Category Archives: language

Gender, health, and societal obligation

Kate Harding, writing at Broadsheet:

“If you ask us,” say Glamour editor Cindi Leive and Arianna Huffington, “the next feminist issue is sleep.” Personally, I never would have thought to ask those two what the next feminist issue is, but they make a pretty good case. “Americans are increasingly sleep-deprived, and the sleepiest people are, you guessed it, women. Single working women and working moms with young kids are especially drowsy: They tend to clock in an hour and a half shy of the roughly 7.5-hour minimum the human body needs to function happily and healthfully.” The negative effects of chronic sleep deprivation are well-documented, but that doesn’t inspire enough people to prioritize rest, and women often end up in a vicious cycle of sacrificing sleep in order to do extra work and make sure their domestic duties are fulfilled, causing all of the above to suffer. “Work decisions, relationship challenges, any life situation that requires you to know your own mind — they all require the judgment, problem-solving and creativity that only a rested brain is capable of and are all handled best when you bring to them the creativity and judgment that are enhanced by sleep.”

So many obligations are heaped on the shoulders of women, and it is pretty much impossible to fulfill all of them even if you completely neglect your own needs. Of course, trying to tend to your own needs means even fewer of those obligations fulfilled, and there are cries and admonishment of selfishness and failure and responsibility to others waiting for you should you assert your right to self-care, because by asserting the right to take time and energy exclusively for yourself, you are stealing time and energy that belongs to others.

Sleep is a contested act in American society (perhaps in others too, but I can only speak to the US): getting little of it becomes a point of pride; getting a lot of it is a symbol of laziness, selfishness, sloth, dirtiness, carelessness. People are expected to perform amazing tasks on as little sleep as possible, which is completely counterintuitive, because most people are going to perform worse with insufficient sleep — consider it a generalized manifestation of the supercrip phenomenon: exactly the people who are least supported/enabled to do something are the ones who are expected to do it better than normal people.

Better sleep would surely benefit many of us, but why?

According to Leive and Huffington, the main benefits realized are in service of others; the main beneficiaries are the people around you. Or, if you see the benefits, they are benefits that stem from an obligation to others, any self-benefit remaining firmly subordinate to the “greater good” of one’s family, colleagues and community members.

We should be well familiar with the concept of women as public property. Women’s bodies, women’s time, women’s possessions, women’s decisionmaking capacity, women’s self-determination — just about anything a woman possesses, though she doesn’t really possess. Rather, she is allowed use of something that is under her care but not her ownership: it belongs instead to the people around her.

Feminists are familiar with the idea that our society considers female reproductive organs to be public property. A woman’s vagina should be available for all comers (men), and simultaneously be unavailable so as not to waste its value to its eventual sole owner (a man). A woman’s uterus is to be used for the good of the human species/civilized society: the right kind of women are to reproduce as much as possible, so that their kind remain the dominant group in both pure numbers and in overall power. (On the other hand, the other kinds of women are called upon to perform the rough, menial work necessary to uphold modern society, while not polluting the human species by reproducing themselves.)

But honestly, public ownership of women extends so much further than their reproductive systems.

No woman is allowed to assume ownership of any part her physical self, her time or purpose: it is still an “indulgence” for a woman to eat anything more substantial than a leaf of lettuce, still “sinful” to enjoy less than 100 calories of overprocessed puddings and crackers. It is still somehow selfish to take a long bath or to sit and rest for an hour’s time, still slothful to refrain from moving, working, pushing, rushing every single moment of every day.

Women’s work, in general, is under-valued and un(der)paid — and it is uncompensated precisely because women’s time, their energy, their effort, do not actually belong to the women themselves, but rather to the rest of the world. It is theirs to use whenever, however, and however much they wish, and isn’t it ridiculous to suggest they should pay for the use of something that belongs to them in the first place?

This is all part and parcel of living in a patriarchy, a predictable result when society relies upon a person’s gender to determine hir position in society, the things sie will do, the roles sie will play, the direction hir life will take. But gender is not the only variant in play here. In fact, I believe that gender is actually secondary here to another factor — it is merely one avenue of manifestation for our cultural construction of health.

Surely you have heard of the theory that gender is not an inherent trait, but a performance. This theory is definitely not without flaws, but I bring it up in hopes that it provides a familiar framework for a discussion on the social construction of health.

Health, you see, is not merely an inherent trait. Health, instead, emcompasses a variety of factors, including a person’s intrinsic qualities but also the environment in which they operate and their everyday behaviors.

Health is not just what a person is. Health is also what a person does. And what drives a person to do something is not wholly internal, but rather is largely influenced by external factors.

