Wheelchair Dancer wrote an excellent critique of the ableism in my last post on shades of grey in activism.
The whole thing is below, but you should also check it and her other works out on her blog, Wheelchair Dancer.
On Making Argument: Disability and Language.
We all use disablist or ableist metaphorical language, and I bet most of us say something that is potentially offensive every day: we might be blind to this, deaf to that, pass disabled vehicles, chat about being paralyzed in a situation, etc., etc. I’m often uncomfortable with it — I never use the moron or cretin words — but, honesty here, I do say idiot. I never say, “that’s lame;” I almost never say blind, deaf, paralyzed, cripple, but I occasionally I find myself saying, “that’s dumb,” with full negative rhetorical force. Most of the time, if I slip up the non-disableds I’m with don’t notice; however, the disableds get it, call me on it, and we talk.
If you are feeling a little bit of resistance, here, I’d ask you to think about it. If perhaps what I am saying feels like a burden — too much to take on? a restriction on your carefree speech? — perhaps that feeling can also serve as an indicator of how pervasive and thus important the issue is. As a community, we’ve accepted that commonly used words can be slurs, and as a rule, we avoid them, hopefully in the name of principle, but sometimes only in the name of civility. Do you go around using derivatives of the b*ch word? If you do, I bet you check which community you are in…. Same thing for the N word. These days, depending on your age, you might say something is retarded or spastic, but you probably never say that it’s gay.
I’d like to suggest that society as a whole has not paid the same kind of attention to disabled people’s concerns about language. By not paying attention to the literal value, the very real substantive, physical, psychological, sensory, and emotional experiences that come with these linguistic moves, we have created a negative rhetorical climate. In this world, it is too easy for feminists and people of colour to base their claims on argumentative strategies that depend, as their signature moves, on marginalizing the experience of disabled people and on disparaging their appearance and bodies.
Much of the blogosphere discourse of the previous weeks has studied the relationships between race, (white) feminism and feminists, and WOC bloggers. To me, the intellectual takeaway has been an emerging understanding of how, in conversation, notions of appropriation, citation, ironization, and metaphorization can be deployed as strategies of legitimation and exclusion. And, as a result, I question how “oppressed, minoritized” groups differentiate themselves from other groups in order to seek justice and claim authority. Must we always define ourselves in opposition and distance to a minoritized and oppressed group that can be perceived as even more unsavory than the one from which one currently speaks?
As I watched the discussion about who among the feminist and WOC bloggers has power and authority and how that is achieved, I began to recognise a new power dynamic both on the internet and in the world at large. Feminism takes on misogyny. The WOC have been engaging feminism. But from my point of view, a wide variety of powerful feminist and anti-racist discourse is predicated on negative disability stereotyping. There’s a kind of hierarchy here: the lack of awareness about disability, disability culture and identity, and our civil rights movement has resulted in a kind of domino effect where disability images are the metaphor of last resort: the bottom, the worst. Disability language has about it a kind of untouchable quality — as if the horror and weakness of a disabled body were the one true, reliable thing, a touchstone to which we can turn when we know we can’t use misogynistic or racist language. When we engage in these kinds of argumentative strategies, we exclude a whole population of people whose histories are intricately bound up with ours. When we deploy these kinds of strategies to underscore the value of our own existence in the world, we reaffirm and strengthen the systems of oppression that motivated us to speak out in the first place.
Some background and ground rules. Though I am using Mandolin’s post in detail, I will be referring to her throughout as “the writer.” This is because I am not interested in making an anti-Mandolin conversation. I wish to begin a conversation about disability, language, authority, and power. Mandolin’s post just got me started.
Organizational strategy. That was the theory and conclusions. In the rest of the post are some explanations of how I got there. I’d like to go about this two ways: first talk about details of the post and then talk about implications.
Part 1: Details
But more on the systemic level. We cut off our own feet. If we can’t acknowledge we’re all trapped in racist and sexist systems, systems which compromise our most purely intended actions, systems that prescribe our choices and make us choose between lesser evils… what can we fight?
