Tag Archives: Ableism

What Do We Want? Visibility!

8 Jun

 

Leaving you this holiday weekend with the brilliant Maysoon Zayid whose TED Talk above includes myriad revelations well worth your time, among them:

One fun fact I learned while on the air with Keith Olbermann was that humans on the Internet are scumbags. People say children are cruel, but I was never made fun of as a child or an adult. Suddenly, my disability on the world wide web is fair game. I would look at clips online and see comments like, “Yo, why’s she tweakin?” “Yo, is she retarded?” And my favorite, “Poor Gumby-mouth terrorist. What does she suffer from? We should really pray for her.” One commenter even suggested that I add my disability to my credits: screenwriter, comedian, palsy…

Disability is as visual as race. If a wheelchair user can’t play Beyoncé, then Beyoncé can’t play a wheelchair user. People with disabilities are the largest minority in the world and we are the most underrepresented in entertainment.

Indeed.

 

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Segregation Loses In German Court

25 May

Untitled(Image by Angela Schlafmütze used under CC 2.0 via)

 

People must learn to accept their disabled neighbors, a Rhineland court ruled this week in a case that—thankfully—has attracted controversy. A woman in the town of Kaltenengers, near Koblenz, filed suit against the construction of a home for severely disabled citizens near her apartment block. According to the Rhein-Zeitung, the woman and several other residents had expressed outrage at the supposed imposition upon their community, while their court arguments sparked outrage among the public. The plaintiff claimed that, “The vocalizations and noises made by the disabled will injure our own psychological well-being.” Talk about not-in-my-backyard.

All of us have sympathy for the NIMBY mindset to some extent. I’m fine with my neighbors playing music as long as it’s the right kind of music. (ZZ Top, yes. Opera, no. I can attest that nothing pierces through paper-thin walls at 2 am like a soprano aria.) When it’s the night before the most important exam in your academic career, you want everyone within a five-mile radius of you to shut up. When it’s the night after you’ve passed that exam with flying colors, you wish those prissy neighbors interrupting the celebrations to tell you to pipe down would let go and live a little. Such moments serve as reminders that Everybody matters is easier said than done.

There will always be debates about pristine parks, where the grass is there to be looked at, versus people’s parks, where the grass has been picnicked to the brink of death. (Berlin votes today on that very issue in deciding the fate of Tempelhof Park and, for many, the definition of Berlin itself.) But NIMBY descends into a segregationist mentality the moment we reject the idea of certain types of people outright. And in this court case, pitting disabled residents against their huffy neighbors, it makes you wonder who is really the most challenged in becoming a well-adjusted member of society.

 

 

Who Needs To Look At Dwarfs In A Theme Park?

5 May

Caged Beauty #1

(Image by Howard Ignatius used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Belgian photographer Sanne De Wilde’s journey into the Kingdom of the Little People in Kunming, China is featured this week at Slate’s photo blog. “For me, it’s about how this kind of place can exist,” she told Slate. “What does it tell you about a person who starts this and creates it? What are his intentions?”

She goes on to explain that one of the hardest things to capture on film was the overwhelming boredom among the performers. “A lot of time the people are just hanging around in their room or on their beds lying around,” she said. 

That circus freaks get bored should not be too surprising, but it is still often radical today to consider that people categorized as freaks can in fact be boring. (More on that next week.)

A theme park funneling in people who pay to look at dwarfs and the state of disability rights in China are worth a zillion words each. But for now, De Wilde’s photos alone have plenty to say on the matter. The feature is definitely worth your time, and to those who do check it out, I leave one question open to you:

Does Slate’s reporting on the exploitation of dwarfs in freak shows now make up for its past SNAFUs?

 

 

Barbie vs. Lammily

9 Mar

Lammily is Barbie’s new contender(Image by Day Donaldson used under Creative Commons license via)

 

Barbie turns 55 today and her birthday risks being overshadowed by a rival. Designer Nickolay Lamm has kicked off a very successful crowdsourcing campaign to fund the production of Lammily, a doll whose body is modeled after the mean proportions (taken from the Centers for Disease Control) for an American 19 year-old because, as her slogan goes, “average is beautiful.” The center photo above shows Lammily at her earliest design stage in contrast to Barbie. The left and right photos show her updated, final form.

Despite that her name sounds like the way most toddlers mangle mine, Lammily does seem quite lovely. But mostly because the problems with her competitor are countless. Barbie represents—and was very much intended to represent—an idea born in the middle of the last century that little girls should play not just with baby dolls or girl dolls, but with a woman doll, a post-pubescent beauty they should aspire to. The very first Barbie was inspired by the German Lilli, a character featured in tabloid comics who worked as a secretary by day and an escort by night. While it’s disputed whether or not the Lilli doll was in fact a sex toy, the longer you look at Barbie, the more that explanation makes sense.

Barbie is all fantasy: too thin to menstruate, with breasts so big she’d have to crawl on all fours to get around. (Sporty Lammily could knock her to the floor with a light kick.)  Fantasies about beauty are fine as long as they remain a niche, not a standard. If her fame and influence were not so unparalleled, Barbie wouldn’t be a cause of much trouble. But she is the most famous doll in the world, and while she often changes jobs and outfits to bend to society’s trends, her body type never budges from the sex toy standard.

My mother swore I would never own a Barbie—how could it be healthy for a girl with dwarfism to idolize a lady who’s all legs?—but a neighbor bought me one for Christmas, and within the next 10 years I owned 12: Tropical Barbie, Superstar Barbie, Ice Capades Barbie, Gymnast Barbie, Fun-to-Dress Barbie, Loving You Barbie, Hollywood Hair Barbie, Cool Times Barbie, Dreamtime Barbie, Dream Glow Barbie, Dream Date Barbie, and my mother’s own, dragged-out-of-the-attic Barbie from the 1960s, whose earrings had turned her cheeks green. The funny thing is that every one of these Barbies had a slightly different face and slightly different blond hair with varying lengths and textures. But, just like the Disney Princesses, the bodies were all exactly the same. Barbie’s oh-so-80s Rocker friends Diva (brunette), DeeDee (black), and Dana (possibly Asian?) represented a broader range of hair and skin, but their bodies were all replicas of Barbie’s. This is what makes Lammily so radical.

But I don’t want an answer to Barbie. I want many answers to Barbie. Lammily correctly demonstrates that an average girl in the Western world is not blond. But blondes shouldn’t be any more excluded or celebrated than anyone else. Declaring “average” bodies and physical features a beauty standard continues to marginalize girls who deviate from the average. Another word for average is “normal” and it’s never fun for a young girl to hear that her body is “not normal.” Both Barbie and Disney have dared to dabble in the beauty of different ethnicities, but they haven’t been brave enough to try different body types – short, curvy, bony, disabled, with freckles or scars or glasses or birthmarks in the shape of Mexico.

As Hannah Blanke shows in her stellar piece, “Real Women,” there is no wrong way to have a body. If Mattel can invent over 50 varieties of blond hair for their preeminent princess, surely doll manufacturers can find a way to profit from providing a rainbow of body types. Maybe they will be brave enough by the next time International Women’s Day rolls around. That’s my fantasy, anyway.

 

 

It’s Probably Every Dwarf’s Dream to Be a Prop for Miley Cyrus

2 Mar

Freaks(Image by Mariana Rojas used under CC license via)

 

Miley Cyrus loves diversity. Just not, you know, discussing diversity and the complex history behind it. Since her performance at the Video Music Awards last September, she has drawn tremendous criticism for her treatment of the black backup dancers in her shows – cartoonishly imitating their dance moves, spanking them, simulating sex with them. Some, including Cyrus, have argued the portrayal is affectionate or even celebratory, while others perceive it as exploitative and reductive. Articles at Vulture and The Guardian likened it to a minstrel show.

Cyrus also uses dwarf dancers in a similar way. One of these dancers, Hollis Jane, has come forward to voice her regret:

Most of the time, getting a job purely because you’re a little person (in my opinion) is not a good thing. It is further fulfilling society’s idea that we are something to laugh at; that our value is simply to shock. We can all agree that right now all Miley Cyrus wants to do is make society’s jaw drop. So what’s more “weird” or “freaky” than having little people parading around in your show?

As someone who is trying to make it as a serious actress in this industry, not just trying to “be famous” or make money, there is nothing more frustrating than this stigma. The longer little people agree to be used as shock value, the longer it is going to take for us to be taken seriously.

I was a bear in Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance and it was my first time doing anything like that…anything where I was being used because of my height, not because of my talent. And I will be the first one to tell you that standing on that stage, in that costume was one of the most degrading things I felt like I could ever do. I realize not everyone shares my opinion and I might just be young and naive, but I feel like the acceptance of this kind of treatment has got to stop.

In an interview on Ronan Farrow Daily this week, Jane admirably pointed out that the problem lies in the broader culture, not just Miley Cyrus’s individual decisions.  Powerful stars, aspiring dwarf actors, the media, and media consumers all bear a responsibility to quell the demand for dwarfs in freak shows.

To which Cyrus said in her W interview with Farrow:

I don’t give a shit. I’m not Disney, where they have, like, an Asian girl, a black girl, and a white girl, to be politically correct, and, like, everyone has bright-colored T-shirts. You know, it’s like, I’m not making any kind of statement. Anyone that hates on you is always below you, because they’re just jealous of what you have.

To which I say, we really don’t need another Amanda Palmer out there, another millionaire whose ego is so very fragile we can’t ever expect her to buck up the courage to engage with people “below” her, or to admit when she’s been wrong. Every entertainer accused of perpetuating stupid stereotypes has the opportunity to prove whether they are a respectable artist or a pathetic narcissist. An artist is trying to communicate something, and therefore cares first and foremost about what they are communicating. A narcissist defaults to seeing themselves as the victim in every conflict.