Gender, for instance, is both an internal sense of being and something we do for other people, something we do because we want other people to think about us, react to us, in certain ways. And the things we do, and the expected reactions to them, are different depending on which culture we are operating in — dependent on where we live, on our ethnicity, on our class background, on any number of other things. What it means to wear certain types of clothing is different in different cultures. What it means to speak a certain way is different in different cultures. And so on.

This framework is — I hope — useful for understanding what health actually is.

The form “health” takes is different depending on the expectations of the culture you live in.

The ultimate importance of that so-defined “health” is different depending on the expectations of the culture you live in.

The role “health” plays in the culture, what “health” means in that culture, the way the people of that culture interact or engage with that idea of “health,” are different depending on the expectations of the culture you live in.

What you do to achieve “health” is different depending on the expectations of the culture you live in.

How your health affects your position in life, your economic opportunities, the support that is offered for you to live the kind of life you desire, are all different depending on the expectations of the culture you live in.

(And yes, all of this is just as true in a culture that makes use of the scientific method and sees itself as cool and rational. What is investigated, and how, and how the results are interpreted, and what lessons are drawn from those results, and how those lessons are applied in everyday life — all these things must grow out of the culture they happen in! )

Health, then, is not merely a personal state, but rather a cultural fulfillment. Health (of whatever kind) is expected of you, expected by the people around you. Your health is not your own, but instead belongs to your family, your community and your wider culture. You must achieve and maintain (whatever kind of) health, not because it benefits you personally, but because you will have deeply failed your fellow members of society if you don’t.

And this is what underlies the problematic aspect of Leive and Huffington’s statements. They are not suggesting that the sleep deficit for women is a problem because the woman herself feels fatigue or cognitive dysfunction. They are suggesting that the sleep deficit for women is a problem because the woman cannot fulfill the expectations of health — and the performance of duties that rely on that state of health — that society has for her. They are suggesting that the sleep deficit for women is a problem because then that woman personally fails her family, community and country.

Here, then, her lack of sleep lays bare her duty to society based on particular qualities she holds. But the disparity between her duty and her male peer’s duty would not exist if all of us did not have a duty to society to achieve and maintain a certain kind of health.

And Leive and Huffington, purporting to be advocating on women’s behalf, do nothing but reinforce the same system that screws women disproportionately when they center a woman’s obligations to the people around her over the personal experience of the woman herself.

And here, I hope, feminists will understand what disability activists mean when we talk about the supposed obligation of mentally ill people to submit to (certain kinds of) treatment for the sake of the rest of society — or what fat acceptance activists mean when we talk about the supposed obligation of all people to be as thin as possible for the sake of the rest of society — and so on.

Eating “healthy” (as determined by mainstream cultural wisdom, largely controlled by wealthy white temporarily-abled folk) is not done solely for oneself. Neither is “exercise” (of course, what counts as physical-activity-that-improves-health is controlled by the same people who control what counts as food-that-improves-health). Participation in the paid workforce is not done solely for oneself — we are, in part, fulfilling the obligation of “responsibility” (which is a component of the health performance, because when health is lacking, the ability to work declines — so work, then, is a demonstration that you are fulfilling your health obligation).

When a person neglects to fill a health-related obligation, there is someone there to remind them of the cost to the rest of society. We’ve all heard figures on the cost of obesity, the cost of heart problems, the cost of low employment rates, the cost of suboptimal nutrition, the cost of insufficient sexual education, the cost of lost sleep… wait, that sounds familiar. Anyway, the cost might be in dollar figures, might be in time lost, might be in persons participating in x activity, or might be more intangible: work decisions, relationship challenges, judgment, problem-solving, creativity… wait a second, didn’t we just hear that? Oh yeah.

And that’s what’s wrong with this angle. Ladies, you are hurting your families! You are failing your communities! You’re dragging all of society down with you! When all you have to do is get an extra hour of sleep — seriously, how selfish are you, staying up to get the dishes clean after your kids have gone to bed so that they’ll have clean bowls to eat cereal out of in the morning?

Except that the entire reason women are getting less sleep than they need is because they’re busy fulfilling their obligations to the rest of the world. The entire reason women are getting less sleep than they need is because they’re required to be well enough to handle multiple shifts, every single day, for their entire adult lives. The entire reason women are getting less sleep than they need is because they’re required to get up at stupid o’clock every morning to handle all the things they’re required to do before going to work (including the obligations to project an image of “health” — to look and smell fresh and clean, to be sufficiently hair-free, to wear attractive clothing, to possibly spend time putting on a face full of makeup and making her hair look presentable — all which are wrapped up in appearing healthy to the people around you), and when they get home from work they still have to do the laundry and make the dinner and wash the dishes and pick up the floor and wipe down the kitchen and bathroom counters and possibly wrangle kids or partners all the while —

— and then they are getting chided by self-proclaimed women’s advocates because they spend too much time doing things for other people, and not enough time doing things for oneself… for… other people…

And it’s impossible to separate the demands of womanhood from the demands of ability. It’s difficult to differentiate the hierarchy of value imposed on people of different genders from the hierarchy of value imposed on people of differing abilities.

