Tuesday, 18 October 2011

What Happens When the Body is The Obstacle to Humanity?

by Tristan Gevers

Everybody knows apparently
I must just be a transparency
The thing I’ve been hiding so hopelessly is
That I just want this bitch to notice me

These are words that come from the band Just Jack’s song, ‘Doctor, Doctor’. It is a feeling that most of us have experienced and can relate to. That social situation, where there is that incredible individual that may be drawing the attention of the crowd. He or she may just be drawing the attention of a few, or it may just be you. You try to catch their attention, try to be noticeable. It seems that nothing you do can catch their attention, nothing you do can get them to notice you. You keep trying.


For a split second they give you a smile, and then it’s gone. It is a liberating and yet crushing smile. Liberating for they have now noticed you. Crushing, because in that smile, they have said that you just do not make the cut. You realise, like the individual in Just Jack’s song, that you can try but you just cannot win. You have been judged by your physical appearance, your shell. You do not lose hope. You say to yourself “hard luck this time, perhaps I’ll have better luck next time?” It happens again and possibly again.

Lying in bed at the night’s end, a battle begins to rage in your head. On the one side, the justifications for not being noticed playing on the flaws of those who have not taken notice of you, or those who have taken notice and denied you for your appearance. They are stuck up. They were probably too high maintenance anyway. They are not worth it. You are probably better off without them. But this side has little hope. For the counter-attack of a broken self-esteem is overwhelming. Why? Why wasn’t I noticed? A harsh realisation. You were betrayed by your physical appearance. Your essence has not been recognised. Your body has failed you.

Humans are naturally social beings. All striving to be recognised by their peers, and yet most falling short of this recognition. What recognition is it that seems so important? It is the recognition of an individual beyond how they physically appear, a recognition of what makes them, them. In short, it is the recognition of their humanity. The recognition of who they are. The above example has been experienced by all. The social situation where one isn’t recognised, limited by their appearance and physical traits. Many are lucky enough to only face this in a social situation, and in the modern world, many can pay to have certain physical traits changed. But what if you can’t? And what if this is an everyday experience?

In his work, Black Skins, White Masks, Frantz Fanon makes the correct claim that in a racist society “the white man is sealed in his whiteness, the black man in his blackness”. During the time of writing, Fanon was experiencing the true horrors of oppression, being amongst those that were seen as ‘the colonised’, to use Albert Memmi’s term. Fanon was sealed in his shell, unable to break out of the oppression that was brought down upon him by the colonists. He was a black man living in a white man’s world. It didn’t matter how hard he tried to break free of the shackles that restrained him, he never could be free. He was a black man, and that was all he could ever be. He was sealed in his shell, a prisoner of his blackness with a white idea of blackness forced on him. And he was not alone. He provides many examples in Black Skins, White Masks of those chained by their physical characteristics. Black women striving to be seen by the white man, in the hope that the white man will marry them; or perhaps attempting to learn to speak the language of the coloniser like the coloniser. These are all attempts by those who have been colonised and oppressed to try and break out of the shackles that have kept them down for so long. They are all attempts that fail. Fanon and others like him had fallen short of humanity. They were unable fulfil the specifications that were put in place. However, what were these characteristics?

During the enlightenment period, many philosophers attempted to define what it is to be a human. Many different theories of man (sic) came out. An idea was formed. Characteristics were given to what it means to be human. Could this be right? The movie Bicentennial Man, which was released in 2001, is a wonderful example of humanity being based on a set of characteristics. It is based on the journey of the android (robot) – who is named “Andrew” by his family at the very beginning of the film – towards humanity. Andrew is denied any form of humanity, for he is an android. He is not an individual. He is “the same as all the others”. But he is not the same. One very soon begins to see that Andrew is no mere android. He is creative; he is interested in his surroundings. He wants to learn, he craves freedom, and he yearns to be human. He is loved by his family, and then he is ousted by them for wanting freedom – freeing him as a result, but forbidding him from seeing those of whom he has grown fond. That does not stop him. He wants more. He wants to be human. He embarks on a journey to be human. He begins working to earn money for these changes. He gets himself skin, but he is still not considered human because being human is more than having skin. He then gets himself organs; he is still not human because being human is more than just having organs. He marries a human woman, he loves this woman, but the relationship is frowned upon because he is still not human. Eventually he even sacrifices his own apparent immortality (being an android) as humans do not possess immortality. The film ends with him being declared human, something that he never saw achieved, for he passes away moments before the announcement. He was created a robot. Throughout his lifespan humanity evades him. He dies a robot. Humanity is only granted once he has passed away.

