January 02, 2006

The New Vulgarity

By Stephen Kuusisto

The stories arrive from every quadrant. The latest involves a blind woman who was harassed by her condominium neighbors who complained because the blind woman in question was, well, blind, and not only that, old and for crying out loud she wasn't always accurate when cleaning up after her guide dog out there on the lawn. Her young and fully sighted neighbors, or some of them, excuse me, I'll just say it-the neighbors who drive imported automobiles were inconvenienced by an occasional turd out there on the grass.

The point is that they had to "see" it. Incensed neighbors insisted that this elderly woman should have to take her dog to an unseen location.

detail from painting of woman by Egon Schiele Discrimination against people with disabilities is not new. The evidence that buttresses the ADA is fully documented. What is new is the vulgarity of entitlement, the exaggerated posturing of privileged citizens who find people with disabilities unacceptable and are brazen about their views.

How did we get here? Vulgarity at its roots is just common speech. Common speech is ugly. But why are people with disabilities so interesting to neo-vulgarists?

The new vulgarity is not economic in the old way. It doesn't have to do with the cost of installing a ramp or retrofitting a bus. Instead it is driven by "trickle down" fundamentalism. Just as there are structural conditions that restrain people with disabilities there are now inhibiting conditions of Puritanism in contemporary American culture.

This type of intolerance, which is now widespread in popular culture differs from traditional ableism because it does not hold open the abstract potential of inclusion in the mainstream for people with disabilities. In fact what distinguishes this new discrimination from earlier discriminatory behavior is its absolute denial of abnormal bodies in public. A Puritan village is after all a "pure" location one that is uncontaminated by any kind of deviance.

Contemporary popular culture promulgates the new normative standards (standards that Young Goodman Brown would recognize easily) by driving out the irregular body. Hit television shows like "The Biggest Loser" and a slew of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" knockoffs articulate the suitable body for a civilization that is increasingly wealthy and self-conscious. While these TV shows appear campy they are invariably promoting the same view of exclusion that would have appealed to Cotton Mather. No one who looks abnormal should appear on our nation's reformed streets.

Of course people with disabilities have been institutionalized or hidden in back rooms throughout history. But the old sequestration of the disabled was essentially a matter of manufacturing economics: disabled people were deemed to have no productive utility in the factories of the industrial revolution and they were placed in workhouses or asylums. The new vulgarirty toward people with disabilities is more sinister because it is an offshoot of creeping fascism and the entitlement of Puritan self-congratulation. Dress well; be slim; keep tidy. If you can't manage these things you better get out of sight.

As for economics, in the world of popular culture banishment sells once the new vulgarity is truly common. And for "common" one could substitute a slew of words including "unexamined" and "overlooked". By ignoring the Puritan reflex Americans allow the new vulgarity into the town square.

The blind woman mentioned above was called before her condominium's board of directors for a review. This is a matter of considerable disgrace in the real America, the authentic nation, the country that has historically been repulsed by the very idea of banishment.

Stephen Kuusisto is the author of Planet of the Blind: A Memoir. He teaches English and Disability Studies at The Ohio State University. His other essays for Ragged Edge include Café Solo with an Old Horn and Blind Pew Walks Everywhere in Columbus, Ohio.

Posted on January 02, 2006