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Park '12: We are all subjects

There are a plethora of ways in which our society normalizes able-bodied people at the exclusion of those whose bodies are differently- or dis-abled. Ability or disability is judged at a glance, frozen in place with a stare, and in part separates those we consider capable subjects from incapable objects — objects that are more obstacles than people.

That said, ability or disability does not exist in bodies themselves but only when bodies come into relation with activities, environments and tools. Bicycle design is one example of the privileging of certain bodies.

The Brown community is obviously not the proper target for a demand that bikes be made to fit all bodies, nor is it my right to make demands on behalf of people who are capable of making their own. Nonetheless, allow me to briefly draw attention to one example of how some Brown students subtly perpetuate the privilege of the able over the disabled.

Anywhere you find a handrail on campus, you will notice bikes locked to it as if it were a bike rack. Guilty of the practice myself, I am aware of why people do this — it's convenient. Still, there are very few occasions when there are no other options but to lock one's bike to a handrail.

It was not until last spring when a friend brought up the subject that I thought twice. Handrails have a purpose. Some people not only use them but rely on them to get where they are going safely. My friend described seeing a blind student reaching for a handrail on the steps of Faunce House, tripping on a bike and falling down the stairs. I have gone out of my way to lock my bike to racks ever since.

Made easier by the denial of their subjectivity, the needs of the disabled are often flat-out ignored. A similar denial of subjectivity and need operates in the form of sexual objectification, which was the topic of two recent Herald opinions columns ("The problem with Thayer on a Friday night," Sept. 22 and "Objectification for fun and profit," Sept. 30). The most recent of these, though clearly well-intentioned, demands a response.

The central question David Hefer '12 asks us in his column is, given that "objectification can be, and often is, done without hurting anyone," then "why end it?" For the sake of argument, I will grant the assumption and respond solely to the question.

The answer is as obvious as why one should not drink and drive — because even if a practice is not harmful in some circumstances, the risk of doing harm in any circumstance, no matter how great or small, does not make it worthwhile. And let's be clear — with objectification, the harm can be great, particularly if the people objectified have experienced other forms of oppression or violence, including sexual violence, the effect of which can truly make them feel like an object.

When a person stares at, whistles or calls after another person, it is, with few exceptions, purely and simply a violation. The way a person looks or dresses is not synonymous with a request for attention. Hefer's examples of socially acceptable objectification — B.D.S.M. and pornography — are not analogous to stares or catcalls. The difference, which I will oversimplify for brevity's sake, is that the masochist or the porn star has made a choice to be objectified. Even as objects, they remain subjects. But with a public encounter between strangers, there is no analogous remnant of subjectivity, unless, of course, you let the person go about undisturbed.

Early in his column, Hefer points to the disequilibrium between men and women. Though I find it problematic to claim that most men would enjoy being objectified — does a male factory worker enjoy being treated like a machine? or, to return to my earlier discussion, does a male disabled person want to be stared at? — it is undoubtedly true that many men, though not all, would react differently than women to sexual objectification.

This points to precisely the differences in power between men and women — not to mention the ways in which transgender people are objectified and excluded by power structures, or how race, place, class or sexuality complicate the matter. Even in the objectification of a stare or a catcall, a man remains a subject, Hefer claims. For those whose agency is already so widely suppressed, there is no such luxury.

Hefer seems to presume that patriarchy and rape culture in particular are separable from sexual objectification. Contrary to Hefer's presumption, objectification is the necessary groundwork for any form of violence, sexual or otherwise. Once a person, or any living being for that matter, has been established as an object, the nature of one's responsibility to that object changes. Indeed, no subjects consider themselves responsible for the needs of objects. Objects do not have needs, or if they do, subjects certainly cannot hear them.

We can all be more responsible to the needs — spoken or unspoken — of other subjects, regardless of ability, gender or anything else.



Julian Park '12 is an animist and considers squirrels, trees, soil and his cell phone subjects. He can be reached at 



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