This example may be arbitrary because we are talking about an android. He is a robot, how could he be considered human? But perhaps it is not he who is at fault. When it becomes clear that he is not just another android, that he is unique, he is a true individual; the company that manufactures him wants to take him back to destroy him for precisely his individuality. During his lifespan, he creates much happiness in others, far more than many humans could be said to cause. He experiences much more than many hope to experience, and he helps many people that most humans would only give a glancing thought. Yet because he has broken the mold, because he has gone against what an android is meant to be, he is seen a threat to the company’s image. He sacrifices so much, no longer an android because of his changes, and yet not a human because he still does not fit the characteristics set aside for human status. He is in limbo. He is a prisoner to his form no matter what he does to try become something else. He is a robot, he dies a robot.

How flawed can this idea of humanity possibly be? It is understood that when talking about the android, one is talking about a machine. However, as with Fanon and others being black in a white man’s world, “Andrew” is constrained by this very term “android”. It defines him. Many people would find it completely insane to consider a machine being human. But how are we, as organic beings which fall into the category of “man”, any different? In the same way, we are all “objects”. Yes, we were born and not manufactured. Yes, we have skin and organs and are not made of metal and wires. But is it not true that only a select few have the privilege of holding onto that title of being human? As was shown above, Fanon struggled through this during his experience of colonialism. How is this any different to the struggle faced by “Andrew”? He too, sought changes to himself, so that he too could be considered human, so that he too could be recognised. The examples presented by Fanon in Black Skins, White Masks show similarities with the journey of “Andrew” in the very attempts by the colonised to be recognised, to reach this unreachable ideal. In the colonial situation they never could break out of the shackles that were placed on them by others. They could never reach that title of being properly human.

How can this still be relevant in the modern world some may ask? Colonialism was dismantled decades ago; Bicentennial Man was nothing more than a movie. Surely this indicates that there have been massive changes, surely it can’t still be an issue? This could not be more incorrect. Much like the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa does not correct all injustices, “formal” freedom – being civil and political freedoms - does not necessitate that all injustices are instantly fixed. One must raise the question as to whether things have really changed. One cannot assume that things have drastically changed solely because of “formal” freedoms that have now been gained by those previously oppressed. Barrack Obama recently came out in support of the rebels in Libya, saying that these popular movements have won great victories; they have opened the gates to political and civil freedoms. They can now join the rest of the “free” world. The same was said in South Africa after the truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Again, humanity has been reduced to a set of characteristics, without actually removing the previous characteristics – although it has been moved to a more subtle sphere, hidden by the rhetoric of freedom that has become so common place. Once again there is an exclusive humanity.

It has been mentioned how Fanon argued that in a racist society the black man is stuck in his blackness, and that the white man is stuck in his whiteness. In much the same way as “Andrew” and the rest of the androids have no chance of reaching that title of humanity, marginalised groups are trapped, prisoners of their own forms. These people are viewed and objectified by their characteristics. They have fallen short of what it means to be considered a human being. The homeless are trapped in their homelessness, and the disabled are sealed in their disability, the unemployed are restrained by their lack of employment, the aged snared in their agedness. The list goes on. Trapped by their characteristics, they cannot feature as humans. They lack those certain characteristics. Like “Andrew”, like Fanon in France after the Second World War, they can never know what humanity feels like.

