Ableism As The Original Sin: When Your Justification Is “I can”

CW: Mention, description and discussion of oppression and abuse

The pattern behind the concept of “ability” is a banally magical concept. It is to be the agent or facilitator of change. Without change every story is merely a description of an ever static state. And from ability springs power. Power in this sense is nothing but the concept of unequally distributed quantities or qualities of ability.

From the human perspective, to have power over something or someone means becoming an architect of the future. To intentionally use powers to alter the state of the world and its inhabitants ever so slightly is one of the most basic and yet most important options available to the ever busy pattern machines that are our brains as it is the vector of how a solution to a problem can be achieved.

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Morality And Violence

Since humans are not indifferent, mindless machines, but social creatures through and through, the concept of morality exists, that is, the frame in which actions, the exercise of power, are accepted by their social context. Hence, morality limits the available actions we can execute without violating our internal social imperative. To not physically hurt each other is not coincidentally one of the most common and arguably primary moral imperative across all cultures, with the codified right to effect or implement corporal or even capital punishment at their discretion most often signifying the most powerful institutions and classes in society.

After all violence in any form, or the mere threat of it, as an ability to coerce people into a specific behavior means you can coerce people into the behavior of retroactively justifying the violence you have done to them. And that makes things difficult. Mostly because, in the given social context, this means that an act of violence can control the very morality that is meant to control it. This also feeds into the narrative that violence was some raw form of “human nature”. It’s grossly more likely that this is a simple result of the tendency of violent behaviors dominating, overtaking and, last but not least, overshadowing non-violent behaviors.

And we all know violence and we all are to a reasonable degree aware of the violence we could inflict upon others in any given situation. Or at least our brains are aware of it. Ever busy trying to predict our more or less immediate future, both without any action on our part and all actions that our brain is familiar with, especially when it resonates with the current situation in any way. Our brains do that pretty much at random, and most of the scenarios they come up with are harmless, but some of them are inevitably unethical to boot, often violent. Sometimes we unexpectedly become aware of this process, when our internalized story patterns concerned with morality resonate or dissonate strongly, alerting the consciousness. This is when we suddenly find ourselves contemplating to take an opportunity to put someone else in harms way or exploit their vulnerability in any way. For most people, this is just a more or less serious reason to doubt their own internal moral alignment or “sanity”. But it’s that constant process where the decision is made whether or not to act out any particular scenario.
A similar but regressive and retroactive process evaluates your current activity and past activities and tries to bring them into resonance with who we think we are.

Violence is disruptive to social connections, albeit often not immediately visible, since it doesn’t necessarily disrupt social interaction or order, but might as well enforce them. Disconnected from others, the remaining perspective on the morality of an individuals actions is controlled by that part of the social context that perpetrates the violence, be it a specific social subgroup or a single individual. Morality is thus not seen through the perspectives of all involved, but only a specific subset of them. The social imperative is still active in this subset of people, and thus the regressive/retroactive process attempting to find resonance between what we do and the moral person we want to be runs head on into a contradiction. And there are two fundamental ways to react to it. One is to consider our transgressions, which are immoral and thus would mean facing a truly uncomfortable realization, the other is to change our understanding of reality until it fits our need to feel as morally upstanding people. This can again happen in any social subset with at least one individual and may or may not happen consciously or unconsciously.

Old Story In New Words

This culminates in the story of “might makes right”, where rule of force becomes morality itself. The victims of violence thereby are reclassified as people who “had it coming”, whose inability to prevent this violence, who command inadequate quantity or quality of ability to keep the perpetrators from victimizing them, in short, to people who deserve to be violated. Ability becomes a measure of human worth. I would argue from this, that ableism is indeed the oldest and most fundamental form of oppression. This also ties seamlessly into the discussion of animacy in general.

And because it’s such an old story, it goes largely unnoticed, as it, for all we know, has always been like that, though its global free reign in the “modern” world is unprecedented.

Human Worth

Insults, swearing, derogatory statements, they are overwhelmingly and almost uniformly coded into notions of ableism. What makes someone or something lesser than us is its inability. Whatever we don’t like for whatever reason we project a form of inability on. Since this is such a thoroughly internalized association, it can be both an agent and a tool, even at the same time. We can lessen the value of something by associating it with inability, or the perceived or real inability of something can determine the value we give it.

This in turn is the foundation for all kinds of oppression of any kind in any form. It finds its expression on all levels of human interaction, but most notably in oppression. Any kind of oppression can only exist if the oppressed are unable to force their oppressors to consider their perspective as worthy of consideration. The precise nature of power differentials in human relations is its own worthwhile topic, of course.
But ultimately, to calmly discuss whether someone should be awarded full recognition of their humanity can only be done by people that are not forced to just accept the humanity of the someone in question.

They are able to ignore it. They are able to silence and deny it. They are, to some degree, even able to make these people believe that they don’t deserve their humanity recognized, that how their oppressors view them is “correct”, “real” or “objective". And it doesn’t matter what explanation they give to themselves or others. They do it because they can.

Conclusion

If we want to stop the pattern of oppression from replicating itself through us over and over again, it doesn’t suffice to just end or overturn the specific kinds of oppression we recognize, though, it cannot be the precondition to do so. Archaic ableism is the root from which new forms of oppression will sprout, no matter how many branches we trim. We need to no longer exclude the perspectives of those that cannot force us to consider them. Because oppression is the continued exclusion, disguised as a lack of inclusion of the lesser other into the ingroup of worthy beings. Being able to exclude them must no longer be reason enough to do so. Our self-image must no longer be more important than the damage we do, just because we can.

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Cat Harsis

Cat Harsis

Just a polynary person (they/them) trying to make sense of the world and share their insights. @ purecatharsis on Facebook/Instagram, @puRRcatharsis on twitter