This post discusses ableism and ableist terms. For the purposes of this post, the ableist terms are spelled out.
Ableism is NOT allowed on my wall.
It saddens me that over the years, I’ve had to repeat this several times. Worse still, I’ve lost friends (both in and out of the social justice community) bc it is more important for some folks to be able to use ableist language than it is for them to simply edit their comment (to be fair, that list of people is very small–less than 5; when asked, everyone else who has used such language has been willing to edit their comment). This, despite my friends list being comprised largely (though not exclusively) of many progressive minded individuals who are advocates of social justice. But then I remember that those of us who are social justice advocates and/or progressives were raised in the same bigoted, ableist society everyone else was. That makes us (yes, “us”, bc while I am a SJ advocate and progressive, I grew up in the same bigoted society as pretty much everyone else in the United States) prone to the same in-group thinking, the same human foibles, the same cognitive shortcuts, and the same resistance to modifying our language in recognition of splash damage as any other group. And certainly, many people long ago began the task of ridding themselves of bigoted language. I know a great many people who don’t used racial slurs (including anti-Black, anti-Hispanic, and anti-Asian ones, as well as others). I also know many people who don’t use gendered slurs. I think that’s commendable, bc it takes work to overcome years upon years of cultural indoctrination.
Our society is rife with far more than race or gender based bigoted thinking. Such bigotry neither begins nor ends with racist or gendered thinking. We live in a classist society that regularly discriminates against and oppresses poor people. We live in a body-shaming society that looooooooooves to hold fat people up as objects of contempt. And we love to shame others based on our perception of their intelligence.
A murderer is in the news again (one I’ll not mention the name of–he’ll be ‘murderous racist’ for this post). The white supremacist piece of shit who shot up the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015 wants to replace his two court appointed attorneys. Why? MR apparently cannot trust them bc they are his “political and biological enemies“. It’s no surprise that said scumbag doesn’t want Alexandra Yates and Sapna Mirchandani (who are Jewish and Indian, respectively) to represent him. Hell, I’m going to hazard a guess that some part of both attorneys loathes the idea of representing him. Absent legal requirements, it’s difficult for me to believe that anyone–aside from people who share in MR’s bigoted beliefs (a list that includes the likes of the right-wing extremists speaking at the upcoming horribly misnamed “Free Speech Week” at Berkeley)–would want to work with, for, or in the defense of the man who killed Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson.
Hs plea for new representation was denied by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals:
“The court denies the motion for substitution of counsel on appeal.”
I found I was surprised by two things after reading his request:
1. I thought “did this asswipe on death row really just make a request for new lawyers? Seriously? Dude is lucky to have any representation at this point!” But as I thought about it, “white guy riding the conveyor belt to death row makes request” in a society that routinely and unfairly grants advantages and privileges to people based on their whiteness really isn’t that surprising. Since the dawn of our country, white folks (even before whiteness was created) have been catered to and coddled, with their hopes, dreams, and desires prioritized above all others.
2. For similar reasons, I was also surprised that the judges didn’t grant his request. We live in a country where a drunk driving, “affluenza” suffering kid can kill four people and get no jail time, where a judge can rule in favor of re-segregating a town in Alabama (even with the caveat, that shit is rage-inducing), and where a rapist who was caught in the middle of sexually assaulting a woman gets a six-month sentence in jail (which was reduced to three months bc he was on “good behavior”) bc the judge “weighed both sides” and decided rehabilitation was the best option (Rehab? In jail? In a country whose prison system is about punishment, not rehabilitation?.
Affluenza kid? That Alabama town? The rapist (and the judge presiding over the case)? Guess what race they all are. So yeah, i was a little surprised that MR’s request was denied.
One thing I wasn’t surprised about though?
Some of the comments I read from people reacting to the denial of MR’s plea. As happens so often in stories that involve extreme violence or behavior that is beyond the social norm, many people were quick to assert that mental illness was to blame for MR’s repugnant actions and beliefs.
I wish people would stop doing this. To get there, I invite people to consider what these words mean and what message they convey to others.
He’s mental” is the same as saying “there is something wrong with his cognitive abilities and that’s why he is a murderous racist”. Once you’ve intimated that mental illness or impairment is behind the actions and beliefs of a racist killer, you’ve opened the door to the notion that cognitive impairment is the root cause of racism and murder. Leaving aside the fact that playing armchair psychiatrist over the Internet is most definitely NOT the way a mental health diagnosis is determined, claiming that cognitive impairments cause racism (or lead to murderous acts) is deeply, massively fucked up.
