Renouncing Masculinity (and reclaiming my humanity)

In my previous blog about John Piper’s so-called complementarianism, the key issue at stake was assumptions about sex and gender roles. Complementarians assume that human relationships are (or should be) shaped by a binary structure. According to Piper and Gruden (in their truly horrible Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), “masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships.” Conversely, “femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.”

It seems to me obvious that human relationships resist binaries such as that proposed by Piper and fellow complementarians; people are just too diverse to be classified in simplistic ways. More to the point, a person’s sex has very little to do with whether he or she is gifted to lead, provide for, and protect – or affirm, receive, and nurture – and ideally every person should develop a character capable of each of these traits. Any assertion that one’s sex predetermines leadership or its complementary “disposition to affirm” (by which is meant submission) is inherently sexist. It’s just as bad as saying that a white person is gifted to “lead and protect,” and a black person to “affirm and receive.” It’s not good enough to pretend that men and women are equal in being but subordinate in function, when what we assume that a person can (or should) do is central to their being.

I’ve always resisted binary definitions of masculinity and femininity. Secular versions such as John Gray’s Men Are from Mars and Women from Venus are just as dumb as the Christian equivalent in books such as John Eldridge’s Wild at Heart, with their warrior/hunter/rescuing men and princess/passive/longing to be rescued women.

But my abstract reflections on gender have been made personal by the accident that left me a quadriplegic. This was brought home to me recently by an insightful question by my friend Lauren. We have shared the reading of a book by Tom Shakespeare, Sexual Politics of Disability: Untold Desires, which, among other things, reflects on the implications of disability for masculinity. In response, Lauren said:

That’s one thing I wondered about after reading Shakespeare. He goes through a process of recreating masculinity in the light of disability.  Is this something you’ve considered too?  You were always a rather different man anyway.  What sort of man are you now?  Do you have alternative gender practices?  I find this statement quite hopeful:

“Men with disabilities who rejected or renounced masculinity did so as a process of deviance disavowal.  They realised it was societal conceptions of masculinity, rather than themselves, that were problematic. In doing so, they were able to create alternative gender practices.”

It’s interesting to consider alternative masculinities.  Have you done any thinking about this? There seems to be a dearth of thoughtful literature here, but I suppose your memoir touches on these themes.

My memoir does touch on these themes (there you are – another instance of blatant self-promotion), and indeed I’ve spent many hours mulling over the issue. I’d probably have to admit that for all my feminist rhetoric, prior to my accident I was a stereotypical male – self-confident, sports obsessed, a leader.

Disability, however, asked questions about my manhood. It’s not only the impact of the injury on sexual capacities, although, let’s be honest, masculinity is inevitably tied up with sexual potency. More substantially, it’s the extent to which disability displaced my strength with weakness, confidence with uncertainty, independence with dependency. Far from being a rescuer, I found myself (and still find myself) needing to be rescued, carried, supported, strengthened – all the things John Piper would think of as feminine; and of course it’s been mostly women who’ve done the rescuing, carrying, supporting, and strengthening.

Perhaps Piper would claim that the exception proves the point – that the cost of disability is masculinity. But I think that disability teaches us what is true of our universal humanity; that to be a human is to be vulnerable, fragile, dependent, and in need of rescue. To quote Shakespeare, it’s only when I renounce masculinity (at least as Piper, Eldridge, and Gray understand it) that I can face up to my humanity, and maybe then become the man that I was always meant to be; utterly unique and free from binary straitjackets.

And when I let go of the pretenses of masculinity, I can also dispense with shallow views of femininity, and see my wife and female friends for what they really are; at one and the same time vulnerable and fragile, and incomprehensibly powerful.

Husbands Should Not Break will be in print and available on Kindle in late September.

That damned LED clock

My eyes opened and I stared at the ceiling. The red LED laser clock told me it was 2 AM. My brain was fried but I’d been woken by a spasm that had travelled from my toes up through my calf and thigh and into my stomach. I shut my eyes and tried for a quick return to oblivion, but my legs were twitching. My spinal injury is incomplete, so I have sensation in my paralysed legs and hands – but it’s muted and warped. If they’ve been still too long, the tension in my legs burns and builds, and then fires, like a bolt of electricity, causing my knee to kick up and bend tight. Sometimes they’ll fall to the side, so that I lay like a twisted chalk-drawn outline of a corpse. Last night, they kicked up and then straightened back out, before shaking crazily in spasm, like an out-of-control orgasm, but one that brought no relief. And so began a cycle that continued until I eventually lost consciousness; twitching, spasm kick spasm, momentary respite, and then twitching again. It is not painful. Just annoying.

