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Monday, June 3, 2013

Bitterness: A Flawed Concept

In recent months I have noted an increase in the number of people that deem me bitter. People with a disability and people without a disability have levied this charge. I find this extremely frustrating and proof positive I have failed. My words, often pointed, have been misunderstood. This failure is particularly troublesome because it has been consistent; thus I have consistently failed to make myself clear. I was up late last night thinking about why; why have I been characterized as bitter? It is the last word that I would use to describe myself. I am extremely content with my life. I am content with my aging body. Life, I am happy to report, is good. Almost too good in fact. So as I puttered around my house I did what I often do when perplexed. I reorganized my books and came to the conclusion the charge I am bitter rests upon two important variables. First a simplistic understanding of disability and secondly the utter failure to consider disability rights to be equivalent to civil rights.  

The above small epiphany came to me when I came across Simi Linton's important book Claiming Disability. I know Linton's work well but it was the foreward to her book by Michael Berube that hit home last night. Berube Wrote:  "If disability is not understood in terms of complex, overdetermined and sometimes tenuous relations to identity, it will not be sufficiently incorporated into the curriculum of the liberal arts or into the definition of what constitutes the “humanities”. And if we do not imagine “disability” as a broad general subject that shapes the humanities, it is all the less likely that we will manage to imagine disability as a broad, general subject that shapes public life and public policy."   The key words here are "shapes public life and public policy."  Disability does not exist in splendid social isolation. Disability is about much more than a given physical or cognitive deficit. Disability is not about a personal reaction to a disease or impairment. Disability is a social problem--an observation I have made many times. But this is not what the public at large sees. The public's understanding of disability is too often based on ignorance, assumed or unrecognized bias, and discriminatory social policies. We people with a disability are too often out of sight and out of mind. Our physical and social environment is not constructed to be inclusive. Yes, lip service is paid to the ADA and it is begrudgingly followed. In reality, few people without a disability give a damn about the disabled. Our lives are not valued. Our existence is deemed a costly burden (think Peter Singer). Add in a healthy dose of fear, we are the only minority group one can join in an instant, and the social reaction to the presence  of a person with a disability is too often toxic. This skewed social response is called ableism, a concept I am very familiar with. Ableism, as described on the blog Bastard: Musing of Yet Another Bitter Cripple, is "the set of social practices that I am met with when I venture outside the door of my home. It is not something most people would admit they adhere to, it is much more subtle than that. I am automatically met with a number of assumptions – very often unconscious ones – that lead to me being treated in a way different from everyone else. And the kicker here is that these assumptions are based both on my actual disability as well as presumptions about my disability that only live in their head. See: 

The penchant to classify people with a disability as bitter has and will continue to be levied. Nothing will change until ableism is acknowledged to exist. As of today, this concept is virtually unknown. It is simply not taught. When I have tried to use the word people look at me with a puzzled expression. When I use the word ableism and see the veritable light bulb go off in the minds of others I will know the social revolution I have dreamed of has taken place. This leads me to my second and final point. Few people understand or frame disability in terms of civil rights. At times when I link disability rights and civil rights some people will roll their eyes and think this is political correctness run amuck. When I compare disability rights with racial intolerance or women's rights some people react angrily. More than once I have been told framing disability in a civil rights framework is "utter bull shit". It is very hard to find a constructive way to respond to such an emotional reaction. Again, last night I wondered why; Why do people have such a knee jerk reaction? It dawned on me we associate civil rights with classes or groups of people that share a common bond. That bond is called identity. As an anthropologist I know a lot about identity. It is a concept central to the field. I have written about identity in various posts over the last few years. In September 2011 in a post entitled Identity and Disability I wrote identity: 

is a powerful organizing presence in all cultures. When we think of identity, social structures that come to mind include ethnicity, nationalism, religion, sexuality, gender, etc. When we seek to protect a given culture or minority group the underlying belief is that people have identities and that their identity is a vital part of their concept of self. This is a given when it concerns religion, gender, nationality and sexuality to mention but a few types of identity. No one would accost a woman and ask would you like to be a man? No one would dare ask a black man if he ever wished he was white. In sharp contrast people, strangers, feel free to ask me if I wished I could be cured. The idea I consider disability to be part of my identity simply does not cross the mind of others—non disabled others. Disability for the vast majority of Americans is thought to be a medical or architectural problem—one that was solved a long time ago when the ADA was passed into law. This is dead wrong. Prejudice is alive and well. I experience it, as do all other people with a disability. 

