Monday, July 20, 2009

Today, In "Wow, That Was Uncalled-For"

Sometimes, when you're reading a book, you come across a random passage or throwaway line that's so offensive, so illogical or so factually wrong that it jars you out of your engagement with the book, like being thrown from a horse.

This is particularly annoying when you really like the book in question, except for that one tiny part that bugs the hell out of you.

I had this happen recently with Sheri S. Tepper's ecofeminist fairy tale Beauty.

In that novel, the heroine is part of a plan to avert a horrible, dystopian future and the end of all non-human (and, eventually, human) life on Earth. Because this is a fairy tale, doing this also involves protecting and conserving less concrete things like beauty and magic, which vanish from the world along with wild Nature.

Here is her appraisal of the situation at the end of the 20th century:
We have been thwarted at every turn by god. Not the real God. A false one which has been set up by man to expedite his destruction of the earth. He is the gobble-god who bids fair to swallow everything in the name of a totally selfish humanity. His ten commandments are me first (let me live as I please), humans first (let all other living things die for my benefit), sperm first (no birth control), birth first (no abortions), males first (no women's rights), my culture/tribe/language/religion first (separatism/terrorism), my race first (no human rights), my politics first (lousy liberals/rotten reactionaries), my country first (wave the flag, the flag, the flag), and, above all, profit first.

We worship the gobble-god. We burn forests in his name. We kill whales and dolphins in his name. We pave prairies in his name. We have retarded babies in his name. We sell drugs in his name. We set bombs in his name. We worship him everywhere. We call him by different titles and commit blasphemies in the name of worship.

We were given magic to use in creating wonder, and the gobble-god has sucked it dry. His followers reject mystery and madness and marvel. They cannot tolerate questions. They can believe any answer, no matter how false, so long as it is a certainty nailed firmly onto a cross of money. They yearn for the rapture to come, without knowing they have killed rapture forever.
There, you see it? Right there, in the middle of a fairly interesting attempt to connect the dots between capitalism, patriarchy, jingoism, war and ecological devastation is an unexamined ableist assumption: that, if women were free to give birth, or not, as they chose, none would choose to have a non-neurotypical or -physiotypical baby.

This, besides resting on some very ugly assumptions about what sorts of people there should be, also ignores the possibility that some of the women who give birth are themselves "abnormal" in some way, and might rather have a child who is like them than one who is not.

I also felt personally assaulted in a weird way by that line --- yes, even though I'm not intellectually disabled, I do tend to take the R-word personally; most of the teasing I would get as a child was for seeming stupid, out of it, too naive, or too "young" mentally, rather than for being weird, crazy or awkward --- and I think I reacted to it a lot more strongly in this book than if it had been in another book, a book I liked less, or that didn't speak so clearly to very deeply-held values.


Adelaide Dupont said...

Just quickly:

Is 'retarded' a noun or a verb in this case?

Sharon McDaid said...

Oh heck yes I see what you mean. That statement does just grate.

It has happened to me a few times too. A couple of months ago I read Bad Science by the in most ways excellent Ben Goldacre. There are a few places in the book in which he seems to assume his reader is male, and he refers to doctors as male. But there's one line that just shocked me, he advises buying a cheap microscope and then tells the reader, take a look at "your" sperm! It would have so easy for him to write something like. "it'd be cool if you could hold of some sperm to observe."

Anemone said...

I read Beauty many years ago when it first came out. A really interesting book, but I had a lot more problems with it than you did. And at the time I wasn't as well informed and so didn't catch that one phrase.

Sometimes I think Sherri S. Tepper is a crotchety old lady who throws stuff out there just to get a reaction. (Not that there's anything particularly wrong with that.)

abfh said...

Gah! Yes, it is more annoying when something like that suddenly pops up in an otherwise reasonable book or article, because you don't have any advance warning.

It's like all those articles about autism that start out by simply describing common characteristics of autistic people, and then go on to say something like "and this is how they differ from the rest of us normal humans." Even though the author clearly is well-informed enough to know that autism does not equal illiteracy, there's a strange mental disconnect when it comes to the obvious fact that some autistics will be reading the article.

Amanda said...

I've found frequently that people in other social movements (that address other problems in the world) have an underlying hatred for disabled people that is really disturbing.

(And no, I don't mean everyone, so don't anyone start with "but not me" please.)

There's underlying hatred for disabled people in most of mainstream society, but many other movements have come up with "solutions" to their problems, that unintentionally harm us (at the least). But if we point it out, then we're just being inconvenient, and that's when the hatred -- the veiled or not-so-veiled wish that we not even exist -- starts.

