Some of my readers might be familiar with this weekend’s Feministe debacle. I’m referring to this thread, and I feel that I should include a trigger warning for anyone with particularly strong memories of being bullied. Because that, dear readers, is exactly what happened to guest blogger David Futrelle. His terrible crime against humanity? He used the word “idiot.” Not, as you might guess given the post has nearly 200 comments, in reference to an individual with intellectual challenges. He used it in reference to Men’s Rights Activists. Again, my readers might be familiar with these activists; they frequently troll feminist blogs, mine included.
David’s alleged faux pas was derided, over the course of 200 comments, as unacceptably ableist. And in the past, these commenters might have had a point. Idiot had negative connotations for people with disabilities (PWD). However, it’s no longer commonly used in this way, and while I acknowledge that some PWDs, particularly those with learning disabilities, might object to the term, I am appalled at Feministe’s response to it in this context. Let me repeat that: context. It’s important. And I believe it needs more of an emphasis in feminist circles.
Feminists as a group have a heightened awareness of privilege. Some may be less informed on certain aspects of privilege, like trans erasure, but the feminist movement is bound by an awareness that privilege exists and is harmful. Ableism is harmful, without doubt. Though I hesitate over how public to make my diagnoses, I will disclose them in the interest of providing readers with relevant information on the development of my perspective on this issue: I have a diagnosis of Bipolar II and a genetic blood disease called hereditary spherocytosis. I don’t commonly refer to myself as disabled-I believe I’m very able indeed-but by any acceptable standard I am a PWD. And I have faced discrimination due to this.
The commenters who accused me, and other similarly minded PWDs, with internalizing ableism in our lack of objection to “idiot” had no way to know that at the age of fifteen, my diagnosis of bipolar disorder made me a target for humiliation in my small Christian high school. I was taunted daily. I was told I was only sick because I didn’t have enough faith in Jesus. My Bible teacher declared that “brain problems” didn’t really exist. Finally, I was expelled from the school despite being an honor student with a clean disciplinary record. The excuse? I was a “disturbing influence.” My brother was also expelled.
Thanks, but I think I know what ableism is.
Which brings me back to my original argument, that context is an absolutely vital factor in determining what is or is not ableism. I have used the word “crazy” in this blog, and was trolled for it. I don’t find the word inherently ableist, in fact, to suggest that any word is inherently bad is simply ludicrous and reflects a poor grasp of language. Certain words have developed negative connotations due to their misuse. I agree that this is wrong. And in certain situations, “crazy” is ableist. My use of the word was not ableist. And David’s use of “idiot” was not ableist. He used the term specifically in regards to misogyny. Misogyny is idiotic. I’d hope we can all agree.
Furthermore, I’d like to make something powerfully clear: if you are not a PWD, you do not decide what is ableist. Ever. You have no business participating in a discussion over the definition of ableist because you lack the essential life experiences that would equip you to understand exactly what ableism does to PWDs. You do not speak for me. You are not my defender, my proxy, or my guardian. Society has enforced each of those things on PWDs and I will not tolerate seeing the same discrimination in feminist circles because it has no business there. If you are able-bodied, you are participating in the very structure you are attempting to protect me from when you attempt to be my voice.
However, that doesn’t address the reality that PWDs often disagree with each other on what exactly constitutes ableism. This was an issue in the Feministe thread. And it’s tricky. Even as PWDs we each have different experiences, due to culture, location, and diagnosis, among other factors. We need to respect each other’s differences without accusing each other of somehow siding with the enemy. It’s utterly unacceptable to accuse any PWD of internalizing ableism because they disagree with you on word usage. We’re in the same fight, on the same team. Calling someone out on ableist privilege can be easily manipulated to silence someone that you simply disagree with. I don’t know whether that was a factor in the Feministe thread. I suspect it was one of many, given that David stated that he had depression and that was completely ignored by the moderator and the self-appointed defenders of the disabled. So it is something we should be aware of when we address someone’s privilege.
It saddens me deeply to see reactions like this in the feminist world. Pile-ons are not ok. It’s bullying, and it defeats our own cause by portraying an ally as an enemy. We owe it to ourselves and our allies to be aware of the importance of context in determining privilege. And the infighting has got to end. That will derail our movement far more than any bill the Republicans could dream of introducing.