(Image by Barbara Kruger, 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