I’m sure you get, by now, how women get completely and utterly screwed in this situation. But I invite you to imagine, then, how disabled people get completely and utterly screwed by this situation — and then I invite you to imagine how a system that did not value people differently due to their differing abilities would also remove a lot of the pressure that is currently dumped on women.

A system of equal access, opportunity, value, for people of all types of abilities, would be radically better for people currently oppressed under this gender-based system.

And when you reinforce the ability-based system of oppression, you make things worse for the women living under it.

… just sayin’.

(Cross-posted at three rivers fog.)

For Cereal, Yahoo?

A periodic feature in which we highlight some of the more ableist posts and comments in the blogosphere – the things that made us throw up our hands and ask “FOR CEREAL???”

Today’s edition of “FOR CEREAL???” comes to us courtesy of the lovely folks at Yahoo, who published this handy guide from, I kid thee not, “GALTime.com”: “Save Your Sanity While Working at Home.” As some FWD readers may be aware, I am one of those folks who works at home, so I can review this guide both from an ableism standpoint (hello, TITLE!) and a realism standpoint.

We’re informed that this article has “hysterical” tips which will “help you keep your sanity” while you work from home1.

Uhm, for cereal? No. Really. FOR CEREAL?

This is an article which is supposed to be humorous, but, really, it reads like a pile of misogynistic claptrap of the worst order, because it’s misogynistic claptrap from fellow women, presented in a giggly, tee hee, aren’t we all conspiratorial kind of way which makes me want to gag violently. Because, it’s not about fun stuff. It’s about “women need a stern talking to or they get hysterical” and “women are so helpless they can’t figure things out for themselves” with a healthy dose of “not all careers are right for women” piled on top. This is a style I don’t really like, whether it’s in magazines or on websites or what have you, and pretty much regardless of the content2. It pisses me off, as a general rule, and it really makes me wonder about the women who write this kind of copy. Don’t they feel a bit…debased at some point?

There are a lot of tips which folks who work from home could really use, especially when they are getting started. Do I see any of those tips in this article? No, I do not. Instead, I see the writers telling people to wear trousers at home, not sweatpants. Because sweatpants are icky and gross! And you shouldn’t be comfortable just because you are working from home! Kiss my candystriped-cotton-weave-clad ass, GALTime.com.

And the article is rife with little “tips” which seem to be primarily sending the “if you work at home, you will get FAT” message. Like “don’t eat at your desk” and “get outside.” Everyone knows that it would, of course, be unbearable to become fat, and really, that’s the most important concern when it comes to working from home. Don’t worry about building up a client base, maintaining professional relationships, getting your bills paid, just worry about your pant size, ladies!

Finally, the article concludes with advice I find totally bizarre:

DO NOT tell anyone, including your husband and kids, that you are working from home! It’s none of their business, and how are you ever supposed to get any work done if people know where you are?

Uhm, for cereal? I think this is supposed to be a tongue in cheek way of saying “you need to set boundaries for people when you work from home because otherwise lines can start blurring,” but, FOR CEREAL?!?! You’re telling people they should lie to their families? This is cute? And funny?

No. Just. No.

Want some actual advice on working from home? I’ll tell you what works for me (although your mileage may vary, because every human experience is different!): Setting a clear schedule and sticking to it, structuring breaks into my schedule, setting clear boundaries with friends and clients about when/how to contact me, wearing comfortable clothing, and eating at my desk.

In fact, GUESS WHAT I AM GOING RIGHT NOW.

  1. Evidently, all people who work from home are verging on the brink of “insanity” and can only be brought back with a stern, yet cutesy, talking-to.
  2. Everything from articles giving women “permission” to eat chocolate to articles about how “exercise is fun, really, you just need to try harder” regularly stimulates a stark rage in my living room.

Guest Post: Temporarily Able-Bodied: Useful, but not always true

by Laurie Toby Edison and Debbie Notkin
Body Impolitic

Following up our post here late last year about “disability and aging,” we’ve been thinking about the phrase “temporarily able-bodied,” a mainstay of disability community language which we’ve both been using for 30 years or so.

