Pleasing The Unpleasable: Say Goodbye To The Middle Ground

If you’ve spent a lot of time on social media—particularly Twitter and Facebook—you might have noticed a diversity spectrum. At one end, (let’s call it right, for giggles) we have people who are passionately opposed to diversity. At the far left, we have people who are equally passionate about encouraging diversity. There’s a whole lot of middle ground, but the opposite ends are usually warring with each other, and those in the centre are subjected to the excesses of both sides.

I’m not sure where exactly I’d place myself on this spectrum—though certainly more left than right—but I think it’s difficult to self-assess these things. It’s nearly impossible to examine my own behavior with an objective lens and decide where I belong. Even diverse and oppressed populations find ourselves unsure of where we stand, especially when we get caught in the intense crossfire. Objectivity itself is disturbingly scarce, in an age when we put less and less stock in fairytales, harmful superstitions (adopt the black cats, guys, pretty please!) and even extremist ideologies. There are a few publications that conduct ethical, verifiable research intended to challenge our cherished, long-held beliefs about the world. They are too few, though, and in a world of black-and-white thinking and instinctive loyalty to one’s beliefs, their voices are not nearly loud enough.

Now, the righthand side of the spectrum is a very real threat. These are the people—usually powerful majorities, but not always—dismissing diverse authors because they’re not “good” writers. They look down on women in comedy because, I kid you not,women aren’t funny. They despise disabled people because we are a drain on the system, robbing them of hard-earned pennies and indirectly taking food from their children’s mouths. (They conveniently refuse to educate themselves; many of us aren’t on benefits at all.) They’re usually the ones promising same-sex couples they’re bound for hell, calling black people thugs, and branding indigenous populations lazy drunks. Their claims sometimes stem from personal, unfortunate experience; even so, their attitudes are obviously detrimental to society. I think many of us can agree with that, at the very least. But …

It would be a mistake to consider the far left pure, just, and incorruptible. The Social Justice Warriors (as the right so affectionately calls them) are genuinely trying to fight the good fight as they see it. Overtaken by their intense fervor, though, they seem to neglect those in the centre of things. They are fighting for what they perceive as justice, but many of them are unwilling to entertain the idea of grey areas, full stop. They don’t appear to acknowledge (or care) that the tactics they so despise from the far right are often the ones they adopt themselves. Take it from someone who is left but not all the way left: more often than not, it’s safer to avoid getting involved, because you’ll feel ineffectual and exhausted in short order. It’s gotten so bad that more than once, I’ve taken a “mental health break” from social media, or at least from controversy. While I have been guilty of this overenthusiastic dog piling, (and may be again), I recognize that it’s largely ineffective and stressful for everyone involved.

If you examine the far left’s strategies more closely, you’ll begin to spot the multitude of contradictions:
• They hate to see diverse populations silenced by the right, but are constantly telling everyone to #SitTheFuckDown, including fellow diverse individuals.
• They occasionally consider evangelism deplorable, yet they preach every bit as loudly and proudly as the religious right. (I personally have no issue with preaching on either side, but it’s still glaring hypocrisy.)
• They accuse the right of being too exclusive, yet will ignore anyone who doesn’t toe the party line. (Try entering a conversation about race or disability if you’re white and/or able-bodied, even when you support the cause and honestly want to know how you can help.)
• They are forever telling majorities, (especially straight, able-bodied white men) to shut up, then accusing them of failing to do enough for the cause. (Either you want them involved or you don’t. Pick one.)
• They criticize majority artists for failing to include diverse characters in their books and movies (which they should, really), but then turn around and berate them for cultural appropriation. This is a very real and very important concept, but it is ill-defined and confusing. (This can be a powerful source of anxiety for writers who want to do the right thing but feel as though they can’t win either way.)

There are numerous voices for marginalized groups who either encourage majorities to get involved, (This book is an excellent example) or at the very least encourage them to boost the voices of diverse populations. These instructions are relatively easy to follow, and they allow white, straight, able-bodied, Cis-gendered males to take part without routinely saying the wrong thing or supporting the wrong people. Others, however, are simply unpleasable: they want you as an ally, but only if you say what they tell you to, when they tell you to. They want you to help, but then dismiss all your efforts because they’re insufficient. They refuse to guide your attempts, then spit on you for making a mistake.

This is not to say that all allies are perfect little angels just waiting to be told what to do, of course not. Many people who want to be allies have suspect motives, condescending perspectives, and narrow minds. Take, for example, the plethora of articles about how “inspirational” people with disabilities are. The gooey rhetoric of the able-bodied can be dangerous as well as irritating, trust me. In my experience at least, you’ll attract more flies with honey than with vinegar: if you calmly and kindly explain why this inspiration porn is not okay, people are generally willing to listen and take note. There will always be those who think they know best, but quite a few people out there are all too willing to learn, so long as we can tell them how best to do so. We can’t blame everybody for stumbling a bit along the way; none of us is immune to a stumble here and there. We need to be more compassionate, we really do.