Groups have often been marginalised on the basis of characteristics. Iris Marion Young clearly and correctly states that marginalisation is one of the most dangerous forms of oppression. Marginalised groups do not fit into society; they are seen as having no use in society; as but a burden on society. It extends beyond this however. We in society make them unwelcome. We pass the blame onto them for being single mothers, for being unemployed, for being homeless, for being disabled. How can it possibly be society’s fault? There is no oppression; that was all dealt with when colonialism and Apartheid were removed. Everyone has the ability to move up and down in society, there is no job reservation anymore, society is open. How wrong we are. How far we have fallen…

We again have an exclusive humanity. We only admit those who are worth admitting. Those who make the cut. Marginalised groups do not stand a chance. Constantly unable to achieve the characteristics required for humanity and unable to request societies help. They not only fail in becoming human in the eyes of society, they are actively ignored by it.

After the fall of colonialism, and because of the attempt to destroy racism and other forms of oppression, many countries as well as the international community have adopted forms of controlling free speech with limits, like banning hate speech. South Africa is one of these countries. The idea of a limitation on hate speech creates many problems. The international idea on hate speech can be used to clearly demonstrate the apparent lack of consideration to these groups. In this, limitations on freedom of speech can be made on the speech when it humiliates, denigrates, harasses and intimidates groups on the basis of group characteristics, almost always on the grounds of race, ethnicity, gender and religion. The main problem with this is raised by Eric Heinze in his paper ‘Cumulative Jurisprudence and Hate Speech: Sexual Orientation and Analogies to Disability, Age and Obesity’. He correctly suggests that this idea of hate speech does not include the disabled, the aged and the obese, amongst other groups. It is still very often that one will hear the word “retard” used when insulting another, or hearing individuals complain that old people just cannot drive. These forms of speech are much the same as certain forms of speech that are limited by hate speech. When this is raised however, it is argued that these groups did not face the severe systematic oppression that Jews, blacks and others faced. It is not necessary to limit this speech because it is not as emotionally charged as hate speech towards the above mentioned groups. Really? Can one truly argue that disabled people have not faced the same horrors as other groups such as the Jews or blacks? Were the disabled not also murdered in the concentration camps because they were a threat to the purity of the German Aryan race? Have they not faced extermination since the times when the city-state Sparta was great? Have they not been avoided, for they have been (and sometimes still are) seen as cursed by the Gods? How can one possibly argue that they have not suffered as much?

It can be seen that marginalised groups do not have a place in society. But it is not completely grim. Some states have measures in place to help such groups. It is a false hope however. Tainted by the societal views, many of these groups find themselves at the mercy of these institutions that have been put in place to help them. They have to sacrifice rights, freedoms, before these institutions will considering helping them. They are still often blamed for their situation. Society begrudgingly attributes a small amount of aid to them, on the terms that they work themselves out of the situation that they have gotten themselves into; never admitting that there is a problem with the structure of society, how could there be? These groups, and their families, all suffer.

It was a bright and sunny day in the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. Mid-January. A family goes about its daily business. A mother in Durban in a family meeting. A father at work. Children spread out between school and university, although the university students are still enjoying the last few weeks of their holidays. One child, a first year university student, gets into the car to visit her boyfriend. In a split second, a beautiful day turns into hell. A man is speeding, and does not stop for a red light. The family is shaken to its very core at the unfolding tragedy. But the child survives. She does not survive unscathed however. She is in need of 24 hour care. She is bound to a wheelchair. She has been given a life sentence. Doomed to wonder a world that does not wish to understand or care for her. Is she not the same person though? Her body might be broken, but is she not still who she was? Whatever the answer, she is shackled to this new life by one careless individual. She is forced to adapt to a different life, realizing what has been taken from her by this careless individual.

