The Autism Diva recently posted an article about an autistic teen who is advocating for reform of the same special education system that he himself ended up in. Someone posted a response to the effect that he is inspirational, not for reason of inspiring people to action, but for reason of having overcome a lot to get where he is today.
I wrote that while I could not speak for him, I doubted his intent was to inspire through his story, but rather to highlight an unjust system.
I had reason for what I wrote (some people think I respond to the word “inspiration” the same way in all contexts and am merely being hypervigilant here, and that is not true). Some of it is summed up here in John Kelly’s Inspiration.
This is the bad faith of the inspirational story: that which we overcome is what has been done to us in the first place.
But what’s interesting to me here, is not so much the meaning of disability inspiration, which I can discuss another day, another time. But the vehement reaction of people who say they were “inspired” by something (in this individual sort of manner), and who are then told “You know what, this might be the wrong way to look at it.”
The reaction I got this time, was basically “I guess I’m not intellectual enough for around here, sorry for wasting your time, bye.” And then coming back later to say that, regardless of what anyone said about me, the person felt scolded by me, and that they were glad of everyone who “defended” them against me, and that I was basically calling them stupid and a terrible person and a lot of other things I never said. They provided more and more detail showing that, in fact, my conception of why they said “inspirational” in this context was quite accurate. But I was not supposed to say so, I was supposed to agree the more detail they gave that in fact they did not mean it in exactly the way they kept saying they meant it.
That they viewed my comment as something that needed defending against, reminded me of this quote from Cal Montgomery’s article Project Cleigh:
For those of us who encounter these incidents over and over and over, they aren’t isolated. They’re a pattern. They’re a pattern perpetuated (often unthinkingly, but unthinking does not necessarily mean okay) by people who see the little reminders that we are not as good as regular folks as entirely normal. Entirely natural. Entirely justified. And they’re a pattern that has a tremendous effect on our lives.
Like members of other groups who face regular reminders that they have their places and should stay in them, our attempts to convey to other people what the problem is seem to them like weird acts of discrimination against them, because we are trying to deny them their right to degrade us over and over again. “I didn’t mean it that way,” they say, or “You have to understand.”
That’s exactly what seemed to happen today. The comments I got when I tried to explain the problem seemed to often come from the viewpoint that I was oppressing someone else, or at the very least, that I was overreacting. (How “I don’t think he meant it that way” was an overreaction, I don’t know. I could have gone into a lot more detail and still been justified.) That my own attempts to convey these ideas were bad enough that they needed to be defended against.
But the sheer level of hurt defensiveness in the responses is what is unnerving to me. Elsewhere in that article, Carol Cleigh (the article’s named after her, and the author of the article describes her as inspiring in a non-problematic way, as in “inspired to action”) describes having a door ripped painfully from her hand by someone trying to “help” her. When she tried to do something about this situation, the door-grabber responded with yelling and physical violence.
I do not think the person I am talking to right now would have resorted to violence. But — and I am sure this is to her evidence that I’m calling her a bad person again — the same mechanism seems to be at work here. The extreme defensiveness that Carol Cleigh encountered, seems to spring from the same source as the extreme defensiveness that I and others encounter among people who feel like we are infringing on some sort of sacred right of theirs when we talk about the problems of certain kinds of “inspiration”.
I use a wheelchair. I can’t speak. I don’t always have access to the ability to type, particularly when people are grabbing at me. Grabbing the arms of a wheelchair without permission is the same as grabbing somebody by the shirt and dragging them around or holding them in place. It’s a form of assault to grab someone’s handles without permission. Normally my only possible defense against this kind of assault is to calmly reach around and pull the person’s hands off my chair, without even hurting them, then go on with what I was doing.
One time, I did this and the person erupted. She started screaming and crying. She talked about what an awful person I was, and how she was only trying to help. I was (I was not in a setting with a lot of power) made to apologize to this person for hurting her feelings so badly, but they saw no need for anyone to apologize to me for grabbing and immobilizing me.
The message in all of this is: It doesn’t matter if we cause actual immediate physical harm to you. It doesn’t matter if we cause physical pain. It doesn’t matter if we restrain you. It doesn’t matter if we assault you. It doesn’t matter if we say things that are themselves linked to an entire way of thinking that causes great harm to you and everyone like you. What matters is that you not hurt our feelings by trying to defend yourself, pointing out what is happening, or other actions meant to protect you or others like you.
I doubt that is actually the message anyone is trying to send. I do not think they think of themselves as assaulting us, as holding viewpoints that cause us great harm, and so forth. And I think that in itself is where the problem lies. When we point these things out, politely or bluntly (and as an autistic person I don’t even have access to anything but bluntness in my communication repertoire), they think we are striking at something deep in their self-concept as good people, and turning them into terrible people. That, I am almost certain, is where the bulk of the extremes of defensiveness are rooted.
I’ve posted before about the confusion between “doing good” and “being a good person” that a lot of people have. I think there’s an opposite side of the coin, in which “doing bad” is considered “being a bad person”. These are natural ways to think about things, and I think nearly everyone does think that way from time to time, but they’re ways that should be resisted. As human beings, we all do things that are right, and do things that are wrong, and do things that are a mix of the two.
But it is not even a wrong thing to do, to react to or point out prejudice, or actions that come out of prejudice, or an unexamined sense of superiority, or anything else like that. These things need to be pointed out. Pointing them out is not the same as calling someone a bad person, and reacting as if it is, is just one more way to ensure that the bad kinds of prejudice (and there are bad and good kinds, people would not survive long without any prejudices, but there’s a bad side to that fact) stay entrenched and defended. I am glad that people have pointed things out to me at times, rather than letting them slide. It may not feel good, but there’s more to life than feeling good in the short term.
There’s also a profound difference in what’s at stake. For disabled people, in the situations I have described, what is at stake from the prejudices and actions of others is our safety, our value as people, our health, and at times our lives. Even things that seem like mere insults, are actually often reflections of prejudiced attitudes that can mean life or death for us. For non-disabled people, having this pointed out to them, what is at stake is their hurt feelings at the mistaken impression that we are calling them bad people for contributing to these things. (Of course, there are disabled people who buy into these things, and non-disabled people who don’t. For all I know, the author of the article is not personally insulted by being called an inspiration for what he’s done, but since this is not just about his personal feelings either, it’s still relevant.)
It shouldn’t be a mystery, then, when I choose to point out these things. Given what’s at stake. And why I choose to stand by what I have said. What I am writing though is not just about today, not just about this one situation, and not just about me.
People reading this can choose to take it as me calling them bad people (and once you take that perspective, it’s not hard to view me as piling insult after insult after insult and being generally mean and nasty), or they can choose to take it as me calling them people. People (including disabled people) tend to be raised with a large number of prejudices against disabled people, and tend to act on them, and these end up having dire consequences for disabled people overall, and forming a pattern even if the people doing it can’t see the pattern, so mentioning this is in a way pointing out the obvious. But it’s also very necessary — without mentioning it, all that would happen is things would continue. Someone pointed out to me yesterday the assumptions I was making about him, and while it was certainly confusing and unpleasant at the time, I ended up having to eat my words. So it goes.