[i originally wrote this for a somewhat different audience than i might expect to read it on tumblr, but figured i’d post it here as well.]
after a few recent conversations regarding issues related to ableism, i thought it would be worthwhile to write about a couple of basic points. i will start by saying that i do appreciate any attempt to work toward the construction of a viable notion of ableism. i do, however, tend to take a very critical attitude toward the rhetoric of ableism as the concept is used in certain pretty common contexts, namely within the discourses of what is sometimes called the community of “social justice warriors”. as someone who has been blessed to be intimately acquainted with the developmentally disabled demographic throughout my entire life, initially by growing up with two siblings who live with both moderate and severe developmental disabilities, and more recently by working for several years now with the same demographic professionally, this is something that is important to me on a variety of levels, but it is also, for those reasons, probably something of which i have a more acute understanding than the majority of bloggers out there working to rack up points within the social justice community (not counting those who may have a similar background or who may themselves suffer from a disability).
frankly, a lot of the stuff that i hear getting dispersed by members of these communities is really very ignorant, and the fact that these people are participating in the proliferation of this rhetoric in the way that they are has never left me without heavy suspicions regarding their motives. despite having had the pleasure by now to get to know hundreds of individuals with intellectual disabilities on a personal level, for instance, i have never met one who would likely be the least bit offended by a person using words like “stupid” or “dumb” to mean “bad”, and these individuals are often no less prone to use words like these than anybody else. (“stupid”, i will point out, is more synonymous with “insipid” or “thoughtless” than it is with “intellectually disabled”, and i have known many who can accurately be described by the third of those terms who are nevertheless significantly more thoughtful and in many ways intelligent than a lot of people who do not suffer from an i.d.) when people within the sjw community go around telling people that they are being ableist for casually throwing words like these into conversation, their accusations are very likely not traceable to the actual lived experience of persons with disabilities. rather, they are likely making an assumption about what persons with intellectual disabilities should find offensive, and then projecting it into legitimate discourses on ableism as a normativity that all speakers should immediately adopt, and to do so without question on pain of being alienated as ableist. while this kind of practice may be well-intended, it operates on ignorant assumptions about what members of an extremely diverse demographic are either likely to or else should think and feel about particular behaviors. this kind of assumption is homogenizing and, for that reason, i think does a disservice to the demographic that it is supposed to be trying to defend.
this is not to say that there are not certain behaviors, including common speech acts, that should be criticized for being ableist. the “r-word”, for instance, plays a very different role in our linguistic community than do words like “stupid” or “dumb”, and it is important to listen to members of the disabled demographic and their allies when we ask you not to use it. the primary difference between this term and the others is that it has actually been used historically to denigrate and dehumanize persons with disabilities. like any racial, sexist, heteronormative or cis-normative slur that has developed currency and a history of genuinely hostile usage, the r-word has developed semantic baggage that renders it genuinely harmful to both the psychological and social states of well-being of this demographic and its members. “stupid” has not, and it is for this reason that is not an ableist term in any meaningful sense. anybody can be stupid, not just persons with an i.d., and it is often right to call them out for it. (for instance: promoting the notion that a certain speech act is ableist without actually putting any thought into the term’s relationship to the disabled demographic is rather stupid.)
it’s possible that when people promote these kinds of ideas within the sjw community, they do so with good intentions, but the intentions behind any particular action are typically multifarious and often subconscious. after developing some acquaintance with this community and the ways that it functions, i have no doubts, frankly, as to the presence of a family of intentions that are rather disturbing to me on a pretty personal level. this family of intentions is characterized by its role in developing the individual blogger’s status within their community through the accumulation of a form of social capital that is sometimes referred to as “social justice points”, and i have no issue adopting this term as a disparaging one. the phenomenon of sj points should be disturbing to anyone who is interested and invested in social justice issues, because it represents a practice of co-opting these issues for the sake of personal gain in the form of admiration and pull within a basically arbitrarily constituted community of semi-anonymous internet personae. when you use the struggles of anyone belonging to an oppressed demographic for this kind of incredibly petty personal gain, you aren’t doing anyone any favors but yourself (and only if you could even call that a favor). if the ideas regarding oppression that you are promoting were not developed by members of the group actually being oppressed (or perhaps, secondarily, by those who know of their struggles through an intimate acquaintance and are genuinely invested in amplifying their voices for the sake of their legitimate betterment), but rather by a bunch of middle-class white kids on the internet with nothing better to do with their time than to construct an ever-increasing list of categories by which to call out others and put them in their place, then you should probably put some thought into those ideas and their respective relationships to the demographic whose interests they are supposed to be working in favor of before adopting them into your own critical apparatus and continuing to disperse them into your own social circles. to not do so is stupid and harmful.
there is, moreover, a lot to say about many other specific issues related to ableism (including things like trigger warnings and the accessibility of academic language, to name a couple) about which certain ideas have managed in very short time to become calcified within incredibly broad communities in such a way that they are taken as virtually axiomatic, and that to even desire to discuss them as though they are not apodictically given is to already have committed a kind of treason against the oppressed. this is a seriously absurd situation, and it would be hard to believe that it’s doing anyone any good. many of these concepts are still very new, as is that of ableism itself, and the cultural logic respectively at work within each of them is still being worked out. i certainly don’t mean to say that the neutral position is by default the best one (of course, it rarely is), but rather to point out that many of these ideas remain seriously underdeveloped, and that to take an adamant and unwavering stand in favor of one view over another simply because it appears at first glance to work toward the betterment of the group whose interests you are trying to promote is lazy and potentially dangerous. when it just so happens by coincidence, moreover, that these opinions of yours function to provide you with social capital within your clique, your more nefarious intentions may be more transparent than you seem to think.
there is, of course, no disentanglement of our expressions of ideas in public spaces from the various forms of social capital that they may garner or strip from us. the point, though, is that the various relationships between the stances that we take about issues of oppression, the forms of social capital that condition these discursive spaces, and the well-being of the oppressed demographics in question are complicated and deserving of our attention. we will have to do a lot better if we are to make any progress on these issues than to merely keep an ear out for the growing set of behavior patterns and speech acts that are now no longer acceptable and to call out others for engaging in them. this is not to say that criticizing others for being assholes and bigots is not part of what is needed, but that the proliferation of this activity without any tethering to a willingness to engage in critical thinking about these issues is, again—stupid and harmful.