Feminism, secularism, skepticism, and ableism

It has been written before that secularism and skepticism and, for that matter, feminism have a big. honkin’. huge. ableism problem.

So it should come as no surprise to me, really, that there are not many-if any-secular places for chronic illness and disability support. Not only are there not many secular spaces, but most of the ones I’ve run across for my particular disabilities are overtly religious. This is a disservice to all atheists and people of minority faith groups who live with disabilities. We have a choice: don’t get support or have anyone to talk to, or sit silently and awkwardly when everyone gets all Jesusy (“praise god!” noooo, praise Vimpat thankyouverymuch), or create ‘drama’ by requesting that people not do that.

Ok, so let’s talk about why this happens and why it’s an issue.

Religious communities do have a history-at least some of them-of building, well, a community. They have that whole idea of Jesus healing the sick and the disabled and all that, so having groups for disabled people is in line with the mission of some of them. That’s a valuable service and yay them and I’m sure it’s a great comfort for religious people who have disabilities or chronic illnesses. However, the “Jesus heals the sick, faith of a mustard seed, et cetera” tends to make them very aggressively Christian (in my area & the corners of the internet I’ve explored) and very aggressively into thanking Jesus when evidence based interventions work, or asking Jesus-rather than people who understand science based interventions-to help when someone is having a hard time. It’s…very uncomfortable.

And I shouldn’t have to tell any of our audience here why a faith-based support group makes not just atheists, but feminists as well, a bit uncomfortable. I don’t want to hear how my endometriosis is because of the sin of Eve and the fall and all that, thank you. Or my catamenial seizure exacerbations for that matter. It has nothing to do with the depravity of women. It has everything to do with that’s how bodies work. Just shut up about how naturally sinful I am for having a uterus, stop praying for me, pass me some tea, sympathy, and a recommendation for a doctor who isn’t going to tell me to do more yoga, thank you.

So where is the non-religious, secular, feminist response to these?

It doesn’t exist, of course. Not yet. Intersectionality? Is something both movements, on the whole, are kind of not awesome at. Disabled, chronically ill folks? We get left behind, for a few reasons.

First, a lot of disabilities do affect how we think. That’s just the way it is. If they don’t, the treatments do. Disabilities can make people tired. Second,  both groups sure love their ableism. Lots of famous, professional atheists and feminists love calling things stupid, crazy, psycho, lame. These are ableist things. All of them. Why? Because they are making a disability or something associated with a disability into the perfect insult for how terrible something is. Using a trait of a disability as an insult, as your stand in for “really really bad” is ableist. Another favorite is the “well maybe he had Asperger’s” defense. No. Stop. Also ableist. Don’t do that. Do not say “this kind of brain creates creeps”. That is unacceptable; it isn’t ok to say that being a member of any other demographic causes creepdom. It’s not OK to say it about my demographic, either.

How can a movement that is too lazy, yes lazy, to find an argument other than slamming on disabled people reconcile that with offering support? Currently they don’t. Many feminists want to hold onto their ableism more than they want to work for equality for all women, and many skeptics want to hold onto their intellectual superiority about not having imaginary friends more than they want to work with people with disabilities. I don’t have any idea why this is, except that it’s easier, and that people tend to be self-centered and once  their concerns are addressed they’re good.

Another reason is that a lot of feminism seems to be about how capable women are. And women are capable! As are non-binary people! But that doesn’t mean all women have the same capabilities! Further, worth and capability are not, or should not, be synonymous. All people, regardless of gender or ability status or race or sexuality or any other thing, should be seen as worthy of respect and rights. Our worth is not, or at least should not, be determined by what our capabilities are. Meritocracy should not be the ultimate decider of who deserves rights. That’s wrong. You’d think feminists would know that. A lot…well, they may know it but they don’t live that knowledge.When the focus is on “we can do that too”, the people who cannot do that tend to get left behind, trampled in the rush to prove worth by proving ability.

Rights are not a zero-sum game, yet the effect of this is to gain rights for (some) marginalized people by stomping on other, more marginalized people. That’s not the feminism I signed up for. Or, more accurately, will sign up for when they’re not using me as a stepping stone to equality. The short-lived FWD project is the only feminist work I’ve seen that has convinced me that feminism might have a place for me. I’ve yet to find a secular space that feels particularly safe.

So how can these 2 groups change this? First, drop the ableism. If you can’t make your points without using oppression as a weapon, you can’t make your point. It’s hypocritical for anti-oppression activists to use this tactic. Be better than that. It’s also hypocritical for people who are all about how rational they are to make ableist, often ad hominem (or, at best, nonspecific) arguments rather than actually making specific criticisms. “Homeopathy is stupid” is not a good argument. “Homeopathy’s proposed mechanism of action is at odds with reality” is an argument. See the difference?

Second, create space for us. These groups, both of them, have claimed to want people who share the characteristic (be it disbelief in gods or being read as female & suffering from patriarchy) to be at their table. So get a ramp in, widen the aisles, embiggen your print, and send us engraved invitations that ask if people have other access needs (the list in this sentence? Not even a little exhaustive. It doesn’t hit any of my access needs at all, actually). Since these spaces have been so very hostile to people with disabilities-visible and invisible-people interested in intersectionality are going to have to work a little bit. Disabled people have to work a lot for basic access, so make it easier. Show us that you want us there. Make an extra effort. And do so without whining about those nasty demanding disabled people (oh if I am never described that way again it’ll be too soon…). Pull the table a bit closer to us instead of demanding we come the whole way.