We commonly talk about us “handicapping” ourselves in a given situation. Here, the writer takes a more literal approach: we become double BKAs (below the knee amputees). This, in itself, might be a small oversight, except that the image of the amputation as a self-inflicted injury is troubling. It is even disturbing because it reaffirms the idea that disabled people are trapped, paralyzed (by their own doing or perhaps not) and helpless — in this case before the forces of evil oppressive systems.
Yes, I know, images and language like this are so routine that they are almost invisible. But that doesn’t make it acceptable. Language and its ideas still have effects. In this case, they are part of a system of images that the writer has begun to use whenever she needs to talk about a powerless situation in the identity and cultural politics wars. The image is not hers to begin with, but she takes it on and takes it over in a title and in the post that follows that title. And then, the same image shows up in, here, in the Grey Activism thread. It’s almost as if amputation of the legs is this writer’s way of indicating the victimization of a well-intentioned person who then becomes helpless either in the face of critical discourse or in the face of discourse systems that have power to wreak havoc on an innocent speaker.
The second detail is an example of how, once it becomes acceptable to take small images in brief words and phrase, it becomes possible to make huge paragraphs:
There’s a personality disorder called Borderline Personality Disorder in which sufferers have a great deal of difficulty understanding ambiguity. They tend to view themselves and others as either entirely good or entirely bad, a switch that will flip with great regularity. On a good day, they are all good. On a bad one, they are the worst person who ever lived. If you give them something they like, you’re an angel; if you speak a harsh word, you’re an evil person conspiring against them.
I tend to drive some of our legalistic commenters here crazy…
This is an awfully generalized description of Borderline Personality Disorder. Short on factual information, it relies on the safety of the You and Them dichotomy: You and those awful Them. And it highlights Their irrationality, Their craziness, Their suffering. The suffering thing is a key point. To use such language is to imply that people are prone to their diagnosis, stripped, in some ways of their personhood — to the point that they can become THEM, a safely otherable pile of flesh. The disability civil rights movement has worked years to educate people on language like this. We don’t “suffer” with our disabilities; we are not our medical diagnoses. To reduce us to our diagnoses is to suggest that there is a fundamental binary of human existence: able-bodied and not. And those who are not, suffer. And it offers an understanding of disability that is wholly medical and awful. There is no natural physical variation, no understanding of how environment and culture contribute to the understanding of disability; there is only the awfulness of BPD. BTW: there’s a tremendous amount of dispute in disability communities about how diagnoses like this are formed. It’s not like irrationality is objective. It’s not like, medically speaking, you do these things and BOOM! BPD.
Essentially, this is a coercive argument by analogy that is successful because of the awful image of BPD it uses. It kind of runs like this. BPD is bad. People who have it aren’t like you and me — they’re irrational. Crazy. And when we do these kinds of things — “trying to define THAT person as evil for THIS compromised act and making that declaration of good or evil a single, solid, reified thing” — we are exhibiting the behaviours of someone with BPD. So, don’t do them. You wouldn’t want to be seen as having BPD, now, would you?
And what to make of the writer’s very next sentence where she declares that she drives people crazy? If you don’t acknowledge the power of the words you wield, the border line between the real and the figurative is very porous.
OK. Enough. I’ve spent so much time on the literal value of the metaphorical details and figurative language because I think not recognizing the literalness of all of this is critical to the next move.
Part 2: Implications
The most important things to me here are one: the fact that one of the people posited throughout the post — the poor liberal who in trying to do good and be complex makes a couple of mistakes — ends up helpless before the dysfunctionality of the politics of the system. And two: the fact that, by the end of the post that person is represented as a double BKA with BPD: a double below the knee amputee with borderline personality disorder. A wacky, helpless, and perhaps dangerously irrational, disabled person. The details may seem small when looked at individually, but that final image is extraordinarily undermining of the disability civil rights movement and of modern progressive understandings of disabled people’s place in society.
