Increasingly, when I see someone accused of "ableism" because of some inartful (or perfectly fine) turn of expression, I become angry. It just strikes me as Forrest Gumpism. Everything is really peachy, as long as we confine our discourse to positive platitudes (and attacking those who don't so confine themselves).*
But all else being equal, it is better to be able. Speaking in ways that presupposes this is not bad, at least not bad merely in virtue of the presupposition (see also the Johnny Knoxville/Eddie Barbanell video below).
The place where my son gets occupational therapy (to deal with a bunch of sensory processing disabilities he inherited from me)** is called "Abilities." Good for them! I don't want my child to suffer as much as I do. The thought that I should feel guilty for that, or feel guilty for expressing something that presupposes it, just strikes me as insane. And I don't feel guilty for saying it strikes me as insane. To not be able to use "insane" as a derogation when it is appropriate would be to lose sight of the fact that it is horrible to be insane, which would in fact be extraordinarily cruel to the insane.
My friend Justin Isom dealt with his blindness and cancer with incredible dignity. He played a very bad hand extraordinarily well. But any pretense that it was not a bad hand would have been insulting and condescending (just as he would have taken, on the other side, excessive pity to be condescending). Justin thought it was hilarious when I first squirmed about saying "see you later" to him. When you have a blind friend you realize just how much language is seeded with visual metaphors. For the anti-ableist, we are supposed to police our speech in ways that would pretend otherwise. (And please read Neil Tennant's obituary for Justin below,*** which speaks to Justin's astonishingly rich ability (not just astonshingly rich for a blind guy, but all the more interesting and impressive since it's a blind guy talking) to describe experiences, such as public street in Indonesia, in visual terms.)
But for the anti-ableist speech policer, we can't say that a good idea is "visionary" because that might have hurt Justin's feelings. No. I reject that. You don't speak for Justin and you have no right to present him as emotionally infantile enough to care about such things.
However, (3) there's another, much broader point. Anti-ableist speech policing is an example of what is condemned in Freddie De Boer's recent Andrew Sullivan post about how online social media is ruining social liberalism:
It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing, or if someone decides to misrepresent what you said as saying the wrong thing. There are so many ways to step on a landmine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them. I’m far from alone in feeling that it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks. The hundreds of young people I teach, tutor, and engage with in my academic and professional lives teach me about the way these movements are perceived. I have strict rules about how I engage with students in class, and I never intentionally bring my own beliefs into my pedagogy, but I also don’t steer students away from political issues if they turn the conversation that way. I cannot tell you how common it is for me to talk to 19, 20, 21 year old students, who seem like good people, who discuss liberal and left-wing beliefs as positive ideas, but who shrink from identifying with liberalism and feminism instinctively. Privately, I lament that fact, but it doesn’t surprise me. Of course much of these feelings stem from conservative misrepresentations and slanders of what social liberalism is and means. But it also comes from the perception that, in the online forums where so much political discussion happens these days, the slightest misstep will result in character assassination and vicious condemnation.
If all you've got to offer is cultural revolution type denunciations, you ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow.
I hate to say this, but in the glory days of this blog, many of us (well really just most of the men, most of whom quit) contributed to the problem DeBoer describes. We very easily mocked, shut out, and condemned people who weren't conversant in the acceptible ways that social liberals are supposed to speak. I'm ashamed of this now. I mean, lots of students were reading and I think DeBoer gets pretty well the lessons they might have been learning.
I hate to think that students today are learning that they better never say anything involving disability because they might be equally denounced. Run Forrest Run! No thanks.
*The real, actual horribleness of dementia has nothing to do with how Dr. Demento refers to himself. See see this recent Andrew Sullivan post: http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2014/09/05/you-never-expect-to-get-dementia/ or Gillian Bennett's suicide note.
**For sensory processing issues that Fredians used to call "neuroses" social cruelty often involves exploiting the humorous narratives (Woody Allen at his best) involving the problem. This is a common issue with humor and cruelty though, having nothing to do with disability per se. Behaviorists are actually worse, they think by exposing you to the causes of your misery that you will get better, and not just more miserable, as is usually the case when people with sensory processing disabilities are subjected to "systematic desensitization" or "flooding." However, the important point is that the problem is with being less than able with respect to some aspect of reality, something anti-ableist Forrest Gumpism systematicly effaces.
***Neil Tennant's 2007 obituary for Justin:
On April 23, 2007, Justin Isom, a past member of our graduate program, lost his months-long battle against leiomyosarcoma, a particularly intractable form of cancer. Justin passed away peacefully, at home, nursed with love and devotion by his wife Megan. The cruel and unrelenting disease to which Justin succumbed had in another form—cancer of the retinal nerves—deprived him of sight at the age of one.
Justin bore his illness with fortitude and good humor, always showing more concern for others than for himself. He was a wonderful person—kind, caring, puckish. He also bore his blindness lightly. Those who knew him well hardly noticed it. Justin had his own inner light. His high intelligence and sensitivity enabled him to see in ways that the sighted could well envy.
Justin held a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in philosophy. His intellectual interests included French history and drama, Chinese, Sanskrit, music, and the history of religious ideas. In due course he moved to Comparative Studies. He earned a qualification in therapeutic massage and was working on his master’s thesis when he fell ill.
Justin had lived in diverse exotic and anthropologically interesting places, of which Columbus was just the last one. He was a wonderful raconteur. His friends will miss the impish laugh and ready humor. He could do accents—Cockney and New South Wales Matey—and he always got them to a T. Justin told his stories with such rich imagery that at times one could not believe he had not seen what he was describing. Justin could talk about anything and everything under the sun: carved temples in Thailand, with richly costumed dancers; or the cider at a pub on an English village green. He was enchanted with the world, and the world let him go.
****I'm not defending moral obtuseness, nor the kind of bullying that the criticism of political correctness is usually cover for. I agree with Johnny Knoxville and Eddie Barbanell at right as well as the spirit in which it is offered.
I am defending the right to call moral obtuseness morally obtuse. See Richard Rorty's nice comments about what is right and wrong about political correctness in his underrated Achieving Our Country. Or just watch the first two seasons of Mad Men, which are quite brilliant in showing how public acceptance of bullying ruins everything.]