Hopefully those who love Cyrus’s music don’t love the way she deals with minorities.

 

 

Trying To Understand Mini-Me

2 Feb

170739265KI00117_The_World_(Image by Ricky Brigante used under Creative Commons license via)

 

This month actor Verne Troyer (above) is featured in a National Geographic documentary series, Incredibly Small World, about the experience of living with dwarfism.  (Incredibly creative title, by the way.) Examining everything from the average-sized family of Amish origin he grew up in to his burgeoning career, Troyer hopes to spread awareness about dwarfs.  “Don’t look at us like we’re circus people!” he recently told The Daily Mail. Right on. 

But wait.  If you don’t want the world to see you as a circus freak, what was going on with Mini-Me?

While one of his most recent stints was in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Troyer is by far known best as Mini-Me in the Austin Powers films.  According to his profile in The Lives of Dwarfs, he had been in the acting business for years and was grateful to finally land a role in which he portrayed an adult human.  All of his previous work had mirrored Kenny Baker—the actor inside R2D2— moving about in robot, baby, alien, and animal costumes.  But to call Mini-Me “human” is debatable.   

While the Austin Powers plotline claims he is a clone (one-eighth the size) of Dr. Evil and therefore in training to step in for the villain at any time, Mini-Me has little to no agency.  He doesn’t even speak.  Other characters refer to him as “like a dog” or “that Chihuahua thing.”  Slapstick has its rightful place in film, and all the characters in Austin Powers are blunt stereotypes meant to parody the James Bond genre, but it’s hard to watch Mini-Me portrayed pretty much the way dwarfs were handled by the aristocracy in Early Modern Europe – like a pet.  (And when fully-grown adults are handled as nothing but pets, it’s called slavery.) 

Austin Powers could have used Mini-Me to skewer the James Bond character Nick-Nack, but instead it merely perpetuated the gag.  Most minorities can name a famous character/caricature that makes their skin crawl—Tonto, Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Danvers—and Mini-Me is certainly up there for the dwarf community.

It makes me uncomfortable, but not enough to keep me from watching the films.  A lot of the scenes are as dull as the back-pages of an eighth grader’s notebook, but the jokes satirizing the Bond films are lovely: 

 

 

And Mini-Me is a funny name.  Just not the third time, or the fourth time, or the fortieth time that any given person with dwarfism hears it hollered at them on the street.

Today Troyer remains friends with Austin Powers creator Mike Meyers.  Cynics might say that networking is networking, and what dwarf actor wouldn’t remain loyal to someone who’d lifted him into the spotlight, no matter how dehumanizing the role?  Beggars can’t be choosers or bite the hand that feeds them. The tradition of the groveling dwarf actor grateful for anything he can get is so pervasive that Peter Dinklage has spoken out about the importance of dwarf actors turning down such roles for the sake of self-respect.  But when I see photos of Troyer schmoozing with Meyers, it reminds me of something other than begging or groveling.

Back when I was in elementary school, one of my classmates liked to lay his elbow on my head because I “made a great armrest.”  He would also regularly ask me, “How’s the weather down there, shorty?” to which my response was always, “Clouds of your bad breath.”  Not exactly Abbott and Costello caliber, but then again, we were eight.  I didn’t mind being the target of his jokes.  I almost liked it.  He wasn’t a close friend who’d helped me through any of my medical ordeals, but we knew each other, he talked to me and not only to laugh at my expense.  For this reason, I took his teasing as openness. 

That year was not an easy one in the schoolyard.  To be ostracized there means that those who don’t know you at all will hurl insults at your minority status from a safe distance, while those who do know you will stay eerily silent on the subject. This is why when someone talks both to you and about your difference, they seem to be demonstrating a delightful lack of fear. 

The millions of people who have giggled at Mini-Me, whether they are his viewers or his creators, aren’t necessarily harboring nasty views of dwarfs.  The difference comes down to who can not only laugh at him but talk to him, and who’s afraid to.

 

 

“Fashionista Has Leg Amputated So She Can Wear High Heels”

2 Dec

L0066938 Illustration showing treatment of a clubfoot Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Illustration showing treatment of a clubfoot 1806 Memoria chirurgica sui piedi torti congeniti dei fanciulli, e sulla maniera di correggere questa deformità / Antonio Scarpa Published: 1806. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

(Image from Wellcome Images used & altered under CC)

 

Or so The New York Post would have you think.

21 year-old Mariah Serrano was born with a club foot.  By the time she was a teenager, she faced increasing chronic pain and her doctors strongly advocated amputating and replacing her leg with a prosthetic one. Now an assistant designer for American Rag and author of the blog Confessions of a One-Legged Fashionista, she recently shared her story with the Post:

Serrano struggled to look like the other girls in her high school who often called her “gimpy.”

“I felt silly in pictures, I was the only one in these shitty little ballet flats,” she recalled.

“I had to wear all sorts of braces. It was uncomfortable and frustrating because they weren’t solving the problem and I often felt embarrassed.”

The glamour girl wore patterned knee highs and flashy tights to mask her deformity. She even dyed her hair pink to distract people from staring at her leg. She eventually stopped going to classes and was home-schooled.

“Kids are mean,” she said. “It made things very hard.”

“A lot of times I felt left out because I loved to dance and go out.”

But even more mortifying for the teenage girl, was being forced to wear sneakers to prom.  “I was really devastated in the mall,” she recalled, after shopping for four hours to find a chic shoe.

The article never mentions any medical purpose for the amputation. Serrano is only quoted as hating the limited number of footwear options that had been available to her prior to the operation. The story ran four days ago and was quickly picked up the British tabloids.  And Serrano is not pleased.  She explains on her blog:    

I did not choose to cut my leg off so I can wear high heels, I had my leg amputated because I was very sick and the quality of my health and life were suffering. Doctors do not welcome the idea that you are unhappy with your footwear choices, so you should remove body parts.

This event was a real decision that I took very seriously. It was a decision my family and I made together, so that I would be able to live my dreams, and not mind you, dreams of footwear, but dreams of waking up and going about my life not in chronic pain.

I think it’s safe to say that The New York Post is not a feminist crusader on the issues of body image and beauty standards.  So why then would they decide to warp Serrano’s words to feed the image of the fashionista lifestyle as a vile instigator of self-mutilation?  The story of a young girl simply but bravely electing to trade chronic pain for a prosthesis is severely lacking in vitriol. This means there is no surefire guarantee that it will unleash a deluge of jaw-dropping, eye-rolling, and catty comments from readers about the girl in question.  That guarantee is essential to the business the Post is in.

Serrano is hardly the first individual to be misrepresented by the tabloids.  But who’s keeping the tabloids going by hungering after such headlines?  It’s this hunger that drives journalists across the spectrum to emphasize the most soap opera-like elements of a person’s life story.  I’ve seen the most loving, supportive families with disabled children portrayed as walking tragedies based on a few of their more emotional quotes taken out of context.  This approach knows that readers and viewers will consequently feel sorry for the pathetically confused freaks, and good about themselves.  Not unlike the mean classmates Serrano cites from her high school days.

So if anyone is interested in ending the tabloids’ tradition of tearing people’s personal lives to shreds, we can curb their sales by curbing our desire to use bits of information about people we don’t know as an easy way to prop ourselves up. Of course this is asking a lot, and so, once again, we must decide which is harder – altering the way we think or altering our bodies?

 

 

Is Dwarfism A Disability?

27 Oct

(Image by Ron Riccio used under Creative Commons license via)

 

A more sober ending to Dwarfism Awareness Month

I remember being around 10 years-old when I began taking care to never refer to my dwarfism as an “illness” or a “disease.” An illness is something that tries to destroy you. It demands you go into battle. Even if you end up grateful for its having made you stronger, you’re glad when it’s gone. My dwarfism has always been around and I’ve never tried to conquer it. It’s a condition, a word as neutral as it is fitting. But is it a disability?

Many in the dwarf community insist that it is not. The thinking goes that being extraordinarily short is no more serious than being left-handed. We don’t think of left-handedness as a disability. It’s merely a difference, one of many physical features that can shape someone’s identity, like hazel eyes or an outie belly button. Being left-handed is only an inconvenience insofar as the world is built for those who are right-handed, and populated by some who still cultivate fear and hatred of those who don’t conform to the majority. Needing left-handed scissors and mouse buttons is not really thought to be an issue of disabled access – it’s more akin to needing glasses or extra-moisturizing shampoo. Diversity awareness over the last 50 years has led the vast majority of Westerners to shrug at the idea of left-handedness.

And such a neutral shrug is what dwarf activists seem to be coveting when they insist that dwarfism is not a disability. In the words of Andrew Solomon, “Neutrality, which appears to lie halfway between shame and rejoicing, is in fact the endgame, reached only when activism becomes unnecessary.” But is dwarfism only an inconvenience insofar as the world is built for those who are taller? It’s a compelling thought experiment, but it ignores all the medical complications I’ve had to deal with. And it raises the question: What is dwarfism?

The official definition, which lumps hundreds of skeletal dysplasias and growth hormone deficiencies into one category, is in fact only concerned with height. Little People of America defines a dwarf as anyone who stands fully grown below 4’10” (1.47 m). But height is relative. Women in Indonesia and Guatemala are 4’10” on average, which means that the LPA definition is based on a certain culture, and cultures are always changing as we move through time and around the world. As a pre-teen, I always got a kick out of seeing my towering parents become the minority at LPA meetings, while as an adult, I got a kick out of seeing my German-Swedish partner tower over my parents.

