Humanizing/Dehumanizing is Respectability Politics, and That’s a Problem

This entry in this series (you should part 1 and part 2 before reading this post) was delayed because I wasn’t satisfied with my draft, so I wrote a post for the Carnival of Aces instead. And then I read this post by epocryphal which manages to get at one of the ideas I want to present in this series yet was struggling to describe:

Some people are robots, or monsters, or animals.

And even if we weren’t – some people have the traits which are called those things, and distancing from those is respectability politics and probably ableist.

For those who don’t know, ‘respectability politics’ (at least, the way I think epochryphal means it) is trying to lift yourself up by putting something else down. For example, let’s say we have a hierarchy where A is more privileged than B. And let’s say the population looks like this:


Let’s say the upper-case Bs get together and say ‘Hey, we’re not lowercase! Stop treating us as badly as the lowercase letters!’ … that is respectability politics.

I also agree with epochryphal that this is ableist. For example, why is it NOT OKAY to do [horrible thing] to humans, but OKAY to do that same [horrible thing] to a nonhuman animal which has a central nervous system, has pain nerves, exercises agency, makes tools, forms close emotional relationships with its family?

If the answer is ‘because they’re not human’, that makes about as much sense as saying that it’s NOT OKAY to do [horrible thing] to women, but OKAY to do [horrible thing] to men, or whatever categories you want to use.

If the answer is ‘because this nonhuman animal is not as intelligent as humans’, yup, you are being ableist. You are implying that it is okay to do [horrible thing] to humans who are not ‘intelligent’. In practice, people often target people who are considered of low ‘intelligence’ to do horrible things.

If the answer is ‘because this nonhuman animal is not sentient’ well, aside from the range of definitions of ‘sentience’ (and there are nonhuman animals which meet every definition which is not specifically tailored to describe humans alone), not all humans are sentient. Someone who has brain damage and is in a permanent coma is not sentient. And yes, in practice, a lot of violence is targeted at people who are not sentient, and I consider that type of violence to be ableist.

I am an animal (I think humans are a subset of animals, but if a human identified as a nonanimal I might accept that). I also used to be an alien, albeit a terrestrial one (I enjoyed telling people in Taiwan that I was an alien, and then pulling out the government-issued ID which said that, yep, I’m an alien). So yes, not all aromantic asexuals are aliens, but I was an aromantic asexual alien.

In the next post, I intend to examine an example respectability politics, specifically human/self VS. animal/other, which is tied to the worst thing which my family experienced in the past hundred years. But since I don’t even have a draft yet, the topic might change.

These Labels Describe a Relationship with People

The May 2015 Carnival of Aces is about labels.

Which prompted me to ask the question … what is the point of labelling myself aromantic and asexual?

After all, I don’t label myself based on every feature which distinguishes me from others. For example, I have an appendix, but I don’t recall ever saying ‘I am [word describing those who have an appendix]’.

I think my use of the labels ‘asexual’ and ‘aromantic’ come from my relationships with people in general.

If I lived in a society where most people experienced weak, infrequent, and/or no sexual attraction, and where not having sex as an adult was considered to be about as interesting as not playing tennis, and where romantic relationships (and expression of romantic feelings) was a bit uncommon, I don’t think I’d bother with labels like ‘asexual’ and ‘aromantic’ (at least, not unless a minority of people who experienced intense sexual attraction/desire/feelings and/or intense romantic feelings brought attention to the matter).

There are some labels which I sometimes use, but don’t mean much to me. For example, I have hazel eyes, a fact which is noted on my California driver’s license, and occasionally is noted in other documents, so ‘hazel-eyes’ is a label I sometimes use for myself. But it has very little impact on me.

However, the fact that I am someone who isn’t into sex (on multiple levels … lack of sexual attraction, lack of sexual desire, lack of sexual activity) AND who isn’t into romance in a society where healthy, abled adults are assumed to totally be into sex, and where young, abled women like myself are expected to be totally into romance creates a certain … dissonance.

Some asexuals/aromantics interpret the dissonance as meaning that they themselves are flawed. Some people interpret the dissonance as other people being weird (for example, the common assumption among some asexuals that people only talk about / pursue sex because of ‘peer pressure’). Some asexuals/aromantics blend perceiving themselves as flawed AND perceiving other people as being weird. I was in the ‘perceiving other people as being weird’ category, but I could feel that it didn’t really explain why my peers were way more into sex and romance than I was. I also thought I was a late bloomer, until I was about 20 years old, when the ‘late bloomer’ hypothesis no longer seemed to be a good explanation.

