The Problem With Celebrating Disability: A Review of “The Right to Maim”

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In recent weeks, the tensions between Palestinians and Israelis over the Gaza Strip have escalated to a level not seen since the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas. Over the July 14 weekend, the Israeli military carried out waves of airstrikes in Gaza after Palestinians launched burning-fuel kites and balloons over the border. These airstrikes come after Israel’s mass assault on demonstrations at the border, in which 130 Palestinians were killed and 15,000 injured while demanding access to their ancestral lands.

While Western media outlets tend to highlight the numbers of killed Palestinians, it’s the mass-scale Palestinian injuries that deserve attention, according to the author of a recent book. These debilitated bodies reveal a contemporary mechanism of state power that is too often overlooked: “the right to maim.” In contrast to the “right to kill,” which is usually exercised by states in the name of defense, the right to maim implies the liberty to injure bodies—to cause a “slow death.” Maiming occurs when and where it has been determined that keeping people “just barely alive” is more profitable than exterminating that population outright.

In The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity and Disability, published by Duke University Press, Jasbir Puar argues that Israeli military strategy is emblematic of the right to maim. She notes that Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) “have shown a demonstrable pattern over decades of sparing life.” This is often perceived to be a humanitarian practice, as suggested by recent news stories highlighting that Israel is allowing food and medicine deliveries into the Gaza Strip while banning other cargo. There is nothing humanitarian about leaving “civilians ‘permanently disabled’ in an occupied territory of destroyed hospitals, rationed medical supplies, and scare resources,” Puar insists.[1] Rather, maiming is a deliberate strategy to extract value (in this case, the increased ease of military control) from a community that would otherwise be disposable.

Puar’s purpose isn’t simply to expose the sinister motives behind Israel’s military policy; rather, it is to introduce a new category of thinking for disability scholars and activists: debility. As suggested above, debility implies violence that is inflicted upon bodies to strip them of resistance. Debility can take many forms besides military force: mass incarceration of racial minorities, the elimination of public resources for those in poverty and those living with disabilities, the impoverishment of the chronically ill due to uncontrolled drug prices, the creation of environmental hazards such as the Dakota Access pipeline, and so on. All of the above demonstrate the slow wearing out of a population.

From Puar’s perspective, to reclaim disability as a valuable identity is to ignore that “the production of most of the world’s disability happens through colonial violence, developmentalism, war, occupation, and the disparity of resources.”

Problematically, mainstream disability rights movements in the United States are “unable to account for, much less disrupt” these slower, less visible forms of biopolitical power, according to Puar.[2] This is because these movements prioritize social accommodation, acceptance, pride, and empowerment. Such priorities are reflected in the recent backlash against the casting of Dwayne Johnson and Joaquin Phoenix to play disabled actors, the #ownvoices movement in the literary publishing world, and the push to create stock photo collections featuring positive depictions of disabilities. Puar does not object to any of these specific efforts per se, but to the larger agenda of reclaiming disability as a valuable identity. From her perspective, this agenda ignores that “the production of most of the world’s disability happens through colonial violence, developmentalism, war, occupation, and the disparity of resources.”[3]

To support this charge, Puar contradicts the popular slogan, “We will all be disabled if we live long enough.” This slogan is often invoked by disability activists to convince the public that disability is not “Other” and, therefore, not deserving of stigma. In fact, Puar writes, “depending on where we live, what resources we have, what traumas we have endured, what color our skin is, what access we have to clean water, air, and decent food, what type of health care we have, what kind of work we do….we will not all be disabled.” The reality is, “some of us will simply not live long enough [to become disabled].”[4]

But is pride/empowerment necessarily in tension with justice? Puar thinks so. She explains that the empowerment of certain (usually White) disabled bodies inevitably corresponds with violence against other (usually racialized) bodies elsewhere. Newly-assimilated members allow society to broadcast a progressive politics (“Look! We are disability-friendly!”) while covertly and more intensely abusing populations less capable of resisting. Puar adds that the politics of inclusion is also tactically weak insofar as it “uses capitalist logic to solve a problem largely created by capitalism.”[5] Like the American Disabilities Act, it “ironically desires assimilation of people with disabilities into some of the very structures that debilitated them initially: potentially hazardous working conditions, not the least of which includes work in the military.”[6]

