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Last night I went to a speaking event organized by a few people who are linked to the upcoming G8/G20 protests in Toronto. I went anticipating a nice, fun time listening to some awesome radical thoughts. I…sort-of got what I wished.

The first speaker was excellent. He gave quite a comprehensive historical overview of patterns of colonization and resistance on Native land in the Americas. He traced empire-building right back to Greece and Rome and the cultural things they borrowed from Egypt, actually. His presentation was both engaging and informative, and I enjoyed it a lot.

But then the second speaker. Oh my goodness, the second speaker. He was, as you may have guessed from the title of this post, a Privileged White Male Anarchist [PWMA]. And, as the title also subtly implies, his views were somewhat eyebrow-raising! His speech was all about how democracy is inherently terrible, which, whatever. I don’t entirely agree, but he’s an anarchist. The idea that government is terrible is something of a defining belief for the movement, so I can go along with that. It’s when we got into specifics that the trouble began. For our PWMA, you see, does not believe in equality. Nor does he believe in rights or freedom of speech. His reasoning, roughly speaking (sadly I did not take notes—had I realized what a WEALTH of bizarre rationalization awaited me, I would have brought paper), centred around the following tenets:

The idea of ‘equality’ means that EVERYONE IS EXACTLY THE SAME! But, truly, people are not!
The clamour for ‘rights’ was instigated by upper-class people! Therefore, the entire concept is flawed!
Freedom of speech is to prevent us from having freedom of action! TERRIBLE.

Now, I want to give him his due: each of these ‘points’ does have an embedded truth in it. People often interpret equality to mean “everyone is the same”, which is indeed problematic. An upper-class person’s idea of “rights” often leaves out things that someone less privileged does, in fact, need. And freedom of action is also important, though only to the extent where your actions impinge on others’ freedoms. (No, Mr. PWMA, I do not feel that people’s freedom to retaliate as they choose is enough of a check on unregulated freedom of action, thanks. An eye for an eye continues to be a lacklustre mode of governance, in my opinion).But he’s missing something crucial. Well, several things, but one really important one. Flawed though the execution may be when it comes to conceptions of “equality” and “rights”, these notions have been fucking crucial for, I don’t know, every civil rights movement ever. Without the rhetoric of ‘rights’, we wouldn’t fucking have any. Women wouldn’t be able to vote. Racial segregation would be thriving, not just de facto as, still, sadly is going on, but probably in law as well. The limited gains the queer movement has made wouldn’t even be that. All of these groups have a long way to go—but if it weren’t for some of the concepts our PWMA is so quick to abolish, we’d have a hell of a lot further.
But the fail doesn’t stop there! He also put up some stellar straw arguments. Did you know, for example, that democracy is directly responsible for the banning of ethnic studies programs in Arizona? It’s true! He said so! His reasoning is thus: democratic plurality divides people into groups. It is in a democracy’s best interest that these groups do not have conflict with each other. Therefore, if anything crops up that challenges the status quo, democracy will INSTANTLY SNUFF IT OUT, to make sure everyone lives in happy happy harmony.

Again, there’s a grain of truth in here. Conflict isn’t great for democracy, but, as he pointed out, it is sometimes necessary, even if it runs counter to the government’s interests. I don’t disagree with that. What I disagree with is his assertion that democracy inevitably leads to oppression of all dissent. I mean, certainly this can happen. Certainly it has happened. But it needn’t always. Also, the banning of ethnic studies programs, specifically, was the product of a very specific political ideology within a democracy, not of democracy itself. By rights, that is what we should be attacking, and believe me, I’d be happy to lead the charge!

He also implied that talk is worthless if you don’t go out and do stuff (hi, ableism!). And that non-anarchists aren’t worth talking to, because of how thoroughly they’ve Internalized the Lies of Democracy or whatever. Which is a really great way of dodging legitimate criticism, if you ask me (but he wouldn’t, obviously). And he did a whole lot of equating of democracy with capitalism, which…not quite. I myself, for example, lean pretty hard toward democratic socialism as an ideology! He did all of these things, and all of these things could easily be picked apart in much more detail than the cursory treatment I am giving them here. But this post is already really long, and I really don’t want to spend much more time thinking about his arguments, because they’re gross and unsavoury and smacking hugely of unexamined privilege. So with that, I leave you!

(Though, I encourage you to engage with his other arguments in comments, if you feel like it! Or, to quibble with points I make, as always. TELL ME I’M WRONG, if you think it is so! I, unlike PWMA, will not dismiss outright the views of those with a different ideology than myself!

Recently, it was intimated that I was one of these! “It” being, um, anti-oppression and specifically feminist stuff.

