Don’t mention the war
A few weeks ago, a Facebook friend and former schoolmate posted a link to a blog entry by Stella Young, the editor of Ramp Up. In her post, Stella articulated her extreme dislike of what she calls inspiration porn. You know the sort of thing: one of the most popular is of Olympian Oscar Pistorius running alongside a young girl. The photo’s often accompanied by a quote from Scott Hamilton that reads “The only disability in life is a bad attitude”.
Aside from frequently finding myself grumpy at the sentiments expressed in the quotes, I had never found such pictures particularly “inspirational”; in fact, I tended to move on quickly without joining the hundreds of thousands of people who had made the effort to click “like”.
I had a bit of a lightbulb moment when I read about Stella’s frustration at being found “inspirational” for simply doing what other people do – catching a train to work, studying, moving around. It’s patronising to be found “inspirational” for getting up in the morning, taking a shower or brushing one’s hair.
However, her blog post left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable. I tried to tease apart my reactions to the post but haven’t been able to find a way in to what I think.
Then, a few days ago, I read “Not Myself Today” by Sexy Typewriter. I loved that post and left a comment about admiring her bravery in speaking about her mental illness. Today, she wrote:
So many of you have called me brave. One day, I hope that sharing the story of one’s mental illness will no longer be seen as brave, but as simply part of the conversation.
I found in these words an echo of thoughts I have had over time about a range of topics: depression, grief and loss, miscarriage, disability, death – those things we don’t talk about. Perhaps finding people brave is a necessary step to moving the conversation along – to getting to a point where the person in a wheelchair in the office isn’t a novelty, it’s a colleague; where a neighbour with a mental illness is just the bloke next door; where an athlete with prostheses running in the Olympics isn’t “inspirational” because he has a disability but because he’s a bloody fast runner.
I have a half-baked theory that I’d like to post and hope you’ll bear with the messy edges. The ball of string in my head about this is still quite tangled. I’ve been toying with the idea that there’s a path to the desegregation of difference that is marked by stages.
- We become aware of difference and we feel an automatic fear (“I don’t know what this is/like how it makes me feel/want to engage with this”).
- We create boundaries that segregate so we can reduce our fear (“If I can’t interact with what scares me, I don’t need to think about it or feel afraid”).
- We defend those boundaries through an unspoken pact to avoid the subject altogether (“Whatever you do, don’t mention the war”).
- A spark ignites: those segregated (by race, illness, disability, religion, sex, sexual orientation, life experience, whatever) begin to challenge those boundaries by living visibly (catch trains, request access, seek understanding, gain employment, ask for equality under the law).
- They become curiosities as they continue to poke at society’s carefully constructed defenses (“look at that woman in the wheelchair/gay couple/woman wearing the hijab/old man”).
- Society bends over backwards to “embrace” difference (“See how unbothered I am? See how cool I am with you?”) and the idea of “difference as inspiration” takes hold. We fail to understand that seeing people as “different” is at the root of segregation and discrimination.
- We reach the point of critical mass, where there are sufficient numbers of people taking up their right to live visibly without apology or explanation or special consideration that the concept of “difference” begins slowly (much too slowly) to fade in favour of the idea of “diversity”.
- Society stops seeing individual differences as different at all – and instead begins to acknowledge and respond appropriately and effectively to true diversity.
In many cases, we are very much at the “embracing” stage. Our efforts to desegregate difference are frequently clumsy, patronising and insulting. But perhaps to create real change in our communities, somebody somewhere has to be bold enough and dogged enough to face being thought of as inspirational or brave just for living visibly.
Greater minds than mine may well have articulated these ideas more succinctly and with more foundation than I have, but I’d love to know what you think.