Relying on the figurative value of disability metaphors tends to render disabled people invisible; it cuts us out of the conversation. And we are a part of those communities — a necessary part. Disability IS a feminist issue and vice versa (think choice, think end of life, think pre-natal testing, think any part of body autonomy). The constructions and experiences of disability in a divergence of racial and ethnic communities are important to us — for the disability civil rights movement is mainly white. We who are feminist, of colour, and of disability are critical to the conversation, but, to quote Vicki Lewis, we disabled folk are not your metaphor.
And we do experience the exclusion from the conversation in many of the same ways discussed over and over again in the past weeks. Personally, I get tired of trying to bring the disability angle to the table — others I know do, too. As a movement, in our daily lives, and even as a scholarly field in the hallowed halls of academia, disability and disabled people have yet to be recognized as full participants in the conversations about intersecting identities, power, the body, etc. etc.
In the disability movement, we often talk about interdependence and the way all humans are dependent, in some ways, on each other. We use these terms as a way of countering the very material point that disabled people are dependent, non contributing burdens on society, and we use it to challenge the narratives of able-bodied American self-sufficiency. I can’t speak for a very diverse movement, but, to me, one of the signature disability moves is to look for a collaboration that acknowledges the interdependence of all peoples while respecting and valuing their differences. There is no logical need for one of us to leverage off the other: collaboration not competition floats more boats on a rising tide.
So, the next time you need to make an argument about the value of your particular minoritized group, its place in society and culture, its history, etc., I’d ask you to look down and check whose broken back (metaphorically speaking, of course) you are standing on.
Some of my response to the email where she was kind enough to send me this is below the fold.
Mandolin, in email:
This is extremely well-written and well-reasoned. I particularly agree with the places where you point out my use of metaphorical laziness to construct disability as helplessness. You’re totally right; I wouldn’t use words like this about other oppressed groups. I do lack the awareness of linguistic constructions that harken back to disability. I have purged the word retarded from my vocabulary; I am sometimes aware of the word crazy, but not often enough; for some silly reason I hadn’t even begun to think of the word dumb’s origins. Argh. Jerky, oppressive linguistic origins, sneaking in everywhere…
I also think you’re right that the disability movement has been overlooked in this regard more generally than by me alone, and that’s something progressives need to address.
I don’t know if you’re aware that I am on psychoactive medications, and do have a diagnosed medical disorder (mood, not personality). I am therefore crazy, irrational, part of them, and so on. That doesn’t mean I can’t have internalized bias, certainly, and I don’t mean to excuse myself on the basis of belonging to a group… but I do think that I consider craziness a little bit differently than people who don’t identify within the group, although also fairly differently from the anti-psychiatry movement. I can go into that a bit more if you want, but I don’t want to sidetrack too far…
[detour while Mandolin sidetracks anyway]… That doesn’t mean it’s okay for me to use it in the way I used it, particularly devoid of all the context above. Without elaborate justifications — and even with them, probably — the language I used falls into an ableist paradigm. After all, isn’t that the same thing I’d say to a man who called Hilary’s voice screechy or a white person who called Obama articulate? I may have interactions with and thoughts about psychology that are not societally defaulted, but I am nevertheless responsible for how my words exist within societal defaults, and that part of my post was utter fail. (And I don’t mean to suggest there’s no ableism involved in my view of psychiatry and brains and so on, just that it’s not necessarily… um, the normally assumed ableism?)
Really, I was trying to say that some people have huge problems with ambiguity, which sometimes manifests in traits like those described. There was no reason for me to pin a diagnosis on it instead of just talking about the behavior I wanted to describe.
Again, I really appreciate you writing this… I apologize for my inconsiderate and ableist language and framing, and feel free to let me know if I’m still standing at the dock, watching the boat whizz by as I miss it.
Wheelchair Dancer has been enmodded for the purposes of this discussion, so please respect her comments in this thread as those of a moderator.