Monday, January 9, 2017

Your Fave Is Problematic: End The Stigma Badges

Image description: Red square graphic with bold white text that says “The End The Stigma Badges page is ableist and supports stigma hashtag intersectionalism fail hashtag ableism hashtag fake allies”


This is a story of the fastest falling out I have ever experienced or been witness to. Even the Art of Autism was not this petty. This all started in January of 2017; as I write this call-out, the date is January 8th, 2017.

The campaign began as a Facebook page, the brainchild and New Year’s Resolution of one person, who sought to normalize mental illness, through a coming out process akin to that codified by the queer community. The concept was that mentally ill people will use the badges - simple images of bold text with a background color - to label themselves, in the eyes of their social networks, with a hashtagged message to “end the stigma”, and a second tag telling readers, who are also mentally ill but unable to come out, that they’re not alone.

The term “stigma” has a sullied history in disability activism. First of all, there are far more people writing and sharing books, articles, videos, and social media posts, which talk about there being a stigma around mental illness, than there are people doing anything about it. Even people who do at least claim to be combating stigma are mostly doing the opposite, i.e. perpetuating the very stigma they refer to. As it turns out, this “badge” campaign is NOT the exemplary shining beacon where someone finally does it right. It’s just another case study of disabled people being assholes to other disabled people.

The campaign picked up popularity very quickly: The Facebook page was “liked” thirty thousand (30,000) times within a week. As a result, the page’s founder decided to recruit a team of admins and moderators, to handle the immense wave of comments, messages, and new badge requests. Initially, I was one of those admins. I am no longer. These are my insights from that period.

Although my activist origins are within the Neurodiversity Movement, and this campaign is more aligned with Mad Pride* (though I hesitate to say so, potentially an insulting comparison for true Mad Pride activists), [*EDIT: Now that I've been informed that the recovery movement is considered a movement, I'd say this campaign is far closer to that rather than Mad Pride] irreconcilable disagreements are not the reason I left, or rather not the reason I was abruptly and rudely kicked out. In fact, I recognized the differences between movements immediately and was quite deft in towing the party line and finding compromises. For example, when a bipolar admin insisted that bipolarity IS in fact an illness and should be referred to as “bipolar disorder”, I, a non-bipolar person, yielded to standpoint theory and dropped the argument immediately.

If the founder and/or other admins choose to respond to this call-out, they will surely claim that I was being “argumentative”, hostile, insulting other team members, and that I acted like a rogue agent, intentionally defying clear agreements made among the team. Anything to deny, rather than confront, their own prejudices. It is no different from a business deciding that their disabled employee is too much trouble, but then claiming the person was fired due to “excessive lateness” or something similarly generic to avoid lawsuits.

The real reason they kicked me out was in reaction to a certain message found in my Facebook profile picture, conveyed using international sign language: That message is colloquially known as “flipping the bird” and customarily interpreted into English as “fuck you.” We talked about the picture within the team’s secret Facebook group, where I made it clear that it was not directed at anyone in the group. I even agreed to change it, as soon as I had a campaign-related picture to replace it. Still, the team was not satisfied, because their prejudicial feelings had already fermented, pegging me as an enemy in their minds.

That is the gist of the falling out story, but not a complete summary of why this campaign is problematic. The rest I feel is best suited for a top ten (10) list:
  1. The admin team has an irrational prejudice (or another way you could say that is a STIGMA) against words like “fucking” and signs like the middle finger handshape. They refuse to post badges that contain words on their personal “swear word” lists (without even offering any copies of those lists, of course), thus preventing “mentally ill” people from talking about “mental illness” in their own preferred language. They specifically deleted a fan-requested badge that said “I am a fucking survivor.”
  2. They made an album of “Neurodiversity Badges”, allegedly recognizing the perspective of neurodiversity activists who don’t necessarily accept the concept of mental illness, yet this album includes, said in these exact ways: “Nonverbal Learning Disorder”, “Oppositional Defiance Disorder”, PDDNOS (both as an initialism and spelled out), “I have autism”, “I am a person with autism”, and “I have ASD” (in fairness there is at least a separate “I am Autistic” badge). The album also briefly included “I have bipolar disorder” (not “I am bipolar”) before it was deleted.
  3. Within the admin team, there are no explicitly written rules, guidelines, or boundaries, only loose tentative agreements made in a fast-paced Facebook chat in multiple timezones. Despite this, lower-level team members (founder at the top, then “core” admins, then admins, then moderators) are held accountable for breaking these unwritten rules.
  4. They explicitly decided NOT to include LGBTQ-related badges, because in context those badges could wind up supporting, rather than combating, the stigma against queer identities, since a big part of that stigma is comparing queerness to illness. That makes sense on its own, but they apparently DON’T mind making badges for things like autism and ADD, where the exact same danger exists. They even explicitly reference autism and ADD as part of the neurodiversity movement (whose core founding principle is that neurodivergent people should NOT be labeled as mentally ill) but include them in a “mental health” campaign anyway.
  5. They made a set of “Badges for Men”, but then kicked out their only transgender team member.
  6. They attacked me on the grounds that I was “taking too much credit” based on a post which acknowledges me as a team member, written by another person who is not me.
  7. Speaking of the neurodiversity perspective, “end the stigma around mental illness” is a self-contradictory statement. Calling neurodivergent people “mentally ill” is inherently stigmatizing. So this campaign was already flawed in its premise. This problem was actually brought to my attention by other people, I thought it was a valid concern and brought it to the admin group. Nothing was done, because they can’t take criticism.
  8. Their ultimatum offered for not kicking me out was that they needed me “to monitor comments and bring any concerns to us. NOTHING MORE”. In other words, my opinions are not valued, nor even permitted. After I was doing a perfectly fine job of not just monitoring comments but also responding to them appropriately.
  9. They use weasel words (not blatant lies, but essentially lies) when interacting with public comments. For example, they said in the team chat that there won’t be any abortion or miscarriage badges because the conversation would be too difficult to moderate, but to the person who first suggested one, the public response is just “we will discuss it.”
  10. Once again, they gaslight and bully their thankless unpaid team members when one of them expresses a disagreement.
In conclusion, I first would like to allow a reminder, that problematic does not mean there are no positives to be found. Some of the badges are accomplishing legitimate anti-stigma work. The Facebook page also features lists of crisis hotlines - attracting people to those is a good thing. But for every anti-stigma action from the team running the campaign, they have also taken an equally pro-stigma action (insert your Newton’s law of motion joke here). Taken as a whole, this campaign is NOT a welcome addition to disability activism. If there are any attempts to monetize the campaign, I will be the first to declare that I boycott them, and will encourage you to do the same.

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