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
Today I was talking to a friend who lives on disability and has been homeless for several months. He told me a story that simultaneously made me angry and broke my heart.
The other day, while he was standing on the street, he saw something that delighted him, and he wanted to get a picture of it. He was getting ready to use his smartphone to take the photo when a couple of women started talking in very loud voices about how he should not have a smartphone.
“That man is begging and he has a $400 smartphone? How dare he! That’s just wrong. He shouldn’t have anything like that!” And on and on.
In point of fact, he got the phone for $70. But really, who cares what it cost? It doesn’t matter, because in the eyes of some people, poor folks should be completely destitute before they deserve anything. And even if they were completely destitute, you know that these very same self-righteous good citizens would still do nothing to help. If my friend were on the street with nothing but the clothes on his back, they’d spit at him and call him a lazy bum because being poor is, in their eyes, some sort of moral and social crime.
I am a very shy person when it comes to initiating social interactions. But if I’d been standing there while these women started in on this subject, you could not have shut me up. I’d have told them where to shove it and invited them to take their privileged asses down the road.
This is the mentality that keeps people on the street. You want homeless folks to get housing and jobs? How are they supposed to do that without a phone, without decent clothing, without food, without shelter, without all of the things that they need?
People and their petty cruelties just break my heart sometimes. My friend is a kind and decent person in a terrible situation who just wanted to take a photo of something that made him happy. And random people passing on the road — people who have never spoken to him, people who have never given him anything, people who have all the food and shelter they could ever need — couldn’t even let him have a happy moment. They had to open their mouths. They had to say something. They had to fuck it up. They couldn’t have a moment of consideration for someone else and just keep their damned mouths shut.
There is so much suffering out there, and the systemic problems are so huge. When people try to find some measure of happiness in the midst of it all, why try to take that from them?
I despair of humanity at times. These cruel, petty microaggressions just tear me up. And then I look at my friend, who has more decency and kindness than almost anyone I’ve ever met. People like him keep me going when I think that the world is beyond redemption.
I hope I help to keep him going, too.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
For the past 11 years, I have been shunned.
Not socially rejected. Shunned. By what used to be my synagogue community. For falling in love with my partner. For my partner falling in love with me.
He was serving as the rabbi when we met. After we made our relationship known, people who had formerly welcomed me would not speak to me. I lost my closest friends in the community. Others reacted with hostility to me in public. They put their bodies between my partner and me, blocking our path to each other. They held meetings to vent about our relationship. They responded to my friendliness with walls of coldness and detachment.
My partner lost his job. We lost the spiritual home that we loved. We lost our sense of safety. We had to move away — not once, but twice, because the first move wasn’t far enough.
After 10 years of marriage, we’ve moved 3000 miles away to start again. I am 54 and he is 68.
Starting over one more time wasn’t in the plan. And yet here we are. Together.
Shunning is a form of psychological violence. It brings out all the hidden shame you didn’t think you carried anymore.
Sexual shame. Body shame. There-is-something-wrong-with-me shame. I-don’t-really-deserve-anything shame. The shame you thought you’d dispelled when you faced your childhood. The shame you thought you’d healed when you found religion. The shame that lurks in a culture in which we are never all right just as we are – not really. The shame that is always beneath the surface when the body is always suspect.
It’s a shame that thrives on silence – that proliferates in silence, until you feel shame for even daring to push up against being shamed. Until you feel ashamed of your anger at your silencing. Until you feel ashamed of your resistance against what has been taken. Until you feel ashamed to speak the truth of your own experience. Until opening one door in your soul to let in the light causes three more doors to close because you don’t deserve to live in the light.
Until you feel as though you can’t even breathe.
Shunning creates an absence that is difficult to describe because its hallmark is silence – a frightening, wearying silence. Because others refuse to speak, to acknowledge your presence, to treat you as though you matter, there is no way to respond. A response assumes a listener. How do you respond when no one is listening? Words do not matter. All that matters is the shaming – the unnamed, unnameable shaming.
Nearly seven years into the shunning, I was diagnosed with the disabilities I’d had all my life: Asperger’s syndrome, sensory processing disorder, auditory processing disorder, vestibular issues, dyspraxia. That’s when the language of shame began to break its awful silence and bind my soul with words. Now the shame had names: Deficit. Disorder. Brokenness.
My body was wrong. My body was broken. I would never be right. No matter how many ways I starved my body, how kosher I kept my kitchen, how clean I kept my house, how intensely my empathy flowed, how kind I was to strangers, and how much I loved my family – it didn’t matter. I’d never, ever be right.
The feelings of wrongness that the shunning engendered and the feelings of wrongness that the language of deficit engendered became intertwined. In the light of my disabilities, I began to look at the shunning, and I began to wonder: Had I become a target because my differences, though unnamed, were so obvious? Did people believe that I was somehow less-than? And in my worst moments, I secretly wondered Were they right?
