What bothered me most about the Steubenville rape case was the way it fit snugly into the archetype of a progressive cause. Entitled, chauvinistic high school footballers, a defenceless, intoxicated teenage victim, and of course the hero, online hacktivist network Anonymous, whose timely intervention garnered international attention and prompted universal condemnation of rape culture. The lurid details of the crime spread quickly, along with the 16-year-old girl’s name, which Anonymous (amongst other media outlets) failed to redact from its transcript of the trial. The defendants were convicted. The victim received death threats. Anonymous was lauded for ensuring justice was served.
On a discursive level, demonising Tony Abbott is inextricably bound up with securing same-sex marriage. Pro-choice beliefs, a bulwark of feminism, are defined in opposition to the old, white men and religious institutions who would invoke the law in their bid to control women’s bodies. What progressive causes rely on, even more than a victim, is a villain. Liberal ideas of change are constructed around righting historical injustices perpetrated by privileged oppressors, and minorities whose narratives deviate from this trope are rendered invisible.
Through personal and anecdotal experiences, I’ve come to appreciate the struggles faced by disabled communities. There are the occasional archetypal “villains” – doctors who ridicule disabled patients for seeking sexual health advice (because, lol, there are people out there who would touch you?), hate mail sent to the mother of an autistic boy in Canada, the neglect and shocking physical abuse of care facility residents at the hands of workers. It’s so easy to be angered by this behaviour. But often there are no villains, only the implacable reality of having to negotiate a world designed for the able-bodied. Assistive technology is prohibitively expensive, many occupations are unsuitable for people with particular disabilities, and only 5% of literature worldwide is accessible to the blind. These are not issues which the adversarial narrative arc of progressive causes is designed to accommodate. Nor does it address persistent attitudes of well-meaning, but ultimately damaging condescension. How do you convince a protective parent that coddling their disabled child may well cultivate an inferiority complex, limiting their opportunities and undermining their future prospects? What do you do when the enemy is pity?
The progressive answer to this is cultural change. Feminists in particular have embraced the meticulous, ongoing task of dissecting sexism within pop culture and institutions. Whilst invaluable, this practice lends itself to political solutions which are neat, glamorous and largely ineffective. Really though, it’s all about complementing that grand narrative.
In the 18 months following the 1981 NSW sexual assault law reforms, police acceptance of reported incidents rose from 53% to 78%. Admittedly, rewording legislation is dull and thankless work, not like crusading against Tony Abbott for crass remarks about sex appeal. However, we mustn’t conflate expressions of support for political change with political change itself. Currently, private schools are exempt from workplace legislation outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexuality, and all we can talk about is same-sex marriage and rainbow crossings. Much of this political grandstanding is designed for the gratification of privileged progressives, who are afforded the luxury of pursuing forms of engagement that are to their liking. In our preoccupation with attending visible rallies, linking interesting articles, and uniting around iconic symbols and ideas, we are forgetting the central question: “will it work?” For so many, politics is not an intriguing pastime, but a daily struggle for dignity, security and even survival. The attention of the public is finite and fleeting; progressives marketing their causes should take heed of this, and direct their energy in more fruitful ways.
There is no Abbott-esque antagonist to spice up the tale of disability policy reform, only compassionate ignorance and the slow crawl of technological progress. Installing access ramps is no one’s idea of a grand political statement, but I guarantee that every day they will make someone’s life a little easier. The overriding narrative of political change is just that – a story, romanticised and simplified. Let’s rewrite it.
Rebecca Wong studies Arts/Law, and is blind.