Knowing as you do how much I love compliments (if you didn’t know that: I am very fond of them!), it might surprise you that I found hearing that extremely uncomfortable-making. This post, I make this post in an attempt to break down that reaction and explain why it was so.

As I see it, there are four main reasons. The first is that I am a massively self-deprecating person and tend to question any compliment I receive. This is a ridiculous reason and not germane to the argument I am trying to make, so I am going to skip exploring it in-depth. Let’s move on.

The second reason is that this compliment implies that there is an “it” to get. This is troublesome! Because it implies that, y’know, there is a point at which learning stops. That there’s a point where I can just say “I’m done! I know ALL THE FEMINISM”. This is…not so. It is especially not-so in relation to me, but it’s the case with everyone. You never stop learning. I still screw up, probably more often than I realize. I am willing to bet that everyone reading this still screws up. Because it’s hard! It’s hard challenging the hegemonic narratives embedded in every fucking aspect of our society, the narratives that encourage us to do messed-up things and treat certain classes of other people as less than human. We all push back as much as we can, but while we’re not less than human, we certainly aren’t more, either. Nobody’s perfect. We make mistakes, we learn from them, and we strive to do better. It’s all we can do, and we never do stop, unlike what this compliment (“oh, you really get it!”) would suggest.

The second third reason is related to this last one, but is even more insidious. You see, once you assume that you “get it” (whatever “it” may be), you begin to assume you are in a position to teach it. Which I mean, sometimes is fine. Sometimes you genuinely are farther along on your personal journey than someone else in a given area, and you can help them on their way. That’s great, I’m not opposed to that. The danger lies in beginning to assume that you are some kind of Ultimate Authority, and in particular, that you can teach people about their own experiences. That you know better than marginalized people what is happening in their lives, with their marginalization. That you are the Ultimate Arbiter of what is and is not offensive. In short, once you assume you “get it”, it’s very easy to become a mansplainer. Or a straightsplainer or ablesplainer or whateversplainer, as the case may be. The point is that this is really, really, bad. And can pretty directly be traced to the assumption that you “get” something better than, y’know, the people who actually live it.

Which brings me neatly to the final reason this compliment (or, let’s be frank–given how much time I’ve spent deconstructing/agonizing over it, “compliment” might be a bit of a stretch) is so problematic.

I’m a guy. I identify as fairly solidly male, I always have, and I’ve always been viewed that way by society-at-large. There are some things I do not–and cannot–“get”, by virtue of not being able to live that experience. I will never know what it is like to be a woman in a misogynist/patriarchal society, and because of this, I will never “get” certain fundamental things. To imply that I do is to perpetuate all the stuff I’ve talked about above, which is why it makes me uncomfortable. God forbid I ever become someone who thinks I “get” oppression, especially that which I have not personally experienced. Because that day is the day I give up trying to learn more, trying to improve myself.

And that’s something I can’t let happen.

That’s today, May the 17th. It was chosen because it was on this day, some twenty years ago, that homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness by the World Health Organization.

When I decided to write this post, I didn’t really have an angle I was planning to explore–I just felt it was important to mark the day in some way. But that connection, the connection between homosexuality and mental illness, is an interesting one.

Both are stigmatized, still, in our society. Both are frequently categorized as something “wrong” or “bad”, and that is…a big problem. Because both are human traits. Both can be part of a person’s identity, both are part of my identity. And to have them characterized as somehow harmful, as somehow bad things to be, hurts.

It doesn’t just hurt me either. If we’re talking about the intersection of these issues, we need to be talking about how much higher the rate of depression is in LGBT* teens. We need to look at how, according to a 2006 study, queer teens are nearly four times as likely to attempt suicide. This is a direct result of homophobia and transphobia, of prejudice. Bigotry has concrete, measurable effects, as well as effects that, while less tangible, are no less harmful. We need to be talking about this. We need to be fighting this.

And this day is a good start.

Except, y’know, not.

I should point out that this post was inspired by a specific incident. However, given that I was at best a spectator to this incident and a number of the people who were actually involved have expressed a wish that fuel not be added to the fire, that’s not what I’ll be talking about. So if there appears to be an obvious gap in my examples, that might be why.

Anyway, to get to the point. There is an argumentative strategy that I have noticed tends to crop up when the topic turns to language use. This strategy is to turn to the dictionary as the ultimate arbiter of what is acceptable. Pretty much every argument on language I’ve seen lately has someone doing this. Two examples, both of which I’ve seen recently.

1. Arguing that disability is Always Bad. Always. Yes, Even Then. When someone makes this argument, it’s often not long before they turn to the dictionary, pointing out that the OED defines “disability” at least in part as “inability, incapacity; weakness”. SO OBVIOUSLY IT’S TERRIBLE.