Not only had I been shunned by my community, but I was also entering a whole new identity as an openly disabled person, with all of the social isolation and rejection that came along with it. With my disabilities becoming more apparent in mid-life, I began to realize what most disabled people already know: that the world marginalizes us because of the ways in which our bodies work. I had been able to pass as nondisabled for much of my life, but by the time I was 50, full-time passing was no longer an option. I no longer had the energy. I had to work with my body rather than against it. I had to assert my needs. I couldn’t pretend to be normal anymore. And that put me outside the world as I had known it.
In the face of this dual marginalization, I lived my life in a battle between anger and despair. When the anger rose, I was determined to turn the language of deficit and disorder and brokenness into the language of blessing. If the “experts” said that people like me were hyperfocused on our obsessions, I said that I was passionate about the things I loved. If they said that we had splinter skills, I said that I had talents. If they said that we had deficits, I spoke of brilliant adaptations.
I reclaimed, and renamed, and rejustified my existence.
And suddenly, I realized that it was all wrong. Because ultimately, this reclamation project wrote me out of its script altogether. I was no longer talking about myself. I was talking about the gifts of Asperger’s.
My analytical mind, my focus, my visual acuity, my way with words, my musical talent, my passion for justice, my honesty, my sensitivity, my gentleness: these had always been my gifts. Not the gifts of Asperger’s. My gifts. But they were no longer mine. All those precious moments of pride and work and love and family that had made up the fabric of my life had been stolen from me and made the fabric of a construct I had never named.
The gifts of Asperger’s. The gifts of an abstraction, of a word that a stranger had created.
And as my sense of myself diminished, the shame became such a constant presence that I couldn’t remember what it meant to live without it. I couldn’t taste my food without the shame sticking in my throat. I couldn’t go to sleep at night without it laying down beside me. I couldn’t speak without using words embedded in it. I spoke in the oppressor’s tongue. I thought in the oppressor’s words. I was always ready to flinch, to apologize, to justify.
I sometimes think about the process of healing in terms of uprooting the shame, but I’m not sure whether uprooting is the right word. I’ve been uprooted enough, and I know that tearing out something by the roots tears up the rich fertile earth around it, too. I’m not sure what the right words are. I just know that the unshaming process cannot be done piecemeal. For me, there is no working through the shame, or coming to terms with the shame, or getting past the shame, to use the language to which I was once so attached.
There is only a radical claim to my own body, to my own mind, to my own soul. There is only a radical claim to love my own being – a being to which no one else has the right to lay claim but me.
Perhaps others have the privilege of being able to rely on the names that others give. Perhaps others can readily find mirrors in which they see images that they recognize. But so many of us cannot. So many of us cannot rely upon a world of deficit and shame and apology to give us our names. The words of that world are not our words. They do not speak us.
So I find others who are learning how to speak their own names. I join with others who are unapologetic about how their bodies look, how their minds work, how they experience the world. I journey with others who are rejecting the language of shame and who are learning to open all the doors of the soul to let in the light.
I hope to meet you one day on this road.
I wrote this post in April of 2013 and it appeared on The Body is Not an Apology’s tumblr blog on May 1, 2013. It is reprinted here with permission.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
Yesterday was National Coming Out Day. I officially came out as bisexual, and it was a celebration. No angst. No fear. No second thoughts. Just a celebration.
It was a such a contrast with coming out as disabled at the end of 2008, with all of the fear and dread that attended that decision. There have been many times since then that I’ve thought that coming out as disabled was the worst decision I’d ever made in my life. If I could have put the toothpaste back in the tube at those moments, I would have.
Of course, I’m a few years down the road now and feel much more comfortable, proud, and confident. But oh, what a process! And of course, the process never ends. I always have internalized shame, and hatred, and fear to root out of my head. And I still have to deal with a world of people who don’t understand the physical and social experience of disability. But in general, I navigate these waters much better than I did at the outset.
It’s very difficult to come out as disabled, I think, because we face the dual reality that most people a) hate our bodies absolutely unapologetically and b) consider that hatred entirely natural. It’s for this reason that they can use disability slurs constantly and think nothing of it. It’s for this reason that they can segregate and exclude us as though we’re substandard merchandise to return to the manufacturer. It is still considered natural to react with revulsion against us in a way that other groups have fought against more successfully — not entirely successfully, obviously, but more successfully.
Partly, we face this hatred because our culture worships control and denies the fragile and ever-changing life of the body. Partly, we face this hatred because the medical model has taken over as a metaphor for human life. People are no longer evil. People no longer make bad choices. People are no longer victimized by oppression. People no longer act out of ignorance, or selfishness, or greed. No. Now they’re sick, crazy, brain-dead, retarded, mentally ill, have low IQs, and on and on.
