Dialectical Materialism and Disability
a praxis for radical healing
Current popular ideology asserts that positive thinking alone can improve the individual condition. Unlike Marxist material dialectics, which recognizes social, natural and physical forces on the individual, group, society, and history; this mandate blames the subject for conditions in her life, going so far as to accuse those who speak honestly about their doubts, frustrations, marginalization, humiliation and discrimination, of “playing the victim.”
But within the tyranny of “positive thinking” is the insistence, not that the subject stop being a victim; (because victimization is always external to the subject!) simply that she become the kind of victim society is more comfortable with: one that doesn’t complain, doesn’t demand and doesn’t speak out!
Like many solutions and analyses not rooted in theories of radical social transformation, this one too, fails to look at illness and disability in the larger social context. Certainly; while focusing on positive aspects of life can make even the most unbearable situations better, the spiritual tyranny (what i call spiritual fascism) of constantly being told to “be positive” is extremely oppressive.
In her last weeks, activist, Barbara Franklin, as she died of incurable cancer, told me she thought she hadn’t been positive enough to fight the disease. This missive “be positive” only added to her stress and self-loathing, as her body was consumed by rogue cells. This discussion was one of many we had in her final days, around a language of infirmity, which we found we could share with few other people.
Healing is the process of transformation regardless of the outcome, while cure is the eradication of the condition. The former is always possible, while the latter, may not be. The truth is, we will all die. There is no positive thinking protocol that can override that fact.
Illness is its own epic voyage that involves despair as well as revelation. To limit the process to the narrow realm of “positive thinking” serves only the status quo and does little to really illuminate the larger and more significant journey. Nor does it inform the subject in navigating the new landscape that the condition and social obstacles impose.
Part of the healing process involves an empowering understanding of illness, disease and marginalization. The missive to be positive, makes the illness experience easier on the people around the subject, but may only provide the most superficial of solutions to the actual challenges of healing. And, in as much as the insistence to present an affect that is dishonest, isolating and counter-intuitive, may in fact do great harm. For social transformation to occur, one must speak truth to power. How does one do that if ignoring those forces (and symptoms?) acting against oneself? And with illness and disability, in our society, the forces outside of the individual (access to health care, attitudes of loved ones, the health care gulag, discrimination, etc.) may be greater than the disease or condition itself. Thinking positive sadly, often results in self-blame and self-loathing. Whereas critical thinking, which doesn’t preclude gratitude, but includes assessment, activism and empowerment is a much greater healer.
Even better, if the subject can connect her inner process of infirmity or disability within the context of larger social constructs and movements for social change; that is, develop an understanding of illness, disability and infirmity within the larger body politic.
More powerful if she can find allies along the way and communities of inclusion that also don’t see illness and disability as personal, individual problems that don’t have a place in the public discourse beyond the scrutiny applied by those not subject to the conditions.
For the subject, the challenge is to seek out and find community and support that doesn’t dismiss the experience behind popular platitudes that lay blame by maintaining the individual nature of the situation; but rather, can bear witness to the journey and explore and address the social injustices and indignities and provide empowered and informed advocacy.
For activists who have never addressed these issues within a social context, the challenge is to listen and to advocate, as well as to understand the radical value of bearing witness; not dismissing the experience, but rather, using it to name, address and define the experience in a language of self-definition, self-determination and empowerment.