The concepts I have discussed are as subtle as they are complex. It takes much thought and requires one to dismiss or disregard most if not all of what has been assumed or learned that pertains to the lives of people with a disability. Thus when I point out a given access failure or discuss the down side to feel good stories about disability I am quickly labeled bitter. When I question why an elevator has been broken for six months I am bitter. When I point out a bus with a broken lift cannot by law be put into service I am bitter. When I question why a school district transports every child with a disability to and from school in a single short bus I am bitter. When I point out my rights as a passenger on a plane or train violate federal law I am bitter. But really think about it. What am I bitter about? Not one thing. I do however feel one primal emotion: anger.  I do not rant and rave. I rarely lose my temper. I am exceedingly polite in fact. I use my anger in a calm and reasoned way. I often note that it has been over twenty years since the ADA was enacted and yet civil rights violations abound as do needless physical barriers. I think twenty-three years is more than enough time to correct the social and physical barriers that exist. This line of reasoning makes people very uncomfortable.  Instead of addressing the problem, either social or physical, it is far easier to rely on a knee jerk and antiquated notion of disability.  You are bitter. Your bitterness is the problem. Not verbalized is the belief equal access is a choice. A kindness. I am not grateful for the largesse of society and that I am literally biting the hand that feeds me. Um, sorry but no. I have the share the same civil rights of every bipedal or typical American. I am pointing out that various long standing federal laws are being broken. I can assure you bitterness does not figure into the equation.  


Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg said...

The stereotype of the bitter cripple is analogous to the stereotype of the angry black man. It exists simply to dismiss the possibility of dialogue, empathy, understanding, or solidarity. I have black friends who are asked "Why are you so angry?" in the same way and the same tone in which disabled people are asked "Why are you so bitter?" The implication is that it's all about our attitudes and not about the structural injustices with which we live.

Frankly, I don't have a problem with someone who is angry or bitter about how messed up the world is. For me, bitterness isn't the way to live, but that's rather beside the point; the bitterness is the sign of a problem that exists outside the person. I think that, in general, people spend far too much time calling others on their feelings and not enough time asking why they arrived at those feelings in the first place.

There are people who are bitter because they think that life owes them something special, and I have very little time for that. But there are people who are bitter because they believe that life owes them what it owes everyone else and they've been cast aside and forgotten. That's evidence of a systemic problem, and that's what people should be looking at.

ducky said...

The "primal anger" you describe comes off in the tone and word choice of some posts and I think that might be what people characterize as bitterness.

I think it is okay to be bitter. It would be normal to be bitter, if you have been systemically oppressed and marginalized. Anger or bitterness is hard to stomach for people who don't have to see oppression, though. That is part of the privilege of the majority, in this case the able-bodied. And their privilege is also to reject the validity of that emotion rather than seeking to identify the problem that has produced it.

In that sense I understand why Shane Burcraw's message could be harmful, because he propagates this idea that it's "all about attitude". In reality I would hope that most people would get a much more nuanced message from his story. I don't know if they do.

Lucretia said...

Fantastic post!!!! I am also accused of being angry, bitter, unrealistic... just name it. And that is just because I support disability rights.

To be completely frank, I felt like I paid a lot of attention to access barriers (steps, parking spaces, elevators, etc.) but until I met my husband, I never had the experience of seeing, up close and personal, the blatant and ubiquitous discrimination that happens just about every time we go out.

Not every place, not every time, but it seems like at least once every outing, someone, somewhere, is an obliviot. And it's maddening, it's enraging. It doesn't just go away because we go home. Even when I "get over it" for that day, it's still there to be stoked to flame the NEXT day...

Take these many days, endless encounters... and yeah... I feel like burning down the world.

