The headaches of ableism and sexism

Wow. I never thought I’d write a post defending Michelle Bachmann.

The NY Times is reporting that one of Bachmann’s staffers has publicized Bachman’s severe, sometimes debilitating migraines. The staffer’s comments have lead some of Bachman’s critics to question her fitness for the presidency. This criticism of her fitness (mostly from political bloggers) appears to be both deeply ableist and deeply sexist.

Being an hysterical female, Bachmann cannot handle the stress of political life – that’s why she suffers from migraines! (Migraines, the thought goes, are more common in women than men and sometimes triggered by stress; therefore the women who have migraines are women who can’t handle stress; a lot of women can’t handle stress, which is why a lot of women have migraines.) Moreover, being a person with a health impairment, she obviously would not be able to function adequately as President. You can’t be a capable president if you have any sort of serious disability or chronic illness, as everyone knows (unless you’re JFK, FDR, or Woodrow Wilson. . .).

This criticism is as needless as it is upsetting. Michelle Bachmann is clearly unfit to be president. But she’s unfit because she’s batshit crazy and defends policies which are downright hateful, not because she has migraines.

33 thoughts on “The headaches of ableism and sexism

  1. Amen! I live in Minnesota, and this was all over all local news– it was biazarre because most everyone here (who I talked with about this anyway) thought the migraine issue was totally beside the point, yet the media seemed intent on discussing it. Ridiculous!

  2. […] Now, I’m no fan of propaganda laden, lie spreading, incoherent babbling, nor the endorsing of rankly homophobic policies, so it will come as no surprise that I don’t really like Michele Bachmann. That being said, over at Feminist Philosophers there is a great post on the ridiculous undercurrent of ableism and sexism in the media’s treatment of Bachmann’s so-called headache “scandal.” […]

  3. The original story manged to throw in the theory that her wearing high heels contributed to the headaches. At this point I don’t believe anything that I read about anybody, so I don’t accept the idea of her being “crazy” or anything else about her good or bad. I do know that a lot of people are putting a lot of effort and money to discredit her.

  4. PR, I think this whole thing about her migraines is total and complete nonesense. That said, I think there’s about a million reasons we shouldn’t want her in any political office– and I think she does a pretty good job of making that obvious herself.

  5. Kathryn – yes, exactly. The fact that she has, for example, publicly signed a “family values pledge” that insinuated, among other things, that African American families were in better shape during slavery because two-parent households were more common puts her. . .beyond the pale, really.

    The empirical claim is false – two-parent families were not more common among African Americans during slavery. But suppose it were true. Imagine thinking the following is a good implication: “Ok kids. I realize that you’re beaten and raped, that you’re subjected to backbreaking physical labor, that you can be bought and sold, that you are someone’s *property*. But hey, Mommy and Daddy still live together! So let’s be grateful!”

  6. I am a little frustrated that this post about ableism turns around and uses ableist language to denigrate Bachmann. There are a couple of posts on the Feminists With Disabilities blog about “crazy” which readers may find interesting.

  7. Thanks for pointing this out B.! I’ve been frustrated and annoyed about this too. I’ve also been frustrated about the fact that the contributors to this blog don’t delete comments that make use of ableist language, although they will delete other comments that they find offensive in various other ways.

  8. I understand the claim that words like “crazy” are ableist, but I respectfully disagree. The project of removing from our language all words which can be used/have been used/have their origin in the denigration of the disabled strikes me as alienating (to people of goodwill who want to talk about issues of ableism), distracting (from the central issues of the marginalization and stigmatization of disability in society in order to focus on niceties of language) and, most importantly, utterly impractical if not impossible. Here are some things you cannot say if you want to avoid all words that have or have had ableist connotations in some contexts: funny, comic, hysterical, creep (as in “cattle and creeping things”, not as in “pervert”), clown, sick, hospital. . .This list goes on and on. Actually, given it’s origin and connotation, you shouldn’t say “disabled” either.