Physically, Warwick Davis and Peter Dinklage have no more in common than a black-haired Korean does with a black-haired Irishman. But they share many experiences rooted in society’s reaction to their short stature. They were both cast as dwarfs in the second Chronicles of Narnia film because the fantasy tradition cares first and foremost about looks, making up its convoluted ideas about heritage and separate races as it goes along. Most forms of dwarfism are caused by genetic mutations, but others result from chromosomal abnormalities, malnutrition, or even child abuse. Thus, because it encompasses all sorts of conditions with a tremendous variety of causes and complications, dwarfism is a social construct. Can a social construct be a disability? What is a disability?

This blog recognizes disability as a medical condition that causes you to experience more pain and/or limitations than the average person in your peer group, and therein attracts inordinate attention from society. And the attention has traditionally been negative. Disabled people carry a burden most other minorities do not in that we must argue that our lives and identities are no less valuable than anyone else’s, while at the same time admitting that we will always experience a good deal of pain no matter how accepting or accommodating society is. (Poor people are the only other minority that shares this burden.) This idea of inherent pain is what causes many activists in the autistic community and the transgender community to buck the disabled classification.

But when pain is indisputably inherent to a condition, it is frequently relativized in the hopes that this will reduce ableist attitudes. When I was born, the doctor pointed out to my parents that “everyone has something different about their bodies. One person has bad knees, another has a chronic skin rash. Emily’s difference is just a lot more noticeable than other people’s.” But does this mean that bad knees and skin rashes and seasonal allergies are all disabilities? There’s more to it than that.

If a medical condition is only minimally limiting and can be treated with standard procedures, we don’t really consider it a disability and rightfully so. While there is value in relativizing everyone’s struggles in order to calm our fears of the Other, it carries the risk of our failing to recognize differences that have much to teach us. The regular migraines I inherited from my mother don’t make me disabled. The pain can be intense and it’s infuriatingly inconvenient to feel one coming on at a dinner party while also feeling the hollow echo of an empty pill box in my bag. But the migraines are treatable—and not exorbitantly expensive to treat—and easily understood by others because plenty of people get them. Having to explain to people what my back and joints can and cannot endure is a more complex task.  Alleviating or avoiding the pain is even harder.

I interviewed friends and acquaintances with achondroplasia about the physical difficulties they regularly face. Some described always needing to lie down for at least half an hour whenever they vacuum for 10 minutes or more, and needing to get up earlier than everyone else on weekdays in order to afford themselves more time for walking to work or class. Everyone has trouble finding comfortable shoes that fit—women’s business shoes and sandals pose the biggest challenge—and many need to wear orthotics. Camilla, a college student who has not undergone limb-lengthening, told me:

I definitely believe I feel fatigue more easily than people my age. I went out dancing with friends last night and I had to stop and just stand for a while because my legs were starting to hurt. Also, when I walk places with my average height friends, my joints start to hurt while they feel almost no effects of fatigue at all… I would say that the hardest physical aspect of having dwarfism would not be the height difference but the extreme muscle and joint pain that seems to be more and more easily triggered as I get older.

And by “older” she means approaching her mid-twenties. These physical limitations would sound less surprising coming from senior citizens, which is why, as an advisor explained to me, your eligibility for disability status decreases as you age and aching joints become more common to your peer group.

A friend who had limb-lengthening at the same time I did told me, “I know if I’ve been on my feet all day, my ankles get really stiff and I’m limping around at home at the end of the night… as compared to my friends who work all day and still manage to hit yoga class, the gym, or cycling class afterwards.” Those of us who have undergone limb-lengthening can test whether achondroplasia is a disability because we control for the socially-constructed advantages of height. Yet in my interviews, I noticed that many who have had limb-lengthening are often reticent to talk about their current physical hardships lest someone conclude that all that time spent breaking and healing and growing bones was for naught.

Indeed, pride complicates our perceptions of pain. While hypochondriacs rejoice when they qualify as “disabled,” those who have regularly been reminded by peers and institutions of the supposedly pitiful nature of their condition are often less willing to revel in it. Those who reject the idea of calling dwarfism a disability are often motivated by the desire to de-stigmatize dwarfism. I of course understand this desire, but I don’t see how we can make the argument without stigmatizing disability. And I am suspicious of any mindset that supports a hierarchy by essentially saying, “At least I’m not like them.”

Like people of color, people with dwarfism are united only by society’s reaction to them, not by any medical traits. This is why I do not believe dwarfism itself is a disability. However, most types of dwarfism are. The way in which the physical pain brought on by achondroplasia intersects with social limitations is explained very well by Spoon Theory, an idea invented by Christine Miserandino, who has lupus. It bears repeating that I can only begin to imagine what living with lupus is like.  In the presence of someone needing to vent about the pain, I hope to be as wonderfully deferential as so many non-disabled friends have been to me. But the fact that lupus is an illness while achondroplasia is a not is no reason to ignore the fact that Spoon Theory perfectly illustrates the broader concept of chronic pain and fatigue experienced by people with all kinds of disabilities. Emily Brand described it eloquently in The Guardian last year:

The basic idea is that you have a limited number of spoons available for the day and each action will cost a given number of them – the more demanding the task, the more spoons would be required. The phrase “running low on spoons” can be a useful way of communicating the need for rest to fellow “spoonies” who also use this system and to friends and family who are in the know. Reading up on this is one of the best things anyone could do to help with providing day-to-day support to someone with a chronic health condition, as it’s a powerful analogy that can help people to empathise with how much of an impact even an invisible symptom like chronic pain can make.

I love the idea of “running low on spoons.” I used it just last week in explaining to a friend that I couldn’t peer with her into a store window because my swollen feet were begging me to keep off the cobblestones. But at the risk of sounding, well, confused, I’m not entirely comfortable calling myself a “spoonie” because experiences in college have left me averse to glamorizing conditions with labels that sound like club memberships. And between dwarf and has dwarfism and midget and little person and LP and short-statured and disabled and physically challenged and differently-abled, I’ve got enough labels to sort through.

 

 

What Makes You So Special?

13 Oct

Leg-formsDisney World is changing its policy for disabled customers this week since it’s come to light that many families have been hiring disabled people to help them cut to the front of the lines.  Like stealing disabled parking spaces, this kind of cheating requires a brazen combination of laziness and self-righteousness.  What kind of family believes that the agony they experience waiting in line is comparable to what a disabled customer experiences?  

MSN reports, “Stories of wealthy families hiring disabled tour guides to pose as family members have drawn national attention and scorn. But the more common abuse is subtler: people faking hard-to-verify handicaps such as heart murmurs, back spasms or claustrophobia… ”

The news broke the very same day that I had my first meeting with an adviser here in Berlin to explore the options available to me for disabled status. 

“It’s important not to lie,” he said bluntly.  “Don’t exaggerate your pain, but don’t feign bravery, either.” 

Indeed, ego-driven dishonesty can go either way.  Some lie and cause themselves unnecessary discomfort all for the sake of their own pride, while others lie and take advantage of assistance all for the sake of garnering special attention.  It creates a burden for genuinely disabled people who must convince cynics that their medical conditions are bona fide, but not necessarily tragic.     

I don’t know what level of disabled status I currently qualify for.  In elementary school, I took a specialized phys ed class and I was the only kid who was allowed to sit in a chair instead of on the floor during story-time to avoid distracting back pain.  Yet on both occasions that my family took me to Disney World, I managed the hour-long waits in line without assistance.  But I couldn’t manage that today.  Then again, I have good days and bad.  Should I mention all this on my application, or does it sound like I’m making things up?

Determining disability is to determine whether your suffering—which is always unique and important to you—is in fact unique to your peer group.  Decades of being designated as different cause many disabled people to balk at the idea of being given special treatment. (As I’ll explore next week, many in the dwarf community go so far as to insist that dwarfism isn’t a disability.)  Yet those willing to hire a disabled person for a day at Disney World appear to rebel against the idea of not being given special treatment.

I hesitate to delve into the topic of lying and whining because, in far too many parts of the world, victims of horrific suffering are readily silenced by being dismissed as liars and whiners.  To a heartless person, anyone’s complaint qualifies as whining, except his own.  In an intolerant society, “Suck it up!” is barked at anyone who ever sheds a tear or speaks up about injustice.  The world usually needs more compassion than cynicism.  Given the choice, I’d rather live with too much whining than too much cruelty and abuse. 

But whining abuses compassion.  I don’t believe the majority of cheaters at Disney World deviously set out to fake illness and maliciously steal a disabled child’s spot in line.  In my experience, it’s much more common that people with mundane problems truly believe their difficulties entitle them to exceptional treatment. 

A friend who was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in childhood once said that whenever he tries to explain this to a group of 20-somethings, more often than not a few will start saying, “I think I have that, too!”  This can happen innocently enough: Most of us like to consider new experiences by seeing how they relate back to those we are already familiar with.  And misery sure loves company.  But anyone with clinical OCD knows that this condition is not simply about odd habits that make for charming little anecdotes, or pathologizing our eccentricities so that they cannot be questioned.  In our individualistic LOOK AT ME! culture, there is a fine but crucial line between trying to empathize in order to understand a different experience, and trying to empathize in order to snag a place for ourselves in the spotlight. 

This is not to silence those whose problems are ordinary.  (We all need to vent about the lines at Disney World.)  But false equivalencies can also silence those whose problems are extraordinary.  Being spoiled doesn’t just render us disagreeable – it renders us ignorant.  To relativize all difficulty risks misunderstanding and overlooking the profound effects of true disability, true poverty, true trauma, and true grief.