2. A bit more specific. On the door of our office at the school (I’m a volunteer with the campus queer group, for those just tuning in), there is a sign. This sign says “Gay Pizza”. We use it at those of our events where–surprise–we serve pizza. I am aware it is not without its problems (where is the bi pizza? Or the pizza for other folk who don’t take the label ‘gay’), but. You get the idea. Anyway, the other day we found a hand-scrawled addendum attached to this sign, which read “what makes it so carefree and happy?”. This particular dictionary troll, you see, had decided to be a wit and in the process erase the validity of ‘gay’ as a descriptive term that a community has chosen for itself. And you can bet that had we found out who they were and called them on it, the response would have been along the lines of “well that’s what it means in the dictionary!”

So, here’s the thing. I understand this impulse. Really, I do. You’re arguing about what words mean, aren’t you? So it seems only natural to turn to the Ultimate Cultural Arbiter of what words mean, the dictionary. Totally rational train of thought.

But it’s still a terrible idea. Sure, it works fine when you are writing in most circumstances, but when you’re dealing with issues of oppression, when you’re talking about marginalized populations, it doesn’t. And the reason is a simple one.

Dictionaries did not spring fully-formed from the ether. They are written by people. And people, believe it or not, are bound by their cultural context and, furthermore, are people. They’re human! They get things wrong! So sometimes when you look at the dictionary, the definition you see there is not going to reflect the reality of how people use the term. As sickening a cliche as this is, language is alive. It evolves. Dictionaries often do not reflect this, and they are going to enshrine definitions that do not apply–I mean, for gods’ sakes, the first five definitions for “faggot” in the OED relate to “bundles”. That’s not how people are using the word now, and if someone tried to cite it in an argument, I would hope (though not trust) that that would be seen as ridiculous.

When you’re talking about people, when you’re referring to the concepts and the language that a marginalized group have made their own, there’s only one way to get it right: ask them. Even then, you may run into disagreement between members of a group. You might need to, y’know, actually think about who you sympathize with more. But while you’re doing that, I ask you to keep two things in mind.

1) Don’t fight with someone’s self-identification. Someone may self-identify with a word you find distasteful, but it is not your place to tell them they are wrong. By all means avoid using that word to refer to other people. But don’t take away someone’s right to self-determinatino.

and

2) For gods’ sakes, don’t turn to the fucking dictionary to make your decision for you.

A quick lesson.

While I do not actually have diagnosable hypochondria (far from it), I have been, with some validity, accused of harbouring tendencies in that direction. I do have a habit of jumping quickly to the worst conclusions. I do. It’s the simple truth. But there is something I would like to make clear, through example!

Example the first: Last night I got a headache. My first thought was “oh. What if it’s a brain tumour? I don’t have a phone or internet. If I died of a brain tumour or a stroke or something no-one would ever know”. This would be an example of, yes, jumping to conclusions (or colloquially, ‘hypochondria’–again, I am not a clinical hypochondriac).

Example the second: I have been in a low mood more often than not for the past several months. I have also been fatigued, apathetic, lost interest in many of my favourite activities, and low on appetite, as well as several other symptoms of clinical depression. This led to me thinking “maybe I am depressed” and talking to my counsellor, who administered a questionnaire-thing that indicated that as a very real possibility. This would not be an example of hypochondria, but rather a valid concern.

Personally, I think it’s not actually that hard to differentiate between these two scenarios, or between, say, my recurring fears of skin cancer (“but I don’t remember that mole! I only have, like, a couple of hundred of them! I should be keeping track!”) and my pursuing diagnosis for Aspergers. Like, I think there’s a pretty clear qualitative distinction there.

Strangely, it seems not everyone agrees. Because whenever I do voice a concern regarding my mental health, there’s a couple of responses guaranteed to crop up. “You’re faking it”. “You’re jumping to conclusions”. “How can you be sure?”. And, of course, “stop being such a hypochondriac”.

Look. I am the first to admit that I can be needlessly anxious. This doesn’t just apply to my health–I jump to terrible conclusions all the time. But believe it or not, that’s not all I do. Sometimes I sit myself down, look at the facts, apply them to my situation, and come up with a reasonable conclusion. Sometimes I even get my opinion corroborated by someone else! So the least you* could do is respect that, and understand that when I say I think I’m depressed, or I think I have Aspergers, to understand that this was not a hasty conclusion.

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*to be absolutely clear (because otherwise I suspect someone would say something): I am not referring to anyone in particular with this here “you”.

For new readers, sometimes when I don’t have anything substantial in mind for a post, I just put up a list or similar. It appeals to some strange part of my brain, and it also means I don’t STOP WRITING ALTOGETHER, which would be bad.

