A history of progressive ableism that remains today

For clarity: I know that other progressive activists do great work. This is an anti-ableism post. It should be interpreted in this manner rather than as anti-progressive. 

Introduction

Too often, progressives use ableism to accomplish their goals. I do not mean just using some words that many disabled people consider offensive.  I mean things like advocating for ableist gun reform laws. I also mean things like attributing people’s worst traits to mental health disabilities, like people do with Trump.

In the 20th century, progressives gained momentum. Progressives of this time were not the same as they are today, but the ableism is still around.  Then, the cause to rally around was eugenics. I am providing eugenics as a historical example of progressive ableism – and will point out how it still lurks in undertows of thought.

Historical example: The early 20th century and Progressive Era eugenics

Eugenics was a movement that gained some level of popularity in the early 20th century (and still continues in modern forms today). Supporters of eugenics wanted to prevent the procreation of the “unfit” and promote “better breeding.” Eugenics was popular with progressives, including reformers and activists, of the early 20th century.

The Eugenics Record Office (ERO), intended to serve as a hub for American eugenics research, was financed at one point by the Carnegie Institution. Teddy Roosevelt once wrote a letter to eugenicist Charles Davenport of the ERO about “degenerates” that said:

Farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed, and let all the increase come from the worst stock, would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum. Yet we fail to understand that such conduct is rational compared to the conduct of a nation which permits unlimited breeding from the worst stocks, physically and morally… Someday we will realize that the prime duty… of the good citizen of the right type, is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.

A reformer included Victoria Woodhull, a suffragist known for being the first woman to run for president (in 1872). Another was inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Several groups of feminist reformers, including the National League of Women Voters, had eugenics-based legal reform as part of their goals.

Stop making me have to defend insidious people from ableism

Bigoted actions and words from Trump are the result of bigotry. And bigotry is not a mental health disability, though people with mental health disabilities can also be bigots. We are people and vary in thoughts and opinions. But I’d really like prominent progressive activists to acknowledge this and stop making the case for Trump being crazy. That way, people with mental health disabilities won’t face as much ableism. And I won’t have to keep defending insidious people from ableism. 

I defend even people I loathe from ableism because public figure he may be, but attributing bigotry to disability hurts all people with mental health disabilities. And I do it also because when progressives pull out the “But no sane person would do that!” or “Trump is crazy!” lines, this is what they are saying:

Only crazy people can be responsible for such vile acts.

It’s the line of thinking that mental health disability must be responsible for acts society can’t explain, acts society considers terrible. The unintentional undertones of this speak of eugenics to me. Eugenicists of the past posited that many people, especially marginalized people, had increased rates of poverty and crime due to mental and moral “deficits.”

Today, mental health is blamed for everything, from mass shootings to having a poor moral compass – and Donald Trump’s actions and bigotry. Right-wingers and the GOP are the party of eugenics themselves, for sure, and I find that loathsome. But progressives should stop blaming mental health as they oppose damaging policies and actions.  

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Ableism on the Left

Here’s some things that highlight for you that ableism is not just a right-wing issue:

My friend got called the r-slur for being an ally to the mental health community and penning an opinion piece on “Stop calling Trump crazy.” The sad and terrible irony is so great I don’t know where to start. Perry noted that people attacked him “who, in theory, are on my side in many issues.” Theoretically, people on the left and people who call themselves progressive Democrats are against ableism and bigotry. Bernie Sanders said Republicans were the reason we needed mental health care as a “joke” in one of the Democratic debates. The audience laughed. But wrong does not mean crazy.

Salman Rushdie, who supported President Obama’s election and has criticized Republicans before, stated the following in an August 12 Tweet: “No, I’m backing the non-insane candidate. And Flann O’Brien would be ashamed you’re using his name.”

salman rushdie assholery

When a disability activist, DandelionGirl on Twitter, expressed that Rushdie’s tweet was distasteful and ableist, lamenting, “<sigh> another fave using ableist language. Will the mental illness stigma ever end?” he responded with the following: ““Ableist?” Oh, sorry. Trump is not insane (unfair to insane people). He’s just “differently abled.””

salman rushdie being an asshole'

Someone commented on a Facebook share about a Trump spokesperson saying something factually inaccurate about President Obama starting the war in Afghanistan. They said of Donald Trump and his spokesperson, “I wonder what mental institution he found her in and why he got her out!”

To conclude what could be an even longer list of ableist actions, the founder of the DiagnoseTrump Twitter hashtag (arguments against this presented by s.e. smith for Bustle in the link) is a Democrat. Many disabled people/people with mental health needs have spoken out against the DiagnoseTrump hashtag and pathologizing Trump, as s.e. smith did for Bustle.

I am a mentally ill, twice-institutionalized in a psych ward person. I read your posts. I read your comments. Many of us do. We all notice. We notice how much you want to blame mental illness for bigotry and believe it’s because people are sick in the head that people could say and do such things. For distance – it’s easier to not acknowledge society’s shortcomings when you can point fingers at mental illness. We notice how much you are willing to throw us under the bus to try and defeat Trump. Defeating Trump is a good cause. Using ableism to do it is unnecessary and increases stigma. It hurts people, including me. We know what you think.

Do you think that actually helps our mental health? Encourages people to reach out to others when they’re struggling? Isn’t that what you want – for us to get treatment? You want us to get treatment, and then blame bigotry on mental illness and use it as a prop to try and defeat Trump. Note that I am not advocating for us to focus on treatment in mental health advocacy – we should have the right to self-directed services if we want them.

But if that’s what you want, then openly linking bigotry to mental illness and joking about mental institutions will not help. Maybe try working to decrease the amount of bigotry in the mental health system (that does not respect racial, disabled, ethnic, gender, and sexual identities). Maybe try advocating for changing the way it involuntarily holds people in psych wards and institutions (get us more community-based services). Maybe try working to make it more affordable? Maybe try not forcing us into a broken system that treats us as unpeople. Maybe don’t talk about us like we’re the root of all evil.

I am holding the left Democrats responsible for perpetuating discrimination and stigma. Trump and and the GOP are assuredly ableist – but for the Democratic Party, a party that sets itself up as being not-Republicans and not-bigoted and more progressive, this betrays their – and society’s – ableism. I have pointed out before that even when journalism is responsible, people’s comments bring out society’s ableism. People’s comments show how little they actually think before they make such comments – or if they do think, they find it acceptable.

We don’t need to throw disabled people, and people with mental health needs, under the bus to make our points. We don’t need to do that to ensure Trump’s defeat.

Ableism is not just a right-wing issue.