Confronting the confronting

Oct 04

So Mr Abbott finds the burqa confronting.

While it may be a fault of the media, rather than Mr Abbott (who has since ‘famously’ backflipped on his position on the ban), I find that a pretty appalling reflection to put out there and just leave hanging. It needs to be explained, explored, qualified, and ultimately expounded or rejected.

When I find something confronting, my first urge is to understand why. Because being confronted by something, by definition, makes us uncomfortable, and being uncomfortable has the potential to make us behave in a less than rational way.

I saw this in action, in myself, when I went to the cinema a few weeks ago. Prior to the movie, I saw a guy in the foyer who I knew from around 15 years ago, and he was with his family, which included a daughter with a disability. I know nothing of her disability except how it manifests: loud speech that I find difficult to understand, a very obviously different, awkward gait and manner, and a tendency to pursue her immediate goal with a persistence that others can find difficult to handle; I wouldn’t attempt to say exactly what her condition involves, because I really don’t know, and indeed, elements of what may appear ‘part of’ her disability may not be (e.g. being persistent about expressing a desire could just be a function of not being heard).

I find “these kinds” of disability confronting. Disabilities that have a purely physical impact don’t seem to phase me at all; a missing limb here or there doesn’t bother me at all, a malformed appendage might give me a bit of a surprise initially but soon ‘disappears’ from my consciousness. But I do find disabilities that affect speech and expression to be confronting. It makes me uncomfortable, because I don’t flourish in social situations at the best of times, and when the “rules” of “normal” social discourse are undermined by someone who wants to talk to me, but who I find difficult to understand, I become extremely self-conscious and awkward. And of course I recognise this entirely as my own issue, and I’ve always been jealous of carers and workers – ever since I was a kid – who appear so comfortable around such disabilities and who can engage so freely in meaningful interactions with people with disabilities that I find confronting.

I probably should clarify here that it’s not like I would just cut off a disabled person and run away if they attempted to talk to me. That kind of situation is just one of many I find socially awkward, but am able to cope with and seek to be better at. I also have clients who do a lot of work in the disability sector, I advocate for accessibility in my work, and I simply have to learn more about the issues because of that professional exposure.

In short, I regard my own reaction to such disability as a kind of disability of my own. It’s certainly not something that forms the basis for any kind of discrimination on my behalf. Or so I thought.

After the movie, I waited at the bottom of the stairs for my wife who had disappeared into the Ladies’ room. I heard a bit of a scuffle at the top of the stairs, some strange yelling/wailing, and then thumping. And then someone rolled onto the first landing of the stairs. My brain joined the dots as it all happened – I assumed the person making the odd noises was the person with the disability, I assumed they’d become agitated about something and that this level of excitability combined with their awkward gait had contributed to a fall down the stairs, and, as I made my way up the stairs to offer assistance, I assumed that it probably happens to this person all the time and, somehow, that made it less urgent. When I reached her and asked if she was okay, she sat up and said quite clearly, “Yes, I’m fine, I’m fine”, and tried to stand up. Despite my surprise – that it was not the disabled girl I’d assumed it was but rather an able-bodied woman a few years older than me – I said, “no, no, don’t stand up, just sit there for a while first”, and that was about the extent of the help I extended because she was then surrounded by friends and cinema staff.

As I walked – very carefully – down the stairs, I was in a state of something approaching shock, but not because I’d just witnessed someone taking a horrible fall down a stairwell, but because I’d discovered that I do discriminate against disabled people. I assumed that the odd wailing was the vocalisations of a disabled person when actually it was the horror expressed by the onlookers who watched the woman fall backwards down the stairs. My brain (and I like to say “my brain” because I like the concept of distancing the offensive thought processes from my self) had somehow classed the situation as less of an emergency because it ‘probably happens all the time’ and, worst of all, that assumption didn’t reveal itself to me until I saw that the woman who fell was a woman I recognised as someone I’d seen earlier having a perfectly “normal” conversation; that is, someone just like me. My ‘coolness’ in response to the situation became a feeling of negligence for not being more concerned when I realised that it was something that doesn’t happen all the time, and that in turn gave me a slap across the face because I had to admit to myself that I had just discriminated in a really important situation in a really horrible way.

Of course these thoughts were all split-second stuff, not rationally considered positions, and if you’d put the hypothetical situation to me prior to it happening, I’d have very confidently said that I would not have discriminated in that situation. Unless…

Unless I took into account the fact that I find disability confronting. Because I think that in all honesty the thoughts along the lines of “it probably happens all the time” were just a cover for the fact that I was really hoping I wouldn’t be first on the scene, because that would involve multiple forms of social awkwardness.

And yes, I can find head coverings confronting too. But mainly because it reminds me that I know very little about the culture that encourages them – it speaks of an “otherness”. That in itself is no rational reason to view them with suspicion, or to wish, in Mr Abbott’s words, that they were not worn. On one level I, as a social introvert, can actually find them comforting, because it strikes me as safe bet that these women will not be looking for any social interaction from me, let alone one that is required to adhere to fairly abstract rules of social discourse.

But, back to my main point: you don’t just put it out there that you find a burqa confronting and leave it at that, because it invites all kinds of identification with that discomfort, and when you create identification with discomfort, you legitimise it and give it license to whatever the next ‘logical’ step in dealing with your discomfort is. Which, as I’ve learnt to my own horror, can be a form of discrimination-by-reflex. That’s not something you want to encourage on a national scale.

On one level I guess I can see Mr Abbott’s admission as a refreshing splash of honesty. But expressions of half-formed introspection aren’t something to be thrown to a media scrum for the national consciousness to appropriate as it sees fit.