Discovering about asexuality and humans, and later aromanticism? That resolved the dissonance between the way I am and the way most people are way better than anything else.

These labels help me find other people like myself in these specific regards, which has been helpful, and I expect will be even more helpful in the future. However, the main reason I use these labels is that they are a way to tell other people and remind myself ‘Allosexuals and romantics are like that. I am like this, and asexuals and aromantics are like this too.’ It makes sense. The dissonance is dissipated.


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Talking about ‘humanizing/dehumanizing’ is ineffective

In the previous post (which you should read before this one), I promised I would talk about the problem with talking about things in terms of ‘recognize as fully human’ and so forth. Since then, I’ve realized that I want to discuss TWO sets of problems with this use of language, so in this post, I will only address one problem.

Talking about ‘humanizing/dehumanizing’ isn’t effective communication.

Okay, there must be a situation somewhere where using ‘humanizing/dehumanizing’ language is effective. But I think this type of language is often used in ways which don’t help anybody, and in the context of ace/aro discussions, I think it’s almost never effective.

A self-defense instructor I knew said that he used to teach his students to yell ‘Fire’ if they got into a physically dangerous emergency, even if it wasn’t literally a fire. Then he became aware of research that indicates that yelling ‘Fire’ doesn’t do much good. When people hear ‘Fire’ they tend to just come and watch, and do nothing to save the person in danger.

My own experience is consistent with this research. I have witnessed a number of uncontrolled fires in my life, and in each instance my behavior – I came to watch, and didn’t lift a finger to help. Granted, by the time I noticed that there was a fire in downtown Hsinchu (a city in Taiwan) there were already firefighters on the scene, so there wasn’t anything I could do to help. Likewise, when I noticed that a hill right above the town of Santa Clarita was on fire, half of the people in the town had already noticed it, since it was really, really obvious (Santa Clarita is possibly the wildfire capital of the USA). And when there was a fire at my middle school, the best thing I could do was follow the teachers’ instructions, which I did (by the way, fire drills do work – since we at first assumed that the fire alarm went off because of an unscheduled fire drill, we stayed calm, and even when we could smell the smoke and realized that it wasn’t a drill, we still didn’t panic, and nobody was injured in the fire). But when a building in the middle of San Francisco is on fire, what is my reaction? To go tell other people – ‘hey, check it out, there’s this building on fire, you want to come and watch?’

So, what does the self-defence instructor teach now? He tells his students (who live in urbanized parts of the USA) to yell ‘Call 911’. This gives bystanders a specific action they can do which might save your life (if you’re in an urbanized part of the USA).

As I explained in the previous post, when we talk about ‘being recognized as fully human’ and such things, we are actually talking about something else. Many people can probably deduce from context what we actually mean, but the extra mental steps it takes to deduce what we are trying to say means 1) they are more likely to misinterpret and 2) they are less likely to respond in the way we hope for. Likewise, someone who hears ‘Fire’ can probably deduce there is some kind of emergency, and if they come to look, they might figure out what kind of emergency it is, but they are unlikely to respond in a way which helps you. People who are already in the asexual and/or aromantic community don’t need to be convinced of the validity of asexuality/aromanticism, and telling people outside the community ‘aces/aros are fully human’ is unlikely to make them change their behavior.

Of course, in this regard, saying ‘aromantics/asexuals belong in your in-group’ is probably even worse.

Sometimes, we want to say ‘Stop saying that all people are sexual, because that excludes me and when I hear that I feel like you think I don’t matter’. Sometimes we want to say ‘I want more aromantic characters in fiction who are passionate about life, because I am an aromantic who is passionate about life and I want to see more people like me in fiction’. Sometimes we want to say something else. I think our communication is more effective when we go past the generalized vagueness of ‘humanizing/dehumanizing’ and express more fully what we actually mean.

So that’s one problem. What’s the other problem? You might have noticed that I put this series of posts in the ‘Veganism’ category, which is a bit of a hint. If we all aspire to be recognized as fully human, what does that say about how we treat those who are not human? That’s going to be the topic of the next post.

