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The New Propriety
Policing Disability

Our institutions of higher learning have fostered a new paternalism.

Appeared in: Volume 13, Number 4 | Published on: December 22, 2017
Robert Boyers is editor of the quarterly Salmagundi, professor of English at Skidmore College, and director of The New York State Summer Writers Institute. His most recent book is The Fate of Ideas: Seductions, Betrayals, Appraisals (Columbia University Press, 2017).
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  • Gary Hemminger

    What this writer is saying is so basic that it almost doesn’t need to be stated. but evidently it does. This is about a bunch of lefty loon college profs and administrators and their progressive student henchman trying to reshape the world in their communist philosophies. The liberal arts and the social sciences have been infected by them. Fortunately the malady won’t go much beyond the college arena, the arts, and the social sciences. But the disease, for the time being, is incurable. It must be quarantined..

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    • tstev

      It is apposite.. a bunch of right wing hacks are paid to spread the propaganda that few right wing institutions propagate to enrich the zillion airs… Capitalists enlisted the religious hacks and looneis to kill the left wing and what is left is their warlords… The infection of right wing mind is paid for and it about cash…

      Look at FoxNews, a bunch of paid hacks and fraudsters, sexist, white supremacist that you unleashed to pump your diatribe.. Intellectuals mostly see through you so you tried to enlist the clueless..

      • henry bonk

        You must have graduated in Social Sciences or better yet English from some of those institutions.
        Your post says volumes about you, the quality of your education.
        How sad.

        • tstev

          You must be a right wing hack… Surely you flipped an ID here.. Your last post was 15 days ago…

          Are you promoter of FoxNews loonies or is it white supremacists or is it the religious hacks.. but wait, its all the same field..

      • ricardo

        “We must finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess. We must condemn once and for all the formula “chess for the sake of chess”, like the formula “art for art’s sake”. We must organize shock brigades of chess players, and begin immediate realization of a Five-Year Plan for chess.”
        –Nikolai Krylenko– Chairman of the Chess Section of the Supreme Council for Physical Culture of the Russian Federal Republic, and later, Secretary of the Soviet Chess Federation BTW, ESAD, dickwad.

  • QET

    I’m with Gary H. on this. The flaw in Boyers’ treatment of the subject is that he assumes the sincerity of the objectors’ objections, that they arise from a deep-seated compassion the rest of us lack and from a well-reflected consideration. However, it is a certainty that none of these objecting students have read any, much less all, of the works cited by Boyers. Yet they presume on the basis of their ignorance to instruct someone like Boyers who has devoted his adult life to the learning and thinking of ideas.

    Also, sickness, injury and disability are parts of the human condition. All of us experience them and are affected by them, even if not all at the same time or to the same degree. The fact that some people must live their entire lives under conditions of physical or mental limitation that most of us don’t does not require us to be ashamed of our relative health (while we have it) nor does it require us not to communicate in allusions to varying degrees of sickness and disability. Those are terms we all understand. We have no moral or ethical obligation to disabled persons to pretend to them as though we are not disabled. A disabled person living and moving among the non-disabled is already fully aware of the difference in conditions and is hardly going to be offended by utterance of a metaphor. The argument, such as it is, is like saying that (in US colleges) the native English-speaking students must refrain from speaking English because it reminds non-native speakers that they are not as capable in that language.

    No, the motivation of the poster-hangers is nothing to do with some more highly developed sympathy or morality, and everything to do with the desire for their own distinction and recognition and adolescent need for approval. These are kids, remember, who cannot possibly have developed their understandings to the level necessary to really think about this (or any other) matter to the degree needed to dictate to others. They cannot be taken seriously except in the way a herd of cattle charging you must be taken seriously. You might have to move out of their way, which is an indignity someone in Boyers’ position ought not to be be subjected to, but you cannot stop to ponder whether the cows are in the right to charge you or even understand why they charge.

