Look before you leap: humanity, personhood, equality, disability.
I’ve read about how it’s wrong to say that we are all human, that we are all people, or that you believe in equality. What people mean is that it’s damaging to pretend that everyone is the same. To act like in order for people to be valuable they have to be identical. People are right. Except…
People focus too much on finding specific sets of words to denounce whenever they are said, and too little on context. People are too willing to jump down the throat of anyone who talks about equality or everyone being human, without figuring out who is saying it, and why. Figuring out who and why goes a long way to figuring out what people are actually saying. Which in turn will tell you whether you’re actually justified in jumping down their throat.
One of my favorite articles ever is “Critic of the Dawn” by Cal Montgomery. She talks about two imaginary people, that disabled people are frequently mistaken for, although with a little tweaking they apply to plenty of other oppressed people.
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As I move through my life — a disabled person — two companions haunt me. They are imaginary, but in my dealings with other people, they are forceful. Sometimes other people cannot seem to sense me behind those phantoms. Sometimes I am forced into their masks, and falling out of character has consequences.
One I think of as an uncle. A descendant of Carrie Buck, of the Jukes and the Kallikaks, a cousin to the Rain Man and the wild children of the forests. You’ve seen him rocking in the corner, headbanging. He cannot speak and, people assume, has nothing to say. Sometimes he is a cute, incomprehensible child; sometimes a terrifying, incomprehensible adult. He is usually uncomprehending but sometimes manipulative; usually repellent but sometimes seductive. Violence swirls around him: sometimes he is a target, sometimes a perpetrator, sometimes both. He is an enigma, interpreted by others: he cannot define himself. He embodies the stereotypes, the paradigms of cognitive impairment, of my own particular set of labels. He’s no different from me — but he is. Get me in the right situation, and we look exactly alike. Get me in the right situation, and you can see no resemblance. Bruce, I call him in intimate moments, after a caricature I once saw on television.
The other I think of as a sister. A shadow twin. The daughter my parents wanted in my place, pretended they had. The sister my flesh-and-blood sister wished for. Me, but with impairment denied, defused, removed. Me, but with grace, stamina, social skills. She speaks for herself — then again, she doesn’t have to. She’s no different from me — but she is. Get me in the right situation, and we look exactly alike. Get me in the right situation, and you can see no hint of resemblance. Mary, I call her, after the aunt whose other name I was given.
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Later on, she talks about why it is that some people try to emphasize their similarity while others try to emphasize their difference. This is more relevant to this conversation than people think about before leaping to conclusions:
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The incantations that invoke Mary, call her up to stand between me and the world, are variations on a theme: I am the same. Bruce is banished. The incantations that invoke Bruce and banish Mary are variations on a different theme: I am different.
“Same as what?” you ask. “Different from what?” The reference point — the imaginary person around whom society is planned — is a pale and obscure figure, but those who have searched him out report that he is white, straight, nondisabled, educated, mature, moneyed, and male.
Those whose sameness to this reference point, this mythical man, has been stressed — whose struggle in his world has been blamed on choice, on moral lapse — may quite reasonably insist on their difference. “Disabled and Proud,” reads a tee-shirt. Those whose difference from him has been stressed — whose exclusion from his world has been considered justified — may quite reasonably assert their sameness. “I am not a puzzle. I am a person,” reads a button.
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Read that again. People who’ve been forced into sameness tend to emphasize their differences; people who’ve been forced into difference tend to emphasize their similarity. Most of us have been forced into both roles at different points in time, so we have both reactions depending on the situation.
There are people who need reminding that people don’t have to be identical to be valuable. People who say we are all human, we are all equal. Who need reminding that difference is not a bad thing, that it’s a vital part of the world that strengthens us rather than diminishing us. Usually privileged people who hide behind our common humanity because diversity frightens them.
But if you ever. Ever. Try to pull that shit on me. I will be furious with you, and will not be interested in your excuses. Here’s why.
I was going through my local university library to research the history of how professionals have understood autism. I ran across a book called “Introduction to Theory of Mind: Children, Autism and Apes” by Peter Mitchell. It was published in the year 2000.
An Ivy league ethics professor named Peter Singer has actually suggested that animals be given personhood while cognitively disabled humans have it taken away so it’s ethically easier to kill us. His criteria? Being able to see yourself as a unified self across time.
That leaves out me throughout a lot of my life. Even now, it leaves me out. Why? Because he doesn’t care whether you can do it. All that matters to him is whether those around you think you can do it. Because of my appearance and abilities, I am constantly vulnerable to not being judged capable of the slightest capacity for thinking.
Worse, this ability is not consistent for me. I still go through time periods where my self-awareness and ability to use conceptual thought is severely limited.
So I am constantly vulnerable to being judged as less qualifying for personhood than your average rat. By virtue of my diagnoses, my appearance, or my actual abilities.
Don’t tell me I shouldn’t be offended because animals are actually smart and capable and self-aware. In a world where the establishment views animals (and human infants) as lacking those things, being judged as less than animal, is not only a grave insult but a constant threat to your life.
Which reminds me, I’ve had medical professionals say I have the cognitive function of an infant. Recently. And when I got my feeding tube, they warned my DPA for that I would pull my tube out — I’d play with it like babies do. When my tube got caught on something and ripped out, the same doctors accused me of doing exactly that, tried to send a social worker to my home to assess whether I was capable of caring for a tube.
When I was going to get the tube to begin with, they tried to persuade me to go home and die instead. They did not believe that my life was worth the same as a regular human life.
People literally get away with murder all the time because people like me are not considered fully human. Whenever one of us is murdered, the media is flooded with support… for the murderers. They don’t even try to hide behind trickery. There are groups of parents of cognitively disabled children who are banding together for the legal right to murder their children. They’re not hiding it. They say that without certain cognitive abilities — such as that presumed ability to conceive of oneself as a self throughout time — people literally aren’t people, aren’t really alive. And if you think this isn’t aimed mostly at DD people, you’re woefully out of touch. If you haven’t noticed, “retard” is a slur worse than “animal”.
A researcher says:
"A few years ago, I was at a conference on language and evolution when an audience member questioned a prominent child language researcher’s thesis by raising a counter-example: One aspect of the development of children with Williams syndrome didn’t quite fit the researcher’s theory. The prominent child language researcher quickly retorted, “Oh, I’ve seen children with Williams syndrome. They don’t count. They’re not even human. They must belong to some other species entirely.” (…) And what was the distinctly nonhuman behavior demonstrated by some children with William syndrome? It was their ability to develop a prodigious vocabulary, prior to developing the ability to extend an index finger to point."
That same researcher points out what I noticed in the library — autistic people are frequently, by scientists, removed from the category of human and put in with robots or apes.
And these ways of viewing autistic people and other cognitively disabled people aren’t innocent. They are routinely used to justify our death and even promote the idea that we and everyone around us are better off if we die, and that murdering us should be legal and frequent. These are not fringe viewpoints, but relatively mainstream. And every time I need my life saved medically there is someone turning around saying it’s not worth it, forcing me and everyone around me to have to fight like hell.
So I will always insist that we are all human because it’s still commonplace wisdom that we aren’t. And because that threatens my life and the lives of everyone I am close to. Criticize me for that and you’re the one liable to get your head bit off because you’re the one not distinguishing between a privileged person afraid of diversity and an oppressed person fighting for our survival.
And as for equality? When I use it, it doesn’t mean the same thing as alike or identical. It means we all have the same value, it doesn’t mean we are all the same.
Again, context is everything. Not everyone uses the same words the same way. And paint by numbers politics/ethics appalls me.
Critic of the Dawn: