This piece, as so often with posts on Quite Irregular, starts with irritation over a particular use of language, a particular line of argument, and wondering why it sounded wrong. This week a couple of basically unrelated arguments struck me as encapsulating the same set of assumptions, and I wanted to work out why that was so. They both concern the way we talk and think about disability, and the ways that can go wrong in well-intentioned but subtly unfortunate directions.
The first is an argument which I’ve heard a number of times on Twitter and elsewhere over the last year or so. It usually comes up when someone has attempted to draw a distinction between “real activism” and “online activism” (usually described in less neutral terms as “clicktivism”, “hashtag radicalism” or something similar.) In discussions about the efficacy of various kinds of social activism – or defences of the validity of online varieties – I have frequently heard the objection “But some people can’t go on demonstrations – you can’t say that their activism isn’t as effective.”
As a broadening of the discussion, this has a lot of merit: it’s helpful to think about what constitutes “activism” in a broader sense than simply waving banners and standing on picket lines (though those are essential too). But as a contribution to the discussion about what forms of activism are effective, it’s a bizarre non-sequitur. “Many disabled people cannot go on demonstrations” is not a logical response to the question “what forms of activism affect the world around us?” The laws of causality don’t change for us because we’re disabled, though we sometimes rather wish they would.
There is certainly a need for serious reframing of how our social and political discourse talks about (and listens to) disabled people, a need which is becoming more urgent as the effects of government policies are becoming clearer. But dislocating disabled people’s activism from questions of efficacy and political or social effects seems quite misguided. It’s often an unintended logical step, and one no doubt prompted by excellent motives, including a desire to be inclusive and respect different experiences. But (accidentally) rhetorically exempting disabled people from the principles of causality is surely not the way to go about that.
The second example comes from an article I read a while ago, after following a link which had sent some readers to my blog (a dodgy proposition, as I’ve mentioned in the past!) The piece, by an Evangelical youth leader, considered the question of whether it was a Christian duty to keep healthy and take plenty of exercise. He looked at this question from various sides, including the notion of the body as a temple, the social benefits of a healthy population, and so on, before concluding that whilst it was a moral issue, it wasn’t a religious one. Early on in the argument, however, he pointed out that if it was a Christian duty, it did not apply to old people or disabled people who couldn’t exercise or wouldn’t be healthy as a result.
This article made me rather angry, though it took a while to work out what precisely was troubling about the assumptions which lay behind it. After all, like the example above, it seemed to be allowing disabled people an easier time by not placing burdens or duties upon them which were placed on other people. The problem, I think, is that it had the effect of removing them from the moral calculation, assigning them a non-moral status somehow. By exempting those with disabilities from the question a priori, it closed off an area of (potential) Christian life to them. They were apparently not part of the religious and moral landscape of the issue.
This isn’t simply a question of being irritated by the removal of disabled people’s moral agency as a logical mistake. It seems ludicrous to me to construct any theology of the body by first shutting off the experience of disability, chronic illness, impairment and physical infirmity, and the specific experiences of those who live with such conditions. I am undeniably biased on the question, but Christianity surely has a lot to say about physical suffering, about embodiment, about the expression of the self in the life of the body, and the incarnation itself. Christian discourse has frequently said what it has to say on those subjects in damaging or troubling ways, particularly in a tendency to make some people’s experience of suffering or impairment into a metaphor with which to benefit or edify other people (Jeremy Schipper and Rachel Mann pursue these ideas in different but fascinating ways in recent books.) But there is a deep concern with, and belief in, embodied experience in the Christian tradition which refuses to look away from disabled or infirm bodies and decide that they don’t count.
So in both cases an “exception” seems to be made, apparently intended to benefit disabled people, which has the effect of distorting and etiolating the subsequent discussion. In one case the question of what activities might be most effective is foreclosed and in the other whole categories of bodily experience are isolated and prevented from informing the discussion. No doubt from good motives, disabled people’s experience and agency is taken out of the question, and the line of thought becomes subtly but crucially derailed. It’s the kind of special consideration we can do without, I think.
The Goldfish said:
There are so many variations of this in less intersectional feminist writing, it becomes quite funny, finding oneself in the footnotes. Every woman should strive to have an independent income! Oh, apart from that insignificant minority who can’t. What matters isn’t size, but that folk are fit and healthy! Oh, apart from that insignificant minority who aren’t etc..
I am the first to object to a watering down of disabled identity and experiences, “Everyone’s a little bit disabled” nonsense, but I do think this is a case where it’s worth acknowledging the various spectra of physical function, mental health etc.. Many disabled people are extremely physically fit, meanwhile there are great swathes of the population, like older people, who aren’t all disabled but are likely to have increasing limits on what they can do (and a growing need to be cautious). If we’re looking at activism/ slactivism, we can also factor in geography and income; if you’re earning minimum wage in Orkney, you’re not going to make many London demos.
Thus disabled people can no longer be the exception. The principle has to be reshaped and reapplied. This strikes me as particularly necessary with body-as-temple ideas, because it is disabled people who are under the greatest pressure to “do the right thing” regarding their health, weight, exercise, medication and so forth.