I’ve been reading about race relations in 1962 Atlanta, Georgia, and repeatedly hatred has been the focus. In fact, when it comes to issues of diversity based on race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity and religion, hatred is one of the dominant emotions. (When the prejudice manifests itself in an act, we call it a “hate crime.”) The way bigotry toward these marginalized groups is combated involves fostering states opposite to hatred, such as kindness, compassion and understanding.
On the other hand, hatred is not an emotion I associate with the prejudice I experience as a person with a disability. Pity is the primary culprit and unlike hatred, it does not have opposites that come to mind which can be promoted within the hearts of people without disabilities.
To make sure we are all on the same page, let’s open a dictionary. Pity is defined as “sympathetic or kindly sorrow evoked by the suffering, distress, or misfortune of another, often leading one to give relief or aid or to show mercy.” Among its synonyms are words like compassion and commiseration. While perhaps not a pleasant emotional state, pity is not, unlike hatred, given the stamp of social sanction. An act springing from pity is considered an act of mercy, making it very hard to quash.
Looking at the antonyms of pity, we discover three broad categories. There are the good words, the bad words and the neutral ones. Opposites to pity with a negative bent are cruelty, harshness, hatred, meanness, mercilessness, disfavor, malevolence, unkindness, and disdain. Slightly more palatable are disinterest and detachment. The positives are cheer, happiness, joy, advantage, blessing, and good fortune.
Think about this for a moment: To combat racism and sexism, we encourage states opposite to hatred. In the case of disablism, to promote the opposite of pity would either involve fostering something like cruelty or hatred, working toward indifference, or trying to somehow convince people that disability is good fortune. That is a lousy, impossible set of options.
It’s far clearer to say, “Don’t hate someone. Feel compassion, kindness and love,” than to say, “Don’t pity someone. Feel…” What? Indifference? Cruelty? I suppose “joy” isn’t a bad idea, except I can’t conceive of how you get a nondisabled person to go from viewing disability as negative to not simply tolerable but joyful?!
Dissecting all these linguistics has given me some new insight into why disablism is so intractable. In a world where pity is a virtue, how do you eliminate it? When its opposites range from the good to the bad, what ultimately becomes your goal? When even the positive states are going to be impossible to sell, in the end what do you have left?
Someone suggested to me that the opposite of pity is confidence. “I don’t pity you. I believe in you.” Faith in my ability as a person with a disability to do what needs to be done is definitely more of a place to start than I had before the suggestion was made. I’m still not certain, though, how you get people from the condoned “You poor thing” to the place where they view disability as something other than tragedy.