    If you want to expunge from your language not only words with ableist origins or connotations, but also *any* offensive origin, use, or connotation you should: not call your fine malt beverage “Scotch”, not say that anything scary is “spooky”, never call a woman a “lady”, and never refer to a friend by name if their name is “Jack”. And worst of all, you should probably give up swearing entirely. Which, speaking for myself, would be an absolute tragedy. (“Tragedy” you can say. . .it apparently originates from a Greek phrase meaning “goat song”. Who knew.)

    Words change their meaning as patters of use change. Words change their meaning depending on the context. There are definitely words which are explicitly ableist as currently used, and ableist in any context (“retard”, for example). Others can have or have had ableist connotations, but don’t have them always and in all contexts. I think “crazy” is an example of the latter. Policing language for these latter cases, in my opinion, isn’t a viable or helpful project.

  9. Magicalersatz,

    I have often heard the response you have given to B. (and me) as a justification for the denial of accessibility to disabled people; sometimes it is not articulated, but just assumed. The thinking goes something like this: if we can’t do everything to make a context, situation, state of affairs, etc. accessible, we won’t do anything. And so, the status quo persists.

    It seems to me that it is incumbent upon you, given B.’s challenge (and the challenges offered in the posts to which B. linked), to show that questioning Bachmann’s “fitness” given that she experiences migraines is MORE ableist and thus should be the subject of a post than your use of the term “crazy” in the post itself. Furthermore, B. has drawn attention to the fact that although the post aims to problematize the act of demeaning person X by questioning her cognitive “fitness,” it does exactly this itself and thus seems counterproductive at best.

    Psychiatric survivors and others stigmatized in this way have challenged the use of the word, arguing that it demeans them and has been used as justification for treatment of them that has at times amounted to torture. That a substantial segment of the population has argued in this way ought to be regarded as reason enough to avoid using the term.

  10. Surely B didn’t “point it out”, for that is insulting to people without arms. Perhaps she drew our attention to it: but many people can’t draw if they have no use of their arms, feet or mouth.

    Yeah . . . as Magicalersatz says, it’s kind of difficult to avoid any language that *might possibly* have negative connotations. What matters is the context and what’s conveyed – not the linguistic vehicle doing the conveying. (Even ‘retard’ can be okay, it seems to me. ‘Retarded’ literally means slowing down, and can be legitimately used to describe timing in music, e.g. It’s harder to use ‘retard’ so, but one could understand it being used as a verb for timing. Such a usage wouldn’t be offensive, it seems to me.)

  11. Shelley,

    My response was not “hey, these words are ableist, but we can’t be perfect so why bother trying?” That response is the one that would be analogous to what is sometimes said, objectionably, about accessibility. My response, rather, was that these words are not always ableist in all contexts. Just because a word can have ableist connotations or has ableist origins does not make its present usage ableist in all contexts. “Funny” and “hospital” are not ableist words, despite their origins. Just as, mutatis mutandis, “Scotch” is a damn fine name for a drink, despite the word’s offensive history.

    In modern usage, one can clearly use “crazy” in a way that does not attribute mental deviance or mental disability. For example:

    (i) I like pottery with crazy patterns.
    (ii) The party last night was crazy!
    (iii) I ran into best friend from kindergarten at the airport – what a crazy coincidence!

    Any charitable reading of my statement that Bachmann is “batshit crazy” doesn’t interpret me as saying she is mentally disabled. She favors rhetoric over reasoning, she is uninformed and prides herself on it, she is in the grip of a type of fundamentalism which eschews logic in favor of entrenched parochialism. All of this makes me question her fitness for the presidency, all of it makes me think she deserves the appellation “batshit crazy”. But none of it has anything to do with whether she is mentally disabled, and context makes it pretty clear that I was not trying to say she was by saying that she’s crazy.

    Moreover, not all disabled people – or mentally disabled people more specifically – are offended by the use of words like “crazy”. Two prominent examples are Victoria Maxwell’s one-woman show about bi-polar disorder, “Crazy for Life”, and the disability pride blog “Crazy Sexy Life”.

