Thursday, March 30, 2017

On Being Accused of Ableism

Like many (most?) 21st-century North Americans, I hate to be told I’ve done something ableist (or racist, or sexist). Why does it sting so much, and how should I think about such a charge, when it is leveled against me?

Short answer: It stings so much because it’s usually partly, if only partly, true—and partly true criticisms are the ones that sting worst. And the best reaction to the charge is, usually, to recognize its partial, if only partial, truth.

First, let’s remind ourselves of a quote from the great Confucius:

How fortunate I am! If I happen to make a mistake, others are sure to inform me.
(Analects 7.31, Slingerland trans.)

(As it happens, bloggers are fortunate in just the same way.)

Confucius might have been speaking partly ironically in that particular passage. A couple of centuries later, another Confucian, Xunzi, speaks not at all ironically:

He who rightly criticizes me acts as a teacher to me, and he who rightly supports me acts as friend to me, while he who flatters and toadies to me acts as a villain toward me. Accordingly, the gentleman exalts those who act as teachers toward him....
(ch 2, Hutton trans., p. 9)

This is difficult advice to heed.

Note, though: If I make a mistake. He (she, they) who rightly criticizes me. Someone who criticizes me wrongly is no teacher, only an annoying pest! And if you’re anything like me, then your gut reaction to charges of ableism will usually be to want to swat back at the pest, to assume, defensively, that the criticism must be off-target, because of course you’re a good egalitarian, committed to fighting unjustified prejudice!

No. Here’s the thing. We all have ableist reactions and engage in ableist practices sometimes, to some degree. Disability is so various, and the ableist structures of our culture so deep and pervasive, that it would be superhuman to be immune. Maybe you are immune to ableism toward people who use wheelchairs. Maybe your partner of many years uses a wheelchair and you see wheelchair-use as just one of the many diverse human ways of comporting oneself, with its challenges and (sometimes) benefits, just like every other way of getting around. But how do you react to someone who stutters? How do you react to someone who is hard of hearing? How do you react to someone with depression or PTSD? Someone with facial burns or another skin condition you find unappealing? Or a very short man? What sorts of social structures do you manifest and reinforce in your behavior? In your choice of words? In your implicit assumptions? In what you expect (and don’t expect) people to be able to do?

Here’s my guess: You don’t always act in ways that are free of unjustified prejudice. If someone calls you out on ableism, they might well be right.

You might sincerely and passionately affirm that "all people are equal"—whatever that amounts to, which is really hard to figure out!—and you might even pay some substantial personal costs for the sake of a more just and equal society. In this respect, you are not ableist. You are even anti-ableist. But you are not a unified thing. Unless you are an angel walking upon the Earth, our society’s ableism acts through you.

An absurd charge does not sting. If someone tells me I spend too much time watching soccer, the charge is merely ridiculous. I don’t watch soccer. But if someone charges me with ableism, the partial truth of it does sting, or at least the plausibility of it stings. Maybe I shouldn’t have used the particular word that I used. Maybe I shouldn’t have made that particular assumption or dismissed that particular person. Maybe, deep down, I’m not the egalitarian I thought I was. Ouch.

Your ableist actions and reactions can be hard to recognize and admit if you implicitly assume that people have unified attitudes. If people have unified attitudes, they are either prejudiced against disabled people or they are not. If people have unified attitudes, then evidence of ableist behavior is evidence that you are one of the prejudiced, one of the bad guys. No one wants to think that about themselves. If people have unified attitudes, then it’s easy to assume that because you explicitly reject ableism you cannot be simultaneously enacting the very ableism that you are fighting against.

[Image description: psychedelic art "shifting realities", explosion of mixing colors, white on right through blue on the left]

The best empirical evidence suggests that people are highly disunified—inconstant across situations, capable of both great sacrifice and appalling misbehavior, variable in word and deed, spontaneously enacting our cultural practices for both good and bad. If this is true, then you ought to expect that charges of ableism against you will sometimes stick. You should be unsurprised if they do. But you should also celebrate that these charges are only very partial: The whole you is not like that! The whole you is a tangled chaos with many beautiful, admirable parts!