It’s also factually incorrect.
First of all, there’s the splash damage done to people who suffer from cognitive impairments or whose cognitive abilities differ from the perceived societal norm. Drawing a direct link between cognitive ability and racism signals to others that “racism is caused by mental illness”. Likewise, drawing a direct link between cognitive ability and acts of murder tells others that cognitive impairment is the reason people murder others. We live in a society in which people with mental illness or disabilities face a high degree of social stigma and pervasive discrimination. The last thing that they need is for armchair psychiatrists to pile on prejudice by perpetuating harmful ideas. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens not only in discussions of MR, but in the comment section of every article I’ve read about mass shootings (curiously though, I’ve yet to see anyone claim that those who kill others in self-defense, in a time of war, or as a military combatant are mentally ill), and most pieces on racism that I’ve read.
Secondly, there are plenty of people who have cognitive impairments or mental illnesses who are not racists and not only have not committed a murder, but have had no desire to. Conversely, many people who are neither mentally impaired or ill have been racist (imagine someone trying to make a defense of the Confederate army with the claim “they couldn’t help but be white supremacist supporters of slavery. They were mentally ill.”) Some non-mentally ill, non-mentally impaired people have had murder in their heart and blood on their hands. Despite evidence that shows:
Most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3%-5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness
the belief that people with mental illnesses are violent is widespread.
As for racism…racism at the individual level (not structural or systemic racism) is learned. Murderous Racist not only grew up in the United States, a country that is driven by white supremacist ideology, he grew up in an area where that ideology was openly discussed. Celebrated, even. He was radicalized by spending time in areas that white supremacist rhetoric abounded. He soaked that shit up like a sponge. The harmful (and biologically incorrect) beliefs he holds about Blacks and Non-Black PoC are the result of him acquiring and retaining the wrong information. Not the result of something “wrong with his brain”.
Another way to think of it–you can unlearn racism. You cannot unlearn a cognitive impairment or deficiency.
I hope those making such comments can understand how incredibly wrong they are. Not just from a factual standpoint, but also in terms of the splash damage done to people who suffer from cognitive impairments or whose cognitive abilities differ from the perceived societal norm. Ableism is one of the many forms of bigotry that permeates society. It also cuts across political lines. It has become almost reflexive to associate the Right with every form of bigotry under the sun. It’s expected of social regressives to defend and uphold harmful beliefs about gender, race, sexuality, et al. Unfortunately, where left-leaning or progressive people can (in general) be counted upon to resist racism, sexism, or homophobia, far too many on the left side of the aisle are comfortable with ableism. We’re the side that is supposed to be more enlightened, more concerned with social issues, and focused on reducing inequities in society, so come on people, get with it: having a mental illness does not lead someone to commit murder and bigotry is not caused by cognitive impairment.
There are words in the English language that many, Many, MANY people use without giving thought to. These are words that were once medical terms used to describe people with mental illnesses. While these words are no longer used by medical professionals to describe people with mental illnesses, society at large still uses these words. These words are connected to the perceived intellect of others. Invariably, they are used to disparage others based on intellectual ability.
These words need to be abandoned by everyone bc they have the effect of maligning those with mental disabilities. And people with disabilities are deeply marginalized in society.
Generally speaking, it is socially unacceptable to use racial slurs against black, Asian, Indigenous, or Latinx people. As a society, most people agree that using such slurs is denigrating to blacks, Asians, Indigenous folks, and Latinx people. Likewise, it is frowned upon to use slurs that denigrate gay or lesbian people. That is bc those words are demeaning and disparaging to Lesbians or Gays. Because PoC and LG people are deeply marginalized in society, most decent people agree that using such slurs is unacceptable.
But we have a long way to go before we purge ourselves of another group of words. Words that draw upon the actual or perceived intellectual ability or lack thereof of others. Words that are ableist.
According to Psychology Today, empathy is “the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective”. Empathy is a useful tool that allows us to comprehend (on some level) the lived experiences of others. Alongside compassion and sympathy, empathy is what leads many to: make donations to organizations providing recovery in the wake of natural disasters, protest in the streets about the racially biased USAmerican criminal justice system, or show their support for a terminal patient seeking to end their life. These actions illustrate what happens when we give a shit about the lives of others, regardless of whether or not we have a firsthand experience of their plight.