    • Pamela

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  • hecate9

    I think the discussion may have gotten a little overheated when Gary has us “quaranteening and extinguishing” young people because of some silly notions they think they believe in. Was he ever young?
    Yes, the behavior that Boyers describes seems, on one hand, unutterably stupid- or maybe “sophomoric” is a more apt adjective. Idiomatic expressions in English (and every other human language) are full of “able-ist” references to the five senses, to movement, to family, procreation, etc. etc. because these were the issues that preoccupied the minds of men and women for the millennia in which human groups struggled to survive and disabled persons usually quickly died off or were, unfortunately, dispatched. The tribe was facing existential threats and had no means to cater to, or care for, to the dis-abled. Many of these expressions are ancient indeed- going back to distant Indo-European roots, when people were hunters, gatherers, herders, fishers, raiders, etc. Many can be found in the Old Testament, the tale of Gilgamesh, the I Ching, the Popol Vuh. They have been around for thousands of years- probably because they still get at a kernel of meaning in common speech, even today.
    Along comes a small group of people, ensconced safely in the academy- it’s not entirely clear who or how many they are- who have made an intellectual “exercise” (and perhaps post-Modernist “scholars” like Lacan and Foucault showed the way) of examining common speech and “discovering” and “exposing” words and phrases that are “able-ist”, “sexist”, “nativist”, etc. etc.
    I see this is as mostly a sophomoric intellectual exercise- trendy at the moment- that is both easy to pull off and that can be used to impress the impressionable. It is VERY FAR from representing the really important scholarship and research that goes on in the modern academy, and in fact its existence serves a counter-purpose by providing fodder for people like Boyers, who can stoke the moral panic among conservatives by crying “tyranny on campus!” and write articles for TAI and other magazines.
    In Boyer’s defense, it is probably true to say that, if this Sisyphean futility (proscribing and sanitizing language) holds sway anywhere, it is in English departments and, to a lesser extent, in other humanities and the social sciences. But for a long time it’s been true that the gravitas of the academy lies outside those departments. (Just my opinion).
    Our language will change. These expressions are thousands of years old, but it’s only been a century or two that enlightened societies cared about the disabled. Over time, such expressions as “walk in my shoes” or “that’s how I see it” or “the sweet sound or success” or “so near I could touch it” may die out and be replaced by other expressions that don’t reference “able-ist” abilities. That will likely take a long time (culture change is slow), and will probably NOT happen because of anything that happens at universities.

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      • hecate9

        Uh-oh. They’ve started.

  • George Purcell

    Unfortunately, Boyers seems to lack the recognition that Foucault et al and the whole post-modern/post-structural project is the rot at the heart of all of this. Once you’ve given up the ground that reality is socially constructed and that there are no potential claims of universal truth (however theoretical) the skidways to using social construction as a tool for oppression are set down. Not only was this predicable it was predicted way back in the 1990s. In this case, for example, of course it is more “desirable” to walk than not to be able to walk. To have two hands rather than one. To be able to hear without a hearing aid. To be able to see without glasses. Recognition of this fact isn’t consigning those with these maladies to some “deviant” (ah, the almost sexual frisson in that word that the post-structuralists love) it is merely understanding objective facts about the world. And so here we are. The well-meaning, if confused, older patriarch who introduced this nonsense to two generations of academics is now confused and hurt the weapons are being used (potentially) against him.

  • I am an ableist bigot.

    I had the effrontery to say on Facebook that I felt it was considerably better to be able to walk than to use a wheelchair.

    That seems like an obvious statement to me. But some people think it is bigotry against the disabled to say that.

    I was told that I could not use the word “lame”, and that “mobility impaired” or “wheelchair dependent” would be more sensitive terminology.

    I said, My God, that means we all have to use terms more suitable to a bureaucrat than a human being, with no emotion, no force, no nothing. If I wrote like that, people would fall asleep and have zero sympathy for my characters, such as they were.

    The response was as though I was a Nazi. Basically people said that I should be ashamed I even exist, that hurt feelings are much more important than good writing.

    I asked the question, how would A Christmas Carol have worked out if Tiny Tim was wheelchair dependent, and he was really rocking his government-provided electric scooter?

    I’m sorry but I just cannot recover from my abelism, nor believe that the overwhelming majority of society is not ableist. To not be ableist is to live a lie, just as not being transphobic means that we have to lie about the sex of people we meet.

    We are now a society forced to lie, forced to evade and avoid the truth. We are rapidly losing our rights to express opinions. Being disabled is the new able. Pretending to be female is the new female. And yet for some reason few want to date the new females.

    We are being told to live a lie. And what for? Do we really think hurt feelings are not still hurt if we can’t say anything truthful about them? All that leads to is confusion and more hurt people.

  • Rick Caird

    Extreme thinking, actions, and posters are the seeds of their own destruction. We are merely waiting for a “Have you no shame” moment.

  • Pippitypup

    As a legitimately disabled person, the only thing I find offensive is other people presuming to tell me what hurts my feelings. I assure you, ‘ableist’ language does not, but the notion I am too fragile to hear certain words insults me at a visceral level.

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