In the face of this hatred, it’s very, very difficult to convince people that you love your disabled body because it’s the one you live in. You say that you love your body, and people look at you as though you don’t quite understand your own reality.
My body hurts a lot these days. But I still love it. It’s the body I was born with. It enables me to experience life. Without it, I’d have no life at all. I might not love every sensation in my body, but I love my body, even on the hardest days, because it gives me life.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
As I go out and distribute food to people living in the park, I see and hear things that nearly break me apart. Here’s what I’ve seen and heard over the past week. This is how our fellow human beings are living.
An elderly amputee stops me to talk about shooting squirrels for food.
A vet in his 60s tells me that a blind man is losing weight and coughing up blood. The man moans all night. He is dying. Outside. Alone.
Two men sitting on a bench tell me that they have had nothing but water for two days.
Two women are lying on a blanket together, comforting each other. One has a black eye.
A squad car arrives in the meadow where homeless people congregate and sleep during the day. A police officer and two park rangers are telling a group of people to move on. The group consists of men and women of all ages, including an elderly woman. They might have been drinking or smoking, which are forbidden in the park. The park rangers are often checking to see what is going on in the meadow.
People in the group are screaming at the police officer and the rangers. Some are gathering their possessions and dragging them away. On the pedestrian bridge above, people with food and clothing and shelter are staring at and mocking the homeless folks being dispersed below.
I maintain very clear boundaries when I am in the park. If I see the police or the park rangers talking to people, I hang back. They have a job to do and I give them space to do it. Before I go over to people and offer food, I observe them very carefully. If I sense anything awry, I move on. If people scream at me, I don’t get into it. If other people scream at them, I just observe and continue on.
My job is to offer food, kindness, respect, and courtesy to people who are hungry and homeless. I see so much now that I never saw before. Most people don’t see it. I didn’t see it. Now I can’t unsee it. I don’t want to unsee it, ever.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
It’s become something of a truism — in both social justice circles and the larger society — to say that politeness is outmoded. In fact, many people view politeness as a tool of oppression, as though it has no utility except to shame people angry at their oppression into compliance: You need to be more polite, the privileged say. Otherwise, I won’t listen to you.
I have experienced this tactic. To me, this is an absolute misuse of the very notion of politeness. It should never be used as a way to shut people up. To the contrary: politeness, when used properly, enables people to feel safe enough to speak.
Of course, politeness has its limits. If someone physically attacks me, I’m not going to be polite while fighting for my life. If someone attempts to derail an argument by telling me that I need to be more polite — and has no interest in hearing me out no matter how well-spoken I am — I can be blunt about calling that out. There are many times and places in which being polite is out of the question. And because of those times and places, politeness has gotten a bad name.
I was raised in an era in which social forms were far more important than they are now. Our parents and teachers drilled into us the need to say please, thank you, and you’re welcome; to say excuse me if you had to pass in front of someone; to hold the door for the next person. But for us, it wasn’t an empty social form or an expression of deference. To the contrary: it was a sign of respect.
Although I can be very, very blunt, I can also be polite to a fault. I am amazed at the ways in which all those long-ago lessons live in me — the ways in which I instinctively go to them as I walk through my life. Politeness still lives in my bones, no matter how blunt I may otherwise be.
I have been calling upon politeness early and often these days as I distribute bag lunches to people living in the park, many of whom are disabled. Because they experience so little politeness at the hands of other people, I find it very, very important to exercise politeness when talking with people who have no homes. These people, whether disabled or not, are ignored, spat on, told to get a job, and chased out of public spaces. So when I talk to people, I am unfailingly courteous.
When I approach people who are sleeping, I take care to not wake them up. A lot of people can’t sleep during the night — because sleeping outdoors is illegal at night in Santa Cruz — so they sleep during the day. If I see people sleeping, I’ll walk up to them very softly and leave a bag of food at their feet, or behind them, or on top of their carts. But occasionally, my presence startles people and they wake up. One person became quite hostile. My response is always polite: I’m sorry that I disturbed your rest. I’ll just leave your lunch here for you.
If a person is awake, I will say May I offer you some food? If I have to step over a person’s camp in order to reach that person, I will ask whether it is all right for me to step on a blanket or a tarp.
If someone says thank you to me, I always say, you’re very welcome.
To my mind, this is no empty social form. To the contrary, it is a form of social justice. I am making right a wrong. I am overturning the cultural imperative to look down on disabled people, to look down on people living in poverty, to see them as unworthy of basic human decency. I am letting people know that they deserve my courtesy and my respect.
