“Victimhood” As an Ableist Conceit

What sort of disability might Arthur Brooks have? I don’t know, and I can’t tell immediately through the medium of the Internet. I suppose I could use that medium to find out more about him, but I want to take him at the value he presents. In today’s The New York Times, he poses as no victim, as one lacking disability or debilitating trauma and I’ll take him at his word. That allows me to contrast him with Daniel Freeman, who forefronts his Cerebral Palsy (but not victimhood) in an article from October but that I saw for the first time today (thanks to Stephen Kuusisto).

Brooks wants everyone to buck up, to accept the challenges they’ve been given and deal with them. No whining; no excuses. Freeman want us all to recognize that barriers are in the eyes of the beholder and that overcoming them benefits everyone. The curb cuts, for example, that Marca Bristo worked so tirelessly to establish, are used for more than wheelchairs. Strollers, hand trucks, scooters and even walkers gravitate toward them. Curb cuts, like so many instances of enforced accessibility, are a boon to us all. This should be obvious, but it’s not–in part because of arguments such as Brooks’.

Brooks uses disdain for what he (among others) calls “victimhood culture,” especially on college campuses, to make an essential “ableist” argument: No one deserves special treatment. He starts out by referencing Robert Hughes’ Culture of Complaint, which he describes as “a rant against what he [Hughes] saw as a grievance industry appearing all across the political spectrum.” Brooks says he has come to agree. Shut up, he implies, and deal with it–whatever it is.

He then links to an article by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning that argues that:

What we are seeing in these controversies is the clash between dignity and victimhood, much as in earlier times there was a clash between honor and dignity. Looking at those clashes, we know that when contradictory moral ideals exist alongside one another people may be unsure how to act, not confident of whether others will praise or condemn them.

This important point, though, is never addressed by Brooks (his reference is of the type I discourage among my undergraduate students, just to be there and not contributing much to the discussion).

Brooks goes on to argue that, because everyone feels aggrieved, we need to approach grievance carefully. But that’s not his real point:

The problem is that the line is fuzzy between fighting for victimized people and promoting a victimhood culture. Where does the former stop and the latter start?

This is a false question, in my eyes, one created in order to limit attempts at redress. An able person (or seeming so) himself, Brooks implies that he’s the one who can determine where that line is. That, in fact, it can be known by those outside of the particular disability or, to use his odious word, “victimhood.” In his last paragraph, he writes:

It is still in our hands to… cultivate a nation of strong individuals motivated by hope and opportunity, not one dominated by victimhood.

Strong individuals, he implies, do not accept victimhood—or, by extension, disability (though he never mentions that, the implication is inescapable). It would follow that those willing to discuss their victimizations or disabilities are weak. Ridiculous.

The three “victimhoods” that Brooks mentions are “crime, discrimination or deprivation.” That covers a lot of ground, more than Brooks, I suspect, expects his readers to consider. Someone with what is generally marked as a “disability” can often claim experience of all three.

What most of us who have no disability don’t want is to listen to those who do. Brooks’ argument makes that a little more justifiable, if we accept it, if we are willing to brush off advocates of whatever we define as a “victimhood” as simply advocates of this “new” culture. In one of his more confusing passages, Brooks writes:

The fight for victims is led by aspirational leaders who challenge us to cultivate higher values. They insist that everyone is capable of — and has a right to — earned success. They articulate visions of human dignity. But the organizations and people who ascend in a victimhood culture are very different. Some set themselves up as saviors; others focus on a common enemy. In all cases, they treat people less as individuals and more as aggrieved masses.

The subtext, here, of course, is that there are no victims, only individuals who are unwilling to accept responsibility. “Do it on your own,” the first says. “Let’s do it together,” says the second.

Freeman shows the weakness of this stance:

No one should tell me how to navigate my body. But when I got to college, I was disappointed to find that my belief in college as a time for people to be themselves, and for others to respect and accept that, was misguided. If I had a nickel for every time I have been looked at scathingly for taking the elevator up one floor, I would probably have enough money to make one loan payment. I was once laughed at by a colleague for stating that I wanted a tricycle so I can be independent on my current campus, which offers little to no public transportation.

Telling people to take individual responsibility just isn’t enough. Especially when not all disabilities are readily apparent—Freeman’s point (or one of them) is that his often are not. He goes on:

For me, what matters most is that someone takes the time to ask about what I need, because quite honestly, I shouldn’t have to tell anyone unless I want to. The ableism that I have faced in the academy has kept me from wanting to tell people about my disabilities in any sort of genuine or deep capacity. This, in turn, has made me constantly evaluate the people I find and surround myself with. I also spend an enormous amount of attention and energy on my environment and the technologies available to me at any given moment to make my body adapt to the mold that the academy built for it. As you can imagine, this cycle takes an emotional and physical toll — depression, anxiety, and general fatigue are all issues that I deal with — but I deal with them just like I do my disabilities: by reminding myself that I alone create my own narrative, even when other people try to do it for me.

The problem with what Brooks is doing is just that. Through his “culture of victimhood” and the dividing line he would control, he is denying others the right to their own narratives, cutting them off before they can even start.