In Annaham’s Disability 101 post on this blog, she says:

“AB” is an abbreviation for able-bodied; “TAB” is a slightly more to-the-point abbreviation meaning “Temporarily Able-Bodied.” TAB refers to the inevitable—namely, that most of us will face disability at some point in our lives; whether it comes sooner or later varies depending upon one’s circumstances.

We have the highest respect for the use of TAB and “temporarily able-bodied.” Using it is a way for a disability activist (or anyone discussing disability) to quickly and effectively bring all of her/his listeners into one group: some of us are disabled now and many of us will be sooner or later. It’s a phrase that builds community, that reminds people that the needs of some are really the needs of everyone. It’s akin to “universal design” as a phrase reminding us of what brings us together, rather than what separates us.

At the same time, like any catchphrase, it’s oversimplified. Disability is not inevitable. Only two things are always temporary: life, and youth. Everything else is conditional, contextual, and/or statistical. Definitions of ability/disability are exceedingly complex; even definitions of “aging” are less obvious than they might immediately appear.

Ability is not always temporary. Two large groups of people are able-bodied until they die: first, those who age able-bodied (not just 90-year-old hikers but also people over 80 who walk to the grocery store every day and clean their own homes). Second, and harder to see, are the people who die able-bodied at any age. In a culture that tries not to admit that people die at all and is especially resistant to admitting that young people ever die, it’s important to remember that death and old age are not synonymous. And, of course, disability is not always permanent either: the world is full of people who are temporarily disabled.

To return to our catch-phrase, “temporarily able-bodied” is often used as a reminder that disability can come to any person at any time, that you can wake up able-bodied and go to sleep disabled, just as you can wake up alive and never go to bed again. In this meaning, it’s both true and useful. But it’s also used, somewhat more sloppily, as a prediction: you, the individual I’m talking to, will not always be able-bodied. And among the things that are disturbing about that usage is that it encourages the cultural conflation of “disabled” and “old,” so that people in their 30s or 40s who are in some kind of body pain say they “feel old,” when what they feel is pain.

We’ll both keep using “temporarily able-bodied” in conversations about disability. And in those conversations, when we have the time and space to elaborate, we’ll explain how we’re not using it.

Dear Imprudence: Oh No, It’s the Pronunciation Police!

The following appeared in Slate’s “Dear Prudence” advice column chat-room supplement fairly recently:

Chicago: We have a close friend who is prone to embarrassing malapropisms that surpass even the best Norm Crosby bit. These are not innocent and simple mispronunciations—but ugly mangling of words including misuse and lack of understanding of the meaning of some words. I know that many words have multiple pronunciations and meanings, but this is beyond brutal. Some of them are funny, some are faux pas that make you wince and want to help. We used to try to help by repeating the word correctly in conversation after she had mangled it. No success. We have tried the direct approach—like a teacher—but this was rebuffed. We never did any of this in public but in private, away from others. And we picked our spots—only bringing up the worst cases. But she takes offense and continues mispronouncing words and inserting them in conversation where they don’t belong. Recently, my wife used the word adept, and now our friend mispronounces it and uses it like apt. It is like she has her own language. My wife has stopped trying to correct her. Her husband is no help and does the same thing on a smaller scale. I refuse to throw in the towel as I can’t understand why anyone would not want to expand their vocabulary—correctly. I would want to know if I was saying tenor for tenure and FOIL-AGE for any of the many accepted versions of foliage. We are 57 and of sound mind. She does not have a hearing problem.

There are so many problems here, I don’t even know where to begin. This “friend” is SO EMBARRASSING, nor does she take kindly to being corrected by her “well-meaning” pals who think her misuse of language is just terrible! Horrors!

One part that strikes me as uniquely troubling is this: “We are 57 and sound of mind.” Yes, because being 57 is supposed to automatically mean that one becomes not sound-of-mind? Soundness of mind, additionally, is one of those things where the meaning changes depending upon whom you talk to. Combined with the letter-writer’s utterly condescending attitude toward his “friend,” this sounds suspiciously like a trope that has been leveled for ages at PWDs, mostly by the temporarily abled who are so concerned about their welfare: If you’d just take my advice/listen to me/let me HELP you, you would get better. As has been proven time and time again, this is rarely true.

Now let’s look at the columnist’s response:

Emily Yoffe: Your friend probably has some sort of language processing disorder (there was speculation that the George Bush’s malapropisms, “I know you want to put food on your family,” etc., might have come from such a disorder), and all the schoolmarmish corrections in the world won’t “cure” her. It’s good you mention Norm Crosby, because he built an entire career on amusingly mangling language. I don’t know why you consider being with your friend “brutal.” It sounds as if you usually understand what she means, and when you don’t, you can ask for more context. Trying to keep a straight face seems like the biggest problem you face in socializing with her. So just be compassionate and let it go, and when you get in the car, you can laugh at her best neologisms.

