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February 11, 2011 / Amanda Forest Vivian

can’t imagine, can’t judge?

(I added another fallacy by the way, it is the Contest Fallacy and it’s about halfway down the page. Kind of a messy one.)

Adelaide, actually I didn’t understand what line you were referring to with the terrible vs. unimaginable thing. I’ve been thinking about it more.
I think the difference between terrible and unimaginable is huge.

on the one hand, you can’t completely imagine anything if it isn’t your experience–and everyone should accept that that’s true.

for example, I grew up in a rich family. so if someone’s from a working-class family I’m obviously going to be like, I can’t speak from their experience and I’m going to give more weight to their opinions than mine re: class issues because I’m surely unaware of a lot of stuff. same for other oppressed groups that I don’t belong to. and I guess this is one kind of way of saying, “I can’t imagine your experience–not necessarily because I think it’s a terrible experience, but just, no matter what it is, because it’s not mine. so I’m not going to behave like an authority”. But there are limits to this; if I strongly strongly disagree with someone’s actions/beliefs and they attribute their actions/beliefs to an oppressed identity or a terrible experience that I don’t have, and I really think about it but I just think what they did/think is not ethical at all…well, I’m still going to think it’s not ethical.

that’s not totally related but I feel like the response of “I can’t imagine your experience so I can’t judge you” is in SOME WAYS a good response to have, but I feel like when it comes to parents of disabled children, it gets way overdone. the raising/having of a disabled child is seen as so unimaginably terrible that other people are put in the position of feeling like they’re absolutely not ever, ever allowed to judge parents. of course we see this when parents of disabled children kill or seriously abuse their children or put their children in facilities where they are given shocks or take out their kids’ uteruses. anyone who criticizes these parents is constantly told, “you don’t understand the emotional pain/the financial pressure/the physical strain/the lack of free time these parents have.”

of course I don’t understand personally, because I’m not a parent. I try to be as aware as I can. I try to read blogs/watch movies/etc. about people with severe disabilities and their families so that I don’t just project my own experience of disability onto other people and families. I work with people with severe disabilities (I don’t do this to improve my thinking or anything, but just because it’s the type of work I enjoy the most and am good at–but it helps my thinking, too). I try to think about how all those things could affect a parent–and I also know that since I am not a parent, I can’t really imagine how it is.

at the same time, I think I can imagine enough to say: there are certain things that no parent should ever do to their kid. It’s not okay. I don’t believe there is some secret feeling that I can’t conceive of, that I would experience if I had a disabled child, and in this feeling would be the reason it is morally acceptable for me to abuse or kill my kid.

so, yes, I can’t imagine other people’s experiences–but not to an extent where I am going to say, oh, I think certain experiences are so terrible that I’m not even going to begin to think about them, I’m just going to completely detach and not have any opinions about what it’s ethical for that person to do.

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  1. Adelaide Dupont / Feb 11 2011 8:30 am

    From Common Fallacies, this is the line I was referring to:

    “I think people can have a very intense learned belief that disability is unimaginably terrible (which, by the way, feeds into the idea that disabled people are “other,” and don’t have their own points of view).”

    (It appears in the “Everybody is trying to trick you” section/fallacy. And it now probably permeates the post).

    Glad my last got some thinking happening, with the distinctions!

    “and I guess this is one kind of way of saying, “I can’t imagine your experience–not necessarily because I think it’s a terrible experience, but just, no matter what it is, because it’s not mine. so I’m not going to behave like an authority”. But there are limits to this; if I strongly strongly disagree with someone’s actions/beliefs and they attribute their actions/beliefs to an oppressed identity or a terrible experience that I don’t have, and I really think about it but I just think what they did/think is not ethical at all…well, I’m still going to think it’s not ethical.”

    Yes. And that line about the shocks:

    “the raising/having of a disabled child is seen as so unimaginably terrible that other people are put in the position of feeling like they’re absolutely not ever, ever allowed to judge parents. of course we see this when parents of disabled children kill or seriously abuse their children or put their children in facilities where they are given shocks or take out their kids’ uteruses. anyone who criticizes these parents is constantly told, “you don’t understand the emotional pain/the financial pressure/the physical strain/the lack of free time these parents have.””

    “at the same time, I think I can imagine enough to say: there are certain things that no parent should ever do to their kid. It’s not okay. I don’t believe there is some secret feeling that I can’t conceive of, that I would experience if I had a disabled child, and in this feeling would be the reason it is morally acceptable for me to abuse or kill my kid.”

    Yes. The ethical imagination is a powerful thing.

    For me, terror is an intensifier, an action, an emotion. Yes, it can be part of thought, and it can colour it.

    Terror takes away: imagination expands. Unimaginable: respected.

    And then there is the “piling of identity”, which might happen especially with terrible experiences and oppressive things.

    When I think of “things no person should do to another person”, I think of The united states of Leland.

    I see here:

    “so, yes, I can’t imagine other people’s experiences–but not to an extent where I am going to say, oh, I think certain experiences are so terrible that I’m not even going to begin to think about them, I’m just going to completely detach and not have any opinions about what it’s ethical for that person to do.”

    Will have a look at the Contest Fallacy.

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