Thirdly, give us support options. I ran into the ableism problem in both feminism and skepticism when looking fruitlessly for reality-based, non-sexist, non-oppressive places to find ways to deal with freaky rare disabilities and similar pains in the ass. They don’t appear to exist. My choices are Jesus and gender roles, chakra aligning and homeopathy, or nothing at all. Change that. We should be a part of these movements too, not just Those People Over There.

K, who is biracial, is a vintage 1982 autistic, epileptic, and activist who discovered a complete lack of believing in gods at church camp in 2000. Oops. K has written for numerous blogs and autism publications and is tired of preaching to the choir about intersectionality.

5 Thoughts on “Feminism, secularism, skepticism, and ableism

  1. Another reason is that a lot of feminism seems to be about how capable women are. And women are capable! As are non-binary people! But that doesn’t mean all women have the same capabilities! Further, worth and capability are not, or should not, be synonymous. All people, regardless of gender or ability status or race or sexuality or any other thing, should be seen as worthy of respect and rights. Our worth is not, or at least should not, be determined by what our capabilities are.

    I like this insight a lot. You’re right; feminism does focus on the capability of women so much that it runs the risk of conflating worth and capability. You’re also right that we should know better.

    Perhaps ironically, I’ve seen much more discussion of ableism in secular blogs than I have in any of the other on-line communities in which I participate. I’ve certainly– and on more than one occasion– learned to be careful about wording or to consider accessibility issues I’d never thought about before. Thanks for continuing to educate us.

    To all the writers: I’m really enjoying the variety of posts on this blog!

  2. This one really made me think. The atheist/skeptic community has been very supportive of me and many of my friends; I wish this were more widely available to all members of the community, particularly those with disabilities. It’s something that seems to be germinating but has not really come to fruition. Ah, so much work to be done.

  3. Writing as an able-bodied atheist feminist fairly new to the ideas of ableism. Please bear with me; I’m not trying to be insensitive.

    First of all, I’m not at all surprised at the problem of intersectionality. I know that among atheists and other secular types, feminism is still a problem. I also know there’s a serious lack of secular support for a whole LOT of things (writing from the Bible Belt here), disability services included. So I’m not disputing your main claim.

    I guess the thing I struggle with is the rejection of “stupid, crazy, psycho, lame.” Now I’m at least well versed enough in feminism I’m not going to tell you “lighten up!” or that you’re “getting all upset about nothing!” (perhaps it’s that time of the month? :-p) If those offend you, then they do, and that’s a problem. It doesn’t matter one iota what my experience is or what my intentions are or aren’t in saying those words.

    Now, that said. I do feel like we still need words for that are (forgive me, for lack of a better word) stupid, but not slow, not learning disabled, not mentally handicapped. Like my decision to ride my bike one-handed over a speed bump last weekend… I feel like we still need a word for (again, please forgive me) crazy, but not psychologically impaired, a person living with a diagnosed mental illness, etc. Like a bride insisting that everything go her way or a wholly unpredictable circumstance. What do you propose for these sorts of situations? What is the alternative?

    Is it possible to separate these adjectives when they are not talking about people? I do this with cursing. I’ll swear like a sailor about traffic, news stories, experiences, but cursing AT people? That’s out of bounds because it’s so offensive. Do you personally find it equally offensive for me to say “wow, I really made a stupid decision there” and “whatever, he’s just being stupid”? I’ve thought through this by analogy with “gay,” which plenty of people use to be mean “bad” but I find offensive. One difference in my mind is that “gay” refers ONLY to a person — a homosexual person. I don’t see the same humanization of “stupid” and … okay, I do see it for psycho and lame. :) Huh.

    Okay, I’ll try. But if you have any thoughts or arguments or resources that might help me understand better, I’d appreciate them! And thank you for making me think about my own privilege. It’s easy to get too tied up in our own little cults of underdogs. :)

  4. Okay, I Googled it for myself, read up on the basic issues AND found many sites already addressing alternative vocabulary. :-D (backpat for properly using the internet…)

    But I’d still love to hear any other feedback or comments.

  5. ischemgeek on June 21, 2013 at 6:40 pm said:

    Shannon, there’s lots and lots of alternative vocabulary:

    Stupid can be replaced with: Foolish, asinine, ridiculous, silly, strange
    Lame can be replaced with: Uncool/not cool, ridiculous, bad
    Crazy as positive can be replaced with: Sweet, awesome, cool, amazing
    Crazy as negative/Psycho can be replaced with: Scary, disturbing, appalling, vile, horrible
    Crazy as magnifier can be replaced with: really, super

    As for using stupid in your examples, I need to use a bit of personal history: When I was a kid, my speech impediment, geekiness, and as-yet-undiagnosed social impairments meant that I was bullied. A lot. Think of bully horror stories, and I guarantee you mine was probably on par with them. My parents became emotionally abusive when they lost their tempers, too.

    I was called stupid. A lot. About as much as I was called “retarded.” And interchangeably with “retarded.” So substitute “retard/retarded” in for stupid wherever you’re thinking about using it, and ask yourself if it would be okay. No? Then stupid isn’t. Why? Because stupid, as a slur, does exactly the same things that retarded does. It is retarded for polite company – and that’s completely messed up that it’s considered “polite.”

    Now, if you’re talking about things other people called you, that’s a different story. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong with me saying that people called me retarded or stupid when I was a kid. I am relaying a thing that happened. The wrong is not in me for saying what they called me, it is in them for using that word against me in the first place.

    So hope that helps.

Post Navigation