Sunday, June 01, 2008

Remembering Discrimination

I have this theory about how people remember pain, and how those memories are recalled and used in daily life. I've written about it at length here, but basically the idea is this: pain is a traumatic experience that would harm the mind if it were remembered clearly, so the human brain regularly blurs the memory of pain so that it is more remote. Its easy to remember the fact that pain is unpleasant and distressing, but its not at all easy to remember the actual sensation. My evidence for this theory is both my own experience with chronic pain- which is difficult to remember even when I experience it every day- and also signs in the relatively healthy population that indicate that people don't remember the pains they've encountered in the past, things like drug laws that severely punish chronic pain sufferers, doctors who consider a set amount of daily pain to be perfectly acceptable and not worth treating, people who are otherwise compassionate who just assume that chronic pain sufferers choose not to engage in certain activities simply because they are lazy, and so on. People act like they have no idea what pain is, because they really don't remember it when they aren't experiencing it.

I have a more tentative corollary to this theory: discrimination is like pain in that it is a traumatic experience that is difficult to understand unless you are currently on the receiving end of it. I used to be pretty sure that this was true, but now I'm not as sure.

My evidence in favor of this theory was my experience with disability rights activism. As I've said before, my acceptance of my disability has transformed the way I see the world, my place in it, and the place of other people. I have a stronger sense of the goods of society, which includes a much better understanding of all the ways those in power discriminate against out groups on the basis of race, gender, religion, etc. I understand sexism and racism better because I understand disablism. Obviously there are differences between various outgroups, and there are a lot of ways in which being female, or being gay, or being Latino, or whatever, is not at all like being disabled. But I think that, for example, understanding the ways in which being seen as a "good" crip (that is, inspiring but not socially challenging, asexual and passive and dependent) is just as marginalizing as a negative stereotype, helps me understand how being seen as a "good" woman (that is, motherly and submissive, pretty and a good cook) can be just as marginalizing as negative stereotypes of women. And I think that knowing the cost of trying to "pass" for perfectly healthy helps me better understand what it must be like for a homosexual person to "pass" for straight: not only is there the cost in physical pain, but I have to avoid talking about most of what my life is like, hiding the things that are important to me for the sake of the social comfort of the person I'm talking to. Obviously it's not the same. But I think its similar, and while my understanding of discrimination in all it's forms certainly isn't perfect, its better than it used to be.

The thing is, though, that political events of the last few months have clearly proven to me that experiencing discrimination yourself doesn't necessarily bring understanding of the discrimination that anyone else experiences, even if you understand what is going on in your own situation. When the Democratic primary races started, I assumed that in general people who voted Democratic would think more or less along the same lines I do: people who experience discrimination on whatever basis have more in common with each other than with people who don't experience discrimination regularly. So white women are more likely to have philosophies and voting patterns in common with minorities than with white men. And as far as I know this has traditionally been the case (although its not like I'm an expert on election history). The Democratic party is the party of women and minorities and the poor and those marginalized on the basis of religion or gender or any damn thing, right?

But it seems like I was wrong. It seems like there are a lot of people out there who think that the best way to achieve power for their particular marginalized group is to crowd out anyone else. There is a particularly nasty video making the rounds of a Hillary supporter making racially based arguments against Obama, and the Hillary Sexism Watch at Shakesville is up to installment #104. All this infighting makes me think that I am entirely wrong about the instructive value of discrimination. Maybe its just that you have to chose to learn, and then you have to chose to generalize from your own experience to others' experiences. Maybe we're just not brave enough to empathize with others who are in pain.

I also don't think that this is likely to work, as a political tactic. I mean, as a chronic pain sufferer, if I want to accomplish a political goal like, say, increasing funding into research on pain and brain function, my best bet is to include everyone who suffers into the same coalition. When it comes to policy and social movements that benefit those with chronic pain, there is no difference between people with arthritis, people with migraines, people with phantom limb pain, people with fibromyalgia, or people with diabetic neuropathy. I believe it is the same for those who are trying to fight discrimination. We all have the same goals, and forcing divisions does no one any good.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey Tayi,

I liked your writing and your blog.Well i think each and every one of us is incapacitated in one or the other way and i think its horrible being mentally altered (here i refer to discrimination,biasness and being narrow-minded) than being physically disabled.

Keep writing