No, I Will Not Agree to Disagree: The Prevalence of Platitudes in Disability Social Justice Discourse

I’ve never liked the phrase “agree to disagree” Much of this just stems from my self-absorbed desire to be right and acknowledged as being right. In practice, it does have some practical value, particularly when dealing with someone whose ideals are diametrically opposed to your own. Sometimes it’s just easier to not discuss some topics with certain people to avoid blow out fights that will never be resolved.

That is not to say that people should agree to disagree in all circumstances where there are ideological disagreements or social change would never happen but I think it holds a valid place in scenarios where the disagreements don’t lead to the continuation of oppressive or dangerous outcomes. Like deciding not to discuss the economy with your conservative uncle at Thanksgiving dinner.

I am instead going to talk about the use of “we should agree to disagree” where people’s ideals are generally aligned but one party doesn’t want to deal with the reality of the situation.

I see this quite a bit in discussions between disabled people online.

The scene:

A frank discussion of a specific social justice issue pertaining to disability is taking place. People are describing the reality of the negative impact of a particular oppression (ex. silencing the voices of disabled people in favour of nondisabled voices or the very real social rejection of disabled people by nondisabled peers)

Enter into this scene a disabled person (we’ll call them the late comer) who often self declares as “not wanting to deal with negativity” who then tries to refocus the conversation not on solutions but rather a generalized feel good statement like “I want to believe that human relationships are based on love and respect and disability shouldn’t have negative consequences in this scenario” This is usually followed up by an anecdotal story where a nondisabled person didn’t reject a personal relationship with a disabled person. This anecdote is then defended as the norm.

When the other disabled people not only share their own stories of rejection but present evidence that social exclusion and rejection is widespread. The concept of agreeing to disagree is floated by the late comer who just wants to believe in the goodness of people.

I humbly dissent. The issue with this scenario is that everyone is generally on the same page in that even the late comer, likely wants a better world for disabled people and are likely aware that the world is far from equal for us at the moment. I however have very little tolerance for people who enter activist spaces and offer platitudes as though they are solutions. It’s the ignore the problem and it will go away method. It is also entirely ineffective.

I will not pretend the world is a better place than it is, in hope that my positivity will become a reality.

This platitude phenomenon was particularly prevalent during #CrippingTheMighty where disabled activists were discussing the poor representation of disabled voices in mediums that purported to represent us. All of a sudden we would get replies like “I just think disabled people need to think positively”.

If you asked for more information or how their response related to the purpose of #CrippingTheMighty you would get more platitudes about positive thinking or that trying hard would lead to success. In this case the platitudes weren’t even focused on the topic at hand.

I suspect these sorts of things happen for a variety of reasons. In the first scenario the person likely feels like generalized discussions of nondisabled people rejecting people with disabilities somehow reflects on their anecdotal story that doesn’t match the dominant narrative. The idea that people leave disabled people with disabilities is uncomfortable and they may not want to contemplate what that might mean in their lives.

In terms of people who just throw random platitudes into activist discussions to try and shut them down, the cause is harder to pin down. A lot of it is likely getting involved in a conversation they haven’t taken the time to fully understand.

I also think that the excessive use of platitudes in disability discourse by disabled people is tied to an internalization of oppression. Many of us grew up in situations where we were denied accommodation or had it overtly suggested that not taking advantage of available accommodations proves that we are weak and to get by without does us credit. This go along to get along mentality is valorized. If we live a life with no or few accommodations we are told that we are better and stronger than those who do need and use them.

We are told not to rock the boat and to be suspicious of people who do.

The problem here is that if you were to ask either of these groups individually specific questions like,

Would you like to see more disabled people on TV?

Would you like there to be more job opportunities for disabled people?

Would you like disability allowances to provide more than enforced poverty?

Would you like public spaces to be more accessible?

and other questions of that nature, you would get far more yeses than nos.

The latter group discussed is harder to deal with because they can’t seem to articulate a position if you challenge the platitude, you just get more platitudes. They also aren’t even engaging with the discourse in a way that indicates that they know what’s going on. I don’t have a way to fix this though I do think it’s important to start bringing more people into activist discourse and fighting the fact that disabled people are far to often raised on platitudes and shielded from the reality of the world.

In terms of people who do actually engage with the topics at hand but counsel positivity over engaging with reality, at least you can point out the possible positive benefits of dealing with a negative reality and trying to change it.

We need to start creating strategies to include people in activist spaces that they aren’t necessarily comfortable in but whose outcome will impact them. I just don’t think agreeing to disagree will have a positive outcome for anyone.

We need to start combating the overwhelming use of platitudes as universally acceptable advice to disabled people or platitudes as world view.


5 thoughts on “No, I Will Not Agree to Disagree: The Prevalence of Platitudes in Disability Social Justice Discourse

  1. As another who swats, dodges, and confronts platitudes daily, with much frustration, I love this article. Strategies needed, indeed!


  2. Like many disabled peeps, I enter discussions with interest & passion… but ghost out or occassionally platitude drop an exit for myself when things get heated & I feel overwhelmed. I’m working through PTSD from a bad ICU experience & though it sounds kinda implausible when I type it out like this, I recognize that there is a definite link between these two things.

    It makes me wonder how many others in our community may be struggling not only with systemic social conditioning but also with behavioral aftereffects of acute trauma experiences. I’d imagine that the prevelence in our community of medical-event related PTSD, ICU Dementia, & other psych trauma experiences is higher than that of the abled populace simply due to the percentage of time spent in hospital environs… but the identification of, treatment for, and *prevention* of such is low/no priority even within our community.

    Not saying obvs that every twinkie farting platitudes at you through their fat little Twitter bluebird is wrestling with PTSD courtesy of various gnardballs in white coats, but taking the opportunity to mention that it might be a factor & that it’s probably an issue worth talking about… especially if there’s nowhere else to start. So maybe starting a discussion about this is at least tangentially related… or more likely I don’t know nuthin’ bout nuthin’ & we should all just think positively & things’ll go better next time #amirite?! 🙃

    Liked by 3 people

    1. My concern here is not that platitudes and self affirmations can’t be personally useful. I’m more concerned with people who come into activist spaces and use platitudes to derail the discussion. If used personally and as a way to express a need to step away from hard content, that’s entirely valid. I’m talking about people who come in and use platitudes as action plans to deal with issues so systemic discrimination and oppression.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. good commentary Kim. Admittedly, I get Zebra’s point & sometimes if I sense I’m going to get gaslit, trolled, or baited the agree to disagree will come out as that instead of a “eff you stop doing these” & a mute. But you’ve given me a good reason to rethink my use of such phrasing even in those instances. I see your point & what you’re driving at & you’re correct.


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