I used to be quite enamored of identity politics. My main exposure to the concept came from Tobin Siebers’ Disability Theory — a book in which he makes the compelling argument that identity is a form of social theory (Siebers 2011, 33).
For Siebers, our identities are neither fixed nor merely personal. Instead, they provide evidence for the ways in which we navigate the social environment, and they serve to highlight all of its bigotries and injustices. In looking at social and political issues through the lens of identity politics, Siebers suggests that we avoid seeing bodies as merely individual and look at the construct of the archetypal body for whom our culture is designed — the body that can easily enter public spaces, that has the right to consensual sexual activity, that embodies human worth (Siebers 2011, 85, 124-125). Thus, racial identity, queer identity, disability identity — any minority identity — has the potential to call out inequities with respect to rights, social treatment, and inclusion. I find this outlook a very powerful one.
But I’ve come to feel frustrated by identity politics. Issuing social critique from a number of different perspectives is absolutely necessary, but I’ve found that these perspectives start to clash in ways that subvert the whole notion of solidarity. These clashes happen in a number of ways. Sometimes, when people discuss one form of oppression, they reinforce another — as when people protest racism but insist that homosexuality is a perversion. At other times, the hyperbole starts to fly, with people in different identity groups vying for who has it worse. At still other moments, people focus on one form of oppression while essentially telling other people to wait their turn.
Whenever I see these conflicts happening, I feel very stymied. I understand why they happen. I understand that people in all oppressed groups are laboring under so much invisibility and so much dismissal that it’s very difficult to cede the floor. I have watched this impulse in myself. While my overriding interest is in how different forms of oppression work to reinforce one another, I have often felt something along the lines of, “Enough about your oppression! Let’s talk about disability. It never gets any airtime.” Given how little airtime most of us get, I daresay that most people in most minority groups feel similarly.
Part of the reason for my general disillusionment with identity politics is that I’ve come to feel that the overriding category that governs all others is not race, not class, not ability, not gender, and not sexuality, but Normalcy. As Lennard Davis points out, the concept of Normalcy only entered the cultural imagination in the mid-nineteenth century as a statistical average of human qualities that became the image of a non-existent “average man” (Davis 1995, 26). From there, European and American society embraced the notion that “average” was synonymous with “normal,” and that anyone who did not fit the demands of Normalcy was deviant and dangerous (Davis 1995, 29). Disabled people became associated with others who had “abnormal” traits, such as criminals and the poor, and their bodies were said to threaten the health of the body politic (Davis 1995, 35-36).
Today, under Normalcy, anyone who is not cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, white, and middle class is “abnormal” — a word that is often code for disabled and criminal. People who are criminal are almost always seen as disabled, and disabled people are routinely portrayed at the extremes of human experience: morally pure or criminally dangerous, asexual or sexually deviant, bitter crips who are a burden to all or super crips who need nothing from anyone. Historically, many different classes of people have been thrown into the category of “abnormal,” usually with reference to disability. People of color have been marked as unintelligent, queer and trans* people as pathologically ill, and women as weak and unstable.
“Normal” is what most people strive to be, and this striving accounts for why people in different marginalized groups are so willing to throw one another under the bus — and why so much of respectability politics has to do with normalization. It’s why you see ableism, misogyny, racism, classism, fatphobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, transantagonism, and homoantagonism rearing their ugly heads even among people who labor under oppression. Most people flee anything that doesn’t look “normal,” even as they know that they can never meet the strictures of Normalcy. Because it is nothing more than a statistical fiction, Normalcy is the ultimate unattainable ideal, but there are powerful internalized forces at work that keep it in place. These internalized forces fulfill the purpose of herding people into a very narrow idea of what it means to be human.
The goal of attaining Normalcy does not drive these forces for the greater good. If we want to dismantle racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and every other form of systemic hatred, we must begin by dismantling the notion of Normalcy. Only then can we free ourselves from the limitations of a construct that cannot possibly reflect human experience in all of its diversity.
Davis, Lennard J. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. London, England: Verso, 1995.
Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2011.
© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
Here I am, late to the party, but this article on Skepchick got me thinking. Apparently, last month, there was a big blow-up about ableist language used in another post, and this Skepchick article addresses the issue. I don’t agree with much of the article, and I don’t hang out in the Skeptic community, but all that is really beside the point. What I find so interesting is the amount of words spent — both in the article and in the comments section — on the whole problem of whether it’s okay to use an ableist insult, whether anyone should care whether people are triggered, and whether we should all just get over being offended.
To me, words like “idiot” and “moron” and “stupid” are ableist, so I think that people were absolutely right to raise the issue. However, I think that there is something quite — I don’t know, odd? — about arguing over what kind of insults are allowed in dialogue. The whole problem could be solved by sticking to content, respecting the dignity of other people, and staying away from insults altogether, yes? Then you’d never end up with an ableist insult coming out of your mouth or off the keys of your computer.
The purpose of an insult is to hurt, to shame, and to demean. So is it any surprise that people who are uninvolved in the argument end up as collateral damage? Is it any wonder that sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism start creeping in when the insults start flying? After all, if an insult is meant to hurt, to shame, and to demean, then what better way to do it than to make implicit comparisons to people who are already hurt, shamed, and demeaned?
This is why I do my best to stay away from insults and why I’m not interested in anyone coming on my blog and launching them. It’s not just painful to the people involved; it has the potential to add to the marginalization of already marginalized people. And no, I don’t think we ought to be compiling lists of non-bigoted insults. I think we ought to be able to talk to one another with dignity about how to fix the problems in the world we live in.
But obviously, I’m a dreamer. Being harsh and cruel is so acceptable now that I often wonder why I even write these kinds of words. And then I remember that I write them so that others who feel as I do will know that they’re not alone. I write for people like myself, who would rather have an insult be a rare event and not a common and acceptable mode of communication.
I hope our culture can move back to valuing respectful dialogue. Of course, there is no reason to romanticize the past. It’s true that there have always been all kinds of disrespect and indignities visited upon millions of people, and respectful dialogue was not the experience of the many. I’ve experienced disrespect, indignity, and assault in my own life, and I come from a people that experienced it for many centuries. What I remember, though, from my earlier years as an activist, is that people who wanted to create a just world valued respecting people. They valued raising up people who were not respected into the light of dignity. They felt that the only way to create peace and justice was to model it. What I see now is exactly the opposite — that we’ve given into the idea that, because the world is a brutal and violent place, it’s somehow all right to be nasty with each other.
I don’t see our society valuing respectful dialogue any time soon — perhaps not even in my lifetime. I’m realizing that what I’ve worked so hard to do all of my adult life — to engage in civil dialogue while staying rooted in all of my emotions — is no longer of value to most people in the society I live in. This realization saddens me more than words can say.
© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
I’ve been distributing lunches to homeless and hungry people for six months. After a night and a morning of driving rain, I brought food today to people living under the Water Street bridge on either side of the river. Two things struck me:
1) I have no idea how we can call our society “civilized” when we allow people to live under bridges, in parks, and on the street.
2) I continue to be amazed at how kindly, how respectfully, and how courteously I’m treated by people who have nothing. Only occasionally have I been met with disrespect, and it’s generally by people who are traumatized and mentally ill. Everyone else? They are so kind that they put people who have everything to shame.
The contrast was very apparent today. After distributing lunches and having some really wonderful contact with people, I headed home. I was standing at the corner, across from my apartment building, when a large truck came into the intersection and then stopped just before the crosswalk. I made eye contact with the driver and he let me know it was okay to cross. Once I was across the street, an older gentlemen saw fit to mansplain to me about traffic laws, saying, “That truck had the right of way. He was already in the intersection. You shouldn’t have crossed.”
I have no idea why people think it’s a public service to police the behavior of other pedestrians on a public street, but it’s happened to me before — again, after someone driving a vehicle stopped, made eye contact, and let me know it was fine to cross in front of them. I find this kind of behavior annoying. So I interrupted him and said, in my most cheery and assertive voice:
HEY! ENJOY YOUR DAY, WON’T YOU?