Shockingly, I don’t totally hate this advice, despite Yoffe’s ill-fated attempts at snark/humor. She brings up an excellent point: If these “well-meaning” grammar cops think that being around this person (whom they call a friend) is such a trial, then why would they continue to be around this individual? To bolster their own sense of superiority? To show off their class privilege to this “friend” in the most ridiculous way possible? I have some issues with the “just laugh at her when she’s not around” suggestion, which seems almost needlessly rude–laughing at someone’s disability, furthermore, (which they often cannot control) is generally considered impolite for a reason.

But what the hell do I know? I’m just a person with several disabilities; if I’m lucky, perhaps a well-meaning TAB is writing a hand-wringing, oh-so-concerned letter to an advice columnist about me right this very second.

The Opposite of “Disabled” is Not “Employable”

According to the United State government, disability is “the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” Or, in non-regulatory terms, disability is when a physical or mental impairment will last at least a year and will make someone unable to work. The ability to work is right there in the definition. A person who cannot work is disabled. If that person can work, they are not disabled. Disability and employability are mutually exclusive states of being.

That definition comes from the Social Security Administration and is applied to people applying for disability benefits, basically a wage replacement program to compensate for the salary the person cannot earn – so the focus on employability makes some sense. But more and more, I see this framework for defining and evaluating disability applied outside the benefits context, in deciding if someone is “‘really’ disabled.” It’s also notable that these wage replacement programs are the most commonly known and discussed form of disability-based benefits – while I’m used to seeing articles about how to handle the Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI) program, I rarely see coverage of programs from the Department of Rehabilitations, which provides vocational training and support to PWDs. And the false equivalence of disability and unemployability is problematic for a lot of reasons.

  • There are a whole lot of people with disabilities who are not employed due to problems with the economy and with employers who discriminate against PWDs when hiring or fail to sufficient accommodate PWDs while employed. Assuming that unemployment is due solely to a person’s disability status, rather than systemic stigma and discrimination, places the responsibility for finding and keeping a job solely on the shoulders of the PWD. This shifts focus entirely away from the employers who have ultimate power over whether an individual is going to have a job. Take a look at employment statistics for the federal government itself, where “the severely disabled represent 0.94 percent of the government’s workforce.” And despite those low numbers, the government has no problem telling people that unemployment is a disability issue.
  • When disability is defined as an inability to work, that overlooks an enormous segment of people with disabilities. About 37% of PWDs in the United States are employed – 8,581,869 people. But their ability to work does not negate or erase their disabilities. Those disabilities continue to exist and implying they do not lets employers off the hook for acknowledging and accommodating those disabilities in the workplace. It is already easy for an employer to overlook an informal request for accommodation or demand overbroad access to private medical files to “prove” whether or not the requesting employee “actually” has a disability in response to an accommodation request. It’s impossible to say how many employed PWDs have successfully requested and received needed accommodations relative to those who have been too intimidated to ask or had employers unwilling to fulfill their legal obligation to provide accommodations. But I would venture to guess that it’s quite difficult and involves risk for the individual employee. The stereotype that people who can work are not disabled and do not “really” need or deserve accommodation only encourages this behavior.
  • In our society, employability is often equated with worth and value on a fundamental level. In the current bad economy, lots of people have been losing their jobs, and half of them feel that being unemployed has changed their lives for the worse. Being unemployed is seen as shameful, humiliating, a sort of failure to grow up and develop into a “real person.” Obviously, having “disabled” be seen as a synonym for something with those negative connotations does a disservice to people in both groups.

For Cereal, Cute Overload?

A periodic feature in which we highlight some of the more ableist posts and comments in the blogosphere – the things that made us throw up our hands and ask “FOR CEREAL???”

I’m late on this one, but that doesn’t make me any less upset. Cute Overload is one of the best and most regular suppliers of the cuteness I so often need to take the edge off the day, but it’s becoming increasingly problematic. They have a continuing series called Cats n Racks, featuring photos of kittens placed in cleavage, usually cutting off the woman’s head. Recently the site posted a picture of a extremely wrinkled puppy with lots of excess skin and compared it to Eleanor Roosevelt (described here at Filthy Grandeur). She also points out a recent photo of a wallaby titled “The New Slave Girl, She Intrigues Me,” captioned with what sounds an awful lot like a rape fantasy.

Not content to settle for racist and sexist, the site went for a hat trick and added ableist to their list! In their post reviewing the ten most popular posts of 2009, number five is a photo of a bunny with a long forelock brushed over one eye, called “Emo Bun.”

a small grey bunny looking to the side, with a long forelock of fur falling over one blue eye.

