Thursday, July 4, 2013

Discourses of Silence

I have written about ableism a few different times already, so I hope by now this entry  comes as no huge surprise, coming from me, but at the same time, I also hope you read through and take  it seriously- especially since while the specific discourse here  is ableism, the argument stands for any discourse of oppression. 

If you didn't know already, I'm a Ph.D. student in the last bureaucratic stages of their requirements before starting the dissertation phase. One of those requirements is writing a few papers that are good enough for peer-reviewed publication. As I was finishing the rough draft of the last of these papers, I got kind of tired of seeing the red squiggly line under "ableism" and "ableist." This sort of clicked when I was writing a paragraph about how one of its strengths is its omission in the consciousness of most of us as we go about our daily lives. 

It was like... Oh, jeez, DUH!

And  then I started writing a Facebook status about it to be a little tongue-in-cheek, and I realized Chrome also puts a red squiggly under "aleism" and "ableist." So the status ended up being, "Hey Microsoft! And Yo, Google! The fact that "ableism" and any of its forms gets me a red squiggly is ableist. Just sayin'..."

And it is. 

Any disability scholar or advocate will tell you that one of the things about ableism that makes it so difficult to overcome is how it hides itself, masquerades as the norm- and thus as nonexistent. So by inadvertently not including "ableism" in their lexicons,  both Microsoft and Google are inadvertently upholding ableism itself. 

So as a friend reminded me, "ableism" wasn't even  an accepted word in the OED until 1981; I'd give  you a link, but I have access to the Oxford database through my university. The entry here says it was first used in the feminist periodical off our backs the quote being this: " 'Ableism'- that is, the systemic oppression of a group of people because of what they can or can not do with their bodies or minds- is the result of... ignorance." 

I think this late naming of a system of oppression that has been around since Aristotle and Plato goes right with that definition given in off our backs. By hiding under a guise of normalcy, ableism continues. After all, how can you change something you don't even realize exists in the first place? Giving something a name can give it power, but I also fundamentally believe that not naming something can lead to perpetuation of hegemonic paradigms of oppression and discourses of silence that lead to the marginalization of groups of people. 

One of my favorite normative theorists (liberal/communicative democratic, too), Iris Marion Young, has in one of her books a chapter called the "Five Faces of Oppression." When introducing these five faces, as well as wrapping up the chapter, she explains that one of the most dangerous aspects of oppression is that it's often so embedded in our regular goings on of our daily lives that we don't even realize we're practicing  it. I haven't read it in a while, so actually, I don't remember if she specifically says this has to do with privilege, but I'm going to say in my interpretation, it does, because a lot of times, we don't really understand, recognize, or (the most conscious of the three) want to acknowledge privilege when it exists to our benefit.

So along these lines, silence is an extremely powerful tool of and for discourse- but only when controlled by the hegemonic and oppressive group in charge. And this works in two ways. The most pervasive and hardest to deal with is what I've already  discussed- passing  off as regular, everyday  activity, i.e. as entirely neutral. If the status quo is oppressive, a "neutral" status quo (or stance) is going to continue to oppress (or support the continued oppression of) whatever social group(s) it suppresses and marginalizes. By hiding behind neutrality, in silence, oppression festers and thrives.

The second is more outward and direct, and that's silencing difference. There are lots of examples of this- pretty much any time a minority expresses discontent, the retaliation from the majority is an attempt at silencing that minority. And of course, this is because of the first method of silence- if the majority gets called out on its shit, giving legitimacy to the claims against it would mean relinquishing. Saying, "Nonono, you're mistaken," or, even more repulsively, "Nonono, you're the one being an asshole," are pretty simple, excessively rampant methods of silencing difference.*

And this is exactly what happens with ableism. Starting with how, as alluded to before, Plato and Aristotle wrote  about the way some people are just born  better than others- smarter, more physically capable, etc., and that hierarchies and  castes should be established and upheld by the military  and government based on this. A large aspect of myriad works by these guys (The Republic, Dialogues, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics...) stipulate that persons we'd now say are born with cognitive disabilities, or people born with physical ailments severe enough they'd be rendered immobile- how these people should be drowned or "disposed of" at birth- yeah, that thing called eugenics? It's entirely ableist, as its premise is literally killing off people of anomalous physical and mental capability. If you look hard enough, there's at least a normative value placed on comprehension, if not some division between physically "capable" and "incapable," in pretty much anything coming from these dudes. This is all philosophized in the name of what's "best" for mankind (emphasis on the "man" part, by the way), what will make  society function  in the most efficient and stable way possible. The people  that were "better" would, "naturally," then, have more authority and power, and that authority and power was to be wielded over and through the effort of those of lesser value. 

Plato- a totally elitist  motherfucker
So, in essence, Plato and his little prodige wanted to establish a society that functioned literally on the backs of the disabled and less mentally rigorous people born into that society- the ones allowed to live, 'natch. We then move forward, and it's not until 1981 that this normative stratification of persons based on physical and mental capacity is acknowledged to have a name. 

So how can a person change a system they can't give a name to? In order to change a system, the specific aspect of it that needs changing needs naming. Without a name, it's hard to get people to understand.  

Seriously, think of it like Balderdash or similar party games, ones where you have a word you need to get your partner(s) to guess without naming the specific word, any of its various forms, or any words found within it (example, you can't say, "straw" or "berry" if it's "strawberry").

Or  better yet, think of it like charades. Except you can't say how many words there are, whether it's a noun or adverb or whatever, or how many syllables it  has. You're entirely silent the whole time, waving your arms around, making faces, and everyone is just staring at you like you're having some sort of mental breakdown or violent episode. 

That's what advocacy without naming the target is like.

So that's why not being recognizable is such an effective method of perpetuating ableism.

That's why not having "ableism" in a dictionary is ableist.

I may be pushing my luck, but I bet that there are a helluvalot more people that are well-educated, enlightened, and fairly down with the whole "equality" thing that don't know what ableism is, or at best have misconceptions that it only happens when someone says something is "retarded," than those that are the opposite, that really understand how having stairs in front of a building instead of a ramp is ableist, that calling something or someone "crazy" is ablesit, or that the lack of normalization of anomaly in physical and  mental capability in society is ableist. 

And before I get any snarky, "So what are you doing about it?"s, I've already drafted a letter to Microsoft that I'll modify for Google, and I'll send each once a month to various locations for the respective corporations until I get an answer. Also, I'm writing this blog, aren't I? I'm not staying silent. I'll also either write a dissertation about this, or go into a job dealing in disability advocacy once I'm ABD. So yes, I'm trying. I'm giving a name to this bullshit, and suggesting ways of changing it. That's my goal in life, or for my career, at least.

I'm going to end with a snippet from the paper I wrote, because I think ableism is so embedded and so rampant and dominant today, that pretty  much anything we do or have is traced back to it somehow. And let me be clear, I don't  mean to say anybody is a bad person for doing ableist things- it's unconscious 95% of the time overall, and 100% of the time in a lot of people. We're good people, we've jut been conditioned to both simultaneously ignore and devalue  anomaly.

"While I do not expect for the entire worldview of any reader to be completely changed  or shattered, I do hope to give readers cause to think about some of the theories to which they ascribe, attitudes they hold,  and ways they interact with both people and their environments; asking themselves, at least every now and then, "Is this ableist?" or, more aptly, "How is this ableist?"

*Trolls especially like doing the latter, doing things like bringing up entirely unrelated topics or arguments to paint the person they're trolling  as a bad person (like extrapolating racism out of a discussion about ice cream) (or as what just happened to me, abortion and Black Panther ideology from a discussion about... spoilers).  

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