A reaction to last week’s post about the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities sparked a behind-the-scenes discussion about whether or not I should allow name-calling in the Painting On Scars comments section. I like to engage with almost anyone who disagrees with me, but online I know I also tend to only comment on sites that have strict no-drama policies because discussions can become pointless and boring really, really fast when there’s nothing but insults and exclamation points. I ultimately decided that, for now, any rude behavior speaks for itself: Commenters can name-call all they want regarding people they dislike or say absolutely nothing, because in both cases they’re not going change anyone’s mind.
That said, I will always tell any supporters if they adopt tactics I want to have nothing to do with. And it’s important to call out invectives that are particularly malicious in a way some might not be aware of. The comment in question last week referred to the U.N. as “a bunch of degenerates, throat cutters, and other trash.” Using the word “degenerate” in a discussion about disability rights is exceptionally insensitive, if not mean-spirited.
The first time I read the word out loud to a friend here in Germany, his eyes shot up and said, “Be very careful with that word. It immediately makes everyone think of the Nazis.” And by “Nazis,” he meant the actual, goose-stepping, genocidal nationalists who tried as best they could to make sure disabled people either died off or were killed off. Not “Nazis” in the Internet-temper-tantrum sense of “anyone I disagree with.” The word also evokes the brownshirt term “degenerate art.” Modern German sensitivity to the term is the result of looking honestly at the nation’s history of ableism.
Action T-4 was the first genocide program ordered by the Nazis, calling for the extermination* of those deemed by doctors to be “incurably sick.” Between 200,000 and 300,000 disabled people were killed, though many were used for scientific experiments first. *And by the way, I DETEST any use of the term “euthanasia” in this context. “Euthanasia” literally means ending life to end pain, and for this reason I find it applicable where patient consent has been given or where pets are concerned. But to imply that what the Nazis did to disabled citizens was anything other than murder is to dehumanize the victims.
The forced sterilization programs of disabled people in Nazi Germany, meanwhile, were modeled after American laws. The very first forced sterilization law in the world was introduced in Indiana in 1907, and 30 states followed suit. The Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s eugenics program in 1927 and it remained on the books until 1974. Oliver Wendell Holmes summarized the Supreme Court’s decision thusly:
It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind… Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
The Nazi poster featured above focused instead on the expense: “It costs the German people 60,000 Reichsmarks to keep this genetic defective alive. Fellow German, that is your money!” After World War II, the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial and the resulting Nuremberg Code discouraged ableist politicians from openly promoting eugenics on either side of the Atlantic. But it wasn’t until 1981, the year I was born, that the disability rights movement in West Germany came into full swing and sought to combat ableism head-on.
Almost every human rights movement is said to have a trigger moment when oppression went a step too far and the people fought back. For the American Civil Rights movement, it was the death of Emmett Till. For the gay rights movement, it was the Stonewall Uprising. For the German disability rights movement, it was the Frankfurt Travel Ruling of 1980, brought about by a woman suing her travel agency for booking her in a Greek hotel where a group of Swedish disabled guests were also vacationing. She claimed that having to see and hear disabled people had ruined her trip and the judge agreed with her. Protests exploded across the country and the next year, which the U.N. had declared the Year of the Disabled, several West German disability rights groups organized and formed agendas. They used the U.N. events to draw attention to the dire situation of disabled citizens in the country.
Two years later, the Green Party entered the Bundestag for the first time and was the first to voice support for disability rights as a human rights issue. The Greens were born out of the 60s student movement in West Germany. The movement was famous for protesting what most young activists across the Western world opposed at the time: the Vietnam War (and war in general), traditional gender roles, consumerism, pollution, etc. But first and foremost, the West German 68ers were young people demanding the nation come to terms with its dark past, decrying that an overwhelming number of the nation’s leaders and officials were former Nazis. Their commitment to human rights was inspired by an unfaltering awareness of how horrific things can get. Their actions led to the passing of anti-discrimination laws and an amendment to the German Constitution in 1995, modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Another result of the students growing up and entering the government came in 1983 when conscientious objectors to the draft were no longer required to argue their motivations before a board for approval. This made it far easier for young men to opt for a year of community service in lieu of military service. By 1991, half of those drafted became conscientious objectors. For over 30 years, scores of German 19 year-old boys worked with mentally ill children at the Red Cross, in nursing homes, as assistants for physically and mentally disabled teenagers, and for Meals on Wheels. This has created generations of men who often speak fondly of the experience and who are usually less fazed by disabilities or dependence, demonstrating a tolerance and openness that seems extraordinary for their age.
The draft was discontinued last year and since then the community service option has been suspended. Military debates aside, I agree with conservative politicians who have called for preserving the community service requirement and expanding it to women because it is an excellent government tool for combating both ableism and social segregation on a personal level. Ableism is still a tremendous problem here in Germany, but in three generations, the country has changed from one of the most ableist societies on earth to one of the least. The word “degenerate” signifies humanity’s capacity for cruelty and sensitivity to the word signifies our commitment to never repeat it.
To be fair, the word in last week’s comment was not aimed directly at disabled people but at the U.N. members working for disability rights. And frankly, I’m a little insulted. Because if anyone’s a degenerate here, it’s me.
I am scientifically a mutant by virtue of my fibroblast growth receptor gene 3. (Yes, yes, my genetics professor explained that technically all of us are mutants, but mostly just in boring ways… ) I am a semi-invertebrate now that pieces of my backbone were removed six weeks ago. And I don’t take the last empty seat on the subway and request my friends slow down to my pace when walking for nothing. So if anyone’s gonna go calling the organization that sprang from the Nuremberg Trials and founded the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a bunch of degenerates, they gotta get through me first. I’m a degenerate living in Germany and proud of it.