7 thoughts on ““Victimhood” As an Ableist Conceit

  1. The issue you present here is one deeply embedded in American politics. On the right, there is the attitude that everyone should “pull themselves up by their own boot straps.” On the left, there seems to be the perception that everyone is a fragile daffodil in need of food, water and shelter. Sadly, what gets lost in this conflict are those who have pulled themselves up out of disability, but are then beaten down because it. These stories seldom see the light of day, and yet they are ever so common.

    I experienced such mistreatment at an institution that markets itself as one of the most accommodating, open and liberal from sea to shining sea. I am a survivor of PTSD. The condition took hold in 2001, following the violent death of my brother. It took years for me to rebound from that, but as any survivor will tell you, it never really goes away. You find ways to cope, but that is the best anyone can do. It is a curse I’d wish upon no one.

    Without delving too deeply into the details, I experienced increasingly severe verbal abuse from a person in a position of authority. So severe that often peers would take me aside to express their concern. I reached a point where I could no longer perform for that person. So I turned to the administration and issued a plea for help. I notified them of my PTSD, and that I was already receiving counseling for the abuse from on-campus counselors. The administration slammed the door in my face, refusing to intervene.

    Eventually I took the steps necessary to separate myself from the abusive person. When I did that, it was permissible under campus guidelines. Then, less than two weeks later, the administration developed and implemented a new policy that punished me for my actions. The policy forced me to perform for the abuser, and if I did not, I would be terminated. Then, I reported to the administration I could not adhere to their mandates, and also told them it was unfair to punish me for something that was permissible when I did it.

    They terminated me. My PTSD was not only not accommodated by this ‘accommodating and liberal’ institution, but was used as a weapon of destruction. As you might imagine, there is much more to the story- including a scandal of epic proportions. But the bottom line is, my disability was exploited- even though I had already “pulled myself up by my own boot straps.”

    People such as myself need assistance when our disabilities are not reasonably accommodated. And I am here to tell you that the laws on the books often fail in that regard.

  2. I would argue that we do have a culture of victimhood, and it’s generally a good thing. In other words, we now recognize people as victims, and try to help them instead of falsely presuming that everyone gets equal opportunity. So, we ban discrimination and we accommodate disabilities, and our society is better for it. The problem is that some people try to take advantage of this culture of niceness by exploiting it, by falsely presenting themselves as victims. Today, that group is dominated by the white male conservatives who flock to Donald Trump, who call themselves the victims of political correctness, who embrace the victimhood of attacking victimhood.

    • Perhaps you are correct and I do acknowledge my experience has biased my perception. Even so, when I turned to the equal opportunity office of the university and requested assistance, the first thing I was told was that the purpose of that office was not to assist me. I was told in explicit terms that their purpose was to refute my “claims,” by any means possible. They lawyered-up faster than a dog on a pork chop, because they understood the potential ramifications of their behavior.

      I am not, never was nor ever shall be a victim of my disability. However I am a victim of those who used it was a means to punish me.

    • Well, I must say that while I am usually pleased with the in-depth analyses of the NYT, this article on norms v. deviations leaves my head spinning. I feel as though someone has thrown everything against the wall- waiting to see what sticks… & then ends this diatribe with the qualifier that no one is right or wrong. To me, anyway, this is not journalism. I suspect were this piece handed in for a freshman composition assignment, it would receive a sympathy grade of C-.

      Having worked in medical research for a dozen years- a significant amount of my time was spent studying developmental disabilities and deformities. At least from a medical perspective, the definitions of disability are very clear-cut. I do not include psychology as part of that, as very often their definitions have involved societal norms and qualitative definitions. The example the writer begins with- autism, is farcical. Yes, the disease involves a spectrum of symptoms. Yes, some people with autism are highly intelligent. But there are many more devoid of any ability to communicate with any other human. They are aware of their environment to some degree, but social interaction does not occur. They are disabled, period.

      As for my own disability- severe PTSD, yes, I have been gifted since its onset in 2001. The PTSD combined with severe grief resulted in significant brain damage. Brain damage is a disability, period. For several years I struggled to find my socks, underwear & car keys. Often it would take me hours just to get out the door. Then, I would get lost driving to the gas station I had been at 100 times before. I could tell you more, but I think you get the point. PTSD is a disability.

      In 2009, I had a remarkable re-awakening. Suddenly I had talents I never possessed. My abilities in mathematics, music & reading comprehension simply soared off of any reasoned scale. I reached out to learning counselors and psychologists. I was told that parts of my brain I had never used came to life to replace what was destroyed. Indeed I am grateful for these things. But you know what? I do feel like a freak- and as though I am no longer human. And I sure as hell do not recognize my former self.

      Yeah, I am smart and talented. But I’d trade all of that to be who I once was.

      I am disabled, period.

  3. Aaron,

    This is very good. I did not think much one way or the other about the Brooks article. I am going to study the other articles you mentioned. I posted this on my Facebook page. It is an important and complicated subject. One of the things that happens to me is that when I describe what others view as victim experiences they are not that to me. They were either interesting but painful sources of insight or in some cases personal triumphs because I have never let people stop me when I have been determined to do something. Getting information I want from them is a different issue.

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