Braille Monitor                  December 2021

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Words Matter

by Maurice Peret

Maurice PeretFrom the Editor: In this time of social change, I find that I particularly like the title of this article. Although I do my best to stay up-to-date, listen to every point of view I can, and seem to spend most of my time reading, there are many terms I do not understand, yet I see them used in our literature, some of which I have some responsibility for editing. Several years ago someone wrote an article in which they opined that this condition really sucks. I replaced the word, and my young assistant laughed. She said it was a commonly used word and that I should not shy away from it. She said she could well understand the origin of the word that I initially understood but that it had changed and was now part of the common parlance. Of course she did more than laugh at me. There are times when she cautioned me against words that I wanted to use. I wanted to refer to Dr. Jernigan and Dr. tenBroek as intimates, but again she suggested that there was a disconnect between my understanding of common day usage and what I was intending to say.

I have been reading a book by Ibram X. Kendi about being an antiracist, and I was struck by these sentences: “Definitions anchor us in principles. This is not a light point: If we don’t do the basic work of defining the kind of people we want to be in language that is stable and consistent, we can’t work toward stable, consistent goals.”

As a reader of the Braille Monitor, I’m not sure that I have ever been properly introduced to the term “othering.” I believe it means to consider a group different from oneself and to see that difference as negative rather than positive. The Oxford dictionary offers these synonyms: rejected, excluded, shunned, spurned, rebuffed, snubbed, scorned, ostracized, and repudiated. I take from this that the term refers to a group considered so foreign that I pretend that I cannot relate to their experience or feel I have no obligation to see the world as they experience it.

So what about other terms that float into the language? One I recently questioned was “woke.” This word can be troublesome because the definition is not as clear. It depends on when the word was used and by whom. In its simplest form it means to have passed from sleep to consciousness, but other definitions definitely exist, and this is when things get complicated. To some the word woke means to be mindful of current issues and to be supportive of them, particularly as they relate to social movements. To some the word means a decision to be aware that what is reflected in your life may be very different in the lives of others. To some the word evokes all that is offensive about political correctness, and to call someone woke is not to flatter or compliment but to say they have bought into division and the fragmenting of society. To them it embodies all of the evils of “cancel culture,” yet another term, and the ideology of victimhood. So when we use words like this one, we better be certain that we understand the different meanings it has and think about whether our concept can be explained as well with other words that make clear our meaning.

All of this is to say that I want us to be careful in the language we use. The Monitor should not be a tool that divides us, but neither should it be so antiseptic that we avoid understanding the issues our fellow blind people experience.

Now for a word about Maurice before he begins speaking for himself. He is not easily categorized politically. He spends a lot of time reading, and some of the characters that are treated unfavorably in our culture are ones he believes are misunderstood. If he believes that Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin have points of view with which he agrees, the fact that we print his comments does not mean that the National Federation of the Blind or the Braille Monitor has an opinion about these revolutionaries. What it does mean is that we believe Maurice has opinions that we benefit from organizationally if we share them, come to understand them, and can then decide with reason what we will take and what we will reject in our own view of the world.

So, in furtherance of better communication about issues of importance to us today, here is what Maurice has to say:

I have previously written in these pages about the pitfalls of popular social trends such as is engendered in identity politics while we in the National Federation of the Blind continue to celebrate and embrace our differences and “otherness.”

An interesting debate from 2019 about whether identity politics is tearing our society apart can be found via a British program called Intelligence Squared at https://youtu.be/hVMYfuzhbxk.

I recently engaged with some leaders of our diversity and inclusion initiative about the use of the term "ally" as part of the conversation around diversity. Popular linguistic conventions creep up in social discourse, which we sometimes accept by rote without much analysis. We could discuss the efficacy of the use of the “N” word, the "B" word, “queer,” or other language adopted by some members of marginalized groups. Parenthetically, it has become difficult for me to keep up with all the alphabetic augmentations encompassed in the LGBTQAI+ category. I know what L, G, T, B, and Q stand for, but I wonder what the AI is for and whether the plus simply is intended to include those not yet integrated into the acronym.

My personal measure has been to consider whether any of these terms are ever used to uplift rather than disparage others. I never heard the term “blink” in reference to a blind person or “gimp” in referring to someone who uses a wheelchair until I went to college. While it might sound playful to some within the disability community to implore terms such as these under the justification of “taking the term back” and rebranding it for our own purposes, I don’t think a very strong argument can be made that they are anything but derogatory. Others may argue that it is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder.

In another more recent instance, the term “cisgender male” was used in reference to me. I had never heard this term before that utterance. While this came from a colleague whom I admire and respect, I have wondered ever since about it being hung around my neck. It is not a term that I claimed nor necessarily accept. A person who used the term frankly did not know me well enough to put me into such a box. One might say that, well, Maurice is married and has children and thus and such, but as we all know, these are not definitively exclusionary criteria. We must be careful in our pursuit of group affinity and identification with oppressed people groups not to unwittingly alienate ourselves from a broader and stronger majority whom, together, I am confident can conquer all remnants of racism, nationalism, sexism, ableism, and all forms of oppression.

A reference was made during our exchange to the civil rights movement in this country. It is noteworthy to consider the substantial number of Caucasian people—freedom fighters—who literally positioned their bodies as shields to defend black protesters under the tremendous disciplined leadership of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Black Panther Party, as well as a host of other Black-rights organizations. It is true that young people from many racial groups and backgrounds shed blood in the struggle. The term that unified these fighters was "Freedom Riders," not allies. In the huge militant industrial labor battles of the 1920s and 1930s in this country, made up in large part of immigrant workers, solidarity was a concept shared among comrades, again, not allies. Ally was a term reserved for those individuals, and they were usually heroic individuals of which history is plentiful with examples, but who were nonetheless from alien class forcers or interests. For example, they would include secretaries and messengers of bosses who were planning attacks on striking union workers. Their contributions to the struggle were no less appreciated, but they were not strictly "comrades-in-arms union members."

