Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Mighty is Part of a Long Tradition of Inspiration Porn

Via the Mighty.
On December 20, The Mighty, a well-funded media company hosting stories about disability from and often times ableist perspective, became the object of a new twitter hashtag, #CrippingTheMighty, in which disability activists criticized the damaging stereotypes that it spreads and reinforces. The hashtag was actually a response to a call from one of the editors of the website for suggestions from the disability community on how they could do a better job, after they were forced to yank an offensive article making fun of the meltdowns experienced by children with autism. The fact that The Mighty has found its niche as the internet's corporate mill of inspiration porn for ignorant melodrama fans everywhere, while concerning, should not surprise us. It is just the latest iteration from a long line of melodramatic inspiration porn tradition going back to the 19th century.

The Mighty has taken a page from the old playbook that successful charities have used for more than 200 years. It is the simple fact that when you present people with an image of a pitiful cripple, preferably a veteran or a child, tearfully pleading for alms on the sidewalk, they cry, give money, and subsequently derive the pleasure of feeling themselves to be a beautiful human being for their previously doubted capacity to empathize with their fellow man and there abounding generosity. The effect is achieved not by talking about the capabilities or the social prejudice faced by the unfortunate recipient of charity, but rather by accentuating their many aptitudes and deficiencies.

It is likely that this demeaning tradition of charity advantaging the benefactor at the expense of the beneficiary comes to us from the 19th century. Prof. Martha Stoddard Holmes in her book Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture, argues that the contemporary complex of fear and sympathy comes from the Victorian melodrama. Over the 19th century, discussions of disability, whether in social work, novel or even scientific journal, were pervaded with the melodramatic discourse, and overtime disability became a tool to elicit emotions of sadness and pity, or a sort of emotional shorthand to pull at people's heartstrings.

It was only natural that so-called fictions of affliction would get employed by charities in order to bolster fundraising efforts. Holmes points out that near the end of the 19th century, there were charities in the United Kingdom whose budgets were bigger than those of small European countries. Charities in other parts of the world such as the American Foundation for the Blind of the United States and the Collaborative Society of the School for the Blind in Santiago Chile followed suit. Jerry Lewis, no doubt inspired by the March of Dimes, brought this anti-disability discourse to the television screen, with the Muscular Dystrophy Association's Telethon, which went on to be emulated in other countries like Mexico.

For now, the hashtag #CrippingTheMighty serves as a resource for people to give input about ways that the website might be improved, but it is not clear whether there will be change or not. One blogger has gone so far as to speculate that the hashtag will just transform into being a place for people to point out the many ways that The Mighty and similar entities damage the work of disability activists, rather than a reference for the publication's leaders to do a better job. Considering how much readership The Mighty would have to give up in order to respectfully represent people with disabilities, such an analysis is probably fair.

1 comment:

  1. The Mighty also has some sort of (feigned) temperamental pattern. It is made for melancholic "allies" (and allies is in quotes because I know true allies) to speak over the disabled, especially if your temperament is not melancholic.