I can’t wait to get back to the park to distribute lunches on Monday.
© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
You never know when a lack of accessibility — and the message that you are not important enough for someone to provide it — is about to hit you in the face.
Case in point: On Sunday, I was having a lovely day, minding my own business, working out, studying ASL, writing my thesis, and otherwise enjoying the serenity of a rainy, overcast afternoon. In the evening, my husband told me about a conversation he’d had with one of his relatives that day. She had called him to apologize for not showing up to various important events in our lives. And from there, the day derailed into grief and utter frustration.
The conversation had begun well. She’d apologized. He’d thanked her for her apology. Everybody was happy. And then she said, “And tell Rachel I apologize, too.”
My husband, being a kind and thoughtful man, knows better than to accept a second-hand apology on anyone’s behalf. So he told his relative to apologize to me directly. She asked if he’d put me on the phone. I wasn’t there, and my husband mentioned to her that the phone doesn’t work for me. He really need not have mentioned it. She knows about my audiological issues. She knows how bad my hearing is when it comes to degraded sound on the telephone. She knows how exhausting it is for me to use the phone at all. She knows that I communicate in text when I am not standing face-to-face with someone. She knows all of this. I told her directly when she called me a few years back.
So my husband asked her to email me. Her response? “No, that’s not going to work for me.”
Why? Because she would have to walk up two flights of stairs to the computer.
I kid you not.
This is a person who has emailed me in the past. This is a person with all of her fingers, who is perfectly capable of climbing stairs, and who was simply refusing to use my best and most comfortable means of communication in order to make an apology I could take in without getting a headache. In other words, if she couldn’t use the telephone to make an apology for ignoring me and failing to show up, she was just going to … ignore me and fail to show up.
This situation has hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s not just the lack of communication. It’s the message that my feelings, my dignity, and my personhood are not sufficiently valuable for someone to write me an email. How much more marginalized in the family could I possibly be? How much clearer could the message be that I am not valued, that I am not important, that I do not matter?
This is not the first time I have felt marginalized in the family. For many years, I reached out to everyone and, with only a few exceptions, got little in response. I sent emails that went unanswered. I sent around pictures of my kid’s soccer games and dances and other life events and got no response. I shared events from my life to the sound of crickets. I offered to be of support in various family crises, to no avail. Only two of Bob’s family members showed up to our wedding; only one showed up to my kid’s high school graduation. Except for Bob’s kids, no one ever came to visit us in our house in Brattleboro, even though they were traveling in the area and we had told them that they were welcome to stop by.
And yet, for years, whenever someone has contacted me, I followed up. I did not leave emails unanswered. Why would I? Having lost my own family, I was so hungry for contact from my husband’s family that there was no way I would have risked any of them thinking that the contact wasn’t important to me. There is no way I would have missed an opportunity to connect.
And what have my husband and I done together? We have traveled down the east coast countless times over the past ten years to see relatives. I can’t even keep track of how many times I’ve gotten in the car and gone to New York — with my multiple disabilities, my super-sensitive neurology, my PTSD, and all of the pain and fatigue that derive from them. I’ve gone to a wedding crowded with people in a small space, where I could barely hear what anyone was saying. I’ve gone to parties and shiva minyans in noisy venues. I’ve helped lead a baby naming ceremony. I’ve helped to care for my father-in-law while his body and mind were falling apart. I’ve gone out to restaurants with family members and was utterly exhausted from the sheer noise. I’ve gone down to New York to visit family in the midst of a hideous, eight-month-long withdrawal from benzos. I’ve gone way, way, way past my comfort zone in the service of connecting with them.
But someone can’t walk upstairs to send me an email? Because it’s too hard?
My 69-year-old husband flew 3000 miles last month to go to an anniversary party for his relatives, after a whole year of flying back east every month to care for his dad.
But someone can’t walk upstairs to send me an email? At my husband’s request?
It’s so absurd that it doesn’t even compute. My brain is almost on fire trying to grok it. I have to stretch and stretch and stretch to meet the demands of the able-bodied world, and I’ve done it for 55 years, and I’ve done it without any support from my original family. In fact, I’ve done it in the face of a legacy of protracted abuse and all that it does to the body and mind.
