Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Privilege of Despite

You've read those newspaper stories, heard those radio/television interviews. You've probably even heard someone say it to your face: "So nice to see you getting on, despite ... uncomfortable pause ..." Or "In spite of her disability, she has scaled Mount Everest, swum the Channel, repelled the hordes of Visi-Goth invaders, and now ..." Where does the spite of "in spite" and "despite" come from? What is that spite that enables you, you poor disabled person, to overcome the challenges life has placed before you? Do you, you bitter little cripple, you, really have that much "spite" within you?

I know that we usually use these words to mean something like "without being prevented by," but I started wondering whether the spite segment of these words really could also have the sense of spite as in spiteful ... a kind of malicious ill-willed malevolence, showing a nasty need to vent on or humiliate someone. I got stuck at the idea of trying to humiliate my disability. Trying to feel malicious towards it. It all got rather Monty Python-esque.

So, I tried going at the problem the other way. What do we gain by consistently characterizing a disabled person's ability to function "despite" her disability as a "despite" rather than a "with?" What lies behind that need to see a disability as an obstacle rather than a form of human variation? I am not a sociologist with the kind of theoretical insights to be able to answer those questions, but several things seem to me to exist on a kind of analogous plane: inspiration and role models.

Inspiration from above tends to be unattainable. We can be inspired by towering figures, but most of us are ordinary. Just ordinary. The achievements of the great seem a long way off and are easily beyond our reach. We can try to do whatever we can in the small spheres in which we operate, but greatness, well, that is unlikely. We can nonetheless be inspired from below. And disabled people are always below. Even if your average nondisabled is not likely to run a marathon, the idea that a disabled person might seems inspirational. The very inspiration comes as much from the fact that 26 miles is a bloody long way as from the fact that it is an especially bloody long way when you associate disability with "can't." If even she can do it, I can certainly do it. Or: If this person can do that despite all the burdens of his or her disability, U can surely do this little thing. With all my advantages, I could surely do that or even this (probably non-related thing), if I put my mind to it.

And that's it for me. The despite, in spite thing are about privilege. They are about the privilege of thinking that you have privilege, the privilege of being able to think from what the you assume is a position of privilege. It is about being able to assume that you have more advantages, a better life, more resources, etc. It is the privilege of assuming, incorrectly, that disability is never you, that you are somehow better off, unaffected ... that you have a better. It is the privilege of thinking that someone else's life is hell.

Yeah. That's it. The privilege of assuming you are isolated, protected, privileged.


  1. Thanks for this careful, layered analysis of language -- I think it's important.

  2. Awesome post, WCD. I need to digest this a bit before adding anything else (headache).

  3. Despite is always tricky. The problem is in its presumption.

    For example, I very much admire some friends and family who despite facing a load of crap in their lives, have survived, kept their spirits or achieved something. However, being close I know something about what they had to overcome.

    As opposed to "It's amazing you go on living, despite being in a wheelchair" (or whatever).

    Because the real stories wouldn't make good copy; they're complicated and often the obstacle hasn't got the universal symbol of tragedy that is impairment. For example, not many people will have sympathy for my friend who avoided bankruptcy despite being really terrible with money. But I think what he did was amazing.

    Personally, I take my inspiration from extraordinarily people. I remember during one period sick in bed when I was feeling terribly sorry for myself and extremely fed up of the four walls I thought, "Well if Mandela could manage 28 years on Robin Island, perhaps I can push through another week of this."

    At which point I realised I had completely lost perspective...

  4. I am going to get a t-shirt printed that says 'I am not brave! Got it?'. Bravery denotes choosing the path that will deliberately put you in danger for a noble reason. This is a path I most certainly did *not* choose.

    It's really interesting that everything on TV about disabled people is about the 'superhero' angle. Why can't we just have programs about us doing normal things (or not doing normal things because you can't negotiate public transport as the case may be!). There's a lot about disabled athletes or other extraordinary feats but nothing about the everyday stuff and I think that's why a lot of AB people have so much trouble 'getting it'.

  5. Can't type much, but loved this. Thank you.

  6. Sorry, Jennifer. Poor mouse control led to your comment being rejected.

    Here it is

    ennifer has left a new comment on your post "The Privilege of Despite":

    I think the most alarming thing about "despite" or "inspite of" is the ignorance it reveals.

    Imagine: "She manged to earn a BA, despite having never owned a cat."

    A lot of so-called "inspiration" stories are about people who do things that, well, they can do. Which is insulting to both the subject of the article and the readers.

    --> Now it can be *interesting* reading, to learn about alternate ways to do things. And "inspiring" in the limited sense of, "oh, yeah, now I see how I could do that, too, hadn't thought of that work-around."

    But I'm with goldfish. Most heroism is way under the radar, because you have to know what the *real* obstacles were, in order to appreciate what it took to overcome them.


  7. I think you've got it. It's a distancing method. Like a backhanded way of putting someone up on that pedestal that is so high they never have to contemplate being there themselves. Or think they don't.

  8. I think I get what Jennifer is saying, and I agree: instead of remarking that she climbed a mountain despite her ability, why not ask "how did you climb that mountain with your disability?" or "how did you earn your ba with a learning disability?" or "how do you dance so well in wheelchair?" These questions come from a place of genuine interest, and the answers to them will be both extraordinary and ordinary. Don't you think?

  9. Jennifer1:28 PM

    Appreciate your rescuing it, WCD. :-).