    I know that what I’ve said won’t convince you, but I’d rather that we didn’t get too caught up in what does or doesn’t count as ableist language, since it seems that there is clearly room for sensible disagreement. Can we please agree to respectfully disagree on this issue?

  12. Anonymous,

    Yes, you’re right – I should’ve said that I meant “retard” as a noun. As a verb it can probably be okay, as long as context makes it clear what is meant (likewise for “retarded”).

  13. I’d just like to point out that one can agree with some of what magicalersatz says about ‘crazy’, without endorsing Anon @ 1:17’s sarcastic and dismissive response that exemplifies exactly the phenomenon that Prof.Tremain mentioned.

    While I think it might be true for some uses of ‘crazy’, I don’t think the fact that a term can appear in seemingly non-discriminatory contexts means that its use in those contexts isn’t, in fact, discriminatory. I’m reminded of a movement among middle and high school aged students a few years back to replace the word ‘gay’, when used as a synonym for ‘bad’, with ‘ghey’, a homophone intended to carry none of its counterpart’s homophobic connotations (while still being useful as a synonym for ‘bad’). This movement didn’t last, largely because it was pretty clear that ‘ghey’, even though it was explicitly formulated to lack discriminatory connotations, ended up being just as homophobic as its homophone. (A less unsuccessful but still pretty offensive movement of this sort is Dan Savage’s “anti-ableist” term ‘leotarded’)

    Again, the fact that a term appears in non-ableist contexts (that is, situations where people are not intentionally being ableist) doesn’t mean that those uses of the term are not, in fact, ableist. It may be that certain uses of the term ‘crazy’ really are non-ableist, but this is not by virtue of merely appearing in non-ableist contexts.

  14. zrperry, I think there may be a little confusion here, both about what my claim was and about what counts as an ableist context.

    My claim wasn’t that words like “crazy” can fail to be ableist because people use them without the intent to be ableist. And I certainly don’t want to say that that non-ableist contexts aren’t all and only those contexts in which a speaker doesn’t intend ableism (or even more strongly, intends non-ableism). A speaker can be ableist without intending to be – I suspect that some uses of “retarded” are like this. Conversely, a speaker can intend to say something ableist but fail (if, e.g., they say “You are a cheesemuffin” – their intention may be ableist, but that isn’t an ableist statement as far as I can tell.)

    My claim was just that, in some contexts, the words aren’t ableist (that is, they don’t denigrate or convey prejudice against the disabled). And I think the examples I give support that.

    Also, to be fair, I think Anonymous does have a point – even if s/he didn’t express it congenially. A lot of complaints about supposedly ableist language of the kind that Shelley Tremain is pushing include complaints about phrases like “I see”, “I hear what you’re saying”, “walk a mile in their shoes”, etc because such language isn’t inclusive of the experiences of the blind, the deaf, the paralyzed, etc. But our language is, of course, imbued with physical and sensory idioms. It’s not obvious that we could eradicate these. Nor, in my opinion, that we should.

  15. zrperry, I’m not sure it is quite right to dismiss Anon’s remark as dismissive. There is a legitimate claim made; namely, that the abelism of a term depends on context. You respond a term can be abelist in a non-abelist context, but that does not negate what anon has said. It can be that the abelism varies with some but not all contexts. Comment #13 makes a good case for one way this can happen.

    Does anyone know of any empirical research done on this topic? I think anon’s comments also raises the question “who decides?” It would be good to have a solid answer.

  16. Judith Warner in this op-ed argues that whether one responsbily manages one’s migraines does have a bearing on one’s suitability for office. Given that there are many aspects of one’s life the management of which bears on one’s suitability for offices like the presidency, this seems to me an important claim.

  17. magicalersatz and jj,
    I apologize for dismissing Anon’s comment in its entirety. The latter part of it, specifically, does contain a genuine point made without any snideness. What I object to is the first paragraph (and the first sentence of the second). The first paragraph sets up a straw person and then ridicules it for having a position that Anon finds silly.