The text reads “On June 18, Stephanie N. took a minute from cutting herself to send us this awesome shot, an emotional bunneh.” The alt-text for the photo of the bunny reads “No Mom I was NOT cutting myself!”

FOR CEREAL, CUTE OVERLOAD? I’ve written at length about my issues with the term “emo” elsewhere, but beyond that, the multiple references to cutting are 100% non-negotiably inappropriate. Having an undeniably cute bunny whine about cutting minimizes and dismisses the very real pain of people who do self-injure. It implies that self-injury is a choice as superficial and changeable as a trendy hairstyle and that it’s done to fit into a trend. It’s not funny. And it’s certainly not cute.

Disability is not your analogy

The book we’re reading at present in the online bookclub to which I belong (Radical Readers, go check it out!) is The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy. I almost threw it across the room when I reached the following on page 233:

The historical censorship of discussion about sex has left us with another disability; the act of talking about sex, of putting words to what we do in bed, has become difficult and embarrassing.1 […] What you can’t talk about, you can hardly think about – a crippling2 disability.3

nooooOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRGGGGHHHHHhlafoaidygpkj

Gentle readers, welcome to hearing about one of the things in this world of ours that shits me the most.

Disability is not your cute fun analogy. You know why? Disability is its own thing all by itself. Disability is a part of many people’s lives and identities, it’s an experience in the world, a political one, a personal one, a sensitive one, a serious one. It is not a sweet little term you can charmingly appropriate for whatever other purpose pops into your head.

When people use ‘disability’ in that manner, (‘I’m really bad at cooking! It’s like a disability or something.’ ‘[Component of society] is [bad effects] to the extent that it’s like we’re all disabled.’) to me it conveys a good deal about how that person thinks of disability and the unthinking contempt with which they regard disabled people.

For a start, it displays a fundamental lack of understanding as to what disability actually is. Disability is not a silly compartmentalised quirk that you get to pull out and put away as you see fit. It is long term or permanent, it is a life experience, there are all manner of internal and social factors involved. In a strange way this kind of usage has a delegitimising effect on the disabled identity, as though it’s not really a serious thing, or it’s so broad a term as to be available for use in talking about all kinds of other experiences. It’s not an attempt at kinship or understanding; it takes away meaning.

Using it for an analogy appropriates the experience of being disabled. It takes the experience without permission or proper respect and only in part, meaning everything gets skewed. This sort of thing tends to leave out either the dimension of social oppression (as with the cooking example) or the impairment (the ‘we’re all disabled’ example). And it’s always used to say something negative: it’s setting up disability as the go-to reference for bad things. In short, using ‘disability’ for an analogy shows a lack of connection with disabled people’s experiences of disability.

Appropriating chunks of people’s lives is always going to be a not very good idea. When this is done through specifically saying something negative it goes to a whole other level. It’s about some people taking experiences belonging to other people’s lives and using them for easy, unaware reference.

[Cross-posted at Zero at the Bone]

  1. Right folks, the primary, analogy-worthy characteristics of disability are difficulty and embarrassment, let’s all go home.
  2. CRIPPLING?!
  3. What is particularly spectacular about this passage is that it appears shortly after the book’s one page addressing disability.

Dear Imprudence: Dan Savage, Savage Love, and “That’s Retarded” (Hint, Dan, “Leotarded” Is Just As Unacceptable)

One of the things which inspired the “Dear Imprudence” column here at FWD was the Savage Love column from 30 April, 2009, in which a reader sent in a letter politely asking Dan to stop using “retarded” as an insult. abby jean kindly covered “retarded” for the Ableist Word Profile, explaining the origins of the word and why it’s not appropriate to use, in case you need a refresher. I know that this column is old, but I thought that I should profile it, since it’s pretty much a shining example of what we’re talking about when we talk about bad advice.

Here’s my thing with Dan Savage. He infuriates me. A lot. His persistent fat hatred is extremely upsetting. His assaults on so-called “PC culture” are irritating. But, every now and then, he actually gives good advice. Really good advice with which I agree, which is why I read Savage Love pretty regularly even though it makes me want to scream sometimes. In fact, I almost profiled him for a “Getting It Right” column recently, but couldn’t bring myself to do it, because of the “leotarded” column.

So, let’s review. In case you need to be reminded of why so many people strongly dislike Dan Savage…

A reader wrote:

Stop using the word “retarded” as an insult, Dan. I know it can be hard to break a verbal habit, but make an effort. Perhaps you should have a “retard jar” that you put a dollar in every time you use the word. When the jar is full, send the money to the Special Olympics.