Many, many non-disabled environmentalists don't like the idea of wheelchair access because it often involves having, say, well-maintained sidewalks and (for many of us) high technology.

Many, many non-disabled people who are concerned about overpopulation think that allowing us to give birth, and allowing people to give birth to us, adds too many people to the world in a way that somehow all other births do not. (Well not all. A lot of them seem perfectly willing to talk about sterilizing poor people too.) At least, if I talk about how disabled people should be allowed to have children, or people should not be pressured not to have disabled children, I often hear the "but the world has too many children already" argument.

Many, many non-disabled people concerned with global poverty and other such issues consider the "extra expense" used to keep us alive wasteful when "normal" people in other countries (and in ours, for that matter) don't have enough to live. I have rarely heard such unbridled bigotry and disgust towards our very existence as in that sort of instance. Never mind that societies have been helping disabled people live well into adulthood since preshistoric times.

Many, many non-disabled people concerned with the overuse of high technology in various ways find our existence perverse and disgusting too. Especially those of us who live with the aid of respirators, feeding tubes, colostomies, catheters, and even sometimes things like communication devices and power wheelchairs (and also especially if the person is viewed as having a severe cognitive impairment of some kind). But they often have an especial disgust for any sort of technological invention that helps with basic body functions in some manner that non-disabled people don't also use.

Many, many non-disabled feminists and anti-classism activists view disabled people as pretty much things that women, working-class people, etc. have to take care of, and that suck time, money, energy, etc. away from them in a way that many describe in an almost vampiric way.

Many, many non-disabled animal rights activists believe that some animals should be considered persons but some humans should not based largely on cognitive criteria mixed with a large degree of prejudice (thank you, Peter Singer).

And don't forget many movements where people have moved away from pathologizing their own bodies (be it women, people of color, and many disabled people of many kinds) but not from pathologizing other people's bodies.


Amanda said...

In all of these cases I've mostly said "non-disabled," but of course there are many disabled people who've absorbed the prejudices about them and they too can become part of the problem.

I have seen this hatred -- and there is no other word for it no matter how loving they profess to be -- come out all over the place when disabled people are discussed. There's a huge sense of "But you people shouldn't even be here," and "You people don't even matter compared to _______."

And that, not our existence, is what I find disgusting. But it's all over the place and it's insidious and embedded in the assumptions of most social movements that I have encountered. And the people doing it tend to be so defensive and so unwilling to examine disability-related privilege that any discussion on the matter rapidly becomes a matter of their own "hurt feelings" rather than the actual people who die or live much worse lives as a consequence of rhetoric like theirs.

Tera said...

So, making room for disabled people is equal to killing dolphins and setting bombs?


Sadderbutwisergirl said...

I also found it ridiculous that "my race first" is equated to no human rights. There is no such thing as being against human rights, period. Every oppressor from Herod to Saddam Hussein believed in human rights for those who he or she considered worthy of such. When there is a loss of human rights for anyone at any point in history, the victims of this happening are always a class of people who are considered inferior and/or subhuman. Hitler allowed "Aryans" to live their lives as long as they obeyed his rules and let the Nazis, especially those in the upper echelons, live lives of luxury. Meanwhile, many minority groups, from the disabled to the Jews, were being declared subhuman or lives unworthy of life. As a result, many Germans were all right with letting them die.

Lindsay said...

@Anemone: Yes, I can see a bit of the Crotchety Old Lady in Sheri S. Tepper; I've only read two of her books though. And I don't think she necessarily does it to provoke a reaction, I think she's just genuinely pissed about a whole lot of disparate things. (The passage I quoted can be fairly described as a "jeremiad," I think :) )

I also see a lot of Crotchety-Old-Lady tendencies in Margaret Atwood, who is probably my favorite author.

(In fact, a post comparing the dystopic visions of her Handmaid's Tale and Tepper's Beauty is in the works!)

Lindsay said...

@ABFH: Yes, those articles! Those articles, along with my reading a lot of philosophy with a specific eye to the question "What is human nature?" in high school are what led me to suspect for quite some time that I wasn't human, strictly speaking.

@Amanda: Yes. Yes to everything you said.

Lindsay said...

@Adelaide: It's an adjective, I think.

I can see how you'd read it as a verb, with the "have" there being part of the verb, but I read it as "have" is the verb, in present tense, and the R-word is an adjective modifying "babies."

That would be the interpretation that's most in keeping with the way the rest of the thing is set up grammatically, anyway.

Lindsay said...

@Sadderbutwisergirl: Good point about human rights. It does usually seem, at least in the last century or two, that genocide, slavery, mass rape, or other atrocities usually happen when one class of people can be convinced that another class of people isn't quite human, and therefore can be treated in ways that would be unthinkable for Real, Human People Who Count.

One nitpick might be that the character who is speaking comes from the fourteenth century, which (I think) predates the concept of universal human rights, so she might be used to human lords (and the fairy nobility she is also part of) treating the peasants on their land like chattel. But, she's not depicted as having any other difficulty with modern ideas, and making her ignorant of the idea of human rights still doesn't quite explain her usage of the phrase here.

(I do think, from the rest of the book and from what else of hers I've read, that Tepper understands your point, so I'm more willing to chalk this usage up to clumsy phrasing than to fundamental misconception.)

Lindsay said...

@Tera: Yeah, seriously. I was considering making this post the second in a possibly-ongoing series of posts titled "One Of These Things Is Not Like The Others."

abfh said...

On second look, I wonder if the author might simply have been describing a scenario where large numbers of babies were being born with disabilities as a result of their mothers' exposure to environmental toxins, rather than suggesting that everyone ought to selectively abort.

Of course, the R-word is nasty regardless.

Lyn said...

Hmm. I read one book by her I hated so deeply that I'm not sure if I want to read another by her.
She's sort of on the same list as Orson Scott Card, but it's hardly fair to put her on such a list after reading one book, but the use of the R word like that does raise my hackles quite a bit.

Greenconsciousness said...

She is talking about Palin deliberately reproducing a severely retarded child and I agree with her. WHY do it? Those who are disabled here should have full rights and assistance - but why deliberately burden all the rest of us with deliberately breeding a special needs economic burden? There would be no objection if those who deliberately, in the name of god, breed retarded and disabled children and their churches would be economically responsible for those babies without asking for tax money from those who do not breed but they don't.

We have no say in their choice to do it but are then asked to finance it.

We are losing our home because of property taxes which are 5,000 a year. Most of this money goes to the schools which are collapsing under bilingual and special education needs (as well as in my opinion costly [sports programs).

How incredibly selfish and self centered to breed economic burdens deliberately when this country cannot properly care for citizens already here. No medical care for me and my friends but already Medicaid and SSI for Palin's baby.

If you are so offended by what is a self defense policy of the "non disabled"(although everyone has problems) then spend your life raising money so that we do not have to pay for the born disabled. Then being free to spend our money on our own survival, we will not object to your desire to bring economic burden on yourself.

Mandy Thoo said...

Hi Lindsay,

I'm sorry for posting an OT comment here - I'm a master's candidate in the Australian National University doing science communication, and I'm performing a research for my subthesis.

The research involves looking at blogs that post about Autism/and or Asperger's Syndrome, and their possible effective uses. I'd very much like to perform an interview with you to obtain your insight about keeping a blog. Would like to emphasize that the research is not on Autism per se, but on blogging.

Please contact me at should you be interested. I hope that you will be able to participate!


Lindsay said...


a) No, she's not talking specifically about Sarah Palin --- the book I quote from was written in the early 1990s. But, yes, I think she is talking about women choosing (or being forced) to have disabled children.

b) All people without children subsidize other people's children if they pay taxes. All healthy people subsidize all sick people. All people who do not need economic assistance subsidize all people who do.

Most people are okay with this, because the alternative is to let those people either die from starvation, exposure or lack of needed medical care or live in such conditions that most people's consciences couldn't abide, and because the cost of providing this assistance is spread across such a large pool of taxpayers, insurance policyholders and wage earners that few people really suffer from losing that extra income.

Of course, in our country the social safety net has lots of holes in it, so there are probably more people here who slip through, having paid into the system but gotten nothing back from it. You seem to belong to this category.

To me, though, the answer is not to shrink the safety net even further, but to extend it to cover people like you.

Greenconsciousness said...


You do write beautifully but you missed the point by a mile -- of course we all share , but to deliberately push an unnecessary economic burden on others against their will by bringing a known defective burden into the world when you could abort? That is my point. Yes to all here through no choice of theirs but shame on those who deliberately produce an economic burden for others to bear. And all this is moot because we really have reached the breaking point. Much that has been done which people were guilt tripped into accepting will no longer be tolerated or funded.

and you are not what the author was talking about anyway. Your anxiety about your own worth is stopping you from seeing distinctions on the disabled continuum -- what we resent is people who cannot be self sufficient because we are stressed financially - having to do without medical care for our self and vet care for our animals. No good to say there should be enough for all because there is not enough for all.