But someone can’t walk upstairs to send me an email? Because it’s too uncomfortable?
Could the nature of able-bodied privilege be any clearer? Could the message of “You don’t matter” be any more apparent?
I am absolutely beside myself.
© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
A few weeks back, I was walking in the park, delivering lunches, when one of the homeless women there asked a young man if he wanted a lunch. The young man said yes, and he came over and got one. We smiled at each other, and then the woman and I kept walking.
“Paul* is autistic, you know,” she said. “He won’t ask you for anything, but if you go up to him, he’ll respond to you.”
“He’s autistic?” I said. “Homeless and autistic? That’s got to be rough. He’s especially vulnerable out here.”
“I know,” she said. “That’s why we watch out for him.”
It was such a simple exchange, and yet it broke down every stereotype about homeless people out there — that they’re all lazy bums, that they’re all criminals, that they’re all dangerous, and that none of them are fit to be in community with the rest of us. I have not found the average homeless person to be lazy, criminal, or dangerous; in fact, I have met a number of kind, caring, and thoughtful people. I’ve had conversations about politics, religion, disability, and art, and I’ve seen more than one example of people looking out for one another.
It always takes my breath away when people in crisis look out for one another. It reminds me of the goodness of people, and how we can care for one another, even in dire circumstances. I wish we did more of it. The world would be a kinder and more life-affirming place.
© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
Apparently, questioning my use of a cane has become a go-to topic of conversation when I’m riding the elevator in my building. You’ll remember that it happened a couple of weeks ago. Yesterday, when I got home from vacation, an older gentleman walked into the elevator with me and said, “You walk awfully well to be using a cane. You sure you don’t just use it to beat off the guys with a stick?”
Okay, so I got the two implied compliments: you seem to be able to walk well (although why that’s the source of a compliment actually escapes me) and you’re so good looking that you have to defend yourself against too much attention. I can’t say I was offended, exactly. That would be too strong a word. The guy was just trying to make conversation. What I felt was more like boredom mixed with annoyance: boredom because people need to start changing up their themes when it comes to making small talk with me, and annoyance because I was really floored by how free he felt to talk about something as personal as my body.
Now, I don’t mind if someone I know well says, “I see you’re using your cane today. Are you having difficulties with your hip?” or “I see you’re not using your cane today. Is your hip doing well?” And by someone I know well, I mean someone who would visit me in the hospital if I were sick and bring me flowers. Those folks can comment. Everyone else is just breaking a boundary.
Anyway, after I heard this latest iteration of “What do you need that cane for?” I just paused, looked at the guy, and said very seriously, “The cane helps me.” I didn’t really care whether he thought I meant “helps me walk without pain” or “helps me defend myself.” I just cared that I said something to deflect the intrusion.
Next time, I might just roll my eyes and then stare silently at the person until we get off the elevator. These comments are getting old very fast.
© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
This afternoon, my husband and I went to see a matinee in town. We went to a particular theatre to see it because they have assistive listening devices for all of the movies there. These devices are glasses that provide closed captioning by means of a wireless signal. We got there early so that I could request the device.
I talked with the manager about what I needed, and after about 10 minutes, she gave me one — and proceeded to speak to my husband about how to use it, even though I was the one who had requested it, and even though I was the one to whom she had handed it.
It felt like a punch in the gut. I had clearly been speaking to the woman, I had clearly been understanding her speech, and I had clearly responded purposefully to her. There was no reason on this earth that she should have been addressing my husband when he was not using the device himself. At one point, she even said, “Your wife shouldn’t have a problem with it” while I was standing directly in front of her and he was standing to the side.
Interesting how I became a second-class citizen after asking for an assistive device. Is there something about the device that made me phase in and out of view, I wonder?
I know, I know. This is standard in the world of disability. I know so many people who have these experiences — people who use wheelchairs, blind people, Deaf people, all kinds of people with disabilities who talk about others addressing their partners and not them. Because most of my disabilities are invisible, I’ve never had it happen to me so blatantly before. I’ve had other microaggressions happen because I use a cane, but this is the first time I’ve encountered this particular kind of disrespect.