Whatever you do, though, try to remember that you have lots of listeners and readers who have loved ones with mental disabilities, and we don’t want to hear you misuse the word “retarded.” Please don’t tell me to read or listen to other people if I don’t like what I hear. I want to read your column and listen to your podcast, but without the put-downs directed at people with mental disabilities.

The Real Other Sister

Dan responded:

I’m going to turn over a new leaf, TROS, and make a conscious, conscientious effort to break myself of the bad habit of using the word “retard.” But I don’t think the “retard jar” is for me. Instead, I’m going to use a substitution for the word. From now on, instead of saying “retard” or “that’s so retarded,” I’m going to say “leotard” and “that’s so leotarded.” I won’t be mocking the mentally challenged, just the physically gifted. I will pick on the strong—and the limber—and not the weak.

Oh, Dan, you are so funny! My sides are aching! Oh, wait, I think that’s just indigestion.

Advice columnists, as a general rule, tend to be pretty prickly when called out by readers. A notable recent example appeared in “Ask Amy,” when Amy shamed a rape victim, was called out on it, and basically said “I don’t see what the big deal is.” Honestly, sometimes I think that advice columnists print letters critical of their responses specifically so that they can be mean to the person who sent the letter.

In this case, Dan’s mocking response made it clear that he didn’t give two figs for the fact that he was hurting people with his language use, and that his “solution” to the problem was to create a portmanteau which “won’t be mocking the mentally challenged.” I’m sure Dan is well aware of the fact that “-tarded” words work as insults because they evoke social attitudes about people with disabilities, whether or not “re-” is prefixed. His answer was basically a big, fat, “fuck you” to the disability community (with a bonus “weak” for extra points).

What’s interesting is that Dan certainly does recognize how the use of words like “gay” and an assortment of racial epithets which I can’t bring myself to type is harmful. So it’s not that Dan does not understand the power that language has, and the impact which it has on social attitudes. He just isn’t interested in the power of ableist language, which is actually a pretty widespread problem in social justice circles in general. People who would never let a word like “fag” or “bitch” cross their lips will freely say that something made them “crazy” the other day or that they saw a “lame” movie last week.

Dan had a great opportunity here to do some thinking, talk about the power of language, explain why “retarded” is wrong, apologize, and say that he won’t be using it anymore. Instead, he decided that more benefit would be provided if he insulted the reader and came up with an oh-so-hilarious variation on “retarded” to start using.

That’s a terrific message to send to all your readers, Dan! Way to go!

Lines in the Sand: Daly, Showalter and Tactics of Exclusion

The second-wave radical feminist theologian and professor Mary Daly died earlier this month, and there has been a veritable outpouring of eulogies from various feminist blogs.

Few of these eulogies have acknowledged Daly’s transphobia and racism.

I do not deny that Daly was an important figure in second-wave feminism, but to mourn her passing without a nod to her work’s more problematic aspects, or explorations of these aspects, are, to put it mildly, not good. In particular, the intense, hateful transphobia found in some of her writing, and her issues with unexamined white privilege and racism — which both QueenEmily at Questioning Transphobia and Sungold at Kittywampus cover very well in recent posts — strikes many as both deeply disturbing and an old pattern that has, and continues to, rear its grotesque head in certain segments of contemporary feminism. I include myself among those who are deeply troubled by Daly’s transphobic sentiments and her questionable record when it came to examining the entrenched racism and issues surrounding white privilege in the second-wave feminist movement.

I should probably mention at this point that I do not mean to appropriate or co-opt the struggles of trans* folks in any way, although my cis privilege will most likely be unintentionally reflected at points in this piece. Though the struggles of trans* people, trans feminists and PWDs and disabled feminists are not the exact same, some exclusionary tactics of certain cisgendered feminists and those of abled feminists sometimes take similar forms, especially within the mainstream feminist movement. The oppression of trans* folks and PWDs in cis, abled culture intersect in a number of ways; this post, however, barely scratches that surface. I believe that the many issues present in Daly’s work–as well as the reaction to her death around the blogosphere–can serve as just one entry point to discussions of the similarities in oppression(s) that trans* people and PWDs face. There are also clear differences, among them the fact Daly used language that can only be called genocidal, while many other feminists of her generation did not advocate such an extreme path when it came to keeping certain individuals out of feminism. I will be focusing on feminism’s exclusion of trans* and PWDs as reflected in the work of two very influential second-wave feminists here, but there is, of course, much more to these stories.