When middle class college grads complain about being “poor” because they can’t buy as many DVDs as they did when they lived with Mom and Dad, they’re disregarding the poverty line.  When a young woman claims to suffer from PTSD after being pickpocketed, she’s stretching the definition of the word into meaninglessness.  When breaking up with a boyfriend or losing a pet is described with the same superlative words we use to describe battling cancer or losing a child, we overlook the difference between the kind of pain no one should have to endure and the kind of pain everyone should expect.  Blunt comparisons—“I know exactly what you’re going through!”—downplay severity and dramatize the mundane, impeding rather than spreading awareness. 

In applying for disabled status, I will find out from an objective source just how disabled I am.  If my weekly pain, fatigue and weakness qualify as Severe or Moderate, then I’ll swallow any pride I have about wanting to appear stronger and accept it.  If my difficulties are judged to be Mild, then I’ll discard any selfish wishes I have about the benefits of Severe status and accept it.  I do feel substantially exceptional when I’m the only one in a crowd of friends who absolutely must sit down after a 20-minute walk.  But other experiences make these inconveniences seem not only minor but trivial.

I lived in a pediatric rehabilitation hospital for five months when I was 11 years-old and undergoing my first limb-lengthening procedure.  On my first day in group therapy, the patients introduced themselves to me and explained why they were there. 

The first guy had a degenerative nerve disorder that was life-threatening.  “I was talking about it with my dad and he told me, ‘I wish you’d never been born.’  Thanks, Dad.”

The second kid had been shot in the hip and paralyzed in a gang war. 

The third guy was quadriplegic.  “I’m actually ready to be discharged, but I’m having a hard time finding my own apartment with a caregiver to live with me.  My mom has decided she doesn’t want to take care of me round the clock.”

Then a teenage girl talked about her upcoming discharge.  The room erupted into congratulations until she began to choke back tears.  “I’m being discharged because the treatments aren’t working.  At this point, they said they can’t even tell me if I’m going to live to see tomorrow.” 

Then it was my turn to introduce myself.  “Um, I’m having my legs lengthened so that I can be taller.” 

I’m sure this was met with courtesy and active listening, but at that moment I felt I deserved nothing but crickets.  That night in my hospital room, I tossed and turned, wondering if she would live to see the next day.

My fellow patients in group were ultimately sympathetic to any struggles I needed to discuss.  What they taught me above all else is that, as my advisor said, it’s important not to lie.  Tell the truth, and be aware of where your reality lies in relation to others.  Fight against the stigma surrounding disability, poverty, trauma, and grief.  And don’t claim to know the unique despair experienced by those who live it.   If you claim to already know, you’ll miss what they have to teach you about the world you live in. 

Like why someone would really need to cut in line.

 

 

Simple Language & Democracy

22 Sep

My country of residence votes today in what my partner has called “possibly the most boring German election in recent memory.”  Sure the new Euro-skeptic party may be prove to be a rising star while the Pirate Party sinks (no pun intended), but with voter non-participation at an all-time high, conventional wisdom anticipates pretty much more of the same.  There is, however, one new feature of this campaign season distinguishing it from years past – all of the major parties offer translations of their platform and websites in Leichte Sprache

Leichte Sprache (“Simple Language”) is a variant of German developed by professionals who work closely with citizens with intellectual disabilities.  It avoids long sentences, abbreviations and acronyms, jargon, foreign words, and Roman numerals.  The text is often accompanied by images that convey meaning.  Commonly used words supplant those used to signify sophistication; e.g. “allow” is preferred to “authorize.”  Instead of “public transportation,” Leichte Sprache translators use “buses and trains.”  Repeating the same word (“You should take these pills because these pills are the best”) is preferable to using synonyms (“You should take these pills because this medicine is the best”).  Adverbs signifying time (“Maybe tomorrow it will rain”) are used in lieu of verb tenses (“Tomorrow it could rain”), because complex verb tenses should be avoided altogether.  Figurative descriptions (“Rabeneltern” = “raven parents”) are replaced with literal ones (“bad parents”).  The German custom of smashing compound words together without dashes or spaces (as in “Eheunbedenklichkeitsbescheinigung”) is also discouraged.     

The closest English equivalent to Leichte Sprache is Simple English, which thusfar has only really gained traction on Wikipedia.  While the Leichte Sprache Netzwerk focuses on the needs of citizens with intellectual disabilities, most advocates of Simple English in the U.S. list immigrants and other non-native English speakers as their primary target group.  This is also a revolutionary idea.  If you think the contractual agreement at iTunes is hard to wade through, imagine trying to read it in whatever foreign language you studied in high school. 

Indeed, most expats I know who have only a basic knowledge of German tend to simply hand their contracts, tax forms, and newspapers over to a German friend for an explanation.  For such people, Leichte Sprache versions would be a much more surmountable hurdle. 

And anyone about to scoff at the idea of lazy immigrants trying to take the easy way out should try the following exercise.  If you’ve studied little to no German, see how long it takes you to understand the Leichte Sprache version of this text:
 

Leichte Sprache

 

Need a dictionary?  Now compare reading that to reading the original version:

 

Schwere Sprache

 

Which one would encourage you to at least give it a try?  Naturally plenty of immigrants and expats strive and pride themselves on reaching the level of language used in the second text.  But for those scientists and doctors and painters and cooks and economists who admit that foreign languages were never their strong point, something is far better than nothing.

Some have voiced concerns that this is a slippery slope toward an anti-intellectual populace; that all the poetry, intricacy, and subtlety of refined language will be thrown out with the bathwater if Leichte Sprache has its way.  As a writer, I’ll be the first one at the barricades whenever anyone proposes that all public discourse accommodate the lowest common denominator.  I’m the type to shudder at someone saying, “We’ve come 360 degrees” when they mean 180 degrees; at reporters saying “he’s a graceful person” when they mean “gracious”; at friends mistaking “literally” for “extremely.”  Because when our language becomes shallow and meaningless, our ideas become shallow and meaningless. 

But Leichte Sprache is no cause for worry because it is intended as an option, like Braille, not an imposed standard, like the Newspeak in Ninety-Eighty-Four.  Far from stigmatizing intellectuals, it is a means of empowering groups of people that are all too often excluded from the discussion.  And, perhaps most importantly, Leichte Sprache is a conscientious effort, a carefully constructed means of expression with many, many rules, whereas any shift toward linguistic parochialism among those of us without cognitive disabilities usually comes from an unwillingness to give much care or thought to what we say.

Indeed, it bears repeating that Leichte Sprache is not a matter of merely dumbing down the way we speak to certain people, with no concern for how patronizing we might sound.  For anyone who thinks people with intellectual disabilities don’t notice when we’re talking down to them, there’s this:

 

 

The role of Leichte Sprache in today’s election may not be big enough to produce any surprises, but its implementation does recognize the rights of several minorities to participate in the political process.  It also signifies Germany’s commitment to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. However, according to Leichte Sprache translator Andrea Tischner, the two parties currently in power are not doing all they could.  Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats, and their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union, have failed to translate much of their platform into Leichte Sprache, while the libertarian Free Democrats use too many big words in their translations.  Interestingly, theirs has been the most diverse administration in the history of Germany—and possibly the world— with a female chancellor, a foreign-born vice-chancellor and an openly gay secretary of state.  But according to Tischner, the best translations are offered by three of the four major parties on the left: the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Pirates.  She didn’t offer any assessment of how the anti-immigrant, Nazi-apologist Nationalists are handling things, but I think we can guess.

 

 

Equal Treatment Means Special Treatment, Right?

1 Sep

(Via)

 

Recently overheard in a library: “They just hired some incompetent disabled person. Equality is a nice idea and all, but I can’t turn my whole world upside down in order to always be thinking about what some other person needs. I have to think about my needs.”

To which this disabled person shrugs, “Ditto.”

 

 

 

“Power for Good”

28 Jul

tumblr_mqm3ypKbXg1qz5q5lo1_500(Via)

 

Tropes are ideas we construct based on observing patterns in society and wanting to understand them. Stereotypes are ideas we construct based on hearing about patterns in society and accepting them at face value. Needless to say, stereotypes based on that which we have no choice about—our sex, gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, physical traits, or mental abilities—usually do more harm than good.

Not only do they deny minorities equal rights and opportunities, but a recent study shows that embracing racial stereotypes leads to creative stagnation. So how do we combat them? 

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict and President Obama’s call for a dialogue on race in America, Harvard researchers announced a competition to find the quickest, most effective method for getting people to let go of the prejudices they have about a certain group. The results? Calls for empathy and other try-to-put-yourself-in-their-shoes methods were largely ineffective.  What worked best was showing the participants counter-stereotypical images. World leaders with severe disabilities. Parents proudly painting their son’s toenails. Construction workers nursing their babies. Sons helping out with the housework.  Seeing is believing, apparently.

It is crucial to note that celebrating diversity can feel patronizing, especially to the subjects. The goal, after all, is to drive stereotypes to extinction so that observers find absolutely nothing extraordinary about any of the above images. Because the subjects do not feel extraordinary, at least not all the time – they feel normal.  No person who can qualify as a minority or counter-stereotype should feel pressured to spotlight their everyday life if they don’t want to.  But it is encouraging—if not unsurprising—to see that altering media portrayals of society alters a good deal of the prejudices plaguing too many corners of society.

As my friend Sarah Winawer-Wetzel recently said:

For me, it validates the importance of being out as a gay person. How else are people going to believe that a nice white Jewish girl who dresses femme and doesn’t look particularly counterculture can be queer if I’m not out like a friggin’ lightbulb everywhere I go? I’m not doing it just for me – I’m doing it so that when a little kid looks at the world and thinks about being gay, that kid sees the full spectrum of possibilities, not just a cultural stereotype. Those of us who control visuals and representations of people in the media need to remember to wield our power for good.

