An Act of Will

Often when people behave in ways I find objectionable the route explanation is ignorance. They simply lack the knowledge to handle the situation in a “better” way. Expressions of my frustration at the state of affairs elicit the counsel to “have compassion” and sometimes that’s even possible. Then there are the times that the ignorance takes on an intentional flavor making me angry.

There’s an expression – burying your head in the sand –meaning a person has chosen to not take in knowledge that is offered to them. To me, this constitutes willful ignorance that I find unconscionable because the individual had the option to learn “better” and refused. In fact, I find it worse than someone whose behavior is based on a genuine belief that I am less capable, childlike, pitiable, or whatever. At least in that case the individual has paid attention long enough to listen to another perspective. I may not like their ultimate decision, but respect it as long as it doesn’t deny me what I need.

What constitutes willful ignorance? Receiving a request from a dyslexic person for alternative formats with an explanation as to why and two months later acting surprised, baffled, and unprepared when the same inquiry is made. Witnessing how a sighted person assists a blind man and later not knowing what to do. Attending a panel discussion where a wheelchair user explains how insulting the phrase “wheelchair bound” is and continuing to use that phrase over and over. Being given a concrete set of steps for creating alternative formats that is simple and easily done and never doing it. In other words, literally tripping over the facts and pretending the path was clear.

As disabled people become a more visible part of society and their experience better articulated, I see this type of thing with greater frequency and find it utterly incomprehensible. How can a person be told what to do and refuse to do it? Why would they ignore information? What is the mindset that makes this behavior alright? I don’t get it. AT all.

Unfortunately, in my own life I am dealing with a case of collective willful ignorance. While I might not understand it or know how to facilitate change, I do know my own limits. I will not lend my talents and energy to benefit a group that buries its collective head in the sand.

I just wish I could wrap my mind around the why of it. While it feels incredibly personal, I suspect it is not. Until I can comprehend the behavior, I know my unanswered questions will rattle around in the back of my mind. Insight welcome.

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About Jen

After acquiring a degree from Vassar College in psychology, I moved to Western Mass where I ran a peer mentoring network for disabled college students as well as activism and organizing around disability issues. I also conducted research on disabled women’s body image. An Upstate New York native, I eventually followed my heliotropic nature to the sun of Southern California. I divide my time between writing (disability fiction and essays) along with moderating San Diego Bisexual Forum which is one of the oldest groups of its kind in the country. In my off hours I can often be found in my neighborhood live music venue enjoying our local talent.

5 thoughts on “An Act of Will

  1. Personally I get jumped on for some of my terminology, and it really irritates me. Mostly because the only reason a word or phrase ever becomes derogatory is because someone used it that way. Words are all about intent, so its frustrating to me when I swear or say something and people jump on me for it being offensive, or not politically correct. I really just tell people to get over it. I refer to myself as retarded, MYSELF, and people become angry because “Oh that is a bad word”. Well back in the day, it was a clinical term. It only became bad because of ignorant people misusing it, and is it so wrong of me to find it offensive in turn that I am expected to edit how I speak because it may offend someone else? Even worse, when I’m not even referring to them, but myself? I really agree that there are people who say cruel things, but the INTENT is cruel. Words are words, and when I was in a wheelchair, I had no issues with being called wheelchair bound. I don’t see how that is possibly offensive. Given that I’m a retard (Autistic) and my grasp of social nuances is limited, I’m probably not the best judge, but it just seems to silly and illogical to me to get all worked up over simple terminology… I think the energy put in to it could be better used elsewhere.

  2. “Willful ignorance” is present even in situations where disability plays no part. A fellow recently wrote that he had moved, and told the utility companies that he had left. He still got bills from the third party billing company the utilities used. He claimed that he called three times and each time was told “We’ll fix the problem.” He called the third party and was told “You need to go through the utility, we refuse to talk to you.” The bills kept coming, getting worse and worse and finally threatening collections. He in turn threatened small claims court, and the bills finally stopped. Call center jobs are distinctly unglamorous, the same questions come in over and over, and CSRs can take on the mentality that the callers are all annoying little gnats. Hence, willfully not fixing problems.

    @Feisty The euphamisn treadmill is wonderful isn’t it?

  3. FK: So what you’re saying is that you hate it when people get offended by the words you use to describe yourself and that you believe intent is the most important factor in language usage.

    Okay, so, you meet a stranger and they call you a retard. How do you know their intent? I do agree that however you choose to describe yourself is your own business, although I think I’ve heard you use something like f**ktard to describe yourself and ARGH! I can’t ever think that’s alright.

    Wheelchair bound sucks because it implies imprisonment in the chair. It’s like calling someone retarded an idiot. There are words and then there are WORDS. Everyone probably draws the line in a different place.

    Yes, willful ignorance exists everywhere. I just want to understand it in this particular case. Why?

  4. If someone else just walked up said I was retarded, yes, I would be offended. Because my autism is not outwardly apparent enough for them to be using it in any other manner. But I would look for logical cues such as a raised voice, etcetera. I probably have called myself that, it wouldn’t surprise me. I think part of it comes from being so horribly bullied in school, that if I had ever let their words hurt me, I would have never made it. I’m also sure part of it is I just have trouble understanding why it matters.

    On the explanation of wheelchair bound, that does make. I never would have seen it that way because in my thinking I wouldn’t have gone to “trapped” but “dependent”. I suppose a lot of it just has to do with perspective, doesn’t it?

    That does make a lot more sense. But, I think I’m still going to refer to myself however I please. Having a thick skin is important to me, without it I don’t know what I’d do. I think I just need to be more aware of what I say to or around others. I know that some of my friends feel uncomfortable when I call myself retarded, and thinking about it.. it probably seems self-degrading to them. That explains so much… thank you Jen!

  5. FK:

    So I thought I knew your identity until I read the first comment you left for this post, then I changed my mind and thought you were someone else altogether. After checking with my new suspected person, I found out I was wrong and went back to thinking you were the original person. I’ve never heard you call yourself f**ktard, but I have heard one of my other friends.

    There’s a lot of things I never knew about you — autistic, retarded, wheelchair….. Sorry I got so incredibly confused.

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