What Do We Mean When We Talk about ‘Humanizing’ and ‘Dehumanizing’?

A drawing showing a male mikado pheasant (top, mostly dark blue, with a red face, and long, black & white tail feathers) and a female mikado pheasant below (brown, shorter tail feathers).

In the discussion of many topics using the English language, it is common for people to say thinks like ‘we want to be seen as fully human’ or ‘these stereotypes dehumanize this group of people. One set of topics – though certainly not the only set of topics – where I see these kinds of language frequently is asexuality and/or aromanticism.

So what do we mean when we say things like ‘aces/aros want to be seen as fully human’?

Is there somebody who sincerely doubts that we are homo sapiens? Sure, there are boatloads of people who think that homo sapiens cannot be asexual and/or aromantic, but their logic is that we’re not really asexual and/or aromantic, not that we’re something other than homo sapiens.

There are a few cases where the issue really is determining whether somebody is, in fact, a homo sapiens, but I would guess that in 99% of the conversations which talk about humanizing/dehumanizing/being recognized as fully human/etc. are not actually about whether or not a set of people are biologically homo sapiens.

Discussions of sexism are another place where the ‘humanizing/dehumanizing’ language is used a lot – as in ‘misogynists don’t regard women as fully human’. As a female, I will say this – if I could choose between the status quo, and an alternate universe where most non-female people mistakenly thought that women were Syrmaticus mikado rather than homo sapiens AND there was no sexism or misogyny, I would choose the alternate universe. Yeah, it’d be annoying if lots of people mistakenly thought I was a mikado pheasant, but (assuming that there is no prejudice against mikado pheasants, and people still correctly discerned my abilities – i.e. they knew I could use human languages, and did not expect me to fly, I could still receive medical treatment appropriate for humans, etc.) I think it would not be nearly as bad as sexism and misogyny. I think most female people would agree with me on this. Therefore, the issue isn’t really whether or not others recognize us as ‘human’.

So if we are not talking about whether somebody should be classified as a specimen of the species homo sapiens … what are we talking about?

I think, most of the time, what we’re really talking about is that a set of people are worthy (or not) of empathy, that their needs are valid (or not), that they are a member of the tribe (or not), that they are part of us … or part of the other.

So why do we describe this sense of belonging/respect/fairness/in-groupness as ‘human’ (or more accurately ‘being recognized as being human’)? Should, say, dogs be excluded simply because they are not homo sapiens?

The thing is, there are an awful lot of people who don’t consider a wide segment of the homo sapiens population to be worthy of respect, fairness, support, empathy, etc. I’m no psychologist/sociologist/anthropologist, but it seems to be that it’s part of ‘human’ nature to divide beings into in-groups and out-groups, and that one generally doesn’t need to respect members of the out-group the same way one needs to respect members of the in-group. And membership in the in-groups and out-groups rarely cuts strictly along species lines – for example, a lot of people would put dogs they have a personal relationship with in their in-group. It’s not even limited to animals (yes, homo sapiens are animals) – some people put, for example, trees in their in-group.

I think that what asexuals and aromantics are asking for is that we will not be pushed out of the in-group into the out-group (a.k.a. ‘the Other’) just because we are on the asexual and/or aromantic spectrum.

But language is never perfect, and I think most people understand that ‘humanizing/dehumanizing’ rarely refers to a literal debate about whether a set of people are homo sapiens. Is there a problem with framing things in ‘humanizing/dehumanizing’ language? I think there is, and I’ll discuss that in the next post.

Characters with Disabilities in the Condor Trilogy

This is my submission to Blogging against Disablism Day (BADD) 2015

The Condor Trilogy (also known as the Eagle Shooting Trilogy, which is a more accurate translation of the Chinese title) is one of the most popular works of Chinese-language fiction of the 20th century, if not the most popular. The three novels are The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, The Giant Eagle and Its Companion, and The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre. It is difficult to overstate this trilogy’s popularity in the Chinese-speaking world.

They are martial arts novels, set during the period just before the Mongol invasion of China up until the Chinese manage to drive the Mongols out (the time span is over a hundred years). Even the shortest novel in the trilogy (The Eagle-Shooting Heroes) is longer than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, which means this trilogy is more than three times the length of Lord of the Rings.