The reason why I respectfully but firmly reject the term ally is that it creates a socially-artificial and embattled barrier among us and can imply a certain hierarchy. For instance, we hear of allies when studying interimperialist wars throughout history. Most United Nations or so-called peacekeeping military adventures are dominated by United States military brass, (read Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan), as was true during the two world wars. In those instances, a hierarchy existed between European, British, and smaller and weaker powers and the dominant United States Armed Forces. In every theater of operation, United States political and military leaders gave the orders to all other operational troops.

Just as a way of contextualizing where I am coming from, my political and historic orientation can be summed up as not fitting neatly within political conventional categories of left or right. Instead, I adhere to a historic continuity that goes back to Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, Eugene V. Debs and Hellen Keller, and other past leaders of revolutionary caliber. Within that proud tradition, it would not necessarily be inaccurate to say that my views are rather orthodox. The problem is that my views are neither very popular nor widely well understood, which I think is quite sad since it represents an important part of our collective history. I have always had a deep and abiding interest and appreciation for folks who come from so many varied backgrounds and nations. My mom, a single parent and French immigrant who raised me, possessed what I consider a healthy distrust of power and authority. I evolved my thinking beyond merely iconoclastic rebellion chiefly because I am more interested in results in matters of justice and equity. I am more interested in expressing what I am for as opposed to what I am against, which is too easy for all of us to do. I look to leadership from the likes of those such as Malcolm X., Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, Ernesto Che Guevara, and others who have demonstrated a capacity to lead truly mass movements. In so doing, I would joyfully submit myself to the discipline and conduct inspired by such leadership. That would, in my humble opinion, make me a soldier in the struggle rather than an ally. Colin Wong expressed this beautifully in his wrap-up as moderator of the diversity panel presentation during the NFB 2021 National Convention. I am so heartened and inspired by strong and vibrant leadership that is represented in our various areas of work in the Federation, which I believe to be the hope and strength of our movement in all its diversity and inclusivity.

President Riccobono’s banquet speech was most illustrative as he recounted the rough racial waters the Federation navigated during the 1950s and 1960s Jim Crow era, along with the rest of the nation. Unfortunately, this has not always been so prolific in the literary historic account of our movement. It is often said that history is always written from the point of view of the victors, although this is rather simplistic. I look at this from a decidedly internationalist perspective, as well. Malcolm used to remind us that while African Americans, Latinos, indigenous Americans, Asian and Pacific Islanders, along with those of us with disabilities suffer the indignities of a minority class in the United States, that fact is not reflected in much of the world’s composition. In building truly effective mass movements, therefore, I believe we must come to understand our capacity to come together in united action. Our experiences are not the same, and I would not suggest otherwise. To consider another angle, the so-called progressive left liberals in this country completely missed the mark in maligning whole swaths of people who could and should have been considered “allies,” to borrow the term, in the political theater that led to the election of Donald J. Trump. They wrote off these people by consistently vilifying working-class voters throughout the Midwest, Appalachia, and the South who voted in large numbers for Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primaries but for Trump in the general election. Many of these folks have been and continue to be economically, socially, and culturally devastated by the steady economic decline and slow-burn deindustrialization occurring over the past several decades. Many of these workers hold bitter memories of the Clinton dynasty’s dismantling of the social net, “ending welfare as we know it,” bloating the prison population in the name of the “war on drugs,” far more than occurred even under the Reagan administration, etc. It has been observed that the last true liberal president this country had in terms of policy was Richard M. Nixon.

To mention so-called “white privilege” to a laid-off coal miner in Kentucky; Pennsylvania; Alabama; or West Virginia, where I lived for several years, will likely provoke an animated response. That does not make these people definitively racist. Backward ideas about the “other” certainly exist throughout our society. I nonetheless hate to see so many of the gains we have made as a people be subverted by trendy language shortcuts as, again in my humble opinion, is used in the term “ally,” no matter how well-intended.

I am reminded of a speech presented by the late great Federation leader, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan in an October 1994 issue of the Braille Monitor entitled “Reflections On Race, Religion, Disability, Sex, and Broader Issues” in response to a letter accusing him of racially insensitive language in presenting a distinguished award to Ms. Doris Johnson. [That article appears immediately following this one.] In his article, Former President Jernigan stated “Despite the attempts of some of our detractors to create a race problem in the Federation, we have never had one, and I doubt that we ever will.” With the passing of some twenty-seven years and a different era in the Federation notwithstanding, this assertion can certainly be debated and discussed. Clearly members of our movement have experienced treatment beneath their dignity and worth as human beings and as comrades in our movement. Nonetheless, I believe that Dr. Jernigan passionately expressed the unified focus of our collective strength and power.

Finally, I believe that using the term “ally” condescends to set a lower standard of the capacities of folks who happen, by accident of birth or upbringing, to be Caucasian, Christian, or whatever dominant American cultural divide. To rise to a level of solidarity that inspires one to be willing to lay down their lives for their brother or sister of any background is a friend, a brother or sister, a fellow combatant or, if you will, a comrade is more than an ally. Those who help in a cause not directly their own should have a term that raises one to the level of an equal: not an overlord, not the driver of the cause, but not an underling whose investment of time, treasure, and even personal risk is discounted.

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