I have a feeling it won’t be the last. When I find myself in these kinds of situations, I’m going to have to say, “Eyes over here, please. I’m the one you need to be talking to.”
© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
I found out this spring, after a series of muscle spasms that left me crying on the floor, that I have a pulled ligament between my spine and my hip. I probably pulled it long ago; my physical therapist said that I could have pulled it in childhood, and that my body compensated for the injury until it just couldn’t anymore.
Before I started doing core strengthening every day, my hip was wobbly and would become over-rotated. Walking tended to inflame it, and I began using a cane in order to take the pressure off it. It worked very well. After having done the exercises for several months, things were feeling much more stable with my hip, so I did an experiment to see whether I could do without the cane.
It worked for awhile, and then I noticed about a week ago that I was feeling some strain. It wasn’t really bad, but I thought it best not to push it and decided that using the cane again would be a good idea. Using it cuts down the risk of re-inflaming the whole area and ending up on the floor again. Plus, I am able to walk with much more strength and endurance when I use the cane. Except for the fact that I was getting used to having both my hands free again, I am really fine with it.
What I’m not so fine with are the reactions to it.
On Sunday, I rode the elevator up to my apartment with a young woman in her early 20s. As soon as we got into the elevator, she said, “Do you really need that cane?”
She said it in such a quiet voice that I missed the intrusiveness of the question. It sounded like a simple request for information, and I was in a good mood, so I answered her with, “Yes. One of my hips get over-rotated and it helps with not re-injuring myself.”
That was probably too much information, but I’m all about substantive conversation, don’t you know? So I just smiled and figured that was that.
But it wasn’t. Of course not. She followed up with, “Well, you were walking really fast.” The implication was that, because I use a cane, I’m supposed to walk slowly and haltingly. At this point, I was still in a good mood, and I decided not to mess it up with getting in her face, so I said, “Yes, I do walk at a good pace. The cane is like a third leg. It allows me to go further and faster than I could without it.”
She looked skeptical. Thank goodness the elevator arrived at my floor before the conversation went any further.
It was one of those conversations that seems benign at the time but bothers you later. Part of it was the intrusion. Part of it was the skepticism. Part of it was the implied demand that I explain myself.
Most of what bothered me, though, was the implication that I had to perform disability in a particular way. I understand that mindset, because I constantly catch myself doing the same thing. I think, “I’m using a cane. That means I have to have a certain kind of affect that communicates that my life is somehow difficult. In fact, that means I have to exaggerate my difficulties in order to make them believable. In fact, it means that I’m old, and fragile, and can’t get very far.” I catch myself at that kind of thinking and I know that it’s ridiculous, because a) my life is really pretty wonderful, b) I’m not in the habit of exaggerating my difficulties, c) I’m no more fragile than the next person in a human body, d) I’m only 55, and e) I love physical labor and can walk 3-4 miles at a time easily.
But the whole notion of what a cane means — and of what disability means — is so narrow and so pre-scripted that someone watches me walking with confidence toward the elevator and questions whether I need a cane at all. I mean, why would I use a cane if I didn’t need it? Does she think it’s just a fashion accessory? Or that I want the best seat on the bus? When you start to deconstruct it, you find that the question is irrational, and it’s irrational because it comes from a view of disability that has nothing to do with the reality of people’s lives.
I wish I’d been able to throw the question back at her. I wish I’d been able to just say, “Talking about my cane is off limits to you.” But I was in a good mood. And I try to be friendly. And I hate getting in people’s faces when I’m just trying to go about my life. But I’d really like to get to the point that less is more. I’d like to get to the point that it’s just out of the question to even tolerate those kinds of questions.
I’ve learned to stop the conversation when it’s about my invisible disabilities. I’ve had a lot of experience with the exhaustion of explaining, and it’s instinctive for me now to limit my responses. But I’m pretty new to this visible disability experience. The questions are different and I’m not prepared for them yet. But the world is certainly giving me opportunities for practice. I’m hoping that on the next round, I’ll simply end the conversation before it starts.
© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
Speaking Love and Anger: A Response to Ngọc Loan Trần’s “Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable”
There are many things I like about Ngọc Loan Trần’s article Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable. I’m particularly struck by the author’s insistence that, within social justice spaces, we be kind to one another — that we acknowledge that each of us is ignorant, that we understand that we are all debriefing from the constructs in which we were raised, and that we support each other as human beings as we go forward to create justice:
We fuck up. All of us. …. But when we shut each other out we make clubs of people who are right and clubs of people who are wrong as if we are not more complex than that, as if we are all-knowing, as if we are perfect. But in reality, we are just really scared. Scared that we will be next to make a mistake. So we resort to pushing people out to distract ourselves from the inevitability that we will cause someone hurt.
And it is seriously draining. It is seriously heartbreaking. How we are treating each other is preventing us from actually creating what we need for ourselves. We are destroying each other. We need to do better for each other.
We have to let go of treating each other like not knowing, making mistakes, and saying the wrong thing make it impossible for us to ever do the right things.
And we have to remind ourselves that we once didn’t know. There are infinitely many more things we have yet to know and may never know.
I want us to use love, compassion, and patience as tools for critical dialogue, fearless visioning, and transformation. I want us to use shared values and visions as proactive measures for securing our future freedom. I want us to be present and alive to see each other change in all of the intimate ways that we experience and enact violence.
This is all absolutely beautiful, and I am so happy to see someone talking about it. I am unbelievably tired of the verbal violence that passes for dialogue, particularly in social justice spaces, and anyone who pleads for coming from a place of love and empathy mixed with anger and pain is a person after my own heart.
But there are a couple of things about the article that call me up short. One of them is the way in which the author talks about people having “strayed.” There is something about that idea that feels both deeply foreign and painfully authoritarian to me. The concept appears in the following context:
I picture “calling in” as a practice of pulling folks back in who have strayed from us. It means extending to ourselves the reality that we will and do fuck up, we stray and there will always be a chance for us to return. Calling in as a practice of loving each other enough to allow each other to make mistakes; a practice of loving ourselves enough to know that what we’re trying to do here is a radical unlearning of everything we have been configured to believe is normal.
There is a Christian paradigm here of “straying from the fold” that I find very troubling. I don’t come from a Christian background of bringing people back into the fold; I come from a Jewish background in which we already belong and are free to disagree. So, in the context of the piece, what exactly is the ideology from which people “stray”? Who decides? Is it necessary to think about a central ideology around which we must all constellate, or should there be more room for critique, for disagreement, for generative argument? Straying assumes that we must come back to center. But whose center? Mine? Yours? Any group that treats me as though I’ve “strayed” is likely a group that I will “stray” right out of, never to return.
My other issue with the piece is that it is directed only to people inside social justice communities. There is not necessarily a problem with this approach, per se. After all, making sure our own communities are functional is a prerequisite for trying to create a more just and loving society. But I’m also aware of the necessity of applying “love, compassion, and patience as tools for critical dialogue, fearless visioning, and transformation” with people who are outside of social justice communities — with people who haven’t heard our critiques of the status quo, who haven’t examined their own complicity in oppressive systems, who haven’t done the reading or had the discussions or entered into the discourses that are so familiar to us. To me, this is the real challenge. How do we call people in who are way outside of our communities without exhausting ourselves, getting run over, or compromising what we believe in?
I believe it’s possible. I believe that we can combine love, compassion, patience, anger, outrage, pain, and despair as we talk with others who are outside of our circles. If we don’t combine all of these feelings — if we’re only in a place of anger and outrage, or we’re only in a place of love and compassion — we’re living at the polarized extremes that our society has taught us are normal, expected, and beyond critique. We’re creating either endless war or a false peace.
We can do better. We must do better.
Trần, Ngọc Loan. “Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable.” Black Girl Dangerous. December 18, 2013. Accessed January 1, 2014. http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2013/12/calling-less-disposable-way-holding-accountable/.
© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg