Needless to say, the study of illness and disability has been with us for a long time. Many of us old enough to have been reading books 50 years ago can recall the excitement generated by Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, Erving Goffman’s Stigma, and later works by Susan Sontag (Illness As Metaphor) and other writers. These works alerted us to a great many things most of us had never thought to consider. They also made what had seemed obvious suddenly problematic. The British cultural critic Peter Sedgwick noted that “no attribution of sickness to any being can be made without the expectation of some alternative state of affairs which is considered more desirable.” That observation, and others like it, opened up an entire field of study which drew attention to the “construction” of illness and the implications inherent in widely shared assumptions about “normality,” “deviancy,” and the “logic” informing concepts of “human pathology.” Over the decades debates have continued to form around one or another dimension of the research and theory generated within this arena. But only recently have particular ideas promoted by academics and health specialists working in “disability studies” seemed—to some of us, at least—genuinely alarming.
Those particular ideas were lately brought to my attention when I found myself agitated by a poster hung all over campus at the college I’ve been teaching at for 49 years. A younger colleague had told me about it, and at once I made the rounds, stopping at various department offices to see the thing for myself. A homely thing, visually no more compelling than most of the notices routinely covering every available surface in hallways and stairwells, the words “KEEP SKIDMORE SAFE” at the top not at all unusual at a time when “safety” seems much on many minds.
Of course “safety” can refer to a great many different things, to actual dangers and imagined dangers, to imminent harm and prospective harm, to reasonable and delusional notions of security. There are those for whom the will to “safety” is so great that the prospect of what Norman Mailer once called “the slow death by conformity with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled” is not at all dreadful. Clearly, those who hope to be protected from unfamiliar or challenging ideas demand a kind of “safety” decidedly different from the safety sought by those who rightly fear violence, sexual abuse, or gross intimidation. Advocates of protections for children with abusive parents are invested in a kind of safety far removed from the “safety” at issue in campaigns against academic courses that feature primarily dead white males. Whatever the virtues of one or another movement focused on “safety,” it is essential to think seriously about what can conceivably be gained, or lost, in the event that a “consciousness-raising” campaign actually succeeds in accomplishing its ends.
The “KEEP SKIDMORE SAFE” poster was, in this respect, a token of drastic changes that have lately come to pass in the academy. Its focus was “ableist language,” an idea promoted in recent years in numerous courses associated with disability studies. Examples of this ostensibly dangerous species of language, cited on the Skidmore poster, included “stand up for,” “turn a blind eye to,” and “take a walk in someone’s shoes.” These expressions are routinely said to be demeaning and offensive by proponents of the campaign targeting such linguistic “abuses.” As in other such campaigns, intention is said to be at most an incidental consideration, the “abuse” associated with the willful ignorance or insensitivity of those who use language thoughtlessly. A professor who encourages a student to “take a walk in someone’s shoes” may think she is promoting empathy when in fact she is creating an awkward situation for another student who is unable to walk and thereby painfully reminded of his disability. That at least is at the heart of the case not only for strenuously calling attention to “ableist language” but for doing something about it.
In the early stages of academic disability studies there seemed nothing remotely disturbing about efforts to think about embodiment and normalcy. Why not look closely at the works of gifted writers whose experience of disability allowed them to see the common world in original and sometimes shocking ways? Why not probe language itself so as to reveal the relationship between bodies and metaphor and to expose practices built into ordinary speech? Why not, indeed, move on to ask political questions about the rhetoric of diversity and wonder why disability issues are not always cited in conversations built around inclusion? All of that seemed, as I say, not only plausible but valuable, and some of the scholarly research sponsored in the field was rigorous and challenging.
But it is one thing to identify practices and assumptions and another to suppose that they can or should be eliminated. It’s one thing to open up a lively conversation and another to promote a conversion narrative in terms of which a cadre of language activists teach everyone else to watch what they say and thereby put an end to practices that are neither injurious nor offensive. Activists in this precinct regard ordinary terms like “blind” and “deaf” as casually “denigrating.” Such terms are said to reinforce so-called ableist attitudes and thus to foster inequality. More, such terms are said to be charged with a history of oppression which should alert us to the danger inherent in resorting to such epithets. Though some scholars regard the linguistic turn in disability studies as an unfortunate distraction from other kinds of struggle, the focus on language is especially appealing to those with an appetite for calling out and guilt-tripping liberal academics who have not yet gotten with the program.
The “KEEP SKIDMORE SAFE” poster was in this sense a harbinger of things to come in an academic culture increasingly committed to thinking about all things in terms of harms, protections, and legal recourses. Directed at students, drafted (as I was later informed) by “Peer Health Educators” enrolled in courses taught by health professionals and disability scholars, the message was unmistakable. Specifically, students were encouraged to ask their own teachers to stop using ableist language and, failing that, to contact advisers and file an online “bias report” naming the professor. Informing this message was, of course, an assumption that the mere sounding of words like “blind” and “deaf” ought itself to be regarded as injurious and thus forbidden.
Clearly, those responsible for such a message have moved on from any misgivings about their premises, and are unwilling to entertain the thought that expressions like those cited in the poster have nothing at all to do with any reasonable person’s notion of keeping the campus safe. All apart from the advice that would have students filing a bias complaint, the recommendation that they take offense at the language all of us use is sufficiently bizarre.
Disagreement in this precinct will not turn on whether or not it is objectionable to speak respectfully to persons who are disabled. This goes—ought to go—without saying. But the notion that students will feel unsafe when I tell them I have to “run” to catch a train, or that I’ve long been “deaf” to certain kinds of music, is a lie. No doubt some students can be trained to take offense where no offense is intended. But there will be a price to pay for creating a generation of young people who are unwilling and unable to differentiate between actual offenses and casual utterances that clearly do not rise even to the level of so-called micro-aggressions.
A former student assistant, now a close friend, spoke with me about this at a recent dinner party, and asked whether I did not sometimes find myself hurt or at least taken aback by a casual ableist affront. I don’t think so, I said, though of course at 75 and counting I’m old enough to have thought quite a lot about all the things I used to do that are no longer possible for me. But the difference between innocuous speech acts and openly rude or hostile utterances intended to wound, I went on, has always been compelling to me. For example, I offered, I’ve never quite been able to erase the memory of an encounter in Saul Bellow’s novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, when the elderly protagonist is delivering a lecture and a student in the audience interrupts him with the words, “Why do you listen to this effete old shit? What has he got to tell you? His balls are dry. He’s dead. He can’t come.” If you want to be offended, I told my friend, there’s something you can sink your teeth into.
And did I think, my young friend asked, that old age is a form of disability? Maybe so, I said, and sure, if I were to sign on to this business, and learn to take offense where none was intended, I’d soon discover that just about every conversation had become a mine field, and I’d be accusing even my friends of insensitivity. I’d bristle when a colleague at my dinner table, a Victorian scholar, spoke of Thomas Carlyle’s “virile” prose, or of Matthew Arnold’s “lame” attempts at humor. Once you start down that road you rapidly discover that ableist language is not some exotic phenomenon but a pervasive feature of our speech.
When I read over the poster and decided to write a letter to the professor whose name appeared as the official contact person for “KEEP SKIDMORE SAFE,” I first thought to assemble examples of ableist language from Shakespeare, Dickens, and other canonical authors. But then I wondered whether I might instead turn to a contemporary writer whose stature among people in my own Left-liberal cohort is especially high, and I thought of Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose book, Between The World and Me, was sent to incoming freshmen last year and was a required text in all freshman seminars at the college, including mine. Though I was less than thrilled by the selection of that work, I dutifully discussed it with students in my seminar, and found ways to share with them my admiration for Coates’s prose. Were there, in Coates’s book, examples of ableist language? I hadn’t taken note of them when I prepared for my seminar a year earlier, but there the book was, on a crowded shelf in my office, waiting to be scanned. In five minutes of random browsing I found more than a dozen ableist passages, and quoted them in my letter. From page 25: “If the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left.” Same page: “I suffered at the hands of both.” From page 33: “The society could say, ‘He should have stayed in school,’ and then wash its hands of him.” And from page 141: “She said this with no love in her eye.” And so on.
And the point of this silly exercise? Simply to note that a recent book by one of the most esteemed writers in the country, a book with the imprimatur of our college, is studded with ableist language. Indeed, literary prose is more apt than casual or journalistic language to be marked by varieties of metaphor that rely upon embodiment. And in composing my letter, which asked that the posters be taken down, I speculated that if Coates were to be recruited to teach at Skidmore, professors who objected strenuously to his language would presumably encourage their students to demand he change his evil ableist ways and, when he refused to conciliate them, urge them to file a bias report naming him as one who had made our campus “unsafe.”
It was that last piece of advice that made the poster seem to me, and to many of my colleagues, not only problematic but grotesque. I’m willing to agree to disagree with some of my colleagues about the significance of ableist language, but not willing to smile and roll over at the peculiar species of intolerance that is entailed in the idea that users of words like “blind” and “deaf” are guilty of actionable offenses. The professor to whom I sent my letter responded in an entirely thoughtful and courteous way, noting that she hadn’t officially approved the poster designed by students she was working with, and that she shared my “concerns,” and was therefore moving to have the posters removed. This seemed to me a welcome conclusion to what was, after all, a very tiny affair.
And yet I don’t want quite to leave it at that, not when department heads and other faculty at colleges and universities are more or less on board with efforts to enlist students in their misguided campaigns. Underwriting these efforts is the wish to create a hierarchy of the saved—those, for example, who mobilize to forbid routine speech acts weirdly deemed offensive—and the unredeemed—those who persist in any practice of which the new guardians disapprove. Colleagues sympathetic to these recent campaigns, however ill at ease about what they call the “too-quick turn to punitive measures,” as one colleague put it to me in an email communication, are nevertheless unapologetically invested in the moral one-upmanship, in which a self-anointed elect dictate to everyone else what is and is not acceptable.
Odd, of course, that people determined to extinguish hostility and intimidation are themselves open to a regime in which disapproval leads more or less inexorably to censure and “punitive measures.” If anything like the “KEEP SKIDMORE SAFE” poster were to be taken seriously—as seriously as a number of students told me it is among their classmates—and acted upon, it would cause members of the college community to become suspicious of one another, to sniff around for instances of language crime, and to search for opportunities to ingratiate themselves with the local thought police. It’s hard to imagine a better example of a hostile work environment, and no optimism about what one colleague calls “a new awareness of inequities” and a desire to “spread the word” can cover over the alarming features of the zealotry unleashed in movements of this kind.
To be sure, the usual persuasion for which campuses have lately mobilized tends to be friendly rather than openly punitive. But the informing consensus is that in due course everyone will be on board, and that the recalcitrant will be dealt with, one way or another. Though students especially are convinced that they are coming of age and learning to think for themselves, they have no misgiving at all about yielding to guardians who promise to protect them from unwanted ideas or utterances. Though they bristle at the thought of domination, they don’t at all object to domination by the right-minded, and those who have learned to mouth the platitudes served up in their consciousness-raising classes have no sense that they are “brilliant,” as Scott Fitzgerald once put it, “with a second hand sophistication.” But then neither do the professors themselves often note their own lack of what Rochelle Gurstein calls “the conceptual resources” to think about “the common good,” paralyzed as they are by “habits of mind [which allow] them to mistake their ever more sentimental valorization of the most ‘vulnerable’ in society for a commitment to radical politics.”
In effect, our institutions of higher learning have fostered a new paternalism, promising an environment in which surveillance is the norm and citizens need not worry, for they have been delivered into the hands of persons whose sole reason for being is to protect them from discomfort. Most of those who have signed on for this arrangement have come to believe that there is self-fulfillment in tacitly resigning themselves to a species of carefully structured subordination. But what one writer calls “dependence as a way of life” entails the gradual erosion of the conviction that we can, all of us, find ways to cope with things that belong to the fabric of everyday experience. No one doubts that there is a place, and a need, for the helping ministrations of family, friends, teachers, and health care professionals. But we ought not to doubt that we should feel equipped to contend with ordinary unhappiness and the small shocks and contradictions we are bound to confront. The idealization of autonomy and self-sufficiency was always somewhat misleading. But the turn to the idea of a fully administered, indisputably correct, and ever watchful regime, academic or otherwise, in which miscreants can be admonished and punished for inviting someone to walk in another person’s shoes, is the leading edge of a new—and by no means benevolent—tyranny.