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Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Ethics of the 'Tragedy' Approach

Since I started thinking critically about blindness, I have repeatedly argued in this blog against the widely held view that blindness, or indeed any disability, is a tragedy. I have become interested in the 'personal non-tragedy' approach to disability and in March 2013 I am organising a study day to explore issues around tragedy and disability.

I thought that seeing disability as a tragedy perpetuated society's view of the disabled (and thus disabled people's view of themselves) as inferior, somehow lesser people. In a post on Tina Nash - the woman ferociously blinded by her boyfriend Shane Jenkin in 2011 -  I noted how Tina herself resisted the media's attempts to assign the traditional disability labels of 'brave' and 'courageous' to her. I was trying to argue that this resistance demonstrates that disability is not inherently tragic and that Tina's refusal to see herself as a victim was empowering not just for her but also for other disabled people. 

I recently received a very angry response to my Tina Nash post from Maria Brody. Maria's comments, which I found shocking and hurtful, accused me of being more immoral, more evil, than Tina's attacker. Maria's argument is that by refusing to see disability as a tragedy, I undermine the severity of Jenkin's crime and make disabled people feel guilty for wanting to be 'whole' again. Her comments, as well as demonstrating the alarming pervasiveness of myths of blindness and disability amongst the general public, raise important questions about the ethics of my 'personal non-ttragedy' approach. Maria sent me her comments by e-mail and I include them in full below in italics, with my responses in bold.

You do realize that it is a mindset such as the one you describe that contributes to torturers like Shane Jenkin getting only six years in prison? After which he can happily go out again and pluck out someone else's eyes. Creating more blindness. More tragedy, yes.
I think your post is a massive insult to victims of violence.

I did not intend to insult anyone nor to belittle Jenkin's actions. He subjected Tina to a brutal and violent assault and should be punished for it. How Tina is living with her blindness is a completely separate issue. She is living her life in a way which shows that blindness is not a tragedy and does not signal the end of life as we know it. Are you suggesting that she should give up on her life, her children and her self-esteem so that perpetrators of violence receive longer sentences? Surely this would signify a further triumph for her torturer.

Rape is probably also best responded to by "laying back and enjoying it", according to your morals?

Rape, like assault, is a violent act inflicted on somebody against their will. As such it is reprehensible and wrong. My post does not suggest that Tina enjoyed her attack. It argues that once blinded, she adopted a positive attitude to her new way of being in the world.

It's all in the mind, there's no difference really between good or bad, it's the victim's own fault if she thinks blindness is a tragedy, if only she'll stop constructing herself as a victim she'll be just fine.
I do not blame anyone for thinking that blindness is a tragedy. After all we are constantly bombarded by this message in language, in the media, in film and in literature. My post on David Rathband's blinding reminds us that feelings of mourning and depression are extremely common when affected by sudden sight loss. But might blindness feel less tragic if Western civilisation stopped fetishizing the eyes, vision and the sense of sight?

Oh yeah, does it really make a difference whether you see your loved one's faces or not, or a sunset, or a tree, or the sky?
You are asking the wrong person. I really don't think it does make a difference. But then I didn't lose my sight suddenly like Tina and David so there are lots of things that I've never seen and never missed seeing.  My life doesn't feel empty because I've never seen them. Unlike most people, I've never seen sight as the most important of the senses. I use touch and smell extensively in my contact with the world.  

Or permanent darkness.

All the same, of course!

"Black is just another color, full of possibilities."

"Rape is just another form of sex, stop calling it a problem."

Why these parallels between rape and blindness? How do you think this makes blind people feel? 



You are the one acting blindly here,
This is an interesting turn of phrase. Do you see how even the metaphoric language we use constantly tells us that blindness is negative? 
 denying that reality can sometimes be horrific. And that evil does exist.

I am not denying that Tina suffered a violent and painful attack. But I am saying that she is refusing to let Jenkin's act ruin her life.

If you believe you are benefitting disabled people, and victims of violence, by denying their feelings and the hardships of their reality, think again.

I have had first-hand experience of the negative feelings having a disability can cause. Remember that I have been living with my blindness for 39 years. But I know now that these feelings are the product of society's negativisation of disability. This in turn is a result of an occulocentric society obsessed with conventional notions of beauty and perfection and with sight, vision and the eyes. Having a disability is often annoying, inconvenient, time-consuming and expensive. But it is not a tragedy.


Look again at what you wrote:

"It is significant that Tina rejects the epithets of 'courageous' and 'amazing' that the interviewer dangles in front of her. By doing so, Tina does much to demonstrate that blindness in itself is not a tragedy: rather, it is the sighted world's view of blindness which might be described as 'disabling'. If I described Tina as 'an inspiration' I would be undermining my own argument by buying into the 'disability as tragedy to be overcome' mindset. So I'll just say that hearing her voice on radio 4 this morning made me glad to know that she is there."

The last sentence must, judging from the preceding argumentation, mean: "hearing her voice on radio 4 this morning made me glad to know she is blind."

The last sentence means that I am glad that she is handling her blindness in a refreshingly positive way.

Really? That is disgusting.
And if this was not what you meant, what is it then making you so glad? Tina was "there" too when she had eyes, remember? - But that did not give you any thrill, did it?

True. But only because I had never heard of her before her blinding. I am not glad that Tina is blind. I am glad that she is showing other people who lose their sight suddenly that life can go on.

The real significance of Tina's rejection of the description "brave" is exactly what she is saying: She is just surviving. Praising her for bravery would in a way absolve the assailant who tortured her, making the assault "meaningful" or "OK", "not so bad after all". And Tina wants, of course, to hold on to the truth: to keep insisting that this was wrong, that this was entirely horrific and should not have happened to anyone. And that we should do our utmost to prevent similar evils from happening. To deny that is as great an insult as what he did to her.

I think we are saying the same thing here. I agree that what Jenkin did was horrific. But it would have been just as horrific - no more, no less -  if he had cut off her hands, her ears or her legs. By saying that his crime is worse because it led to blindness you are fetishizing the sense of sight and thus perpetuating the myth that says that gouging out the eyes is the most horrific punishment. Jenkin went for Tina's eyes because of society's fetishization of them. Without this privileging of the sense of sight, he might have turned his attention somewhere else.   

You, in my view, are trying to do to her mind, and everyone else's minds, what he did to her physically.

No, I am trying to do the opposite. I am trying to ask people to think again about blindness and the sighted world's understanding of it. I am trying to metaphorically open people's eyes.

One is doing disabled people no favor by denying reality and placing upon them the addition burden of guilt for still feeling deep down that they would rather be whole.

I agree. By constantly telling disabled people that they are somehow less than whole, society makes them yearn to be whole again. This creates a struggle between acceptance and self-loathing which can lead to depression or even suicide. But the burden of guilt for this lies not with disabled people but with those who constantly reinforce the 'disability as tragedy' myth, thus encouraging self-pity and immobilising the disabled in a stagnant victim culture.

It is one thing to keep a positive attitude to life in difficult circumstances - and an entirely different thing to blatantly lie about the difference between ability and disability.

I am not lying. I am questioning received wisdom and trying to go beyond superficial appearances.  

True, one can choose to use whatever one has to the best of one's abilities, and that is an inspiration to us all. But that does not mean that being disabled is not a tragedy.

Nor does it mean that it is a tragedy.

Do not deny Tina her own language of ghostliness and death. Blindness does have similarities with these conditions. You can describe your own life exactly as you like. But don't try to blind others to the truth of life. Perspective is part of reality, but not all of it.

I am not denying Tina her language or her feelings. I am celebrating her own description of her situation. It is completely understandable that Tina is in mourning for her sight. But this is the fault of a society which privileges sight over the other senses.

You are not helping, but committing a form of violence with this invasive morality of yours.

I am not a disability activist. I am an academic working on disability studies. No one is obliged to read this blog if it offends them.

That demon, Shane Jenkin, had at least a shred left in him of true morality - he said he expected to get 20 years for the gouging out of a woman's eyes. In other words, he knew he was guilty, and evil.

Whereas you, madam, try to deny both these facts.

No I don't. I agree that he is both guilty and evil.

My advice to you is to not let your mind become clouded by the present academic faith (as it really is more than a science) that language and perspective can change reality a 100 percent.

We can only hope to change the world by understanding how it works, by unpicking the myths and cliches which govern how people think.

It can't. And thank God for that, for if it could, there would be no place outside power, and no room for true love, which can only live by freedom.

Language is not an absolute, nor a magic stick which can make all your worries go away. The world is real after all. Your body, your emotions, your mind are realities beyond your representation of them. Other people are real too. And the tragedies that happen to them are real tragedies.

It is precisely because language is not an absolute that its use can be so insidious. Your own use of metaphors of blindness has shown how misuse of language can led to the confusion of myth and reality.

Here is a test whether I am right in saying that there is a real difference between being blind or seeing, or not:
You write that you are partially blind. Now, if a new technique was created which would give you perfect vision - would you use it or not?

This is a good question which I have thought about a lot. It is an academic question, a theoretical one really because there is no cure for coloboma and there never will be. But if a cure was found I would not use it. My reason for this is simple: the way I see is part of me. It has defined the way I think, behave anf feel since I was born. I cannot imagine myself without my blindness. If I suddenly regained my sight I think I would experience the kind of mourning that the sighted feel when they suddenly lose their sight. I bet you don't believe me. I bet you think that I am just saying this to further my argument. But you are wrong. I am proud of the way I look (in both senses). I never wish I could see perfectly. Sometimes I wonder if seeing better would make my life less complicated but I have never longed for sight and I'm certain that I would refuse a cure.

With regards, Maria.

Oh, and a PS: It is not "literature" which has taught us that "intentional blinding" - as you euphemistically rename this form of torture - is atrocious. What teaches us this is

1) personal experience with pain

2) compassion.

We agree that intentional blinding is atrocious. But it is impossible to separate fiction and reality, or literature and life: Jenkin got the idea for this form of torture from a film he saw. This film, in turn, was probably inspired, either knowingly or unknowingly, by Western civilisation's fascination with intentional blinding, a fascination both nurtured by, and reflected in literature.

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