Three common strategies used to dismiss…
Self-advocates, activists and others who advocate will recognise the signs, it is not that hard to spot these strategies and methods, and it’s very clear what these strategies are really all about. What it is about is simple, that the opinions of the disabled and the neurodivergent are not of the same value as those of the so-called “normal” people.
The sidelining and silencing of advocacy and activism takes many forms, however, the three I want to consider today are Tone Policing, Able-Splaining and Gaslighting. I understand that the sheer utterance of these terms will, in the minds of some, cast me as an SJW – Social Justice Warrior – a title meant to be an insult, and yet, how could being characterised as a person seeking justice, be it social or any other, be an insult. On to the three.
For the uninitiated tone policing is a method used to dismiss an argument on the grounds of the tone in which it is employed. It is at heart nothing more than a distraction, a diversion and an avoidance of actually considering the point being expressed. Often it is couched in the ideals of manners, respectability, and niceness. “Why can’t you say it nicely”, “could you say it without the anger”, “you don’t have to be so unkind” are all little examples of it.
In the end, though, it does nothing other than to dismiss a point of view without considering it. Just as a strawman argument, an ad hominem attack or any other logical fallacy goes, so too does tone policing, it is nothing more than a way of avoiding dealing with a point of view that is uncomfortable or goes against your personal belief system.
Unfortunately, so prevalent is this method of avoidance of uncomfortable thought, that it is a goto method employed by those operating from privilege. Tone policing is seen regularly in the mainstream media, often in op-ed pieces where those agitating for change are dismissed as angry and aggressive. Perhaps most often is it seen in regard to white male privilege in maintaining the status quo of gender equality.
In the neurodiversity circles, I frequent it is couched in terms of nicety. Parents won’t listen if you don’t say it nicely we are told. The absolute hypocrisy of this is that these same parents are quick to dismiss neurodivergent people as damaged, intellectually and socially inferior, in other words, as less. Now in my book labelling, people as such hardly passes as being nice.
The reality, of course, is, that disability advocates are rightfully angry, just as civil rights activists are, just as health advocates are, just as anyone who has been alienated, silenced and othered by the systems and people around them. History is full of change that was sparked by acts of defiance, Rosa Parks staying on the bus, wasn’t an act of nicety, it was an act of defiance, and I am pretty darn sure, she was damn angry.
In my own country, the indigenous peoples didn’t manage to gain the few rights they have be being nice, they did it be being defiant, by speaking out, by telling it like it is, without wrapping it up in nicety and respectability.
When the strategy of Tone Policing fails, the next move ensues…
What the heck is able splaining is a question that is legitimately going through people’s minds I expect. Well, it’s kind of like mansplaining. However, it is defined it is employed in such a way that the proponent of the strategy assumes a superiority in the topic in question and goes about the process of explaining how you are incorrect or mistaken. This may sound just like a person employing an explanation, however, it is peppered with little hints, and other little tidbits of how, because of your disability, you need help to understand it.
It is nothing more than a strategy that is inherently ableist. It assumes that the non-disabled is automatically intellectually inferior to the so-called normal person. That assumed inferiority must be incapable of comprehending the issue at hand and so it must be explained in such a way as to highlight all the way in which the inferiority is manifest.
Ablesplaining can begin with something along the lines of “I know because if your autism, that it’s hard for you to…” This is then followed on with a continued explanation in simplified language accompanied with a good dose of ableist stereotypes and slurs.
My experience has been generally the person doing the able splaining has a simplified and flawed grasp of the topic at hand. A good example of this is the implication that autistic people don’t have empathy, or alternatively that using person first language is putting the person first.
When able splaining fails the final member of this gang of three ableist strategies is used.
Gaslighting is a term well known to many who are advocates or activists. The term comes from a movie called Gas Light. It is a manipulative strategy, that is essentially employed to make the receiver question and doubt their reality. It is a tool of trade employed by many abusers, particularly in the case of partner abuse. This article gives a good in-depth introduction.
When the gang of three ableist strategies are employed, I have found that first comes to the tone policing, then the able splaining and finally the gaslighting is employed. It is employed in such a way that it relies on the previous two to cause the person to question themselves and cast doubts on their own understanding and experience of the situation that has just transpired.
Most commonly I have found this third member of the gang of three to be employed when the disabled, the member of a minority, or, disenfranchised person, dares to call out the tone policing and able-splaining.
“Oh no, that’s not what I said”, “Oh you have just interpreted it incorrectly” are two examples of phrases that are used. Another is to simply outright deny that an event occurred. In social media contexts, this is then given credence through the selective deleting of comments from threads in order to make it appear that the person is having an exchange with an almost imaginary person.
Gaslighting is an extremely damaging psychological manipulative tool that can and does cause real trauma. It can be easily missed until one is right in the middle of it, and easily dismissed by others as you making too much of a thing. Therein lies its insidious destructive power.
What I have called here this gang of three ableist strategies can be damaging to people. They can cause people to be sidelined and silenced, discounted and disconnected. They are employed frequently to “other” disenfranchised people and to disregard their human rights.
These strategies are deftly employed in particular, within online social media and forum communities. They should and must be stood against. From an autistic perspective, our voice has been silenced and sidelined, in preference of the professional class and the non-autistic parent class for far too long.
The cogency of a point of view is not contingent on the tone in which it is employed.
If something needs to be explained to me, an explanation without the superiority of so-called “normality” is insisted upon.
Attempts to call into question my reality and perception do not change the reality of the situation.
The advocacy and activist community must, I believe, stand up and continue to call out this gang of three. If we allow it to continue, it becomes acceptable. And as an Australian Army leader has said, “the standard you are prepared to walk past is the standard you are prepared to accept”.