Disablism and acceptable prejudice

Jan Grue, Research Fellow, Oslo University College, Norway

In the wake of the July 22 killings in Oslo and on Utøya, the public debate in Norway has to some extent, and quite regrettably, shifted from declarations of unity and tolerance towards a more acrimonious tone. Following a heavily disputed psychiatric report in which the perpetrator, Anders Behring Breivik, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, a nationwide discussion about the intersection of psychology, medicine and extremist politics is, at the time of writing, very much unresolved.

A major feature of the debate is, of course, demonization. The extreme right would prefer the image of a lone madman to gain wide public acceptance, in order to put as much distance as possible between itself and a mass murderer who undeniably subscribed to extreme right-wing politics.

In other parts of the political spectrum, different strategies of demonization have been adopted. Unfortunately, disablism in its crudest form has been among these strategies. A well-known satirical television program, Trygdekontoret (“The Welfare Office”) has created a character named Heine Fjordland, a play on the right-wing blogger Fjordman, whose writing was extensively and admiringly quoted by Anders Behring Breivik. Clips of the character can be viewed on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ymt3Wu20W2o. He is dressed in a brownshirt uniform, espouses parodic right-wing positions on his blog – and is a wheelchair user, most likely with cerebral palsy.

According to the producers of Trygdekontoret, the character is meant to illustrate a paradox: Anonymous and pseudonymous “Internet warriors” may act tough, but are really weak and pathetic. When challenged on the point, the producers have argued that the choice to make the character physically impaired was fairly arbitrary.

They have not specified what other choices might have been made, and it is difficult to see what those choices would have been. Could the Fjordland character have been portrayed as a Jewish blogger, for instance, who pseudonymously adopted an anti-semitic position online? Not very likely – the outcry would have been huge. A gay blogger, then, who advocated for homophobic positions? Possibly, but I think that this, too, is less than likely.

The disablist option, however, seemed like a fair bet, and not too surprisingly. There have been far more critical analyses of William Shakespeare’s antisemitic portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice than of his disablist portrayal of the eponymous protagonist of Richard III.

The events of July 22 prompted many Norwegians to examine their prejudices regarding immigrants in general and Muslim immigrants in particular. In the hours following the news that the government buildings in downtown Oslo had been bombed, reports emerged both that al-Qaida were responsible and that abuse was hurled at random people who appeared to be Muslims. When the perpetrator was positively identified as a right-wing extremist, the debate changed – immediately, and in the direction of self-examination and reflection.

It is regrettable that this opportunity to examine many forms of prejudice now risks being squandered. Although disablism and disability issues are not at the very center of the July 22 debate, it is abundantly clear that the ideas espoused in Anders Behring Breiviks “manifesto” 2083 borrow much from the history of eugenics and racist pseudoscience. The debate deserves to be free of disablist as well as racist clichés and stereotypes.

One comment

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