Like many (most?) 21st-century North Americans, I hate to be told I’ve done something ableist (or racist, or sexist). Why does it sting so much, and how should I think about such a charge, when it is leveled against me?
Short answer: It stings so much because it’s usually partly, if only partly, true—and partly true criticisms are the ones that sting worst. And the best reaction to the charge is, usually, to recognize its partial, if only partial, truth.
First, let’s remind ourselves of a quote from the great Confucius:
How fortunate I am! If I happen to make a mistake, others are sure to inform me. (Analects 7.31, Slingerland trans.)
(As it happens, bloggers are fortunate in just the same way.)
Confucius might have been speaking partly ironically in that particular passage. A couple of centuries later, another Confucian, Xunzi, speaks not at all ironically:
He who rightly criticizes me acts as a teacher to me, and he who rightly supports me acts as friend to me, while he who flatters and toadies to me acts as a villain toward me. Accordingly, the gentleman exalts those who act as teachers toward him.... (ch 2, Hutton trans., p. 9)
This is difficult advice to heed.
Note, though: If I make a mistake. He (she, they) who rightly criticizes me. Someone who criticizes me wrongly is no teacher, only an annoying pest! And if you’re anything like me, then your gut reaction to charges of ableism will usually be to want to swat back at the pest, to assume, defensively, that the criticism must be off-target, because of course you’re a good egalitarian, committed to fighting unjustified prejudice!
No. Here’s the thing. We all have ableist reactions and engage in ableist practices sometimes, to some degree. Disability is so various, and the ableist structures of our culture so deep and pervasive, that it would be superhuman to be immune. Maybe you are immune to ableism toward people who use wheelchairs. Maybe your partner of many years uses a wheelchair and you see wheelchair-use as just one of the many diverse human ways of comporting oneself, with its challenges and (sometimes) benefits, just like every other way of getting around. But how do you react to someone who stutters? How do you react to someone who is hard of hearing? How do you react to someone with depression or PTSD? Someone with facial burns or another skin condition you find unappealing? Or a very short man? What sorts of social structures do you manifest and reinforce in your behavior? In your choice of words? In your implicit assumptions? In what you expect (and don’t expect) people to be able to do?
Here’s my guess: You don’t always act in ways that are free of unjustified prejudice. If someone calls you out on ableism, they might well be right.
You might sincerely and passionately affirm that "all people are equal"—whatever that amounts to, which is really hard to figure out!—and you might even pay some substantial personal costs for the sake of a more just and equal society. In this respect, you are not ableist. You are even anti-ableist. But you are not a unified thing. Unless you are an angel walking upon the Earth, our society’s ableism acts through you.
An absurd charge does not sting. If someone tells me I spend too much time watching soccer, the charge is merely ridiculous. I don’t watch soccer. But if someone charges me with ableism, the partial truth of it does sting, or at least the plausibility of it stings. Maybe I shouldn’t have used the particular word that I used. Maybe I shouldn’t have made that particular assumption or dismissed that particular person. Maybe, deep down, I’m not the egalitarian I thought I was. Ouch.
Your ableist actions and reactions can be hard to recognize and admit if you implicitly assume that people have unified attitudes. If people have unified attitudes, they are either prejudiced against disabled people or they are not. If people have unified attitudes, then evidence of ableist behavior is evidence that you are one of the prejudiced, one of the bad guys. No one wants to think that about themselves. If people have unified attitudes, then it’s easy to assume that because you explicitly reject ableism you cannot be simultaneously enacting the very ableism that you are fighting against.
[Image description: psychedelic art "shifting realities", explosion of mixing colors, white on right through blue on the left]
The best empirical evidence suggests that people are highly disunified—inconstant across situations, capable of both great sacrifice and appalling misbehavior, variable in word and deed, spontaneously enacting our cultural practices for both good and bad. If this is true, then you ought to expect that charges of ableism against you will sometimes stick. You should be unsurprised if they do. But you should also celebrate that these charges are only very partial: The whole you is not like that! The whole you is a tangled chaos with many beautiful, admirable parts!
If you accept your disunity, you ought also to be forgiving. You ought to be forgiving especially if you cast your eye more broadly to the many forms of prejudice and injustice in which we participate. Suppose, impossibly, that you were utterly free of any ableist tendencies, practices, or background assumptions. It would be a huge life project to achieve that. Are you equally free of racism, classism, sexism, ageism, bias against those who are not conventionally beautiful? Are you saving the environment, fighting international poverty, phoning your senators about prisons and wage justice, volunteering in your community?
We must pick our projects. A more vivid appreciation of our own disunity, flaws, and abandoned good intentions ought to make us both more ready to see the truth in charges of prejudice against us and also more forgiving of the disunity, flaws, and abandoned good intentions in others.
[Cross-posted at Discrimination and Disadvantage; HT Shelley Tremain for the invitation and editorial feedback]