In those thousands of pages of fictions, there are a lot of characters with disabilities. In fact, there are so many of them, and there is so much to analyze from the perspective of disability studies, that I’m not going to try to write an exhaustive post. Instead, I’m only going to discuss a few of the more significant characters with disabilities within the trilogy.

One of the main protagonists, Yang Guo, becomes disabled midway through the second novel, The Giant Eagle and Its Companion. I’ve already discussed him and his disability, as well another character with a disability, Lu Wushuang, so I won’t discuss them in this post.

So, which characters will I discuss?

Ke Zhen’e

Ke Zhen’e is the leader of the Seven Freaks of Jiangnan, a group of wandering martial artists. It is said that Ke Zhen’e became blind during a fight years before the novel, but I don’t think the novel ever says whether or not he was already the leader of the Seven Freaks at that time.

He is a capable martial artist who uses sound and the flow of air to track his opponents movements. However, he is not a superhuman martial artist – many characters in this trilogy who would beat him in a fair fight (these ARE martial arts novels), and nobody is surprised that a blind person can fight so well. Thus, he is not a supercrip.

There is one scene where the fact that he is blind leads to a different result than if he had been sighted, but other than that one scene, his blindness … doesn’t make a difference. He generally has good intentions, but sometimes his judgement is flawed. He is at times angry, happy, sad, etc. and for pretty much the same reasons as people in general. In short, his character is mostly written as someone who, by the way, is blind, rather than being written as a BLIND!person.

Miss Qu (a.k.a. Shagu)

Shǎgū litterally means ‘foolish girl’ in Mandarin. This character hears other people call her ‘shǎgū‘, so when someone asks what her name is, she says that she is ‘Shǎgū‘. Her father is Qu Lingfeng, so she can also be referred to as ‘Miss Qu’, but none of the characters know what name her parents gave her, if any.

Obviously, there was no DSM in 13th century China, so there is no ‘modern’ diagnosis of Miss Qu’s condition. As the characters in the novel say, it is not known whether she was born ‘that way’ or whether she became ‘that way’ later after an injury. So what is ‘that way’?

Miss Qu can understand spoken Chinese and speak Chinese, she has learned some martial arts (though she is not as skilled as most of the characters in the trilogy), and she lives alone at the time she makes her first appearance in the trilogy, which implies that she can take care of herself.

She does have trouble understanding abstractions, doesn’t understand complex abstractions at all, and often responds to other people’s questions with giggling, and often interprets what others say too literally. For example, when a character asks “How far away is Niujia Village from here” she replies “Here is Niujia Village, I don’t know ‘how far away'”. She does not understand social protocol, such as who is higher status and who is lower status. She also has trouble putting two and two together – for example, when Huang Rong asks Miss Qu not to say to anyone that Huang Rong is hiding, Miss Qu agrees, but later loudly asks ‘the girls who eats watermelons’ (Huang Rong) to help her. In other words, Miss Qu doesn’t figure out that Huang Rong is asking for her presence not to be revealed at all, all Miss Qu understands that she shoudn’t *say* that Huang Rong is present.

She also obsesses on things which many people would not – for example, when Huang Rong hits her in the stomach, Miss Qu is far more interested in the fact that she (Miss Qu) is NOT crying, and that Huang Rong IS crying, and is very proud of not crying when Huang Rong is crying. She is obsessed with playing and eating, which is actually pretty ordinary, but she only tries to get playtime and food by simple straightforward means, and doesn’t think through the consequences of pursuing these things.

It is so easy to take a mental shortcut and simply say “Miss Qu is very stupid”, and nearly all readers (including myself, I admit) take that shortcut since our culture has trained us to think about people that way. Actually breaking down what Miss Qu can, cannot, and does do takes much more effort.

What I find most interesting is the way that Huang Yaoshi reacts to her. Most characters treat Miss Qu like a piece of furniture – possibly useful, possibly useless, something which can be destroyed (or killed) without feeling guilt, and most of all, as something without agency. Huang Yaoshi is the exception. When he realizes that Miss Qu is the daughter of his former student, Qu Lingfeng, he immediately accepts Miss Qu as a member of his family, and treats her accordingly. If I recall correctly, he is the only character who makes a point of calling her ‘Miss Qu’ instead of ‘Shǎgū’. He also endeavours to teach her more martial arts, and even though she learns very, very slowly, he does not give up on her, or stop treating her like a family member. Most of all, he treats Miss Qu as someone who has inherent worth.

