The Unconscious Cultivation Of Defensiveness

Disabled people have often been (unjustly) accused of being perpetually offended. We seem to be screaming about some atrocity or other with regularity: words like “discrimination,” “bigotry,” and “injustice” flow freely from our lips. Most of the time, able people’s unwillingness to understand our anger drives me mad. If they spent even a single day in our shoes, they might change their tune. No matter how often we explain why our passion is warranted, there will always be some able people who refuse to listen. But … (I do love buts, don’t I?)

I’m becoming more aware of our unconscious, unintentional cultivation of defensiveness. We mistake simple kindness for condescension, barriers for willful discrimination, and ignorance for deliberate refusal to change. Often, our suspicions are proven accurate—indeed, we are so often proven right that it’s understandable that we’d jump to conclusions. I can’t help but worry, however, that we are jumping the gun.

This issue was brought to my attention when I read a blind person’s rant about a flight attendant who did not want to charge him for a drink. His assumption was that the free drink was offered out of pity, as though the only reason to be kind to us is to express a desire to improve our tragic lives. To my surprise, this assumption did not remain unchallenged. The vast majority of those who responded cautioned him against narrow-mindedness, even advising him to simply accept the gesture and move on. While I can identify with his instinctive defensiveness, and acknowledge that I’m guilty of the same, I think we should all examine our biases very carefully. The free Slurpee I was provided with at a convenience store may have been given out of a genuine wish to make a girl’s day, but the reaction, even from family, demonstrated that disabled people and those close to them always suspect random acts of kindness to be a direct result of blindness. When I announced that I’d been given a free drink, I got the following response.
“Maybe it’s because he was feeling generous tonight.”
“Nah,” said someone else, “it’s because you’re blind, I’m sure.”
Able people’s tendency to attach unnecessary meaning to disability can be shocking. I was insulted when a student, after discovering that a professor often praised my work, remarked that his favour was based solely on blindness. (It may have had something to do with her own poor performance in the class, but I’ll never know for sure).

The thing is, similar acts of kindness are directed at perfectly able people, and they do no more than I have to earn them. If you stand in a crowded pub long enough, some stranger will buy you a drink as often as not. If the Slurpee machines are about to be cleaned and refilled anyway, you’ll probably get a free one. If someone sees you from across a restaurant and is feeling magnanimous, they might send a free dessert over to your table. These actions are not, and should not be, linked with pity or condescension. Sometimes, humans just feel like being nice.

If you receive a free drink, try to take it with grace if you can. If someone pays for your coffee, interpret it as an attempt to make your Monday morning better until you see evidence to the contrary. If you are not chosen for a job, don’t immediately blame blindness—it’s possible you simply were not the most qualified candidate.

Don’t get me wrong: I realize that, in the majority of cases, blaming blindness is justified. I and other disabled people have been through too much, and faced too much blatant mistreatment, to be crucified for viewing disability as the culprit in most cases. That said, it’s worth stepping back and asking ourselves whether we’ve become too accustomed to defensiveness. We may not mean harm, but perhaps we’d be better served by approaching life with a bit more thought and a little less passion.


5 thoughts on “The Unconscious Cultivation Of Defensiveness

  1. I’d like to start by saying great and interesting post! For a long time now I’ve had a tendency to come across as defensive at times. Now nobody likes to attend meetings all that much and it’s a known fact that if we’ve copped criticism sometimes we take it as gospel or after we take criticism we tend to expect it is just that and not always positive. Case in point, a couple of times I’ve had to be directed to follow a tips and tricks user guide on how to perform some processes and a lot of the time I have had the tendency to commit a lot of what I do to memory which isn’t healthy. My supervisor came to me to just remind me what I had to do and even though I had a good idea of what I had to do it was still important to have the supervisor let me know anyway and I brushed her off not meaning to come across as defensive though I did apologise for it nonetheless. Soon after this the boss called me in for what she termed a “serious chat” to discuss some data entry short falls I’d neglected to submit some data by a specific deadline. Fact of the matter is not submitting that data could have had some very serious consequences for staff. Each time somebody comes up and says “could we have a chat”? I’ve half expected to be in trouble or for that person to be angry each time but it’s not always the case but past experiences have made me think like that but we sometimes become defensive and not even realize it until somebody observes it.

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  3. Thank you so much for writing this!!! Since becoming involved with social justice activism a few years ago, I had started to feel guilty (and quite naïve) that I rarely feel offended when someone gives me a free drink (or similar gesture of kindness). I usually don’t question it, but instead enjoy the warm glow of gratitude. But in social justice circles, I have come to understand that many other Disabled people in the same circumstances might find such gestures of kindness to be creepy and condescending. So I had started to feel ashamed of my inability to perceive anything amiss when people do me such kindnesses. For some reason, that is one area where I am not automatically defensive, even though there are many, many other areas where I *am* defensive around my disabilities. So I am grateful to read a blog post that essentially gives me permission to just be me in such situations and feel the warmth of gratitude, rather than worry about whether the kindness had some ulterior, unwanted motive.

    By the way, I’m not saying that others are wrong when they feel offended, anymore than that I am wrong when I feel gratitude. It’s just the way we’re wired, and neither is necessarily “wrong”.

  4. sometimes I think being defensive can be a learned behaviour and as much as people say that I should minimise becoming defensive it’s easier said than done. with that said, I guess we’re all guilty of becoming defensive or being somewhat abrupt without even realizing it. a taxi driver once said to me that I have to be more defensive than anybody else but I just shrugged off that comment as if to say we’re all guilty of it why should it be any different or why should I be any different to anybody else

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