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.