So here we have some things harps can do that pianos can’t! Because I am a harp player, and oftentimes the proficiencies of our instrument are ignored in favour of talking about the things pianos do better. Boo to that! Here we go:

* Glissandos. The gimme. Somewhat difficult on a piano, probably the most basic special technique for a harpist.
* Slap-bass. Some of the percussive effects you hear in, for example, this piece are not things you can do on a piano.
* Pitch-bending. A little bit less common. But if you lift the lever up just right while playing a note on a Celtic harp, you are, again, going to make a sound a piano can’t reproduce.
* Harmonics. One of the biggest downsides to a piano, IMHO.
* Big Chords. When’s the last time you played a twelfth on a piano? Honestly.
* Long ascending/descending runs. More than five notes in a row on a piano and you’re going to run out of fingers, which necessitates some pretty fancy action to stop a perceptible break happening between parts of the run. A harpist can keep going indefinitely without lifting their hand from the string, by crossovers/crossunders.
* If so inclined, a harp player can play a big chord with one hand and have the other play a part in between the top and bottom notes that the first hand is playing. This is completely impossible for pianists.
* Good posture. It’s easy to hunch when playing the piano. But when playing the harp, it’s leaning back on you! Keeps you very conscious of how you sit.

I am sure there are many more I am forgetting! This is just what I can think of off the top of my head, because harps are awesome like that.

It’s Blogging Against Disablism Day! There are many many awesome posts linked there, with more being added constantly! GO CHECK IT OUT.

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So, as you may have noticed, I haven’t posted in a while. There are a few reasons for this–sometimes life gets in the way, stuff like that. Some reasons I’m pretty sure I haven’t even articulated to myself.

But there is one reason, one in particular, that I want to talk about in this post. And that is that I have, frankly, been nervous.

Here’s the thing. I am, very much, a small-time blogger. The most hits I have ever gotten on any one day is in the neighbourhood of two hundred and fifty. When you’re talking blogs? That’s not a big deal. Really. It’s not. But despite that, I have gotten some…pretty unpleasant backlash in response to some of the things I’ve written.

I’m sure those of you who are bloggers know what I’m referring too. I’m too sensitive. I’m obsessed with finding offense. Gratitude is obligatory. People mean well, I should just let it go. And more, that I can’t or don’t want to link to (on account of it not making through mod, or being something I don’t want to invest the energy to track down).

I’m not too badly hurt by these comments, and I know many other people have it far worse. But they do inspire in me a certain reticence; a certain unwillingness to engage with some topics. And [here is where I finally manage to get on-theme] a lot of these topics have to do with me personally, and with my relationship to disability.

Let’s take an example. Something I’ve been considering writing about, but so far have put off. Last week, my counsellor suggested the possibility of my being depressed. I actually brought it up to her, because of my chronic melancholy and a couple of other factors. She administered a questionnaire that suggests I am in range for moderate depression.

This is normally something I would consider writing about. It’s personal [I love personal!]. I can tie it to larger disability-related conversations [I love those!]. It’s interesting [Yay!]. However, I didn’t write about it. And I can tell you exactly why, too. It’s because I was afraid of the responses I would get. Afraid they would be similar to the responses I got from a couple of people I mentioned it too offline, responses like “oh, I get bad moods too!” or “I think these things are overdiagnosed” or “you want attention!”.

Because I can’t handle responses like that. I’m extraordinarily tired of them. They are not productive and they are not welcome, and they are, therefore, not something I want to have to deal with on my blog. And I was concerned that would happen if I wrote about certain topics. I still am, to be honest; I’m just trying to push through it.

Because, you see, I know what those responses are. They’re an attempt to silence me. Not necessarily consciously so, but that’s their effect. And they have been used to that effect against people with disabilities the world over, likely word-for-word. They are akin to tactics used against, to pick another group I’m part of, queer people. You can draw a direct connection between “you’re making it up for attention” and “I’m fine with gay people, but why do you have to flaunt it?”. You can see the similarities between “I know how you feel” and “I think everyone’s a little bisexual, really”. These are patterns that occur over and over again, used against every marginalized group.

They are a way of telling us our concerns don’t matter, our struggles are less real. They’re incredibly pernicious, as a lot of the time they can masquerade as genuine concern. And they’re a big part of the reason I haven’t been saying much recently.

Because when the things you say are used against you, the impulse is to say nothing at all. But that’s exactly why it’s so important to resist–marginalized voices are valuable. Our experiences matter. And given the enormous pressure against our speaking up, sharing our experiences can become a really monumental form of resistance. It doesn’t seem like much, but sometimes it’s the smallest battles that count.

Speaking up, that alone, is a way of fighting ableism. Of fighting any form of oppression. And I think it’s important not to lose that.