So I support any voice that speaks against ableism. I don't find you bitter at all. In fact, I find you remarkably NON-bitter, compared to how I FEEL like I come across, sometimes.

Middle Child said...

Or the hysterical woman! When you live the reality you live and that I through my husband lived you know. Its not cynicism not bitterness - its reality. People are too quick to think they have the right to call you bitter, cynical etc because of the stand you take on your own and others civil rights - We have no more cause to be always grateful and thankful than the next Joe Blow. There is nothing at all wrong with righteous anger - it is thie righteous anger that actually gets things that need doing done. Government bodies and private providers etc do not ever act. They only ever react, and the very people who need certain access, etc are the very ones best suited to describe why and what is needed and not to be vilified for this. Rachel is spot on where she writes ". I think that, in general, people spend far too much time calling others on their feelings and not enough time asking why they arrived at those feelings in the first place. ". I have a younger sister (she no longer talks to me sadly) who had gotten to know my husband when she was a little 9 yr old. He was always kind to her and after he had his accident they still got on so well - he was more likt the father she did not remember (who was killed when she was 4) But in time she married...and change began. The last visit to our house before he was killed we had hosted the whole family, hired beds etc - Don wanted to do this as he knew his health was getting the end of the visit she came to say goodbye to him and he sadly said to her that "It was a pig of a visit" She never once questioned why this man who had been so close to her would say this. But said to me weeks later "Has his attitude changed" He had only asked for one thing during the whole visit - that we be able to go with her little children and her to a local animal park to see Koalas etc - because he couldn't access all the outings the rest of them went on. We basically stayed at home - On the day - the last day before all left, he was ready and so much looking forward. As the day progressed my heart broke for him because the kids dad had taken them on an indoor climb - by the time they returned at was too late. They knew that after about 1pm Don had to lay back in the chair to ease the pain in his hims... but it wasn't "So sorry Don again" but "has his attitude changed"

E Fischer said...

Part of the problem you are describing comes from the fact that we generally want people to write about issues impassionately, objectively and many obviously assume you cannot be objective about your subject matter due to your intrinsic identity of physical difference. That this is absurd is entirely beside the point. People need their prejudice to bolster their own ego and will lash out whenever they see a suspected incongruity or weakness per se.

There is a further problem which is, I believe, at the base of the 'misunderstandings'. For others to consider your disabled identity as a whole human being is an enormous leap of imagination and faith.
Others cannot understand your concept of disability (as, it is quite clear, many other injured or disabled individuals cannot identify with either), and thus are lost in the idea of disability rights being civil rights, because their experience does not encompass this different perspective.

Just as you are not able to understand what it is like to dedicate your life to wrestling the medical system in order to preserve the life of your catastrophically ill son and thus necessarily have to fill in the blanks as best as possible.

I realize that your strategy is one where a larger social issue is at stake, but it has been my experience that the smaller the representation of the issue, the more people can relate to it. Small concrete examples here on the blog speak more to people than sweeping statements and you do often mix the two, on one occasssion at least, with rather dubious results.

For me this is fine, I see the context as well as the relationship of these two. But academic perspective and personal interest stories don't mix. I don't know why, I do it all the time on my blog.

Others cannot see the social ills you speak of, even when they themselves perpetrate them. No one likes to be called out - as your parking adventures have shown.

Unfortunately most of these kinds of antagonistic behaviour (reactions by others, be it on this blog or in 'real' life) are not specific to disability, rather basic psychology. There are many social biases as other commentators here have stated, but bias will never disappear, only for appearances sake. We have a basic bias against change, of developing new attitudes. There is the herd to remember after all.
To end this rambling discoherent comment (no sleep when taking care of my son) on a more practical note, stick to what you know, blast them with your truth and let others sort it out.

*** said...

I have been following your blog for quite awhile and am very much interested in disability studies and disability rights activism. I have to say that I do not in the least consider you to be "bitter." Not that it's impossible for oppressed people to be bitter or cynical ... I have met quite a few, actually. But there's a difference between being brutally honest in one's condemnation of injustice, on the one hand, and being simply "bitter" on the other.