If you accept your disunity, you ought also to be forgiving. You ought to be forgiving especially if you cast your eye more broadly to the many forms of prejudice and injustice in which we participate. Suppose, impossibly, that you were utterly free of any ableist tendencies, practices, or background assumptions. It would be a huge life project to achieve that. Are you equally free of racism, classism, sexism, ageism, bias against those who are not conventionally beautiful? Are you saving the environment, fighting international poverty, phoning your senators about prisons and wage justice, volunteering in your community?

We must pick our projects. A more vivid appreciation of our own disunity, flaws, and abandoned good intentions ought to make us both more ready to see the truth in charges of prejudice against us and also more forgiving of the disunity, flaws, and abandoned good intentions in others.

[image source]

[Cross-posted at Discrimination and Disadvantage; HT Shelley Tremain for the invitation and editorial feedback]


Pilot Guy said...

Eric - I always enjoy these but I always need clarification - what is ableism and what is unjustified prejudice? Not trying to be simply contrarian but I always find that agreeing on terms is something that Socrates and I can agree on.

Nothingman said...

I posted this comment earlier, but it did not appear. I'll try one more time.

It seems that a plausible, alternative hypothesis to the question of "why do charges of ableism (or racism, sexism, etc.) sting so much" is that the costs to one's social standing of being labeled an ableist (racist, etc.) are quite high. Feeling apprehensive over the imposition of these costs doesn't require that the charges are in any way true.

Being labelled an excessive soccer-watcher (truly or falsely) does not typically carry these costs.

This hypothesis isn't incompatible with your own, but it also seems to be at least part of the overall explanation.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I won't be able to generate an adequate definition here! I'm hoping that people can plug in what works for them. But I generally tend to think that such -isms are common and constituted even by subtle actions -- for example, if it takes more evidence to convince you that someone with a stutter is intelligent then that is partly constitutive of ableism.

Third time's a charm said...

I've tried to post twice, but my comments have not shown up. What's going on, Eric?

Pilot Guy said...

Thanks Eric - your example makes sense to me.
But if I assume that a disabled person will need additional accommodation is that ableism?
It strikes me that at least part of our epistemological structures are Bayes Models. We start life with a set of beliefs and update them on perceived evidence as we mature. We are exhorted to act in a certain fashion that may be contrary to our model and this is where we run into the various "isms".

Unknown said...

I also meant to say welcome back...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Nothingman: Yes, that makes sense as part of the explanation. I'd add that the costs should be mitigated to the extent disunity and the pervasiveness of ableist reactions becomes widely accepted.

Pilot Guy: It's an epistemically and morally tricky issue to what extent it is a problematic -ism if one's reactions and credences *accurately* reflect probabilities that conform to negative stereotypes. I'm not sure what to say about that, and can't get into it here. For this post, I hope we can stick with relatively uncontroversial examples, which should be sufficient for my thesis. Here's one to work with, if you're willing to buy it: adult onset hardness of hearing. The amount of impatience, dismissal, and discredit one receives as a result of not quite hearing pieces of a conversation is, in my experience, quite out of proportion to anything that is either epistemically or morally justified.

howie berman said...

So, here's my take on ableism:
we all secretly despise weakness in ourselves and others and obliquely and irrationally project these ugly feelings onto others. A few other defense mechanism may be at play.
We are not like the Romans who throw malformed infants into volcanoes but the feeling is pervasive and primitive and not elaborated which is why it comes out of nowhere.
Our whole economy is based on the idea of efficiency and being able and in any social interaction of certain kind there is a tacit competition for the upperhand
Ableism is at play there too

Callan S. said...

Basically a certain amount of ableism is ironically a disability we all have.

So the person accusing others of ableism is actually an ableist themselves. We're all disabled to some extent on our perceptions and reactions (except for those angels walking the earth) - a raw charge of 'ableist' is to insist we all be perfectly able on the matter. At best some will think they suffer no disability in regard to ablism - certainly the one calling out others as ableist is one of them. Takes one to know one.

In the end though it's probably the means and tone of communication - I was chided recently and it prompted me to argue back on the matter chided. Instead of saying 'You should not chide me'. Unfortunately a childish communicative approach can trigger a childish responce - ie, a hurt on the matter. Takes you back to being a small child under glare of authority. Which is a second sin of the person who triggered it, I'd say.

Ryder Dain said...