    There is a difference between words or phrases the use of which might possibly maybe offend someone or other because they feel it excludes or ignores them or something, and straight up pejoratives. ‘Crazy’ and ‘retarded’ are slurs against certain groups of people that may also be used as pejoratives more generally (that is, I may use them to denigrate a person or thing that is not part of the group denigrated by that slur in its paradigmatic usage). This is the sort of thing that, I take it, is being objected to here. Terms like ‘gay’ or ‘retarded’, when used as slurs or pejoratives, are homophobic/ableist regardless of any other part of the context or what is conveyed. Even when they are being used to denigrate something else, like a chair or a straight, able politician, their use is discriminatory. (They also seem to retain their force even when replaced by new slurs explicitly formulated to avoid such homophobic/ableist connotations)

    Responding to someone who says “The persons who are the paradigmatic targets of slur X don’t really appreciate it when people use slur X *as a slur*, even when they are not the current target of that slur” by mock-objecting to the usage of a phrase like “point it out” because “that is insulting to people without arms” is not cool.

    However, I acknowledge that I was being kind of snotty in the first part of my comment. I apologize for that, and I apologize to Anon 1:17 for railing on their comment rather than responding to the parts I took exception to and disagreed with.

  18. I don’t understand why I was attacking a straw person. I genuinely don’t see how it’s more offensive to use the term ‘blind refereeing’, e.g., than it is to make reference to someone pointing something out. You can’t literally see something if you’re blind; you can’t literally point if you lack arms. So what? They’re both just terms. We know what each of them means, and we understand what’s being conveyed, and we understand that nothing offensive is meant. I was genuinely not meaning to be snide: I was trying to illustrate how phrases which can, when taken literally, presuppose something about the abilities of someone, nonetheless be perfectly inoffensive because they obviously, given the context, shouldn’t be taken to have that connotation. I think ‘points out’ is obviously like that; and I think ‘blind refereed’ and ‘is batshit crazy’ are also – at least in the relevant contexts.

    I think you can’t treat every pejorative on a par here. There’s simply no context where I could use the n word appropriately: even if some people are able to, I am simply not able to be in a context where I wouldn’t be massively blameworthy for using that word. That’s because of its history. Maybe it will change, but probably not in my lifetime. By contrast, ‘crazy’ has a very different history. It can be used in a good way, as in ‘I’m crazy for you’. And it’s simply not the case that its use has, for ordinary speakers, in every context, negative connotations with respect to mentally disabled persons. Likewise with ‘blind’. ‘Is blind to’ can be used simply to signify a kind of ignorance: the ignorance can be welcome, as in ‘justice is blind to gender, color and creed’. Thus, I can’t personally get worked about the term ‘blind refereeing’: a case when the blindness is a *good thing*!

    Context and history are everything. I can’t see anything in getting worked up about calling Bachmann batshit crazy other than a distraction from the real issues.

  19. “I don’t understand why I was attacking a straw person. I genuinely don’t see how it’s more offensive to use the term ‘blind refereeing’, e.g., than it is to make reference to someone pointing something out.”

    The objectionable usage in question was one where an ableist slur is used *as a slur*. This is not what happens in typical uses of the phrase ‘blind refereeing’.

  20. For all of my adult (and a bit of my teenage) life I’ve had serious migraines. Sometimes they would be once or twice a month, sometimes several in a week. They usually start when I wake up, growing worse through the day, and, if untreated, by the middle of the day I’d be unable to do much more than sit in a dimly lit room w/ an icepack on my head and try not to vomit. It was awful, and knowing the day was going to be awful and that there was nothing I could do made it worse. A few treatments (prophylactic and responsive) did nothing or had their own bad effects. There was no predicting what would cause them, though stress never helped. If that’s how things had to be, it would be irresponsible to have a job that would require being ready to deal w/ important things all the time. It just wasn’t possible. But, thankfully, I was eventually prescribed sumatriptan, and it quite literally changed my life. It nearly always works, and fairly quickly. (The injections, which insurance is annoyingly less willing to pay for, works w/in 5 minutes or less. Pills work in 30 minutes or so, but are consistent.) I guess this doesn’t work for everyone, but for me it changed my life, and if someone had similar methods to deal with serious migraines, I would have no trouble with them in a position of great importance.

