So I’ve seen several “how to be an ally” posts over the last few days…..

All with the bullet point “intent doesn’t matter”.

The idea that “intent doesn’t matter” renders it completely irrelevant whether something is a skill or a choice. Which means that people who possess certain mental skills get lauded, while people who struggle with those skills get attacked just as readily as if they had chosen to hurt people. “Intent doesn’t matter” means “it doesn’t matter if you tried, it only matters that you failed”–which means, it doesn’t matter how much you care or how hard you’re working–your hard work produces the same results as other people’s laziness, so we’ll treat it as though you’re just lazy. How often do disabled people, especially disabled women, hear that?

In order to get it right all the time, you have to be a kind compassionate person *who is good enough with language to change their available vocabulary at will **who has the executive function and processing speed to select and arrange their words in advance and still have time to get their point across without being spoken over ***who speaks english fluently and probably as a first language ****who has the education (or ability to self-teach) to understand the context of each case and how not to misspeak again *****who has the spare time and energy and spoons to keep up with community norms as they change. Anyone who doesn’t have ALL these traits may not just fuck up occasionally, but regularly, and may make a tremendous effort to correct their behaviour and *still* not get it absolutely right. The fact that they’re trying their best doesn’t make it magically inconsequential if they hurt feelings or perpetuate oppressive ideas, but it should be *relevant* in how communities respond to their mistakes.

After all, this probably wouldn’t even matter if it wasn’t coupled with the norm that if somebody does something problematic, you are entitled to attack them as much as you like. But it is, and that makes people afraid to speak up about issues that affect them for fear of misspeaking. And it manipulates people into spending time in communities that regularly enforce the idea that you’re a piece of shit if you get it wrong, for fear of missing a development.

Under these norms, some guy can say all the right words in the right order and thus get lauded as a feminist hero (see: Russell brand), while a well-meaning person who’s maybe socially anxious, less verbally skilled, and/or less educated and consequently uses the wrong language sometimes gets branded a dangerous oppressor. That’s not “just” ableist and classist; that’s a horrendously inaccurate way to judge who is safe to be around and who isn’t. The most manipulative abusers always do come across as charming and are highly capable of rearranging their language to appeal to their audience. That doesn’t make them safer than some person who’s doing their best but is not so great with words; it means they possess a certain mental skill, and it may mean they’re better at manipulating situations to their advantage. This allows harmful people to rise to the top, while people that struggle with meeting these expectations get drowned out when they point out how inaccessible this makes things for them.

An excellent disabled feminist (gottliebe on tumblr) once said that people care about people with disabilities, so long as their disability doesn’t actually do anything. I don’t know if this is what they meant, but very often in the mainstream of SJ feminism there are discussions about how it’s unacceptable to say “stupid” or “crazy”. (I won’t go into my opinions on that here; it’s a whole other topic). But as soon as anybody brings up that it’s very difficult for them to eliminate words from their vocabulary, they are shouted out of the discussion. As Mel Baggs says, they as good as say “What do you mean, you can’t eliminate that word? What, are you STUPID or something?” “I respect your disability, but how dare you allow it to get in the way of you doing the right thing? How dare you allow it to affect your ability to do things that matter to me?” They respect the idea of your disability, a set of words or letters that they will fight not to be used in a derogatory or flippant way, ever. But they don’t respect you as a person and the way a disability might impact you in a way that is inconvenient for them.

I think what’s most telling is that when I bring this up—whenever anyone brings this up, in fact—they get accused of making excuses. Of lying, to avoid responsibility. Sometimes people even bring out the old Logic “but you’re eloquent, what do you mean you struggle with new vocabulary? But you wrote that post, what do you mean you can’t read an equally long post, right now? What do you mean you don’t have the spoons to check every claim you make to see if someone’s said it before; you had the spoons this morning!” Who else says this to disabled people? Everyone who thinks impairment isn’t real, that there’s no such word as can’t. This is a comfortably-established component of ableism. The whole idea that we can simply judge people, to an equal standard, on what they produce and not on their inner self and their character and motivations, is a component of ableism. The idea that we do not empathise with people as having inherent value based on their character, but see them as designed for aiding in the production of desirable outcomes, and where failing to do so is equally bad regardless of their hard work, is not just ableist but embedded in the lack of compassion that defines oppressive ideologies. I don’t like that the same principle at the heart of the state’s treatment of disabled people can be seen running through the mainstream of activism.

Just as people claim that “intent does matter” is just an excuse, so do people claim that criticisms of callout culture are simply people intellectualising the natural anxiety of being called out. Well….I’m afraid if community norms state that it’s perfectly reasonable to use abusive language towards someone (even call for their suicide) on the basis of what may well be a failure to attain perfection in a skill that’s difficult for them, then yes that does tend to make people anxious, and I don’t think it’s inevitable, good or productive.

I mean, if people really didn’t care about justice, they could leave the communities. Who cares? They could go and do something else with their time. But usually people feel they can’t, and probably because ableism is an axis of oppression and these people need their activist communities; people that will fight for them in instances of injustice. But then people are frightened to speak for fear of misspeaking, so their voices are not heard. And whose voices are heard? Only those who possess the requisite mental skills, language ability, and education. Particularly, those who know how to change their behaviour easily to suit their audience (a group whose venn diagram circle would overlap heavily with “manipulators”). Cis, heterosexual, abled, charismatic, conventionally handsome rich white males, who are still held exempt from criticism even in feminist circles. Often, people who are hypocritical and self-unaware, who don’t apply their principles to themselves, who hold everyone else accountable for their mistakes but don’t see how these principles could be applied to themselves and would run a mile if they could.

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