Huang Yaoshi is not a ‘nice’ guy. In fact, his nickname can be translated into English as ‘the Eastern Evil’ (though it’s more like ‘the Eastern Heretic’). He is proud of the fact that he ignores social conventions, and he sometimes uses this as a justification for doing things which most people would consider to be unethical. However, I think this is an instance where ignoring social conventions – in this case, ignoring ableism – actually leads him to behave in a more ethical manner than anyone else.

Yu Daiyan

Yu Daiyan is the most minor character I’m going to discuss here. In fact, I’m skipping some characters with disabilities who are more important than Yu Daiyan. However, I think the relationship between Yu Daiyan and his brothers (as in, students of the same teacher, not biological brothers) in the Wudang sect reflects concerns common among people with disabilities.

In The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, all of Yu Daiyan’s limbs are paralyzed. He is very much alive, in fact, he is alive at the end of the story. He is one of the seven apprentices of Zhang Sanfeng, and it’s often noted, both within the novel itself and by readers, how close the apprentices are to each other, and how much they care about each other.

And yet … when one of the apprentices, or maybe Zhang Sanfeng himself (I don’t remember) talks about those who have been lost/died, Yu Daiyan is included, even though he is living with the other members of the Wudang sect. Saying that Zhang Cuishan is gone/lost is fair enough since he disappeared without a trace for ten years. Yu Daiyan? Not so much. I give the people of Wudang credit for taking care of Yu Daiyan, but it’s pretty clear that they think that having all of one’s limbs paralyzed is equivalent, or almost equivalent, to being dead.

Later in The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, one character discovers a possible ‘cure’ for Yu Daiyan’s condition. The people of Wudang are all very excited about the possibly of a cure except … wait for it … Yu Daiyan himself. Yu Daiyan himself thinks that his limbs have been paralyzed for twenty years, and that his life has been okay, and that he doesn’t have much to gain by being ‘cured’. I find it interesting that the people of Wudang, who supposedly have such great camaraderie, have so little insight into Yu Daiyan’s thoughts and feelings.

Ouyang Feng

Near the end of The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, one of the major characters, Ouyang Feng, loses the ability to distinguish reality and what is happening in his own imagination. He also loses the ability to understand many of his own memories. He is convinced that his own shadow is ‘Ouyang Feng’ and wants to hurt him, thus he runs from his own shadow.

Again, there is no DSM in the story, so there is no ‘modern’ diagnosis for Ouyang Feng’s condition.

This is an example of the trope of ‘mentally ill = evil’ being subverted.

In The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, Ouyang Feng is one of the main villains, at least before his mental breakdown. However, in The Giant Eagle and His Companion, he is actually … well, based on his behavior at least, he’s one of the good guys. He takes in an orphaned boy and teaches him some martial arts, which save that boy’s life at a latter time. Granted, he did this because he thought the boy was his own son, but there was still kindness in the act, and the boy is grateful for this adoption. Some of the ‘good’ characters end up abandoning this same vulnerable orphaned boy. Besides this, Ouyang Feng stops scheming to hurt people after his mental breakdown. It’s a rare fictional example of a mentally-ill person behaving in a more ethical manner than they did before they became mentally ill.

General Remarks

First of all, I do not want to suggest that this trilogy is 0% ableist. There is some ableism in the trilogy, though I do not think it is ableist on the level of, say, The Secret Garden.

Second, other novels by the same writer (Jin Yong) also have quite a few characters with disabilities. However, even though you would think that martial arts novels would be full of characters who became disabled through all of the violence which happens in martial arts fiction, Jin Yong is actually unique among martial arts writers in this respect. Martial arts novels by other writers tend to feature fewer significant characters with disabilities, and when they do, they are much more inclined to invoke ableist stereotypes, such as ‘disabled = evil’, or to simply make the characters with disabilities mere caricatures.

(Sadly, Chinese culture can be very ableist)

However, I want to see the cup as half full, at least for now. This trilogy offers a lot for people who examine disability in fiction to analyze – I just scratched the surface. And, though I admit I’m not an expert on ‘Jinology’ (the study and analysis of Jin Yong novels), I have done some Jinology reading, and have yet to find any analysis which focuses on disability in Jin Yong novels. If you know of any such analysis (it’s okay if it’s in Chinese) please let me know!