Sadder still, the unpleasable, comparatively rare though they are, often drive people away from the message they’re trying to send. The medium is the message, so if you convey important ideas via abusive rants on Facebook or angry tweet storms on Twitter, your words will be lost in the mayhem. If you barge into a stranger’s Twitter mentions or Facebook posts specifically to deliver personal attacks and invective, don’t expect them to absorb your message with delight and say “Yes! I shall change immediately.” I recognize the need for anger, and passion, and even temporary preference for justice over mercy. There are many on the far right who do grievous social and even physical harm, and that’s something worth fighting against. So, yes: be angry. Be passionate and stand up for those who cannot do so for themselves. Be unafraid to express what you think is right; after all, I’ve been doing that here for over a year now. Be dedicated in the wish to educate and advocate. I’ll be right behind you.

Take care, though, that you do not push away the very people whom you claim to represent. If I, a disabled person, am bombarded by a barrage of social justice warriors because I dare to have a slightly more moderate opinion than they do, I’ll be tempted to abandon their cause altogether. The quickest way to divide people is to pit them against each other, and forming a “diversity club” is one effective way to do it. Silencing fellow diverse people because they don’t follow your exact specifications is going to damage your credibility and distort your message.

Those who silence others do not represent me. Those who gang up on vulnerable people are not my peers. Those who refuse to accept and guide allies do not help my cause. Those who shame, degrade, and dismiss other diverse populations for the sake of their own agendas are not my friends. The unpleasable are not my allies. If your only goal is to shut everyone up so your own voice is the only one that matters, then go your way. Don’t expect me to follow you.

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“I’m Not Prejudiced! Some of My Best Friends are Blind!”

“I’m not racist! Some of my best friends are black!”
“I’m not bigoted! Some of my best friends are LGBT!”

This century-old defence is generally dismissed, especially on the internet. People try to claim that, due to the presence of minorities in their circle of friends, they are above reproach. They can’t possibly be prejudiced. Would a racist have black friends? Would a bigot have gay friends? The general consensus is yes! a thousand times yes! Your best friends don’t shield you from your biases, even if they are willing to ignore or even embrace them.

Several months ago, someone I respect very much (let’s call her Alison) made a stereotypical blind joke: “Shouldn’t ads for blind people be on the radio instead of TV?” or something to that effect. I took no issue with the joke’s complete lack of comedic value; your mileage may vary, perhaps? What I did take issue with was the inherent (and silly) stereotyping in the joke. A lot of people think we don’t enjoy TV or movies simply because we can’t see. Apparently, the dialogue is some trivial, peripheral aspect of the whole experience. As helpful as described video can be, it is still very possible for us to enjoy TV shows (and cringe at the ads). Her joke played on that ridiculous stereotype, and she made it very publicly, reaching a large number of people all over the internet.

I, in my infinite foolishness, wrote to her:
“You do realize that blind people can still watch TV, yeah?”
“Um, hello? Of course. Ever heard of a joke?”
“Well, yes…it’s just that this one plays on some very pervasive stereotypes that we spend much of our time fighting against. Please please try not to perpetuate it.”

After this exchange, some friend of hers chimed in: “Wow, chill, bitch! Some of Alison’s best friends are blind!”

Ah, here we go…the ultimate trap: if my blind friend says it’s okay, then it is. No question. This is immutable, right?

Noooooo! Not even close. Not for one second.

I found this whole conversation distinctly odd. Alison is a well-known and very vocal feminist who supports the rights of minorities. She despises stereotypical jokes about women, LGBT people, and ethnic minorities. She devotes much of her time to dispelling the myths and encouraging truth and inclusiveness. All wonderful stuff, and I like her a great deal.

Why, then, does all this stop applying when dealing with blind people? Suddenly, all the ethics and inclusiveness and open-mindedness disappear. Suddenly, for no discernible reason, it is acceptable to make ridiculous, condescending jokes about us that, if made about a gay or black or transgender person, would be reviled for the bigotry that they are.

Jokes among your friends are different from jokes made in public. I play along with blind jokes made at my personal expense with enthusiasm. Blind people, in fact, are very good at laughing at ourselves. I’ve always written my blog with my sense of humour at the forefront, so it’s not the jokes I have a problem with, not really. Alison’s joke is pretty harmless, at least on the surface.

What I have a problem with is the defence itself. It’s such an empty, futile argument. It appears to lay a steel trap, but is really just so much shrinking from all responsibility. Maybe you have a blind friend who thinks stereotypical jokes are hilarious, and that’s okay. Feel free to make them whenever you’d like … around and about them, that is. Just because your blind friend is okay with something, does not mean that the rest of us are okay with it. Furthermore, it doesn’t mean that it’s okay, period.