Readers who follow disability rights movements may wonder if Puar is selling activists a little short—and if she too often conflates the work of activists and academics (the latter being her real target). After all, the realities of maiming and debility are very much ingrained in the consciousness of mainstream disability movements, even if these specific terms have not been taken up. At present, many folks in disability communities are discussing the long-term physical and psychological effects of detainment on migrant children, the ways in which climate change impacts disabled communities, police-perpetrated gun violence as a cause of disability, and forcibly injecting psychiatric patients to better control them. Disability activists are not as blissfully unaware of colonial violence as Puar will have us think.

In his review of the book, Leonard Davis suggests that Puar likes to play the role of contrarian. He notes that she positions herself as an “exacting critic of not just neoliberalism, but various brands of feminism, race, and disability activism, and the foreign policy of various countries.” Perhaps it is in this critical spirit that she underrepresents disability activists, many of whom are engaged in work that runs parallel to her own.

Despite this concern, I am compelled by the arguments of this book. I find Puar’s concept of “slow death” to be especially generative for disability movements because it illuminates forms of gradual, broad-scale violence that are not always accorded the public attention that they deserve. As the mother of a child with Type 1 diabetes, I cannot help but think of the global population of individuals who are slowly being “worn out” from a lack of access to insulin and other life-saving supplies. Press coverage of the insulin cost crisis, like press coverage of the conflict in Gaza, has focused on deaths—namely, the deaths of Alec Raeshawn Smith, Shane Patrick Boyle, and Antavia Lee-Worsham, who died after rationing insulin. While undoubtedly important, these press stories often overlook the reality that hundreds of thousands are slowly dying from the same.[7]

Take, for instance, Cate Ndwiga, who grew up with the chronic condition in one of Nairobi’s poorest communities, where the Kenyan government did little to support those with non-communicable diseases.[8] (Shortly before her diagnosis, the government had implemented spending cuts and other neoliberal policies as part of an aid and advising package from the World Bank.) After years of borrowing money for insulin and missing appointments due to costs, Ndwiga is now living with complications like low vision, End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD), brittle bone disease, and dislocated joints. She is in a wheelchair, can no longer work due to her health problems, and is currently fundraising to cover the costs of total hip replacement surgery.

Ndwiga’s story, like those of the injured-but-not-killed Palestinians, evidences a category of existence that is not captured by the traditional abled/disabled binary; and, in doing so, her story puts pressure on the idea that disability is inherently exceptional (worth celebrating). Not all bodies in wheelchairs will be hailed by the neoliberal state—especially those bodies like Ndwiga’s that were put in wheelchairs by that state, whether through military violence or economic policies. And this reality requires those of us involved in disability movements to take a hard look at ourselves to determine who is served—and who may be harmed—by the politics that we advance.

[1] The Right to Maim, x.
[2] x.
[3] xix.
[4] xiv.
[5] 75.
[6] 75.
[7] A noteworthy exception is a recent New York Times piece, which tells Smith’s story alongside that of diabetes community member, Sara Theeler, who has developed complications after years of struggling to access her needed prescriptions and supplies.
[8] NCDs were not even mentioned in the national budget prior to Ndwiga’s efforts on behalf of the global nonprofit T1International to improve public resources for those with Type 1 diabetes.

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About Author

Audrey Farley is the Editor in Chief of Pens and Needles. She recently earned a PhD in English from University of Maryland, College Park, where she studied contemporary American fiction, popular culture, and the medical humanities. She has written for various peer-reviewed journals in the literary fields, as well as outlets such as Public Books, ASAP/J, and Insulin Nation. She lives with chronic migraine and is the parent of a child with Type 1 diabetes. Follow her on Twitter @AudreyCFarley.

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