We often forget the power we wield when we have a stereotype in our hands, thinking it’s bigger than anything we can do about it. But it is not.  And that is wonderful.

 

 

Sex with Circus Midgets or Uncomfortable Silence

7 Jul

(Via)

 

“Pregnant mothers should avoid thinking of ugly people, or those marked by any deformity or disease; avoid injury, fright and disease of any kind.”  So advised doctors in the 1920 parenting manual Searchlights on Health.  Eugenics was all the rage back then, but it had hardly come out of nowhere.  The ugly laws of the 19th and early 20th centuries prohibited, for example in Chicago, “Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets, highways, thoroughfares, or public places. 

Under these laws, poor and homeless people with disabilities suffered the most.  The class system gave those from affluent families, like Helen Keller, a better shot at being exempted.  But before the disability rights movements of the 1970s, countless disabled children were abandoned by their families in orphanages and asylums, and were thus condemned to grow up to either join the circus or become the vagrants these laws targeted.  Abandonment, rejection and the resulting invisibility in society is an ableist tradition of astounding resilience.  Because just how far have we come in the past hundred years since doctors and municipalities advised not talking about or looking at disabled people?

This week Slate magazine features two articles by Barry Friedman and Dahlia Lithwick, asking readers to consider “what is left for the progressive movement after the gay rights victory at the Supreme Court.”  Arguing that liberal activists have developed tunnel vision, focusing almost exclusively on gay marriage and nothing else, they trumpet issues that deserve attention along with marriage equality.  Their list spans two articles, covering all sorts of social causes, from ending the death penalty to protecting the environment to improving child-care funding and education to marijuana legalization.  Nowhere in either article do they mention disability rights.

This very same week Slate also kicked off a blog about Florida by Craig Pittman with an opening article called, “True Facts About the Weirdest, Wildest, Most Fascinating State.”  Among the facts that apparently render the Sunshine State weird are the python-fighting alligators and “a town founded by a troupe of Russian circus midgets whose bus broke down.”  On the day of its release, Slate ran the article as its headline and emblazoned “A Town Founded By Russian Circus Midgets” across its front page as a teaser.

Face-palm. 

Friedman and Lithwick have nothing in common with Pittman except that they also write for Slate, a news site written by and for young liberals.  And that their articles remind me of what I’ve come to know and call Young Liberal Ableism. 

 That is, there are two ableist mentalities not uncommon among young liberals:

 1)      Uncomfortable Silence: the tendency to skirt issues of disability, especially compared to other social issues, because disability threatens two things young liberals unabashedly embrace – being independent and attractive.  (“Independent” and “attractive” rigidly defined, of course.)

 2)      Sex with Circus Midgets: the sick fascination with physical oddities that objectifies and/or fetishizes people with atypical bodies or conditions.  (I’ve discussed this in detail here.)

Both mentalities see any disabled people they hurt as acceptable collateral damage

Here’s the thing about dealing with all this.  You get used to it, but not forever and always.  Sometimes it rolls off your back, sometimes it hits a nerve.  This time, seeing a magazine as progressive as Slate brandish RUSSIAN CIRCUS MIDGETS on its front page while leaving disability rights out of its social justice discussion brought me right back to college, where friends of friends called me “Dwarf Emily” behind my back and someone else defended them to my face.  Where classmates cackled about the film Even Dwarfs Started Off Small—“because it’s just so awesome to see the midgets going all ape-shit!”—but declined my offer to screen the documentary Dwarfs: Not A Fairy Tale.  Where a gay professor was utterly outraged that her students didn’t seem to care about immigration rights or trans rights, but she never once mentioned disability rights.  Where an acquaintance asked to borrow my copy of The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, but awkwardly turned down my offer to lend her Surgically Shaping Children.  Where roommates argued vociferously that they would rather be euthanized than lose the ability to walk.  Where jokes about dwarf-tossing were printed in the student paper. 

I won’t go into certain crude comments that involved me personally, but I will say that when a friend recently, carefully tried to tell me about how shocked he was to find a certain video of dwarfs in a grocery store, I cut him off and said, “Lemme guess, it was a dwarf woman porn video?  That’s one of the top search terms that bring people to my blog.”

For a little more than a decade, I’ve lived on one of America’s most liberal college campuses and then in one of the world’s most progressive cities.  I have never met so many liberal people at any other time in my life and I have never met so many ableist people at any other time in my life.   

This is not to ignore all those I’ve met who, despite their lack of experience with disability, ask carefully constructed questions and consistently make me feel not like a curious object but like a friend who is free to speak her mind about any part of her life experience.  And some young liberals are doing awesome work for disability rights and awareness.  But when a journalist and mother of a disabled twentysomething recently said, “No one wants to talk about disability rights – it’s not seen as sexy enough,” I knew exactly what she was talking about.

In 2009, when the pretty darn liberal Huffington Post reported on Little People of America’s call on the FCC to ban the word “midget,” the majority of commenters snidely remarked, “At least they can get married.”  There was truth to this, but I found it telling that not a single commenter on the left-wing blog considered that the word “midget” could be hurtful.  Everyone instead decided to play Oppression Olympics

Understand that I will never say that among liberals disabled people are worse off than other minorities or that ableism is the “last frontier” in human rights.  It’s not.  Even if I believed it to be true, it would be impossible to prove and fighting for the crown of Superlative Suffering doesn’t do anything but imply that there are those against whom you wish to compete.  I don’t want to compete with anyone. 

Nor do I assume that anyone who uses the word “midget” is bigoted.  Many who use antiquated terms are honestly unaware of their potential to hurt.  (It wasn’t until two years ago that I learned that referring to the Sami-speaking regions as “Lapland” can be very offensive to those who live there.)  And there is no minority on earth whose members agree unanimously on a name.  “Little people” makes me cringe almost as much as “midgets,” while my husband winces whenever I use the German word for “dwarf.”  Labels are only half as important as the intentions behind them.

But when young liberals insist that no one can be expected to know that “midget” is hurtful, there is something particularly perverse about hearing dehumanizing beliefs and ideas come from the mouths of those who pride themselves on their open-mindedness and diversity awareness.  Or whose own experience of marginalization would logically render them a better candidate for empathy.  In the words of Charles Negy, bigotry is an unwillingness to question our prejudices. 

Why do I call it Young Liberal Ableism and not just Young Ableism?  Because certain liberals could learn a thing or two from certain conservatives about facing disability and illness. Consider the stereotype of the small-town conservative who proselytizes about etiquette and tradition, and goes into a tizzy over the idea of two men kissing or a woman not taking her husband’s name or her neighbors speaking another language or a singer using swear words.  But for all the types of people she does not want to accept in her community, she is fiercely dedicated to her community.  She spends a good deal of her time going to church and checking in on her neighbors, and stays in contact with those who are physically dependent, sick or disabled.  As patronizing as charity can be, many young conservatives have been raised to send get-well cards, bake pies, and call on neighbors and relatives who are stuck at home or in the hospital.  They’ve been raised to believe that it’s the right thing to do. 

Many young liberals, meanwhile, have been raised to analyze their problems and personalities to the point of vanity, question moral traditions to the point of moral relativism, and feel free to do what they want to the point of only doing what they want.  They believe that anyone is welcome to live in their town, but they’ll only socialize with those they deem interesting.

I’m stereotyping of course.  But it’s a fact, not a stereotype, that in the U.S. liberals are less likely to donate to charity, less likely to do volunteer work, and less likely to donate blood than conservatives. 

Ultimately, it does not matter whether you call yourself “liberal” or “conservative,” left-wing or right-wing.  There are Ayn Rand conservatives who insist that compassion is “evil,” and there are liberals who work tirelessly in low-paying jobs at non-profits and social agencies that do as much good as any charity.  There are those of all political stripes who make large charitable donations but also want everyone to know about it, and there are those who don’t know the first thing about politics but know everything about empathy.  We are far more complex than our politics give us credit for.

The goal should be to never become too self-congratulatory about our politics or morals,  as Friedman and Lithwick warn.  But in response to their call for issues progressives specifically need to pay to attention to, I do have a wish list going:

How about young liberals fighting to make sure dwarf-tossing is banned around the world?

How about facts instead of factoids when it comes to communities founded by dwarf entertainers who have been socially isolated by ableism and fear life-long unemployment?

How about young liberals continuing to fight for the U.S. to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities?

How about young liberals debating the Supreme Court’s 9-0 ruling last year that religious organizations are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act?

How about young liberals talking more about the astronomical rates of violence against intellectually disabled people, rather than just sneering at Sarah Palin’s complaints about the word “retard”?

How about young liberal bloggers trying to understand physical disability and illness as often as they try to understand depression and social anxiety?

How about our seeing a lot more women with dwarfism starring in romantic comedies than in porn movies? 

How about more young liberal discussions about real dwarfs than Tolkien Dwarves?

In issuing these demands, I’m of course terrified of appearing too self-interested.  Politics is all about trying to square the selfishness of What about ME?! with the fairness of Everybody matters.  Sometimes sticking up for your own rights is easier than sticking up for someone else’s.  Sometimes it’s the other way around.  All of us, liberals and conservatives, should value trying to do what is right rather than what is easy.