It is not all lost. Through the mutual support of family and friends, this family survives. However, the world is not made for one with disabilities. The very house the family lives in is not suited for a disabled person. There is a chance that the family can get some relief from the Road Accident Fund (RAF). It is funded by a levy on petrol, so every driver contributes. This appears to be the perfect solution; however, it is not necessarily that simple. This is a fund that has been put in place (supposedly) to look out for those who may get injured in road accidents. When a claim is made, it does not go to those individuals who caused the accident, but to the RAF. The idea behind the RAF is excellent. It protects those who may have caused accidents but may not have the income to fix the problem that has been created, but also provides for those who have faced injuries in road accidents, and who may have been left in a vulnerable situation because of it. But the fund is riddled with corruption. Doctors and lawyers collude to defraud it. The child and her family have to prove their claim. This requires lawyers’ accusations, fault calling and reliving the horrors of this life changing experience. The family fights. The family wins. Among other rewards, the RAF is told to pay half of the costs of reconstructing the house to be more disability friendly.

The family is excited to make changes. Changing the house would make it more comfortable for the child, and would possibly aid the child in gaining a bit of independence and successfully retaining as much of her dignity as possible. The world is not disability friendly, and until now, the family has been unable to make some of these changes. The child is living a life in a world that does not accommodate her basic needs. The family consults stimulating specialists, consults architects, and does intense research into creating an environment that will accommodate this child, to create a space where she is not held back because she is disabled. Plans are made. The house will need to be transformed to allow this child to access all areas of it. She will finally have a space where her disability will not be such a hindrance. She will have a bathroom suitable for her, a bathroom separate from the rest of the family so that her bathroom needs are not in open sight of the rest of the family. She is not the only one who benefits. The caregivers that provide her with the 24 hour care will have a room to themselves, attached to the one where this child will be residing, benefiting both the child and the caregiver, for they both have privacy. Things are looking up.

Dreams are dashed. A letter from the RAF prefaced with “Without Prejudice”, shoots down the suggestions from the medical specialists, presenting its own solution. Even though the project is geared towards improving life for the disabled child, stimulating the child’s recovery, bringing back remnants of a stolen life, the disabled child still has no access to the garden, kitchen, or other rooms in the house. It is still impossible for her to attempt to grow a little independent within the constraints of her disability. The world is unfriendly to the disabled. Now her personal space remains so. The RAF proceeds to accuse the family of only wishing to enrich themselves. It argues that the changes are unreasonable and that the Fund will not contribute its 50% to the funding. It then proceeds to say that it is only obligated to pay for a fraction of what was estimated, and only if the “reasonable” changes that it suggested are adhered to. These changes involve a ramp through the main bedroom of the house and converting one bathroom. The remainder of the house remains unchanged. For this to be changed, the family must fund all these changes. As things stand, the payments the RAF makes for medical costs and other therapy needs trickles in at a very slow pace. Thus the family can’t afford these changes. The changes suggested by the RAF not only forces the child to live in a house not suited for her, but eliminates the remnants of her dignity, while also eliminating all chance of privacy for the child, her caregiver and the child’s parents. The Fund has successfully limited its own involvement in creating a level of existence that could leave this child as comfortable as she could be in this new disabled life that has been forced upon her by another careless individual. It has successfully protected the perpetrator, the individual who ran the red light, while leaving the victim in a still vulnerable position. It has made the disability the family’s problem, and has left the family to fix the problem. One wonders how many others – disabled and other groups - have faced this same treatment by the very institutions that are meant to help them.

One placed in this situation can quite easily understand the frustration that goes into Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks. They are not part of society, they do not fit in. They cannot reach an equal level of humanity because they do not have the characteristics required. They are always bound by their characteristics. They live in a world that is not willing to accept them. They live in a world that does not want them. Perhaps we need to readjust what humanity is? Perhaps we must do away with the current ideas of humanity altogether? What is certain however is that we cannot continue denying that there is a problem. We must recognise people for who they are, not for what they look like.