Hi Eric,

I disagree fundamentally with the idea that partial truth of an accusation makes it sting. Since you didn't provide a basis for the claim, I'll counter with Rober Cormier's villain Archie Costello from The Chocolate War (Ch.33):

“You were right, Archie. You called it beautiful. That really spaced him out. Hey, Archie, he isn’t queer, is he?”
“Of course not. That’s why he blew up. If you want to get under a guy’s skin, accuse him of being something he isn’t. Otherwise, you’re only telling him something he knows.”

The normal reaction to a partial truth is shame, not anger. A sting is provocative. It insipires an angry response, based in a reaction to not strong enough to instill fear or flight, but as an answer to an attack on someone's integrity or identity. A stinging attack is one that is false, through and through, which nevertheless may be believed by others. The sting is the white-hot sense of injustice that garners, and being the subject of that injustice.

Shame, on the other hand, speaks more to the partial truth of an accusation than anything. And the first reaction to shame is not anger, but deflection and denial. Anger can come secondarily, but in response to shame it's a defensive, smoldering anger directed at oneself, not the world.

My two cents.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting comments, Howie, Callan, and Ryder.

Howie: I'm not sure about that. Maybe!

Callan: I'd originally drafted the post with a couple of paragraphs at the end about whether the charge of ableism is itself disabling. I think it can be. I believe the key to the whole business is neither to cease pointing out ableism nor to react strongly to charges, but to be able to respond moderately. Similarly for charging others with ableism: a moderate approach with a substantial "me too" element and appreciation of our shared flaws seems best to me.

Ryder: Yes, in other social media others have questioned that claim about the partly true stinging most. I'm open to evidence that that's not right. However, what you say fits reasonably well with what I intended or should have intended: "stinging" vs "shame" is a finer point than I mean to be going after here. Shame stings in a way too!

chinaphil said...

I agree with the thrust of your argument on -isms, but I think I disagree about the extent to which they cause antagonism, and why -ism accusations cause defensiveness.
Firstly, there are at the very least entire subcultures out there where accusations of sexism/racism get treated seriously and thoughtfully, in the way you suggest.
But -ism criticisms do often provoke stronger reactions than other types of criticism, and I think the reason is that they are necessarily ad hominem in a way that other criticisms aren't. If you present an argument to me, and I say, "That's stupid," it is of course possible to interpret me as saying, "You're stupid." (And that's how many, many rows start.) But there is another perfectly reasonable interpretation: "The argument you've just made to me has a major flaw." The same goes for criticisms like "That's crazy" or "That's illogical". There are quite straightforward ways to understand them as criticisms of an argument, not criticisms of the person.
The same doesn't seem to apply to criticisms of the -ism type. There is no shared understanding of what a sexist argument is, so if someone says that I've been sexist, they can't have been talking about what I said; the only valid interpretation is that they are claiming that *I* am sexist.
I can't see any easy way out of this situation. It would be nice if we could identify certain sets of premises, types of argument, or viewpoints that we can all agree are sexist, racist, ableist, etc. But I don't see any level of consensus on those issues. So for the moment we're pretty much stuck with either accepting the risk associated with aiming those words at people, or spelling out everything we wanted to say: "You seem to be approaching this question in a way that ignores the different perspectives and experiences of the disabled; your argument has a hidden premise that race is a real biological phenomenon, whereas in the country we live in, it's actually a social and legal construct; you just made a jump from men and women being physically different to men and women wanting different things, and that won't stand up until you fill in the missing steps..." etc.

Anonymous said...

But absurd charges do sting. In fact they sting worse in some ways because ones immediately leaps to all the obvious arguments why it isn't true. It is hard to escape these strong pathways when the other side refuses to see it. Think of the relative responses one sees to being called a Nazi or for that matter, some form of intellectually disabled on the internet... And how so many debates decend into this and drown out the more nuanced debate.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks -- and sorry for my slow reply! Lots of traveling recently.

chinaphil: Interesting point about its seeming ad hominem. You suggest that there's no easy way out of the situation, and I agree that there's no *easy* way out. But there's a moderately difficult way out that I would encourage us to take -- which is pretty much exactly what you say in the last, quoted part of your comment!

Anon Apr 1: Yes, I've made a claim about what stings most which is definitely a reach beyond the empirical evidence. Based on your and other reactions, I see how I might be mistaken in that claim, or that it might vary considerably among people. My own sense is that it's easier to shrug off the absurd than the partly true but YMMV.