 

 

Who Gets Stuck in the Friend Zone

24 Mar

Love for all!(Image by Matthias Ripp used under CC license via)

 

Well, I finally sat down and saw The Phantom of the Opera a quarter of a century after everyone else.  (If you don’t know the story, this parody sums it up pretty well.)  I won’t say what I thought of all the songs songs songs because I’m bound to alienate half my readers either way, but by the second to last scene, I was hollering at the screen: “Girl, you’d better not go for that swaggering bully in the mask!”  But then she ripped the mask off and he couldn’t stop crying and I was up to my eyelids in Kleenex, wailing: “If only he hadn’t killed so many people!  (And talked to her instead of stalked her… )  Now he’s just another disfigured guy stuck in the Friend Zone!  But his pain is reeeeeeeeal!”

This week, the word “Friend Zone” has been entered into the Oxford English Dictionary.  Many of my favorite feminists are not pleased.  Because the term is generally thought to be something only straight, bitter men complain about (see these Urban Dictionary definitions), many argue that it’s a misogynistic trope.  Lamenting the Friend Zone sends the message, however subliminally, that spending time with a female is pointless unless you gain access to her naughty bits.  Because who would want to be friends with a woman?! 

Such a bleak view of women is certainly a problem among many men.  In the words of John Mix Meyer, “Girls are not machines you put kindness coins into until sex falls out.”  Nice for the sake of nice is respect.  Nice only for the sake of getting laid is not.  As I’ve said before, cross-gender friendship could use a lot more support in books, film, and mainstream society.

But I’ve also used the word “Friend Zone” before because I don’t believe it refers only to this one chauvinistic idea.  Unrequited love isn’t fun for anyone.  Lots of women have been stuck in the Friend Zone, too.  Many people are expected by pop culture to always end up there, because society deems them asexual, and it could be helpful to examine why.  Almost every adult on earth craves love and sex, and we are all trying to figure out what attracts those we deem attractive. 

Men who sigh, “Girls don’t like nice guys,” need to get over their narcissism.  But there are others who wonder in earnest why the Friend Zone seems so jam-packed with quiet guys who genuinely respect women.  In stories of every genre, from classic literature (Madame Bovary) to modern literature (Freedom) to dime-a-dozen bodice-rippers (The Bridges of Madison County), bored heroines look past their straight-laced suitors to the tall dark stranger who’s not exactly famous for his fidelity or his feminism.  Love triangles always make for good drama, but when the heroine more often than not decides that the devoted sweetheart belongs in the Friend Zone and the unpredictable bad boy belongs in bed, many scratch their heads and repeat, “Why do girls always go for jerks?”  Or, as The Mr. T Experience sings, “I have some problems… but even Hitler had a girlfriend, so why can’t I?”

The answer often depends on the situation, but there are two fundamental, heteronormative traditions that prop it up:

The Macho Stereotype – Any guy who isn’t strong and independent to the point of being daring isn’t a “real man.”  Obeying the rules, doting on your wife, and being mediocre is emasculating.  Hence the double standard men are held to in real life: they are always expected to focus more on their success and autonomy than their emotional fulfillment.  Sociologist Stephanie Coontz has pointed out that the inordinate importance of independence to male worth is why homeless men arouse so much more disgust than homeless women.

The Gentler Sex Stereotype – A nice girl can see the diamond in the rough.  A man with a nasty wife is hen-pecked and pathetic, but a woman with a bad boy just might be the only one who understands him.  From a conservative standpoint, it’s virtuous of a woman to be so selfless and forgiving.  From a liberal standpoint, it’s the thrill of conquest that keeps her trying.  

A man’s worth is defined by his success, albeit many women accept broad definitions of success.  Western romances across the ages assert that special girls who search for the softer side of the bully or the bad boy will find it: Beauty and the Beast, Wuthering Heights, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, Bonnie and Clyde, right up to Fifty Shades of Grey.  Pop culture reiterates ad nauseam how much men love the chase, but this trope shows that scores of women do, too.  For the starry-eyed heroine, it’s a challenge to stray from the disapproving masses—or her parents—and become the One Special Woman who can tame the beast and bring joy to his lonely life.  The higher the risk, the greater the reward.  The reward is knowing that she is deeper, different from those other girls who swoon over bland perfection.  Hence even America’s most famous feminist, Lisa Simpson, has looked past loyal, bespectacled Milhouse for Nelson, the schoolyard bully from a broken home.  

By far the most horrific result of this romantic tradition is the fact that too many women in real life endure abuse, or worse.  Pop culture sometimes concedes this and still has the audacity to romanticize it.  My high school did a production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel the same year Time magazine declared it the Best Musical of All Time.  After wife-beater Billy Bigelow dies in an armed robbery, his widow tells their daughter, “It is possible, dear, for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all.”  You see, truly devoted wives know that offering yourself up as his punching bag is a way to show your love and nurture him as he struggles with his demons.  Only a selfish bitch would leave him when he needs her most.

Carousel was written in 1956, but the trope is still going strong.  The final film of the Twilight series lead NPR’s Linda Holmes to observe:

When a saga popular with pre-adolescent girls peaks romantically on a night that leaves the heroine to wake up covered with bruises in the shape of her husband’s hands — and when that heroine then spends the morning explaining to her husband that she’s incredibly happy even though he injured her, and that it’s not his fault because she understands he couldn’t help it in light of the depth of his passion — that’s profoundly irresponsible.

Yes, we’re all having a good yuk over the unhinged quality of it all.  And yes, it’s a movie with a monster baby… But romanticizing an intimate relationship that leaves bruises and scars is a particularly terrible idea in a film aimed at girls.  Talking about this is tiresome, but then so is putting it in the movie.

Indeed.

But attraction to the forbidden is not always dangerous.  Sometimes the bad boy is just misunderstood.  There is a powerful romantic tradition of fine ladies risking wealth and status for true love.  (See Aladdin, Titanic, Robin Hood, Moulin Rouge, Lady and the Tramp, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Pirates of Penzance, The Pirates of the Caribbean.)  There are also classic tales of heroines opening the gates to social progress by debunking their families’ horrid prejudices when they fall for men outside their race/nationality/religion/species.  (See Pocahontas, South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof, The Little Mermaid.)  The heroines of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Angst essen Seelen auf stare down the racial tensions of the era in which the films were released.  Meanwhile, Cyrano DeBergerac and the Phantom of the Opera both find out—albeit too late—that their beloveds would have looked past their disfigurement and loved them back. 

Since then, we’ve seen heroines end up with men with disabling injuries (often from war), while a handful go for guys who are congenitally disabled or disfigured.  As noted recently, Peter Dinklage’s romantic roles are possibly, finally breaking dwarf men out of the Friend Zone.  Great art obsesses over the blurry border between right and wrong, friend and lover, beauty and banality.  These compassionate heroines who try to understand the “bad” boys and the rejects help us deepen our perceptions of attractiveness.

It’s worth noting that the Phantom and Cyrano compensate for the supposed repulsiveness of their disfigurement with the sexiness of their genius.  They are supercrips.  Granted Gothic tales love to examine the complexity of blinding light draped in darkness.  I like a study of conflicting traits as much as the next starving liberal arts grad.  But it’s a ludicrously ableist tradition that only gives disabled superheroes a shot at intimacy, restricting ordinary disabled men like Quasimodo or the Seven Dwarfs to the Friend Zone.  And it’s an absurdly lookist tradition that restricts almost all of our disfigured and disabled women there.

Can you name a famous heroine who’s disfigured or physically disabled?  (Can you name a famous actress who’s visibly disabled, for that matter?  I might be able to, but I’d have to check Wikipedia to be sure.)  In the old days, disabled and disfigured girls might arouse sympathy (see Helen Keller), but the women were hags.  Period.  If women who were merely not conventionally attractive ever dared to step out of the Friend Zone and into the dating game, they were annoyingReally annoying.  And they were swatted away like flies.

Nowadays, love stories try to speak to women’s insecurities about their looks with quirky retellings of the Ugly Duckling or Cinderella.  The heroine perceives herself as unattractive, moaning, “Is it because of my [thighs/eyes/nose]?!”  (Rather than cursing, “That shallow jerk stuck me in the Friend Zone!”)  But we eventually see that she truly is a knock-out and it’s just a matter of finding the right man who will wipe the soot off her face, pay for a makeover, or simply remove her glasses.  Children’s films are getting a little better: Shrek and The Princess and the Frog feature heroines who are green-skinned for part of the courtship, though their Otherness is not quite as realistic as the Phantom’s or Quasimodo’s.  We’ve yet to see a heroine angrily unveil a severe facial deformity and hear her strapping lover say, “I think it’s intriguing.  And I wanna knock boots with you.  So.  Bad.” 

And why not?  Francis Bacon said, “There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.”  I’ve overheard countless guys say, “Chicks dig scars.”  Which is true.  Lots of chicks got scars, too.

The popularity of a story is by no means an empirical examination of our values.  Most people I know are so much deeper than pop culture gives us credit for.  And there is a lot more to many of these stories than the tropes I just reduced them to.  But it would be daft to pretend that they have nothing to do with our collective psyche.  Every one of us treasures those romantic moments we experienced that were “just like in a movie.”  Our most popular books and films simultaneously reflect and influence what we tend to think is hot.  And when it comes to opening our minds, fiction is often the best messenger.  We look to entertainment for escape and to art for enlightenment.  The most powerful stories provide both. 

When I attended a lecture at the Network of Disabled Women in Berlin two weeks ago, there was a debate as to whether reality TV shows and documentaries help or harm perceptions of disabled women.  Good documentaries smash stereotypes by providing facts and figures, but the over-representation of disabled women in such reports combined with their invisibility in love stories, detective stories, and silly sitcoms suggests that they exist solely as objects of study.  They are there to satisfy our curiosity, but we’re rarely asked to root for them the way we root for Rapunzel or Bridget Jones.  We never follow them on a journey dripping with passion.  We should. 

The Oxford English Dictionary’s newborn definition of “Friend Zone” reads: “a situation in which a platonic relationship exists between two people, one of whom has an undeclared romantic or sexual interest in the other.”  It doesn’t say it’s exclusively a problem for men.  And good for them.  To me, the term will always evoke the potentially destructive idea that certain “types” of people don’t ever need or deserve intimacy.  And we’ve got to keep questioning it.  Children, animals, and self-proclaimed asexuals automatically belong in the Friend Zone, along with your clients, patients, and students.  The disabled, the disfigured, the elderly, the ordinary, and the unsuccessful do not automatically belong there.  I’m counting on all of us, the storytellers and the lovers, to recognize the word so that we can recognize the problem.

 

 

Does This Feel Ableist To You?

10 Mar

(Via)

 

This London mural of Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage has been around for a while.  Dinklage’s success and visibility has generally been great for the dwarf community.  Most of this is thanks to professional decisions made by Dinklage himself.  He suavely excoriated dwarf-tossing last year when accepting his Golden Globe.  He starred in the only good film about a character living with dwarfism in the real world.  And his famous “I don’t have dreams with dwarfs in them!” rant continues to provide me with a perfect answer to those who still snicker about midgets on Facebook.  But now that Game of Thrones has helped propel him into the mainstream, not all the attention given to his dwarfism is good.

Fantasy traditionally exiles men with dwarfism to the Friend Zone and Game of Thrones has finally taken a hammer to that.  But it doesn’t feel like progress when shallow discussions of Dinklage’s sexiness treat him like a novelty.  (And invariably trigger jokes and a sick fascination with the effect of height on certain sex positions.)  In her superb list, “Things to Keep in Mind When You Come Across a Person with Dwarfism,” the girlfriend of a dwarf writes on Tumblr:

Don’t go out of your way, if they’re male, to affirm their masculinity by attempting to ‘bro down’ by gratuitously using words like ‘boss,’ ‘man,’ ‘sport,’ ‘champ,’ etc. in your interactions with them.  It makes it obvious that you’re uncomfortable with their difference & are attempting to overcompensate.

Her complete list is definitely worth your time.  (And oh man, do I remember the high-fives… )  But I’m not going to decide just yet whether the above mural embodies the patronizing attitude she describes.  I want to hear what you think:

 

 

Feel free to explain your answer in the comments.

 

 

 

 

 

Wheelchair Problems

24 Feb

Wheelchair  (Image by Joshua Zader used under Creative Commons license via)

 

Whether you are left-handed and in search of scissors, or dark-skinned and looking for “flesh-colored” bandages in the West, almost every minority experiences problems not just of prejudice but of practicality.  Facing the combined forces of social constructs and innate challenges can be exhausting.  Few discussions on difference encapsulate this better than Wheelchair Problems.  Run by a high school senior named Gina, the site primarily features memes, such as:

 

hands

curb

pee

stairs

 

When I discovered the site this past fall, the memories came flooding back.  I used a wheelchair for a total of only two years (ages 11 to 12 and 16 to 17), so while many of these memes perfectly illustrate my experience, others wake me up to situations I’ve never faced or considered.  It’s an excellent catalyst for simultaneously building community and spreading awareness to those outside the community.  Almost every one of the Problems merits volumes of social critique and philosophical debate, but they also demonstrate that you need not sign up for a three-day seminar on diversity to get the message. 

I’ve discussed the inherent problems of micro-blogging before.  But  when the marginalized have the microphone, brevity is often not just the soul of wit but of agency.  In an age when disabled people are still portrayed as either helpless victims, freakish villains, or larger-than-life heroes, we need more sites like Wheelchair Problems.  Kinda now.

 

 

The People You Meet When You Talk About Human Suffering

17 Feb

 plastic crowd

(Image by Boinink used under CC license via)

 

Not all disabled people are innocents.  I would hope this comes as no surprise.  But in the wake of Oscar Pistorius’s alleged murder of his girlfriend, some are going to the other extreme.  In a bizarre article titled “The Disability Pedestal,” Slate writer William Saletan lists various disabled people who have allegedly committed similarly heinous crimes.  He cites anger over their disability as a frequent motive.  Which evokes the stereotype of the evil freak who kills in order to compensate.  That stereotype is at least as old as wicked witches, and as modern as the albino villain of The DaVinci Code.  Do we really need to feed it? 

And if there is truth to the commonly held belief that disability renders people more likely to lash out at others, then shouldn’t we be investing in a solution?  Saletan doesn’t offer any statistics on how many disabled people commit crimes out of self-pity, but if it’s really so endemic, then we should do something about it.

But I don’t think that’s what he meant.  While never going so far as to declare disabled killers a social problem, Saletan does argue that some see their disability as “just another card they can play,” and that both they and we need to realize that it all comes down to individual responsibility:

Equality isn’t about being special.  It’s about being ordinary.  People with disabilities aren’t above sin or crime.  They’re just like the rest of us…  You run your own race.  You make your own decisions.  Most people with prosthetic legs don’t shoot their lovers.  Most guys who survive testicular cancer don’t run doping rings in the Tour de France.  Something about beating cancer or overcoming a birth defect tugs at our hearts. It paralyzes our judgment.  We don’t want to believe that people who have accomplished such things can do evil.  Most don’t.  But some do.

I know plenty of disabled people who are jerks and nothing about the Pistorius case compels me to think of him as anything but one.  The stereotype of the poor, innocent, helpless, asexual, naïve invalid needs to go.  Yet I’m not comfortable with Saletan’s rather Ayn Randian assertion that compassion impairs judgment.  What impairs judgment is an inability to see someone as more than just a disability.  We should all be smart enough, deep enough, big enough to be humbled by the extraordinary difficulties someone has endured and to simultaneously call out their faults—or crimes—for what they are. 

Having a disability does not automatically make you a brave person or a good person or someone who deserves to be liked.  But disabilities almost invariably cause pain, and equality should not aim to rid us of our impulses toward compassion.  Was my judgment “paralyzed” when I met a girl in the hospital whose body was hot-pink with third-degree burns and immediately thought, “Man, I shouldn’t whine so much”?  Lots of my fellow patients at the hospital turned out to be the sort of people I couldn’t stand.  But almost every one of them had had experiences I could only try to imagine.  Refusing to excuse a disabled person should not preclude trying to understand the privileges we enjoy that they do not.    

To be fair to Saletan, I must admit it’s strange to find myself arguing this way because I am often fed up with discussions of disability and psychiatric disorders that devolve into self-pity and melodrama.  (See Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook… )  But firing off judgment can lead to snap judgments, and focusing our political energy on ranting about the whiners can lead to a cynical, soulless view of humanity.    

It just goes to show that we still have a hard time as a society figuring out what exactly to do with human suffering.  In my experience, four personality types exacerbate this problem.  (I’ve assigned gender randomly):

Mr. Comfort Zone – “I’ve Suffered, But You Don’t See Me Complaining!”  That guy who only sees society through his own lens.  He refuses to recognize any privileges he may enjoy, insists that everything balances out in the end and/or that the system is really rigged against people like him thanks to our oppressive PC culture.  He has a point that self-pity is counterproductive, but his refusal to acknowledge that anyone could have it harder than he does is the epitome of selfishness.  His refusal to explore the possibility of institutionalized chauvinism is intellectually lazy.  And his campaign for self-reliance loses all credibility the moment he blames minorities for his hardships. 

Ms. No Time For It – “It’s Sad Others Suffer, But I Don’t Like to Think About It…”  That lady who avoids political or social issues like the plague.  She wants to “stay positive” and “talk about cheerful things,” like the weather and her favorite TV shows and recent purchases.  She has a point that complaining too much about the world’s problems can wear you down, but she often contradicts this by complaining about mundane problems, like those trashy people who live around the corner and that snobby celebrity who had affairs with three different men, all of them friends of her husband, can you imagine how nasty you’d have to be in order to do such a thing?  In refusing to discuss politics, she ignores how much of her world view is determined by politics; i.e., what is considered “beautiful,” what it is considered “normal,” what is “controversial.”  She doesn’t realize that her ability to avoid certain “political” issues is a privilege

Mr. Oppression Olympics – “My People Have Suffered the Most!”  The activist who thinks the only rights worth fighting for are his own.  He may have a point about the unique nature of the discrimination he’s faced, but he ludicrously believes the more you’ve suffered, the more justice you deserve.  He secretly harbors prejudices about other minorities and this might be revealed when he thinks one of them might be taking time, funding, or attention away from “his” group.  He also refuses to acknowledge any privileges he may have.

Ms. Cry Wolf – “Can I Get Attention for My Suffering?”  The whimpering waif who takes the phrase “Talk about your feelings” to the extreme, turning almost every political discussion into a personal therapy session.  She secretly, or perhaps subconsciously, thinks belonging to a minority is enviable because it grants you sympathy and excuses for why you can’t do something.  She has a point that repression can be dangerous, but she goes overboard by crying, “OPPRESSION!” at any call for modesty or good manners.  She lists her problems in order to attain solace and praise, rather than revelation. 

We’re all prone to feel like these people in certain situations.  As a teen, I often slipped into Ms. Cry Wolf around boys I liked, hoping my saying, “I’m having such a hard day I could just cry!” would get them to be exactly as kind to me as I desired.  During my limb-lengthening procedures, when girlfriends would moan about not being thin enough while I was struggling against my painkillers to keep food down, I felt like Mr. Comfort Zone, wanting to tell them to shut up and be grateful.  In college, I felt like Mr. Oppression Olympics when students would raise their fists for feminism and LGBT rights but squirm and change the subject if I brought up disability rights.  And when it comes to certain matters of injustice—like what’s been going on in the Congo for the past five, ten, fifteen years?—I continue to be Ms. No Time For It, clicking past the headlines to the latest news about Stephen Fry or Jack White. 

