Dispatches from the Empire

What’s the Problem with Disability Studies and the “Disability Rights” Movement?

Ramping up the rhetorical and social stakes leaves us incapable of calling bullshit bullshit. As is always the case, the rise of identity politics in disability discourse has created a state of constant emotionalism, threat, and fear. People are afraid to engage because they expect, correctly, that saying anything that contradicts the activist crowd will simply result in them being called bigots. This causes problems all over our debates, but appears most glaring when it comes to the stupidest issues. For example, despite dogged insistence to the contrary, it is not the case that there has been a sudden massive increase in the prevalence of late-onset Tourette’s syndrome among adolescent women with TikTok accounts. There has not been some sort of incredible change to the epidemiology of Tourette’s, and essentially no one really believes that there has been. Instead, a lot of young woman started pretending to have Tourette’s syndrome out of a desire to belong and to differentiate themselves from their peers in the marketplace of attention, and as they were rewarded in that marketplace others responded by doing the same thing. Similarly, there has not been a sudden increase in dissociative identity disorder among very-online adolescent women, given that DID is a controversial diagnosis and the disorder known for its extreme rarity. Pretending to have multiple personalities is fun and edgy so some teenagers have done it a lot recently.

Kids do dumb things and I’m not particularly mad about it. I do, however, think that if it goes unchecked this stuff could have serious negative consequences for how our culture views mental illness. What’s striking is how scared many people seem to be about calling this obvious bullshit out as obvious bullshit. When I talk about this, I press and probe and ask people if any of it passes the smell test. And just about nobody says “Yes, it’s credible that there are more authentic cases of dissociative identity disorder in my TikTok feed than there have been confirmed cases in medical history.” Nobody’s that dumb. But they’re unwilling to just say, yeah, that’s bullshit. They ummm and they uhhhh and they tiptoe around and they dance, and they do so because they’ve absorbed the attitude that criticizing anyone’s specific claims to disability means that you’re somehow callous towards disability in general. They also won’t call bullshit on bullshit because they’re afraid of being tarred with the “ableism” accusation. The whole thing makes it harder for us to think and talk intelligently about how to best accommodate disability in our society.

This resonates. In my masters program, this is all terrifically common. I’ve been afraid to call out bullshit when I see it precisely before I’m afraid of being called out as ‘callous.’ More worryingly, I’ve seen professors and administrators — at multiple universities — be cowed into silence, afraid the DEI office might come from their job should they speak out.

To say this is depressing is an understatement. Academia should be the one institution in American life immune from irrationality, from illiberalism. And yet it’s embraced them with abandon as students, now ‘customers’ in a capitalist model, have become empowered by social media.

The young, myself included, don’t always know best, and it hurts watching people that know better say nothing.