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Culture and Consciousness

  • Posted on November 10, 2014 at 11:21 AM

Clearly, it’s taking me longer to recover than one might think. I’m feeling much better than I have been, but if you could hear my voice you’d know first thing that I am still sick. I am still congested and still coughing quite a lot, though no longer so much and so deeply that my sides ache. What’s more obvious than that is that my voice is still recovering from a bout with laryngitis. Still, I have been “off” too long and I’m doing my best to get back to being productive. As I am starting to get back to work, I wanted to take a moment to share some of the thoughts that have been with me these past several weeks.

I’ve wanted to read James Charlton’s “Nothing About Us Without Us” for a while now, and I finally got my own copy. Currently, I’m reading five books at a time—each book covering a different subject. (This count does not include textbooks.) Don’t be too impressed, because I’m reading them all very slowly, because I’m not just reading them, I’m also reflecting upon their contents and studying them as deeply as I can. I like the eclectic nature of it, even if it means my progress is slower than it might otherwise be, because I come away with a much deeper understanding than a cursory reading would provide. Besides, sometimes the things I read from these different books click together in unexpected ways.

I hope you read my confession, because this is directly related to that post. Something that Charlton wrote on page 27 helped trigger the realization I describe in that post:

“Most people with disabilities actually come to believe that they are less normal, less capable than others. Self-pity, self-hate, shame, and other manifestations of this process are devastating for they prevent people with disabilities from knowing their real selves, their real needs, and their real capabilities and from recognizing the options they in fact have. False consciousness and alienation also obscure the source of their oppression.”

Charlton goes on to explore the meaning of consciousness, culminating (on page 29) in this:

“The point is that consciousness cannot be separated from the real world, from politics and culture. There is an important relationship between being and consciousness. Social being informs consciousness and consciousness informs being. There is mutual interplay. Consciousness is not a container that ideas and experiences are poured into. Consciousness is a process of awareness that is influenced by social conditions, chance, and innate cognition.”

I live in a culture that systemically devalues people with disabilities. I live in a caretaker culture, in which our government is expected to take care of people with a variety of disadvantages in a variety of ways that further reinforces the notion that they cannot take care of themselves. This culture is being reinforced through my “human resource management” studies, which consistently uses ablist language and caretaker ideas while purporting to support diversity.

It’s left me feeling like I’m getting it from all sides. On the one hand, I firmly believe that the “safety net” the U.S. and other “developed” nations provide is necessary and beneficial to society. Furthermore, I believe the “safety net” should be stronger than it is in the U.S. Simply put, some people fall through no (or little) fault of their own and these people “deserve” to be caught in the net. Other people fall due to their own failings and vices and, though they seem less “deserving,” it is still in the best interests of our society that these people are caught in the net. Finally, there are people who are “pushed” by our society, who have few natural chances to succeed, and need to be caught be the net. Unfortunately, the fact is that this “safety net” we’ve created often fails to catch people. But the true social crime is that we have inadequate means of helping people out of the net and back up into “regular” society.

On the other hand, I reject the paternalistic, caretaker attitude out society projects towards people who get caught by the net. (Note that these condescending attitudes are even stronger to those we’ve failed to catch in the net.) The underlying prejudice is that the people who provide the net are “better than” those who get caught in the net. Many of the existing mechanisms that are put into place to help people out of the net (or to make sure they don’t have to rely on the net at all) are just as paternalistic and condescending as the net itself, including affirmative action and the many other mechanisms that “promote diversity.” The idea here is that these people shouldn’t be treated differently; to ensure that they aren’t treated differently (because we know that they really are treated differently) we help them out of the net using “progressive” initiatives (because we know that they cannot succeed on their own). The whole system is a subtle, but powerful reinforcement of the underlying belief that the people our society casts off really are “less than” those that society embraces.

This is one of the reasons why I just can’t support Democrats. The language they use and the policies they so often create are just so patronizing that their underlying belief in inequality seems blatant to me and it’s offensive. But it’s also one of the reasons why I just can’t support Republicans, either. They’re less patronizing, but they’re also less apt to care enough to create the policies and programs that can actually help people. It’s frustrating, because neither the “safety net” nor the “hands up” need be patronizing or paternalistic. That attitude is not necessary, but it is beneficial if you’re more interested in maintaining a voter base than you are in actually helping people. The more people who are dependent on Democrats’ initiatives for basic survival the more people are likely to vote for them. And our bureaucracy often expresses both the political interests and the patronizing attitudes inherent in the system, when they’re not reinforcing them outright.

So, I’ve been struggling with my own limitations for over a month now. Not only have I been stressed beyond what I can bear, not only have I made myself quite literally ill (thrice over now), but I’ve also been imbibing this ablist garbage, while also reading two books (Charlton’s and a book about revising government) that help me to better envision how things could be. I’ve come away from this mess—rather I’m trying to climb out of this mess—feeling very weak indeed. Physically, I am weakened. More than that, I’m demoralized, because I’ve learned that I am not immune to this culture that I live in. I internalize it. When I’m strong enough, I reject it. Mentally, I reject it outright. But emotionally, when my filters and defenses are shredded, I internalize it and it sticks with me. I spew it back out in the form of self-talk that makes it harder to stand back up and get back to work. Then, I have to go back and clean the garbage out of my system by analyzing it, weighing its merits, and then discarding it once I realize (again) that it really doesn’t have any. Before all of this, I was arrogant enough to think I was immune to this garbage, because I was conscious of it. I know it is garbage, so why would I be susceptible to it! But it doesn’t work that way. Intellectually, perhaps I am immune, but how I feel is something entirely different. Sadly, I hear it, I feel it, and it hurts. When it gets its slimy tentacles tangled up inside me, it hurts more than I can bear.

Review: Fringe: Os

  • Posted on March 14, 2011 at 9:59 AM

One of the television shows I watch online is called Fringe.  For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it’s a sci-fi/thriller that tells the story of two alternate universes colliding.  The story is told through the viewpoints of a special division of Homeland Security/FBI, starring Anna Torv as Olivia Dunham, Joshua Jackson as Peter Bishop, John Noble as Walter Bishop, Jasika Nicole as Astrid Farnsworth, and Lance Reddick as Philip Broyles.

This series compels me on many levels.  As a science fiction piece, it questions scientific progress and the limits we place on ourselves (or fail to place on ourselves) based on moral and ethical grounds.  As a drama, it explores the complex relationships of Walter and Peter Bishop, who are father and son, touching on issues as heart-rending as abuse, kidnapping, and the need for time to develop deep familial bonds.  It also explores the love-story between Peter and Olivia.  As a social commentary, it not only explores the good vs. evil dynamic, but questions what truly is evil by showing how two diametrically opposed forces can be both right and wrong simultaneously.  It also explores how we, as a society, respond to and treat the mentally ill.  Walter is insane, and his experiences are highlighted in many episodes—from his frustration when coping with his impaired thought processes to the way the “treatments” he received during his forced institutionalization caused more harm than good, from the way his son feels put-upon by having to “babysit” his father to Olivia’s insistence that Walter is more capable than Peter gives him credit for.  There are many compelling elements to this story, and its complexity has sometimes excused them dropping the ball in one way or another (at least, in my opinion).

However, I’m less forgiving regarding the most recent episode, Os (Season 3, Episode 16), which involves a man experimenting on disabled individuals (users of wheelchairs, particularly those with muscular dystrophy) to “fix” their mobility problems by making them essentially weightless.  While the man considers his a noble effort to “save” his son the treatments are unfortunately toxic and have killed several people.  The man intends to perfect the mixture by continuing his deadly experiments before he administers it to his son, who also uses a wheelchair.

I would like to say this show passes.  There is one poignant scene where the son, for whom the man has done all of this, comes to the prison to see his father.  The father uses “fix” in his explanation, and the son is devastated when he realizes his father sees him (and others like him) as broken and in need of fixing.  The son tells his father he was happy, because he went to bed every night knowing he had a father who loved him.  The implication as the son rolls away is that the son no longer believes this.

This scene—which is the final point of this particular storyline—could make up for a lot.  But, it’s not enough.  While the characters regret the deaths of those who were experimented on, earlier in the episode Peter describes their willingness to participate as “a deal with the devil anyone would make,” referring to how the subjects, i.e. the disabled men who became weightless, had to steal the ingredients for their treatment.  After all, who wouldn’t want to go from being bound in a wheelchair to being able to fly?  That kind of ablist assumption is intolerable, especially coming from one of the heroes of the story.

Compounding that is the language used in the show recap (emphasis added):

“Meanwhile, Krick watches a wheelchair basketball game, cheering on a player named Michael, who turns out to be his son. Vince, another wheelchair-bound youth, watches wistfully nearby.”

“The doctor dodges Olivia and Peter, who find the thief's partially dissected corpse ... and a walk-in freezer containing more bodies. All had toxic levels of osmium in their blood - and suffered from muscular dystrophy.”

I’ll give them credit for trying—I think the creators of the show really did try to express something of value—but, they failed to overcome their own ablist assumptions, which spoiled the final effect.  In essence, it is not the father’s motivation or his assumptions that are questioned, but the lengths to which he would go—sacrificing other people’s sons to save his own—that are discouraged.  The final confrontation between father and son cannot make up for the majority of the episode, which reinforced the assumption that people with disabilities are dying to become able-bodied and justifiably so.