Daly’s penchant for exclusion and outright hatred (particularly of trans* individuals) couched in oddly phrased academic rhetoric unfortunately brings to mind another famous second-waver’s similar issues with people (particularly women) with disabilities. Princeton scholar Elaine Showalter — best known for bringing feminist literary theory to the fore in the academy at a time when such a discipline was, for the most part, inconceivable — dismissed disabling conditions like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Gulf War Syndrome and mental health issues such as Dissociative Identity Disorder (referred to in the text as Multiple Personality Disorder) in her 1997 book Hystories.

In Hystories, Showalter attempted to debunk “modern media epidemics” such as the aforementioned disabilities as well as more traditionally disproven phenomena such as alien abduction and satanic ritual abuse. In the book’s chapter on Chronic Fatigue, Showalter rather disingenuously declared that she did not want to “disparage the suffering” of people with such conditions only a few pages before she called CFS an extension of Western “fin de siecle [end of the century] anxiety.” She followed this stunning assertion with the claim that the Western news media was primarily responsible for making CFS into an escalating “psychogenic epidemic” (117, 131).

Like Daly’s severe opinion of trans* people as dupes of the medical industry (which Kittywampus cites in her post), Showalter also seemed to be taken with the idea that people with CFS are somehow being duped into thinking that they are ill because of the media focus on their condition. She wrote that many CFS patients and their defenders are “hostile to psychiatric or social explanations” of the condition, and that many of them react in a way that is not friendly to the labeling of CFS as “psychiatric” (128). However, the reactions of these same patients make sense if considered from a non-abled perspective. Showalter also seemed completely mystified by these “hostile” reactions. If CFS is just a manifestation of “fin seicle anxiety,” as she contended (adding that “emotions have tremendous power over the body”) she seemed to push the conclusion — without any scientific or medical proof — that many people with CFS have somehow been brainwashed into believing they have it; thus, the media-driven “hysterical epidemic” has worked.

Nowhere are feminists with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or related conditions consulted; the not-so-feminist implication here is that feminists with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome either do not exist or are just victims of a “hysterical” media-led epidemic and therefore cannot be “real” feminists. This is similar to how trans* feminists were erased, excluded and castigated by Daly as somehow not “real” women or feminists, and as benefiting from patriarchy in a way that “real” women and feminists could not. To put it crudely: This is exclusionary bullcrap, and it does not do trans* people, people with disabilities, feminists who fit either (or both) of these categories, or the feminist movement as a whole any favors whatsoever.

Exclusion is not radical. It has never been radical. It is, in fact, extraordinarily status-quo. No one should be able to arbitrarily pick and choose who “belongs” in the feminist movement and who does not, especially if those who are being excluded because of their gender identity, sexual identity or disability actively identify as feminist. Feminism should be for a wide variety of people; exclusion, however, is something that is not — and has never been — very  feminist.

Author’s note: I will be moderating this thread with an iron fist; please have the courtesy to not try to tell me how Daly really was an ally to trans* folks, or how Showalter didn’t mean what she said about CFS *that* way, or that either author’s influence on the feminist movement somehow excuses their hatred and bigotry. Thank you.

[Cross-posted to Ham.Blog]

Quick Hit: Parenting and Ableist Language

A few weeks ago, I went out to dinner at a local restaurant, and I happened to run into one of the owners on my way out the door. I’m friends with the owners, so I stopped to chat for a minute. She (I’ll call her “Susan” for the purpose of this story) has a young son (“James”), and somehow, the topic of language came up. We were discussing cuss words and the process of teaching kids to navigate language and learn what sort of language is appropriate in which settings.

“It’s fine if James says ‘fuck’ at home,” Susan said. “But not stupid. That’s not a nice word. We don’t say that word. Ever.”

Gentle readers, my little black heart briefly turned bright red with delight. She went on to list all of the other ableist language they don’t use at home, and how they explained to James that it wasn’t ok; not least because they have family members with disabilities, so James actually interacts regularly with the people those words are weaponized against.

I like that, from the start, Susan and her husband are teaching James that words mean things, and that they can be dangerous. They’ve told James that when he’s mad at someone and is tempted to use one of those words, or he wants to describe something with one of them, he should think about what he’s trying to express. And they’ve told him to speak out when he doesn’t like the way someone else is talking, which has apparently led to some interesting playground interactions, with James telling kids that “our family doesn’t use that word!”

I’ve interacted with James a few times and I always really enjoy it, and I realized that this is one of the reasons why. He chooses his language carefully and thoughtfully, far more so than other people, and he’s very good at describing things accurately. And he’s one of the few people I can comfortably be around in part because I know that he’s not going to be parroting exclusionary language around me because he’s learned it from his parents or school friends.

Interactions like this give me hope for the next generation, even though I know it’s an uphill battle.

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