What I wanted to do while all this was going on was to get up and take a piss; to stand at the toilet bowl in the dark and hear the twinkle on the water. Or I thought about sneaking into the kitchen, finding some fresh bread, dropping it in the toaster, and when it was smoking hot, smothering it with butter and Vegemite. Or (because I can’t help but torture myself), I imagined crawling over to Elly’s bed, and straddling her while she slept, waking her with a kiss on the neck. But my legs were lead weights, trapping me in bed, so I had no choice but to stare at the ceiling and hope that I’d fall asleep quickly, before that damned LED clock ticked over too many minutes and I started to worry about how tired I’d be tomorrow.

The last time I noticed, the clock read 2:45 AM. At 7 AM I was woken by the smiling face of my carer. I’d soon be out of bed and in my chair ready for the day. At night I’m a cripple, but in my chair I’m a freewheeling lunatic. Bring on the day.

A Second Perspective– Guinness friendship and piss

on Jay McNeil’s blogs, Growing Sideways, he gives his perspective of our day out:

So how do I explain this? Lets start when the phone call came at 8:00 am Saturday morning:

“Jay, its Shane – in a spot of bother… my Carer is sick and can’t lift me so I can shower, any chance you could help out? I am not sure who else to reach out to in Melbourne and I am guessing your experience with your daughter Sunshine means you’d be used to the mess of disability.”

 “Yeah, of course Shane… will be there in 20 minutes.” …

To read on, check out J’s blog,  Guinness, friendship and piss.

“It’s only natural”

I have a disability and I voteThe virtue tradition that has informed much of my thinking in recent years (e.g. virtue and happiness) tends to rely on an understanding of “human nature” for its conception of the good life. That is, it assumes that happiness – well-being – is achieved when we flourish according to our nature. The difficulty comes in determining exactly what constitutes that nature. In fact, this is more than a difficulty. Our conception of what is (and what is not) natural is too easily subject to prejudice, with oppressive consequences.

This has been made clear in discourse about race, gender, sexuality, and age (and we could add species), but the issue is especially potent when it comes to dis/ability. Even the use of the label sets up an assumption about what a person can and cannot do. Assumptions about “naturalness” blind us to what people with a disability may be capable of accomplishing. In Frontiers of Justice, Martha C. Nussbaum notes that:

Not so long ago it would have been assumed that even a person who was blind or deaf simply couldn’t participate in higher education or political life, that a person in a wheelchair could not participate in sports or perform in a wide range of jobs. Impediments that were thoroughly social were seen as natural.

She goes on to describe the gains that have been made with helping people with down syndrome to flourish. Many of the physical and cognitive limitations that were once taken to be unalterable (natural), have been transcended by the implementation of bodily exercises and massage, speech therapy, and targeted education (in public schools with so-called “normal” children), and this was achieved because parents and advocates refused to accept the limitations that came with assumptions about what such children might “naturally” achieve.

Nussbaum does think that there is value in identifying fundamental dimensions of human nature – what she describes as “central human capabilities.” These form the basis for human rights and justice – and in a future post I might discuss them. One of those capacities is “control over one’s environment”, which includes political rights – the capacity to participate in political choices that govern one’s future. This is noteworthy today as Australians went to the polls to decide on the next government and Prime Minister. Under Australia’s voting system, people with intellectual disabilities are not excluded; and that is as it should be. It would once have been assumed that intellectual impairment made it impossible for a person to make rational political choices. Such an assumption both overstates the rationality of “normal” people, and denies the humanity of those with particular disabilities. Having said this, the Australian system is not without its prejudice. An online voting system intended to enable the visually impaired to vote independently was trialled in 2007, but discontinued – although a telephone system has been made available. You might be thinking, “what difference does it make if a blind person can vote with the help of a carer?” Of course, people with a disability appreciate their carers, but independence – and achieving as much independence as we are capable of – is fundamental to human flourishing, and so the right to independent voting is a vital symbol of the rights of the blind in Australian society.

This is a long winded way of saying – be careful in your assumptions about what is “natural.”

Book review: The Bible disability and the church, Amos Yong

One of the best books I’ve read in recent years is Amos Yong’s, the Bible Disability and the Church. The book is a biblical theology of disability, although I would not want its readership to be limited to people with a disability. It is really a form of liberation theology, using the lens of disability to explore the ways in which the scriptures confront and overturn attitudes and cultural prejudices that marginalise, stigmatise and belittle people who don’t fit within the supposed norms of society.

The impetus for the book is Amos’ love for his brother, who was born with Down Syndrome, although the book is concerned with the broader concept of disability. In his earlier Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity, Amos recounted his brother’s story in detail and developed a more systematic and scholarly analysis of disability. Where the previous book is scholarly (one Amazon reviewer who loved the book nevertheless noted “I have to admit I didn’t always necessarily understand everything being said as the language is much more geared toward theologians”) The Bible and Disability is written for a lay audience. It would, for example, stimulate rich conversation in a small group or around a family dinner table. For those of you in Australia, the soft copy is available from Koorong for $15 (see here). I read the Kindle version, which will only set you back $10 (see here).

** I should admit that this point that Amos is a friend of mine, although he has not bribed me for a positive review **

over the next little while (and sorry, I’m notoriously slow) I might make a few comments on each of the chapters. In terms of the first chapter I have the following observations/comments (and if you decide to download a (legal) copy why not add yours):

  1. the first question that arises concerns the definition of “disabled”. Amos touches on this issue only briefly but I feel the matter is vital. The lines between ability and disability are grey indeed. In the case of down syndrome or spinal-cord injury (SCI) the situation is normally clear-cut, although a person might have a disabling SCI and look relatively “normal”. Likewise, how do you draw a distinction between a person with an intellectual disability and someone of below average intelligence? (An issue that is especially troubling in a court of law) How do we distinguish between illness and disability, especially if the former is permanent? How severe must a physical or intellectual limitations be to be classified as a disability? And how do we distinguish between the degradation of old age and disability? All of this leads me to conclude that the question of disability is in fact not just about people living on the margins but is pertinent to us all. There is every chance that at some point and in some way we shall all be disabled, and this fact makes Amos’ work all the more important.
  2. What language do we use to speak about disability? Amos notes the difference between the nomenclature “disabled person” and “person with a disability”. The former highlights the disability whereas the latter highlights the person. What labels are appropriate and what are derogatory? In hospital, my friend and I would call each other spastic, and especially enjoyed what we called “spaz pong” (ping-pong for those of us whose arms spasm and pretty much miss every shot). Was this derogatory to others or ourselves? Is it appropriate between friends but inappropriate now that I’ve put it on the page? Does it matter who uses the label and how they use it? These might seem like insignificant issues, but they get to the heart of the problem that Amos is trying to address. The language we use matters, because it reflects the attitudes we have about disability.
  3. Amos addresses a fascinating issue about whether we should judge disability as something needing to be fixed. Let me quote him in full:

Disabilities are not necessarily evil or blemishes to be eliminated. Should we avoid losing a functional arm or leg if we can? Of course. But many who have lost the functionality of an arm or a leg lead very productive and satisfying lives – they don’t need to be healed. More complicated are the congenitally disabled. Still, people who were born without certain appendages or who have grown up without certain sensory capacities live quite well-adjusted and normal lives with what they have. Should we try to “fix” those who are different among us so that they can be just like us? Most problematic are those whose disabilities are a constitutive part of their identities. My brother Mark is a case in point. How can we fix or erase his chromosomal condition without eliminating him altogether?”

Which brings us to the primary point that Amos is trying to make, and again it is best if I quote him in full:

Historically, and even across wide swaths of contemporary life, ableism presumes that people with disabilities are subhumans, menaces to society, or objects of pity, dread, or ridicule. And just as with racism and sexism, the excluded minority population internalizes the views of the dominant culture so that people with disabilities also come to understand themselves and act in ways that confirm the expected stereotypes. This book opposes the exclusions legitimated by our ableist worldview, and seeks to challenge normate assumptions with perspectives derived from the experience of disability.”

What Amos is saying is that disability is not primarily medical but social. The tendency for us is to think, “how can we fix this person? ” A much better question is, “how can I respect this person?” The truth is, that as a person with an SCI I generally do not feel excluded or mistreated. In fact, my friends and family, and the broader society, normally treat me as they would any other person. But I am fortunate in this regard, because the experience of most people that act a little different and look a little different is that they are treated differently. The extent to which the Bible is used as a document of exclusion or inclusion is the focus of Amos’ work.

all that in chapter 1 – and in some future post I will comment on his analysis of the scriptural contribution.

the non-disabled depending upon the disabled

I spend much of my day asking for help. Coming home from the train station yesterday I was cold and so stopped to ask a young lady to get my beanie and mittens out from my bag. She looked at me strangely and said, “can’t you get someone else?” when I noted that she was nearest she again refused to help. it is a response that I get surprisingly often. initially it embarrasses me (I must look like a creepy pervert) and then it infuriates me. I suggested that she think of her failure to help me every time she watched the news of the Paralympics, and then made my way to ask someone else.

