spaz’ in her new song Heated. Feels like a slap in the face to me, the disabled community & the progress we tried to make with Lizzo. Guess I’ll just keep telling the whole industry to ‘do better’ until ableist slurs disappear from music.”

Regrettably, Diviney was later subjected to a social media backlash from internet trolls which she recounted earlier this week during an appearance on Q+A – a panel discussion show on Australia’s ABC Network.

Diviney revealed that she had been sent “photos of, or GIFs of, people in wheelchairs being pushed over and pushed off cliffs.”

She also said of the condition which can leave sufferers unable to lift their feet off the ground, confined to a wheelchair or experiencing spasms and contractions so intense that it feels like the muscle is being torn from the bone:

“If people had lived with spasticity, I don’t think they’d be using it as an insult, because it hurts.”

A cultural divide

So, given its distasteful nature, association with serious neurological illnesses and spinal cord injuries in combination with the proximity to the Lizzo episode – what possible excuse might Beyoncé have for using such a loaded term – aside from the artistic license accorded to pop megastars by themselves and others.

An element of the case for the defense may lie in geographical variations in how the word “spaz” has developed and entered into common parlance.

In the United States, during the 1960s, the noun evolved in popular culture as an update to what is also referred to as a “swat” or a “square” at school.

Someone who is “courteous to teachers, plans for a career..and believes in official values,” as explained by Benjamin Zimmer in an essay on the etymology of the term.

In its verb form, in the context being used in the Beyoncé track, it denotes “freaking out” or “going crazy” but can also refer to losing physical control or just acting weird or uncool i.e., to “spaz out.”

Across the Atlantic, in Great Britain, the term took an altogether different trajectory after it was featured on the popular BBC children’s television show Blue Peter back in 1981.

The episode was intended to be a thoughtful reflection on Joey Deacon, a man with cerebral palsy who could only communicate via gestures and grunts.

Unfortunately, the screening proved to be manna from heaven for infantile humor and words like “spaz” and “spazmo” took off in school playgrounds across the country amongst British youth – with a far more direct association with physical, intellectual and social incompetence – becoming inevitably imbued with a dimension of cruelty and schoolyard bullying.

This geographical variation may go some way to explaining why Tiger Woods’ comment on his performance at the 2006 Masters given in a CBS interview courted widespread condemnation in the U.K..

Woods had stated, “I was so in control from tee to green, the best I’ve played for years… But as soon as I got on the green, I was a spaz.”

The golfing legend’s comments did not receive anywhere near the same type of reception in the U.S. – where they largely slipped beneath the radar.

A similar variation in cultural attitudes to disability language can be seen in the use of the word “retard” to describe individuals with learning disabilities.

This has been frowned upon for decades in the U.K. but maintains a hold in parts of the United States despite the best efforts of local organizations like Special Olympics which campaigns for its use to be discontinued.

Might language and cultural variations forgive Beyoncé’s gross oversight? The answer has to be an emphatic, “No.”

It is not so much a question of whether an ableist slur was intended with the hope that it might go unnoticed.

It’s highly unlikely, or at least entirely speculative, to consider that Beyoncé and her artistic entourage sit around laughing at disabled people and crafting music designed to humiliate them.

However, the proximity to the Lizzo episode is highly disconcerting and carries with it only two explanations for what has happened here – neither of which will offer any comfort whatsoever to the disability community.

Either, the main driver was publicity – with the hurt felt by certain sections of the disability community viewed as acceptable collateral damage, or they simply didn’t notice because they just don’t care enough.

Take your pick but it’s unedifying whichever way you look.