Most people I know have had these feelings at certain points.  But we should be wary of acting on any of them, especially in the political sphere, because they’re all counter-productive.  There’s no progress in self-pity.  There’s no progress without empathy.  As I blog about disability and disenfranchisement, I agree with Saletan that I should never, ever be comfortable with the idea of myself as a victim.  But I also never want to be so hardened that I can’t be moved by human suffering.  Because that’s not really the point of trying to get along with the rest of the world, is it?

 

 

Note: This post was inspired by Crommunist’s The People You Meet When You Write About Race

 

“Richard III Was Dwarf, Doctor Says”

10 Feb

KING RICHARD III (Image by Leo Reynolds used under CC license via)

 

From an article appearing 20 years ago in The Seattle Times on August 23, 1991:

King Richard III was a dwarf, according to a medical diagnosis that has outraged defenders of the monarch.

“The combination of slow growth and short stature, preceded by a difficult breech birth… and intimations of physical weakness and sexual impotence… suggest idiopathic pituitary dwarfism,” Dr. Jacob Van der Werff ten Bosch said in an editorial published today in the medical journal Lancet.

Balderdash, say Richard’s partisans.  “Everyone knows Shakespeare’s Richard III, but not everyone knows the historical evidence,” said Jack Leslau, a biographer of the king. “There are various medical theories that all work on the assumption that he was some sort of monster with a physical deformity.”

The Lancet editorial was timed for the anniversary of Richard’s death in battle Aug. 22, 1485, at Bosworth Field – where, as Shakespeare had it, the monarch offered “my kingdom for a horse!”

Van der Werff ten Bosch, a former professor of medicine, says there is no reason to take offense. “As a doctor I would not think it’s ridiculing a king to call him a dwarf. It’s simply a medical diagnosis,” he said.

Since the excavation and analysis of the royal bones announced this past Monday, the BBC now reports, “Richard III was portrayed by Shakespeare as having a hunched back and the skeleton has a striking curvature to its spine. This was caused by scoliosis, a condition which experts say in this case developed in adolescence. Rather than giving him a stoop, it would have made one shoulder higher than the other.” 

So what Dr. Van der Werff ten Bosch said all those years ago was wrong.  At least half of it, anyway.

 

 

So Who Should The Cliques Make Fun Of Now?

6 Jan

Christina Red Carpet A new study claiming that Overweight and Class 1 Obese people have a lower mortality rate has been bouncing around the world since Thursday.  National Public Radio’s report seems to be the most comprehensive but hints at the two most extreme, polarized viewpoints:

Cosmetic: This is a victory for the overweight—now we can trash skinny people (again)!

Medical: If people hear about this, everyone will stop exercising and eating their vegetables and then everyone’s going to die!

Both views treat the public like infants who can’t possibly think for themselves.

Doctors are right to worry that a sizeable portion of the population will use this news as an excuse for whatever unhealthy habits they love.  This is why it is important to include the many possible factors skewing the results.  But many people will always cherry-pick whatever statistics suit their lifestyle or claim to be the exception to the rule.  I don’t have any political solutions for engaging with contrarians—whether we’re debating eating habits or global warming—but talking down to them and using scare tactics has a pretty high failure rate.

And from the disability rights perspective, there are exceptions to the rule when it comes to health.  Thousands of them.  As said before, a round belly is not always a sign of fat.  A bony body is not always a sign of an eating disorder.  Many forms of exercise can be more hazardous than beneficial to people with certain conditions.  And many life-threatening conditions are invisible.  Medical tests, not appearance, are always the most reliable indicators of health.  This robs us of the easy answers we crave and which facilitate public debate, but there has never been and never will be a one-size-fits-all health program for the 7 billion humans on the planet.

You and your doctor know better than anyone else if you are healthy or not.  If she says you are overweight but your genes and cholesterol levels put you at no risk for heart disease, she’s probably right.  If she says your weight is ideal but your eating habits put you at risk for malnutrition, she’s probably right.  And if her advice seems sound but her delivery makes you feel too ashamed to discuss it, go find someone with better social skills to treat you.  At the individual level, it’s no one else’s business.  Outside of the doctor’s office, it shouldn’t be any more socially acceptable to discuss someone else’s weight or waist size than it is to discuss their iron levels, sperm count, or cancer genes.

But beauty standards and health trends often go hand-in-hand.  And what really needs to go is the lookist idea that we’re all semi-licensed doctors who can diagnose people just by glancing at them and deciding how they measure up according to the latest medical research.  The reason we have a hard time letting this go is because it’s fun to point out others’ supposed weaknesses.  It’s self-elevating and validating to snicker that ours is the better body type because it calms our insecurities.  Beauty standards are cultural and constantly morphing throughout history, but they have always remained narrow.  (This is especially the case for women, though I sincerely apologize for not providing more research on men.)  Whether fawning over big breasts or flat tummies, public praise for certain body types has almost always been at the expense of others:

 

 
After decades of the Kate Moss heroin chic, Christina Hendricks (see above) of Mad Men has garnered lots of attention for her curves and this week’s study is likely to encourage her fans.  “Christina Hendricks is absolutely fabulous…,” says U.K. Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone.  “We need more of these role models. There is such a sensation when there is a curvy role model.  It shouldn’t be so unusual.”  She is dead right that it shouldn’t be hard for curvy women to find sexy heroines who look like them in film and on television, just as skinny women or disabled women or women of any body type shouldn’t have to give up on ever seeing celebrities with figures like theirs.  But “Real women have curves!” is just as exclusionary as the catty comments about fat that incite eating disorders.  And when Esquire and the BBC celebrate Hendricks as “The Ideal Woman,” they mistake oppression for empowerment.

We can accept the idea that people of all sorts of different hair colors and lengths can be beautiful.  Will mainstream medicine and cosmetics ever be able to handle the idea that all sorts of different bodies can be healthy?  History says no.  But maybe it’s not naïve to hope. 

And what does Christina Hendricks have to say about all of this?  “I was working my butt off on [Mad Men] and then all anyone was talking about was my body.”

Touché.

 

 

The Year In Review

30 Dec

Hidden Object(Image by Hans-Jörg Aleff used under CC license via)

 

When I launched Painting On Scars at the beginning of this year, I had loads to say and almost as much worry that few would be interested in issues of disability and physical difference.  As the year comes to a close, I look back and see that the posts about ableism and lookism have generally been the most popular, followed by my spring article about family planning, reproductive rights, and privacy.  This hasn’t been the only surprise.

Lots of people find this blog by googling “dwarf + woman + sex.”  I have no idea who these people are.  They may be fetishists, they may be researchers, they may be women with dwarfism.  Your guess is as good as mine.

Since March, Painting On Scars has been read in over 100 countries.  To the surprise of few, no one in China reads it.  To the surprise of many, at least one person in Saudi Arabia does.  So have people in St. Lucia, Jordan, and Benin. 

Thanks to blogging, I’ve discovered there is a considerable online community committed to combating ableism with its own terms and tropes such as “supercrip” and “inspiration porn.”  I love such communities.  I also love bridging communities.  Because responses to my blog have shown me, perhaps more than anything has, that I want to talk to everyone.  And I really don’t care what your label is. 

I don’t care if you consider yourself Republican or Democrat or feminist or anti-feminist or religious or atheist or socialist or libertarian or apolitical or intellectual or anti-intellectual.  Well, okay, I do take it into consideration.  Somewhat.  But there is rarely consensus when we ask that everyone define these terms.  And none of them carries a guarantee against nasty personality traits like narcissism and defensiveness and aggression and cowardice.  Novelist Zadie Smith noted that we are told every day by the media and our culture that our political differences are the most important differences between us, but she will never be convinced of that.  When lefty comedian Jon Stewart was asked earlier this year if there’s anything he admires about right-wing hardliner Bill O’Reilly, he said, “This idea that disagreeing with somebody vehemently, even to the core of your principles, means you should not engage with them?  I have people in my own family that make this guy look like Castro and I love them.”

This is not to say that it’s all relative and I see no point to social justice or politics.  On the contrary, difference continues to be marginalized by the tyranny of the majority, as evidenced by the fact that the number one Google search term that has brought readers to my blog is “freaky people.”  And far too many kind people will more readily lash out at a person or group whose recognition demands they leave their comfort zone, rather than the forces that constructed and defined their comfort zone.  Well-intentioned friends and parents and bosses and classmates and leaders and partners and siblings and colleagues are capable of the vilest selfishness when they are scared of a power shift.  (As the Christian activists pictured above acknowledge.)  This is heart-breaking.  And it is not okay. 

But on the flipside, people are constantly smashing the prejudices I didn’t even know I had about them.  Every day friends and family and strangers demonstrate strengths that highlight all the mistakes I make, proving to me that politics are tremendously important but they will never be the most important element of a human being.   That may be a political idea in itself, but regardless of the divisions, most people on earth do seem to believe deep down inside that everybody matters.

And that’s what makes the struggle for social justice worth it.  If you are friendly and well-mannered and generous and honor your commitments and don’t let your self-doubt make you self-centered and try to listen as much as you talk and are honest about your problems without fishing for compliments and are big enough to apologize when you’ve screwed up, I respect you and admire you and am humbled by you.  I want to do the best I can because of you. 

 And since you’ve read this far, it’s more than likely you’re good at listening.  Thank you and happy new year!