With this in mind it was interesting to come across the following quote in a book by Amos Yong, Theology and down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity:

  • Sharon betcher notes (2000: 93), when she says as a person with a disability “excuse me, i need your help”—“in that moment the frozen wall between us topples; in your converted countenance, i discern that, as if in the twinkling of an eye, you have been changed. For the 45 seconds i needed you, you did not feel extraneous to the world. Sometimes i will ask for help just to save you, the nondisabled, from superficiality and irrelevance—just to save us from your own worst fear.” in that moment, god’s saving grace is made available through “the stranger” or those on the margins, and we can receive this grace or not depending on how we respond. This is the criterion dividing the sheep and the goats at the judgment: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (matt 25:40). Hence, the question concerns not the dependence of the disabled on the nondisabled but the other way around: the nondisabled are dependent on the disabled, whom god has chosen to be a means of saving grace. (page 188)

This is such a profound paragraph. And it has me wondering, what does that mean for the people who so often say “no” to the ‘creepy’ me when I ask for help? or much more importantly, what does it mean for all those brilliant people who help me time and again.

Disability and The Death Penalty

For those of you familiar with some of my recent teaching and writing, I am something of a dilettante in the virtue ethics of Aristotle. He has much to say that is of interest and use today and I have used his work in a recent article to explore the concept of happiness as it relates to my experience of spinal-cord injury. My enthusiasm, however, only goes so far, especially given that the prejudice that is so much a part of the outlook of his day impacts his thinking at key points. He argues, for example, that women and slaves are unable to be happy, in the fullest sense of the term, because they lack the freedom to make their own decisions, which restricts their exercise of virtue; “For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority” (Politics 1060a). More than just the cultural blindness of this position, what is noteworthy is that this restriction on the possibility of complete happiness extends to people who are chronically ill, mentally deficient and even ‘ugly’.

For it is impossible or not easy for someone without equipment to do what is noble: many things are done through instruments, [1099b] as it were—through friends, wealth, and political power. Those who are bereft of some of these (for example, good birth, good children, or beauty) disfigure their blessedness, for a person who is altogether ugly in appearance, or of poor birth, or solitary and childless cannot really be characterized as happy; and he is perhaps still less happy, if he should have altogether bad children or friends or, though he did have good ones, they are dead. Just as we said, then, [happiness] seems to require some such external prosperity in addition. This is why some make good fortune equivalent to happiness, and others, virtue. (Nicomachean ethics 1099b).

For Aristotle this conclusion was obvious. Ill-health, mental deficiency and ugliness – characteristic ways of describing disability – are not only undesirable for their own sake (how could anyone consider the disabled life to be a good life), but they necessarily restrict the full exercise of intellectual and moral virtue, at least as he understands these concepts.

Now, before we ‘stand up’ in righteous indignation it is worth noting that this perspective is all too common. It finds its way, for example, into the scriptures, in texts such as
Leviticus 21:16 – 23 (“no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed … is to come near to present the food offerings to the LORD” – see my earlier blog here). I hope to discuss a biblical theology of disability at a later point (if the gaps in my blogging improve, I intend to take us through some of the writing of Amos Yong in The Bible Disability in Church) but before any of us in the 21st century get too self-righteous, it is worth noting that such perspectives are too common today.

There is the simple inability that most people have to look a disabled person in the eye, to talk to them naturally and treat them as we would any other person. Behind these actions may well lie pity and compassion, but this can be similar to the perspective of Aristotle, since it arises because we presume that the disabled are unlucky and necessarily unhappy – and very few of us are capable of looking directly at suffering. Of course these attitudes are understandable. I have been there myself and I’m sure compassion is often warranted; but it should not be assumed, since assumption is the ground of prejudice. Much more importantly, however, is the fact that prejudice against disability stands behind some of our arguments for both abortion and euthanasia. It is now the almost universal practice to screen the fetus for any signs of disability. If such is found (or even suspected) abortion is presented as a possible course of action, leaving parents in the invidious position of having to decide whether or not to terminate their pregnancy. At the other end of life, it is generally believed that people with severe acquired disability would want to commit suicide and, if they are unable to do so because of the limits of their function, should be helped to die by an indemnified doctor.

I should note, at this point, that I am not making an argument in this post for or against the legalisation of abortion or euthanasia. These are far more complex issues than many on the right or the left allow and morality is generally best kept out of the hands of politicians and law courts. I am speaking simply about prejudice. So to end where I started. Aristotle may be a misogynist racist but at least he wasn’t suggesting termination as a solution to the problem of disability.