Ableism: the sneakiest “ism”

Fighting the prejudice within myself is a lifelong battle. One of the -isms I struggle most with is ableism. It comes through in my language, and as I’ll explain, I believe it underlies a stubborn prejudice in my heart. It is completely normalized to demean things and people as “stupid” or “crazy”. If you want to know why this is a bad thing, this article does a good job of explaining. Please read it, and do try to suspend the voice in your head that thinks it’s maybe being a bit excessive. Just for a minute.

All done? Great, because instead of stating the point they’ve made so well, I want to talk about why I accept it.

We live in a culture steeped in meritocratic principles. I’ve talked a bit about why this is problematic in pieces on other topics. I’ve also referenced the first book that caused me to think critically about meritocracy, Twilight of the Elites. That book caused me to reexamine my worldview about as much as any other that I can think of, and I highly recommend it.

To summarize the problem with the ideology of meritocracy (let alone our poor implementation of it), it ascribes value to people who are thought to demonstrate potential. It invests resources in them. Not only is this a self-fulfilling prophecy that hurts late bloomers, but it also implicitly devalues folks seen as not showing potential.

Lack of apparent potential might be due to circumstances, like poverty. However, it may also be due to differences in ability that are physiological in nature and profound in severity. Our meritocratic society doesn’t have an answer for these people. The icky truth is that our society generally thinks they’re unfortunate, shameful, and defective. Families of such people are overburdened with the caregiving needs of people with special needs.

Even worse, this outlook has been the cause of some of the darkest parts of our history, including the atrocities of eugenics in the Western world. It was famously the ideology of the Nazis, but the USA has plenty to answer for, too. An absolutely fantastic Radiolab series, called G, covers this in detail. Please listen to it.

What if we thought humans were valuable for being human, and not just because of what they can do for us?

If this were true, we wouldn’t use terms like “stupid” and “crazy”. Not just because they’re insulting, but because the insult says “you’re bad, just like unintelligent and mentally unwell people“. It equates people we detest with those we don’t value, and that equation cuts both ways. I can’t see a way around that. It’s just like using any slur against someone who doesn’t belong to the target group. Now I can’t unsee it.

Changing is harder, though. I don’t always change my wording. I get lazy, and fall back on my how I’ve always spoken. I fall short on correcting other people. Consider this piece an attempt to atone.

People often recoil and say, “wow, is there anything we can say anymore?” Of course there is. And the reality is that perfection isn’t the target. Just be mindful. Do your best, fail sometimes, apologize, learn, and share. This is what taking personal responsibility looks like.

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