I think there are just some people out there who don't want to recognize that our society has certain fundamental flaws which serve to oppress disadvantaged social groups, be they disabled, people of color, women, etc.

In any event, let me also take the opportunity to say that I truly LOVE your blog here. I find it informative, illuminating, and actually, quite 'inspirational.' Not 'inspirational' in the personal, paternalistic sense, but inspirational in the sense that I draw inspiration from anyone who uses their life's energy to point out injustice, speak truth to power, and help oppressed people see that it is not they who are flawed, but rather the system in which they are forced to exist.

- Keith R.

william Peace said...

Wow, collectively these are among the most interesting comment I have ever received to a post. Thank you one and all.
Rachel, Ralph Ellison's classic book Invisible Man has inspired me since I read it long ago. Like Ellison, I am angry. He was the "uppity" black man. I am the uppity cripple. I have come to accept my words will routinely be met with stiff resistance. I suppose i reject bitterness because I do not believe it is healthy to be bitter. What good comes from being bitter? Who benefits from this emotion? Anger in contrast is a double edged sword. Directed inward anger is very bad. It can be deadly in fact. Anger pointed outward toward injustice is constructive. Bob Murphy wrote about this in the Body Silent.
Ducky, See my reply to Rachel on bitterness. I wonder if the distinction I make between bitterness and anger is a matter of semantics. A big part of the problem is that people with a disability are not perceived to be oppressed. Until this changes equality will continue to be a long struggle.
Lucretia, I can relate to your observation about how incidents of bias have a lasting impact on a person. There are days, tough rare, I just cannot face the world. It is not the world I fear but rather the inevitable skewed social interaction. The other day I was in the supermarket. Two young girls and their mother were blocking the aisle. I waited, it was obvious they were oblivious to my existence. I quietly said excuse me. The other instantly said to her girls "watch out for that man". The girls jumped against the stocked aisle shelves as if I were a monster. A bad lesson was taught--fear people who use a wheelchair. This still bothers me.

B Burton said...

By labeling you bitter, people feel they are excused from making appropriate legal accommodations. If you are simply a "bitter man" they do not need to do anything more. You have been dismissed and they are blameless.

william Peace said...

Burton, Well said. This logic amazes me. Don't people think any more? Don't people want to learn?

Lynn said...

I was just thinking (and commenting) about this topic recently, when this piece was going around:

I was just gobsmacked at the backlash the author got in the comments - much of it from other people with disabilities - calling her out for having a "negative attitude." Really?!? As I said in my own comments, I suspect that the extent to which the author of such an article gets this kind of negative judgment would be a pretty good metric for the degree of oppression experienced by the marginalized group to which he/she belongs. In this case, the *internalized* oppression factor is huge. It's like people are terrified that even a lighthearted piece like this will somehow shatter their whole "positive and inspirational" role in society.

Jennifer Fitz said...

I think it's pretty simple: The cultural ideal, our highest virtue, is "getting along". So anyone who doesn't get along, doesn't accept things how they are, and actually thinks change needs to happen . . . is failing to meet spec.

And since we have no concept of refusing to "get along" and still being a sane, happy person, surely you must be bitter, right?

I recognize it because I see it in corners of the world that have nothing at all to do with disability.

*** said...

Sorry to post again, but I didn't know how else to share this with you, and I thought you and your followers might be interested. This video comes from Turkey where democracy protesters are currently battling against a very corrupt and conservative government.

The individual featured in the video sure seems "bitter" to me; the point is, doesn't he have every right to be?

- Keith R.

william Peace said...

Lyn, Part of the backlash I would suspect was driven by the fact it appeared at mobility resource. I doubt people accessing this site are remotely connected to disability rights. Regardless, your point is well taken r.e. internalized oppression in a marginalized group. Last semester I taught a body art class and I was struck by how women enforced appearance norms from within their own gender. It became clear to me that the norms, et's say shaving legs, underarms, and other parts of the body, were demanded not by men but by other women.
Jennifer, I agree the pressure to get along as you put is hardly restricted to the world of disability.
*** Thanks for the link. Post away any time. The situation in Turkey is fluid to say the least.

Alice said...

A great post.