  21. I don’t see why someone’s having migraines is not relevant to their fitness to hold public office. If a person is regularly subject to a condition that prevents them from being able to address urgent issues as they arise, then they are less fit. Bad migraines certainly make a person unable, for their duration, to address issues of any complexity.

  22. Neil, it seems though that migraines haven’t interferred with her professional responsibilties so far, she’s unfit for the presidency anyway for far more serious reasons, and the discussion of her migraines has been rather sexist (e.g., note that the NYT refers to her son as “Dr.” but her as “Mrs.” rather than “Rep.”, etc).

  23. note that the NYT refers to her son as “Dr.” but her as “Mrs.” rather than “Rep.”, etc

    My recollection is that this is standard style for the NY Times- to use “Dr.” for (medical) doctors, but almost everyone else is “Mr.” “Ms.” or “Mrs.” Most other titles are not used, so in this way they are being consistent w/ Bachmann.

  24. zrperry: My initial comment was a resposne to Prof Tremain, who does think the phrase ‘blind refereeing’, among others, is objectionable – she has said so many times on this blog. I don’t understand why that is offensive but ‘pointing it out’ is not. I would be genuinely interested to hear what she thinks the difference is: to my mind, neither is offensive. But since she has made that claim, and you have yet to explain the difference between those two cases (since neither is being used as a slur, as you say), I stand by my claim that I was not attacking a straw man.

    I also don’t think you’ve successfully explained the difference between these innocuous cases and Magicalersatz’s usage of ‘crazy’. I think it’s obvious that words which can be used as slurs such that that usage would be very offensive to some group can also be used in different contexts *as slurs* and not be offensive. If a gay man makes a snarky comment to his partner about his clothes and his partner replies, jokingly, ‘You bitch!’, I simply can’t see anything offensive in that, even though it would obviously be massively offensive for me to say to a secretary ‘Get me some coffee bitch’. Again, nothing you’ve said so far makes me doubt the prima facie obvious claim that context and history matters a lot.

  25. Neil, I’m puzzled by your suggestion that people with health problems – even those that can sometimes be debilitating – are “less fit” for the presidency. For one thing, as Kathryn points out, we aren’t trying to evaluate whether some arbitrary individual x would have a hard time being president because x has migraines. We’re evaluating whether Michelle Bachmann would have a hard time being president because Michelle Bachmann has migraines. In this latter case, we have excellent evidence that Michelle Bachmann’s migraines do not prevent her from doing well in a demanding, stressful job. This evidence is, of course, Michelle Bachmann’s demanding, stressful job. The presidency would be more demanding, and more stressful, but we’ve got no evidence whatsoever that Michelle Bachmann is at the limits of what she can do (now there’s a scary thought. . .).

    This is an issue that troubled me in the op-ed that JJ links to above. The editorial writer suggests that we don’t have evidence that Bachmann is properly managing her migraines, and that until she publicly discloses exactly what medication she’s on, we are left with the impression that “her migraines are managing her”. Say what now? Of course we have evidence that Bachmann is managing her migraines. I can’t see how the precise details of how she goes about this are something that needs to be a matter of public record.

    Secondly, I don’t understand the suggestion (both from Neil’s comment and from the editorial linked above) that if a person has a disability which is sometimes debilitating, that person cannot function adequately as president. JFK had serious health problems which were at times profoundly debilitating ( but he seemed to do just fine with the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example. Presidential illness/disability hasn’t been uncommon. But presidents used to be able to conceal illness and disability (JFK, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR all made extensive efforts to hide their conditions from the public). We’re now in a situation where both it’s much more difficult to conceal anything from the public and most people falsely assume that severe illness or disability is incompatible with the presidency (in part, no doubt, because of past concealments).

