your problem or ours?
May 11, 2004 11:10 AM

I've been meaning to expand on something I posted awhile ago in response to Steph's social vs. individual responsibility piece. She was, essentially, wondering how we manage to see some problems as social and others as exclusively a matter of individual incapacity. I haven't built much of what she said into this, so you should read her stuff first for this to make any real sense.

I'd theorize that we're at different points in our understanding of difference based on race (or gender, even) than we are with addiction or size. So, all these social questions might follow the same path ultimately. We think of them first as pathological, then as individual, and finally as global/systemic issues.

My theory assumes that a wide range of social issues follow very similar patterns. Because this pattern moves at the pace of social change, it's not something we actually experience happening, which is why I sometimes feel so surprised that we're where we are with reference to equal pay vs. say, fat acceptance.

The cycle is essentially this, with the phases overlapping:
1. Demonize the "other"/minority group upon which the issue centers as a biologically/scientifically inferior class. Investigate with mad science that people will make fun of in 100 years. Create panic about "other" condition and treat as illness.
2. Recognize individual members of the "other" as more-or-less equally human as the majority. Attempt to address their issues while keeping them clearly distinct from the majority, mostly by "taking care of them".
3. Stereotypes of the "other" are idealized in popular culture. Declare victory.
4. Individual representatives of the "other" form coalitions and demand actual parity of rights.
5. The "other" voice becomes visible in mainstream culture, particularly popular culture. Some essential equal rights are granted. Declare victory.
6. The "other" coalitions realize they're still shafted and insist on true equality. This gradually seeps into mainstream culture, where the problem is recognized as bigger than ever suspected.
7. Insist that victory has already been declared, ergo the war is over. Backlash against the "excessive" rights granted the "other" ensues.
8. Actual change does, in fact, continue - at a geologic pace.
9. Create new "other" group and start over.

Where race was concerned, we had to start by arguing ourselves out of the idea that people who weren't "white" were a subhuman species first, then "take care of them", then defend essential civil rights, and as a result of that come to see racism as a systemic issue (for the most part), which we are still dealing with. Gender issues parallel this; no surprise considering the parallel time tables of civil/women's rights in modern Western culture.

With addiction, we first transitioned away from blaming/hiding the issue with individuals to an attitude of "taking care of them" and are still, I think, adjusting to that. We're a long way from adjusting beyond step 2 with reference to addiction, mental illness, and disability - and progress is complicated by the individual nature of those conditions.

With fat, we are still at the point of trying to talk our way out of thinking fat is something akin to subhuman. And, as much as #1 sounds like I wrote it just about fat, if you look at the "woman condition" or the "mind of the Negro" arguments from the 19th century, they are freakishly parallel. Gayness as an identity started as a pathology, too. You could argue the same of reproduction, particularly where the teen mom is concerned. There's a remarkable strain of concern with "clean living" and "health" in Western culture starting with the Enlightenment at least, if not earlier.

This is, of course, wildly theoretical and in no way backed up by any serious history. But it does provide an explanation of sorts for the way we get from thinking of a problem as just about you to thinking of it as a question of rights/equality.

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