I like to think I’m an empathetic person. I do give a shit about the plight of others. I think empathy is one of my strengths and I try to ensure that it extends not just to people who are like me, but to those who are not. Like those people who identify as women. I know that those who identify as women regularly deal with all manner of sexism and misogyny, such as:
being harassed and bullied, or receiving rape and death threats for sharing their thoughts online
dealing with condescending mansplanations
being slut-shamed for having sex
facing street harassment from entitled men
being victimized by transphobic assholes
As a man, I do not have firsthand experience of any of the above. I don’t know what it is like to live as a person who identifies as a woman. To understand their experiences, I have to put myself in their shoes. Empathy allows me to do that. It allows me to understand-on some level-what it might be like to live as a someone who identifies as a woman. That sounds good on paper, but what does it look like in practice?
State Rep. Justin Harris (R) is spearheading HB 1424, which seeks to strengthen his state’s parental consent requirements for minors seeking an abortion. It’s one of a slew of anti-choice restrictions that the Arkansas legislature is currently considering.
Right now, Arkansas residents under the age of 18 can only get an abortion after getting consent from one of their parents. The court system can excuse them from this requirement if they go through what’s a called a judicial bypass procedure. Or, if they became pregnant as a result of incest, rape, or sexual abuse, they can claim an exemption to the law and waive the consent requirement.
Harris’ bill would tighten those requirements, removing the current exemption for victims of sexual crimes — making those minors’ abortion access dependent on permission from parents they may not feel safe confiding in.
I think to myself “If I were a young girl who was pregnant as a result of rape, how would I feel about this proposed legislation?” If I identified as a girl and chose to remain pregnant, there’s no problem–for me. But if I identified as a girl and wanted to be NOT pregnant, there would be a problem. If I identified as a girl, wanted to be NOT pregnant, and knew that my parents opposed abortion, there would be a very big problem. Especially if I wanted to end the pregnancy as quickly as possible. It wouldn’t be fair to make me dependent upon my parents permission to obtain an abortion. It’s not their body. It’s mine. The choice should be mine.
All of that ↑ ?
That’s me empathizing with people who identify as girls or women. That’s me putting myself into their shoes and imagining what their situation might be like. No, it’s not the same thing as being in their shoes. I’m not likely to ever have firsthand experience of the realities of living and identifying as a girl or woman. But it’s probably as close as I can come to understanding the shit they face. My support for easily obtainable, inexpensive (hell, FREE would be great), fully legalized abortion is due, in large part, to my empathy. Unfortunately, on a regular basis I read stories about people who don’t give a shit about people who are not like them. Stories like Ashley Brady’s:
Ashley Brady, 26, of Miamisburg, said she lost her leg in an accident in 2014 and learned to walk again with a prosthetic, but she found walking on ice posed a brand new set of challenges.
“I struggled a lot across the snow and ice in the parking lot trying to learn how to balance and walk,” Brady told WKEF-TV. “I fell multiple times all of which my neighbors have seen.”
Brady said management at her apartment complex agreed to give her a handicapped parking space near the door to her building March 12, but someone without a placard started parking in the spot Saturday. Brady said she left a note on the vehicle.
“I was stern and confident in what I was saying and just letting her know she doesn’t know what its like to walk around without your own leg,” Brady said, “She in return had placed this really rude note under my windshield wiper.”
I should warn you: rude note is very, very rude. It reads:
“Hey handicap! First, never place your hands on my car again! Second, honey you ain’t the only one with ‘struggles.’ You want pity go to a one leg support group! You messed with the wrong one! I don’t care what your note said shove it, but you touch my car again I will file a report, I am not playing! I let the office know the cry baby one leg touches my property I will cause trouble so go cry your struggles to someone who cares cause I’m walking away with both mine! -[expletive].”
The callousness. It burns!
First off, it’s fucking insulting to refer to Brady as “handicap”. She is not defined by her physical disability and doing so is an example of othering. Othering allows us to deny the humanity we share in common with others and lets us dismiss their concerns as unimportant or trivial. Just like rude letter writer did.
Secondly, rude letter writer shows more care and concern for a car than for another human being. I wonder how they’d like to be treated if they had a physical disability. Would they like it if others treated a car as more important than taking the time to be considerate of their situation?
Methinks rude letter writer needs an empathy upgrade. Stat.