And people are almost always polite to me in return. It is rare that a person doesn’t treat me with courtesy. Very, very rare. People introduce themselves and ask my name. They ask after how I’m doing. They offer to help distribute food to their friends. They say God bless. I see less and less of this kind of courtesy among people with a great deal more. I find it reassuring wherever I meet it.
Kindness flows through these social forms. Far from being an exercise in compliance and silencing, they are an experience of connection and being seen.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
I’ve been wanting to write this post for a long time, but it’s taken me awhile to get enough distance on the whole issue to be able to write about it out of power rather than out of fear.
As many of you know, I’ve done a lot of work critiquing research into autism and empathy — both in my academic life and online at my Autism and Empathy site. One of the driving factors behind this work was an experience I’ve been afraid to talk about. To put it as briefly as possible: the research conclusions surrounding an alleged lack of empathy in autistic people made me question when I am really empathetic at all, and they filled me with doubt and dread for a very long time.
I’ve spent much of my adult life describing myself as an empath, and I have always read emotional and social process very well. But then my autism diagnosis came along and voila! I was supposed to be deficient in empathy. In fact, I read study, after study, after study showing that autistic people have an empathy disorder, and the cold voices of authority started getting into my head. That was bad. Very bad. What Sartre wrote about the Jewish people applied equally well to me as an individual:
“They have allowed themselves to be poisoned by the stereotype that others have of them, and they live in fear that their acts will correspond to this stereotype.” (Sartre 1960, 95)
“Poisoned” is right. I was sick with fear and doubt. A year or two ago, I finally got up the courage to check the whole empathy question out with the people who know me best: my husband and my kid. I started with the kid, who was still a teenager at the time. I said, “Ash, do you think I’m empathetic?”
Ash looked at me in a way that only teenagers can look at mothers: with a mixture of impatience, love, and something bordering on anger for wasting their time. With an eye roll, my kid spoke the following immortal words;
“Mom. YES. You are very empathetic. Exhibit A: MY ENTIRE LIFE.”
I felt relieved. Later in the evening, after my husband came home, I related my conversation with Ash and poured out my relief as he made himself toast at the kitchen counter. His response? He was uncharacteristically brief. “Good,” he said. “No need to ask this question again.”
Somehow, those two conversations allayed my doubts. I couldn’t write about it for a long time, though. I couldn’t acknowledge publicly the kinds of doubt the research had raised in me. But I can do so now, because I’ve come to understand that I wasn’t just having an experience of personal insecurity. I’ve come to realize that this kind of doubt is common for people in all kinds of marginalized groups. I’ve finally seen the ways in which those with cultural authority speak for us, ask us to prove our experience with numbers and graphs and research papers, and then tell us that our experience means nothing because it doesn’t match their findings.
The rather obvious conclusion to draw from research findings that don’t match reality is that the research findings are wrong, but of course, that rarely happens. The research findings take on the authority of truth, and the experiences of people who actually live in the bodies being researched mean very little.
Put another way: The truth means very little. The story that is constructed, however, means everything, and we find ourselves spending massive amounts of energy arguing against the story, both within ourselves and with everyone else. Patricia Williams writes about studies on race in a way that rings true for me as I recall all the many hours I’ve spent refuting autism research:
“One of the great difficulties of pseudo-science is that it is so hard to refute just by saying it isn’t so. The logical structure — if not the substance — of pseudo-science posits what purports to be fact; it requires counter-fact to make counter-arguments. Black people find themselves responding endlessly to such studies before we can be heard on any other subject; we must credentialize ourselves as number-crunching social scientists quickly in order to be seen as even minimally intelligent… Real numbers, real science — it’s what school teaches us to revere. And it makes anyone who knows the great messy, unprovable contrary, who knows the indecipherable complexity of black or white people, who knows the reality and the potential of all humanity — us silly egalitarians — it makes us unintelligent, uninformed, powerless, and naïve.” (Williams 1998, 49-50)
“Real numbers, real science” — how do these things even begin to compete with the delicious, messy, complex, living, breathing nature of human experience? They don’t. They can’t. They can never even come close. They only put us into hierarchies: black/white, normal/abnormal, able/disabled, and so many others.
Do I regret that I spent so many hours critiquing the research? Do I wish I’d said instead, “To hell with your studies, to hell with your questionnaires, to hell with the careers you’ve built on the backs of people like me”? In some ways, yes. But in other ways, I am glad to have been able to spend some time in the belly of the monster, because I got to know its way of being very, very well and I got to see how very barren the belly is.
The monster doesn’t scare me anymore. It’s been banished. And when people try to raise the monster back up, I find myself wondering why they’re wasting their time believing in an apparition.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Anti-Semite and Jew. New York, NY: Grove Press, 1960.
Williams, Patricia. Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race. New York, NY: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1998.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg