Content Warning: Ableism
The trap of privilege
When Covid-19 first began, and neither I nor my friends knew what we were truly in for, we got into a conversation about what the repercussions might look like. In a group chat, the thought of people getting “wiped out” was discussed. Who would get the brunt of it? What would the world look like after our very own plague had gone through?
A couple of us talked about how if the world had to shake a few people off to restart, “maybe that’s not so bad”. Trying to see a brighter side to things, as it were. There was a bit of a tickle in the back of my conscience’s throat, the feeling I get when I know that I may be saying something problematic but I’m not sure why. In the safe zone that is having a conversation with my partner, Peter, I said something to the gist of, “if it ends up wiping out our elders and weaker comrades, then maybe what that means is that we will have a bunch of healthy, young, angry people ready to fight.” Peter shrugged and said, “that’s too close to Eugenics for comfort”. The tickle in the back of my conscience became stronger, and I grabbed the word “Eugenics” to chew over like a cough drop for the incoming metaphorical sore throat I was about to give my conscience.
“What I meant was”, I argued with myself. I knew what I meant. I had said a very simple sentence. I had said it was OK for people to die as a “silver lining” to the corona virus. I was displaying my own ignorance in the shade of my umbrella of privilege. Because I am able-bodied, and have youth, class and wealth privilege, and so does my family, I haven’t had to think of losing myself or my family to a social injustice or pandemic, for the most part. Sure, there are other dangers we face. For example, I’m afraid for myself, my mother, and my sister since we are coded as women and therefore at a risk of being killed and raped if we go out at nighttime. Beyond that, however, we are relatively “safe”. Covid-19, under an abused capitalist system, does discriminate. And our class and race privileges keep up safer than that of our POC or immune-compromised comrades.
So, just how disgusting was this thought that I had the privilege to claim as innocent? Let’s go into it.
White Supremacists and Eco-ableism
As I started to poke at the discomfort I felt, trying to name it and figure out what it was about, I learned about eugenics. As it turns out, the thought of “It’s ok if the weak and vulnerable die if it means it even things out” was a mentality shared by white supremacists. You might be saying, “that’s not the same thing”. Like Peter said, however, it’s too close for comfort. It is also about a degree away from it. After all, it wasn’t the virus that had caused a discrepancy in our environment and social lives. It had been, and continues to be, colonialism, white supremacy, weaponized capitalism, and other man-made systems put together to divide and conquer in the name of greed. Covid-19 was simply making it harder to look away from the disadvantages we had created and benefit from. So, now that I understood Eugenics and how I was sorely against it, what did this have to do with eco-fascism or eco-ableism?
Eco-fascism or Eco-ableism is a dirty word
I found the most comprehensive explanation from instagram user @xystugli (posted with their permission):
This is an even trickier topic. One that I had more than once contributed to, and unfortunately, will probably continue to contribute to while I learn the extensiveness of how we have been programmed to normalize ableism as a norm and something to desire, at the same time casting disability as abnormal and something to be ignored and feared.
Eco-ableism puts under the microscope a lot of so-called “eco-activist” movements that can be quite harmful to an entire population. It puts the planet or animals before human lives, and paints a picture where we should have to choose. Think of a person completely removed from nature who has never eaten a fruit, gone on a hike, and believes all animals are meant for consumption. Even that person is just as much a part of nature as wildlife in the middle of a rain forest in the middle of nowhere. We have Othered nature and other forms of life as separate from us in a very…well…unnatural way. It goes against our very existence to believe ourselves separate from trees, soils, and plants. And in this othering, we have created a pyramid constructed of a gender binary, a racial binary, and other binaries meant to make us feel like our life is less valuable the further away from the White, Able-bodied man we are. That precise mentality is what got me thinking that maybe it would be ok if “some people” died. As a white able bodied “woman”, I am categorized closer to the “ideal”. However if the mentality that I was practicing was one that more people adopted, my own mental illness would categorize me as “undesired” and someone to be easily sacrificed for the greater good.
Who else? Who else was I willing to cast away to their death? What if I had family members that were immune-compromised? What about my own grandmother, the only living grandparent I have? Would I be ok with “sacrificing” them as a silver lining to a virus that had just exacerbated our issues and not created them? The fallacy of the statement began to make itself more clear. Covid-19 was not a great equalizer because racism and classism had made it so that it was not only the weaker that are being affected, but the marginalized as well. And not just them, but doctors and nurses on the frontlines are dying due to lack of being better prepared for these types of pandemic. Because #ProfitOverPeople. Because society paints disability as disposable.
And this was not a brand new concept. If activism itself ignores large populations of people who need community support and not community disdain and gas-lighting, what were the hopes of the wealthy elite making favorable changes?
I would have to start by listening and learning myself, before I could continue to preach that we were being unfair. If I am part of the damage, then it is hypocritical of me to tell others they need to do better with the power they have, while ignoring my own power to learn.
Here are some highlights of how the eco-activist community hurts disabled folks:
The Straw Debate– How pushing for the total banning of straws hurts disabled people.
Paper Plates – If you can wash dishes, do it, but what does that mean for people who can’t afford to due to health concerns?
Aggressive Vegans – There is no such things as a perfect vegan, and not everyone can do it for health or wealth reasons.
These are just some examples of the way that we believe we are doing good while not realizing we can have entire blind spots in our mentality. This isn’t to say that we should stop banning plastic, stop recycling, or let the meat industry off the hook. But rather that we should look to be more intersectional in our activism as ecology, animal rights or human rights activism. We should work with disabled communities who have experience with creating creative solutions to capitalist-created problems. We should work with black and indigenous people to navigate who have the most experience surviving colonialism for fair ways to handle the economy, and the care for our land. We should work together to dismantle the systems that have succeeded in continuously dividing us, and leading us to the mentality that “maybe it’s ok if some of us die” for the greater good.
How to do better
From here on out I will be adding disabled activists and communities to the group of people that I listen to so that I can form a more complete and compassionate perspective when speaking of activism. I will continue to be open to being called out when my phrasing or ideas are problematic. I will listen to intersectional solutions, and not fight people but the system that separates us and undervalues us. Every time we fight one another we are detracting our attention from the systems that are causing the most damage. I will look at how the disabled community has unique ways they need accessibility, and how to include that in my own life.
Every time we react and feel guilty for being called in we are ignoring a chance to be more compassionate not only with ourselves, but with others. I want to support one another so that we can come up and bring forth brilliant solutions for a better world that is totally possible.
Let us get comfortable being uncomfortable. Let us be ready to get called in. Let us get used to hearing how we accidentally micro-aggress. Let us thank each other for shining a light where we are ignorant. If you trust your friends and community, then trust that is done out of love. And if you genuinely believe yourself to be a good person, and want to actively be a good person, then you understand that no one is ever done learning. There is always more to do, and that imperfection is expected, and totally fine.
“Holistic” Ableism by Walela Nehanda
Grasping at Straws by Erin Vallely
Being disabled isn’t eco friendly by Imani
Is Veganism Ableist? by Michele Kaplan
5 ways to Protect the planet without disenfranchising people by Megan Wildhood
The Climate Revolution must be accessible by Hannah Dines
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