Sunday, 9 September 2007

Power and pity

(n/b: this started off as a not-particularly BDSM-related post at FMMA, but it occurred to me at the end of it that it might be worth discussing over here as well, as it might take some different directions than from on FMMA).

There was this great blogswarm the other day, the "Protest Pity" anti-Telethon marathon. Really an eye-opener if you, like me, hadn't given this particular matter much thought before beyond something like "well, I'd rather stick flaming hot needles in my eyes than watch or listen to Jerry Lewis for five seconds in -any- circumstances, and I expect he probably is icky and mawkish about it, but I suppose it's all for a good cause."

For example, to pick one entry (of many) at random, New Mobility highlights some classic Lewis quotage:

This quote is from a May 20, 2001 interview on CBS News Sunday Morning.

"If it's pity we'll get some money. I'm just giving you the facts. Pity ... if you don't want to be pitied for being a cripple in a wheelchair, don't come out of the house."

The following quotes, archived on, come from Leslie Bennetts' article, "Jerry v. the Kids," Vanity Fair, September 1993:

About activists who criticize him for using pity to raise money:

"It just kills me to think about these people getting publicity. These people are leeches. They all glommed on to being Jerry-bashers. What did they have before that? They're disabled people who are so bitter at the bad hand they've been dealt that they have to take down somebody who's doing good. There's 19 of them, but these people can hurt what I have built for 45 years. There's a million and a half people who depend on what I do! I've raised one billion three hundred million dollars.

These 19 people don't want me to do that. They want me to stop now? [censored] them. Do it in caps. [censored] THEM."

...During the 1991 MDA Telethon, Lewis said that if a person is diagnosed with the disability called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis:

"You might as well put a gun in your mouth."

I liked the way Rettdevil's Rants put it, also, focusing on the infantilization of PWD in general as well as the exploitation of the actual children:

Raising kids to believe that who they are is less than satisfactory really sucks, people. In fact, it'd be abuse if they were typical children. Then putting them on TV to talk about how their lives are sooooo miserable because they're defective? Or videoing them or interviewing their families to talk about how their condition makes their lives soooo impossible? HELLO!...

...It's also interesting to note that children are the only ones they ever ask about things, and parents. It is easier to get children to agree that they are sick and damaged I suppose. Plus adults just aren't as cute on the posters for the most part. It isn't like we die off in vast swathes for most conditions (MD isn't usually deadly, mito can be but often isn't IDed till adulthood even, autism isn't deadly unless your parents off you, Rett only has a slightly increased risk of death, et cetera et cetera...). Adults just don't bring in the money.

Why not make disability something that socially IS instead? We're all going to be disabled someday unless we are struck by a truck or lightening or a flying gymnast who was previously invisible (oh wait. my foot won't let me do that anymore. THAT risk is taken care of...). Making issues medical that aren't makes people feel defective when they aren't-they're just different. It also takes financial advantage of vulnerable populations, and takes up resources from actual medical issues.

Treat medical problems medically. Treat social issues socially. Being different isn't medical. It really is that simple.


Much more at the blogswarm HQ.

What strikes me is how diverse the crowd talking about this is--there are people coming at this making parallels with autism, with deafness, with all manner of conditions. It occurs to me, looking at all this, that while the issues may be different there's a note that's rather eerily familiar to me as well:

The word of the day is objectification, brethren and cistern.

Here on this blog, and at linked conversations elsewhere, we've been talking a lot about the various blind spots of people who supposedly know all about what this means (feminists, progressives) and how that affects various people who don't fit into slot A -or- B. And how goddam frustrating the whole thing is. It's not all about sex, people. It's about -dehumanizing.- Seeing someone as a cardboard cutout rather than a full three-dimensional being with agency and an inner life of hir own, thanks very much. And -one- of the methods for that is, ayup, pity. (Which is to be distinguished from empathy). And no, I don't guess it IS all that harmless: Look at some of those Jerry Lewis quotes. Look at the extraordinary selfishness and callousness revealed there: It's not about the people he's supposed to be helping, it's about his image of -himself- as a great and bountiful Savior. Compare and contrast with...well, regular readers may have an inkling of where I'm going with this.

The way some professionals behave toward their supposed proteg├ęs. What happens when someone who -should- fit the to-be-pitied demographic doesn't follow the script. Who isn't properly -grateful-.

Then, oh then, do the fangs come out. And in defense of what, exactly? All those other poor helpless cases that the bad ungrateful freak anomaly is clearly out to harm? Or the suggestion that in fact more of the poor helpless dollies and poster children and pillow angels might not in fact be all that helpless or passive after all?

And while I'm thinking of that, I'm reminded, funnily enough, of this great and hilarious post of Kim's: Poor Li'l Loveblossom. Seriously, I can't possibly do it justice: you'll just have to see for yourself. At the end of it though, she makes this observation:

In this way, maybe Ol' Vanilla Girl me gets the BDSM thing somewhat. There is something visceral in the need to rescue, to nurture after hurting.

This is very astute. Yep, absolutely: there IS a power dynamic here. What I love about Kim is that she cops to this, doesn't necessarily see it as a -bad- thing, that surreptitious toppiness in the "rescuer" role. Because, look, it isn't. It's just part of the human condition, as are all power dynamics. If you're conscious of it, you can do terrific things with it: You can rescue the people or creatures or situtations who genuinely -want- and -need- to be rescued. You can do it as a career; you can do it as a (consensual) game, you can do it in all sorts of ways.

What ISN'T cool is when you -don't- cop to it. When you've convinced yourself that it's -only- about your selfless, selfless, self-sacrifices for all the poor poor poor things who just -couldn't make it- without -your help.-

How you know the difference is, how pissed off it makes you when some of 'em start showing signs that they CAN make it without your help.

Or, in another context, as the woman says:

Because we are NOT the world’s special case, or pet issue.

We are not to be recruited, convinced, or calmed down. We are not here to be enlightened, uplifted or “bettered”.

We want to live. And it’s not about cool or fun or hip . It’s about

Our lives ,Our rights, Our terms.

h/t Arthritic Young Thing and Sly Civilian for the reminder.


Kim said...

Loveblossom told me to tell you she is a "sublimated lesbian."

And thanks for the props.

cripchick said...

thanks for posting this, you did a great job explaining objectifcation :)

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