There will be a lot of people who assume, judging by this post, that I’m an exceptionally uptight person. I’m not. I am almost too tolerant at times—something my friends never tire of telling me. My issue isn’t with the individuals, like Alison, who tell these jokes and/or excuse behaviour that would be bigotry if directed at any other group. My issue is with the people who allow that argument to stand unchallenged. I could have six hundred gay friends, and they could all actively encourage me to tell prejudicial jokes or otherwise behave in a bigoted manner towards them. That doesn’t change the facts, though: most people, LGBT or otherwise, would find that behaviour generally offensive.

Maybe your blind friend is okay with bad TV jokes. Maybe she thinks it’s funny when you pet her service dog while its in harness. Maybe he erupts into side-splitting mirth when you steal his cane and hide it. (God, I hope I never meet your friend.) None of that matters in the grand scheme. If you tried any of that in the wider world, people would denounce it, and rightly so.

If your best friends are allowing you to go out there and act like a bigot without at least warning you … get some new friends.

The Myth Of Ambassadorship

After about ten years of interacting with the “blind community”, I’ve discovered that, like most other minority groups, people expect us to represent each other. You know what I’m talking about—“Excuse me, but what do blind people think of…how do blind people manage…what is the blind community’s opinion on…” and so on—and I’ve found that this leads to a disturbing conclusion: people think we’re all the same. We’re always lumping marginalized groups into categories; “women do X” and “black kids do Y” and “deaf people think Z”. So, yes, there are certainly some areas of commonality within these groups. I don’t deny that. The danger is when we (and I’m not exempt here, not by a long shot) expect one member of a group to represent everyone in that group. No woman alive is able to speak authoritatively about “all women”, and no blind person alive is able to speak authoritatively on “all blind people”.

 

This has led to ideas like “you need to be an ambassador for the blind”; in other words, you need to be the best blind person you can be at all times, in all circumstances, so that people will get the right idea about blind people in general. This means that I, personally, am responsible for people’s opinions on every blind person out there. That, my friends, is a mighty tall order—especially when you consider that no one can agree on what a “good blind person” might be. That said, Chris Swank has taken a satirical crack at it here.

 

You might be thinking. “So, uh, why should I care?”

The reason you should care is the reason I’m writing this blog: people need to understand that blindness, while being common, is a different experience for all who deal with it. No two blind people will have the exact same coping skills, or management techniques, or observations. Certainly the blind friends I have gotten to know over the years can identify with me on many levels, but not one of them is exactly like me. Not one of them has experienced every single thing I have. Not one of them has the authority to speak for me, and I have no more authority to speak for them. If I’m a clumsy cane traveler, this does not mean every blind person is a clumsy cane traveler. If I can’t cook to save my life, this does not mean no blind person can cook. (In fact, I know quite a few who are brilliant at it. I’m looking at you, CrazyMusician.) If I’m a little rude to someone one morning because they’re offering help I don’t want, or asking intrusive questions, or otherwise getting on my nerves, I might be perceived as ungrateful; this does not mean, however, that all blind people are ungrateful and rude.

 

This can be a problem for sighted and blind alike; sighted people expect us to be able to answer questions on behalf of all blind people, and the blind expect other blind people to represent them fairly. I am no exception: while reading this fascinating article about a blind mother’s struggles to adapt to her failing vision, my first reaction was irritation, because she didn’t “represent” me accurately. I remember thinking, “She’s giving us a bad name. Not all of us avoid glassware because we’ll break it; not all of us bash into furniture in our own homes; Not all of us need to use adhesive dots on every appliance we own!”. Then, right after I thought these things, I realized how foolish and destructive this line of reasoning was. Why on Earth should she represent me? She isn’t me. She doesn’t even know me. All she knows is what works for her, what she has experienced, and what she needs to feel secure in her environment. Why do I, who know full well that “ambassadors for the blind” should not and do not exist, expect a stranger to accurately portray my personal experiences?

 

My good friend CrazyMusician points out that asking blind people to be ambassadors is a very heavy burden—one which she, personally, is unwilling to bear. “Perhaps I am more visible because of my cute black guide dog, and am therefore expected to be an ambassador,” she says. “Calling me an ambassador gives me more power than I actually have; I am no more an ambassador for the blind than I am of humankind.”. And, as Chris Swank very aptly points out, “People need to understand that blind people are individuals. It’s not up to each one of us to make sure every sighted person we meet has an accurate idea of what we’re all like.”. I understand that we live in a world where stereotyping and generalization run rampant. None of us are exempt from the habit of assuming everyone in a minority group is exactly the same. Sometimes, it’s tough to see past the cane (or the dog), and recognize that we’re all very different in crucial ways.

 

So, my sighted friends: the next time you have the urge to ask a blind person to speak for all blind people, stop, and instead ask them how they cope with things as an individual. As for my blind friends, don’t make my mistake: next time you feel the urge to accuse another blind person of “giving us a bad name”, stop, and realize that only you can give yourself a bad name. The myth of ambassadorship needs to disappear, and it needs to do so for all of us.