    I think it’s fair to say, based on what we know both about the kinds of people that have been “fit” for the presidency and about Bachmann’s career, that Bachmann is perfectly “fit” to be president. As far as migraines go. But only that far.

  26. We seem both to be puzzled, magicalersatz. I am puzzled as to why there is anything remotely controversial about the claim that debilitating migraines might affect a candidates’s fitness for office. OED defines ‘debilitate’ as ‘to render weak, enfeeble’. More relevantly, I know from the experiences of people close to me and from reading that migraines can incapacitate one for shorter or longer periods. The accompanying auras can make reading impossible, and the pain can have a similar effect on information processing (indeed,even moderate pain reduces working memory capacity and therefore lowers performance on almost all tasks). This should all be obvious. There is a remaining question: how likely is it that a President will confront a situation in which he or she must respond very urgently, such that a delay of a few hours might be very costly? I don’t know the answer to that question, but it seems that given that the costs might be extremely high, the probability that the President might confront such a situation had better be very low before having uncontrolled (and severe – of course they come in a range of severities) – is irrelevant to fitness. I just can’t see how this can be contested. By the way, JFK is not a good counterexample: there can’t be much doubt he was the worst president in the 20th century, at least until the Republicans showed that there were depths yet to be plumbed.

  27. If you don’t like JFK as a counter-example, there are many others to choose from (though I think there can be significant doubt that JFK was “the worst president of the 20th century”. Worse than, say, Warren G. Harding? Really?) How about Abraham Lincoln? Lincoln dealt with a variety of serious medical conditions while in office, both chronic and acute. He also seems to have been a capable president.

    Historians estimate that 1 in 4 presidents have been disabled while in office (including both those who were disabled when elected and those who became disabled while serving as president.) You can read about a few examples here:

    If induction is any guide to the matter, it’s both foolish and needless to think that you can ‘disability proof’ the presidency. Anyone can become disabled at any time. Most of us will become disabled before we die. So you might think it’s actually a mark in a candidate’s favor that they have a track record of managing disability (painful disability, even) effectively.

    Past presidents have managed difficult and at times debilitating illness while remaining very capable presidents. And the president has an extensive staff and a vice president in part because it’s not practical for any president to be expected to be fully available for any issue at any time. It’s sad and upsetting that modern media invasiveness – combined with ignorance of past presidential illness and more than a little ableism – make us think that someone with migraines (or other similar conditions) isn’t fit to be president.

    It would be unfortunate if the only people we were willing to accept as presidential candidates were young-ish, hale men like Thomas Jefferson. Except, of course, that many historians think Thomas Jefferson had regular migraines.

  28. You don’t dispute that debilitating conditions are debilitating. Instead you note, reasonably, that they may arise in any cas. But that doesn’t seem good grounds for not trying to avoid them (unless there are good reasons for thinking that coping with such conditions is likely to be character building or the costs of limiting ourselves to smaller pool of candidates are too great – both genuine possibilities).

  29. Of course I don’t dispute that debilitating medical conditions are debilitating. That seems, well, true by definition. Though I do deny that conditions we count as debilitating render you “weak” or “enfeebled”. They make some things hard for you to do. They make some things impossible for you to do. In some cases, they make some things difficult or impossible to do at specific times. That doesn’t mean they make you “enfeebled”.

    My point above is just that we have good evidence that having the kind of medical condition we generally class as “debilitating” does not prevent – has not prevented – people from being capable, even exceptional, presidents. You’ve said nothing that undermines this evidence, as far as I can tell.

  30. I agree that we have evidence that having a debilitating medical condition does not necessarily prevent someone from being a capable president. However, I’m with Neil inasmuch as it hardly follows that one can’t reasonably accord it some weight in assessing a candidate’s aptitude. The proper amount of weight would depend on a number of factors.

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