[Content Note: Surgery, Disabilities, Food Intolerances, Fat Shaming, Diet Industries, Rape]
I live in the USA. I've lived my entire life here; I've never crossed national lines, though I have planned to on several occasions for vacations and student exchange programs that all ultimately fell through. I like my country well enough, although I remain frustrated with a lot of aspects of our governing structure, of our approach to teaching history, and of the jingoism that frequently infects both. One thing I love about my country, however, is how strongly my culture supports freedom of choice.
Theoretically, at any rate.
I've become increasingly interested lately in how my surrounding culture -- a culture that ostensibly prides itself on Individualism and Freedom and Capitalism and Choice -- is actually exceedingly hostile to quite a lot of those things. And in the aftermath of my surgery, of my father's cancer, and of my boss' stroke, I've noticed that my culture parses Can't, Shouldn't, and Won't very differently from each other. And I'm made deeply uncomfortable by that parsing.
Can't is simple. If I can't go jogging for a mile in the evening, because the first step will immediately snap my spine in two like a twig, well then I can't do it. You'd have to be quite the jackwagon to insist that I still should make a try of it anyway.
This doesn't mean, of course, that people with disabilities are safe from jackwagonry, unfortunately; in practice it means that random jackwagons will argue with us, assuming that they have greater personal insight into our bodies than we do. But! If the disability can be demonstrated to the satisfaction of all jackwagons involved, there will be a sort of grudging acceptance that, well, if you can't do X, you can't do X. Tautological, really.
Shouldn't is a little more complex. "Shouldn't" implies authority. Someone with knowledge, power, and authority -- a doctor, a parent, a boss, a deity -- has made a Rule and the Rule must be followed. Ironically, I've found that "shouldn't" can be an even better defense than "can't", depending on how Lawful the jackwagon in question is. "I can't do X because Y" can frequently result in a long and complicated argument about how to do X while avoiding Y. (Have you tried jogging with special shoes? On treadmills instead of pavement? Whilst in low gravity conditions?)
"I shouldn't do X because Doctor Says So" can side-step a lot of that: if the Doctor said so, then zie must know, right? Why, they go to those fancy schools and already know about the low gravity jogging, so Doctor's Orders should be followed. Of course, as noted before, depending on how self-inflated the jackwagon is, or if they're more Chaotically-inclined, you may still be in for an uphill battle to be taken seriously about why you're not doing the thing they want you to do. Which leads us inexorably to Won't.
Won't is sticky. You would think that in a culture that values Individualism and Freedom and Capitalism and Choice that "won't" would be enough. "I won't do that," should be the end of discussion. Any "because" that could follow the "won't" might be nice and informative for the other side of the discussion, but it shouldn't be necessary or required in a culture that treasures individual choice. And yet, increasingly, I'm being made aware of how inadequate "won't" is treated in our culture.
I won't eat that doesn't prevent people from trying to slip secret foods into the bodies of people with food intolerances, in the belief that the gluten-intolerant person in the room is just "faking it" for attention or as a dieting choice.
I won't sleep with you doesn't prevent people from trying to loosen the speaker's inhibitions with alcohol, or from arguing incessantly that they're "owed" sex in exchange for all the bare minimum of decent behavior they've been displaying for the last few weeks.
I won't exercise that way doesn't prevent a lot of fat shaming and anger directed at Expensive! Lazy! Fat! people who refuse to explain in detail to every prying eye why, precisely, they don't conform to the latest diet or exercise regimen until their choice is adequately established as a Can't or Won't.
Strangely, though I live in a country and a culture that prides itself on Individualism and Freedom and Capitalism and Choice, sometimes I don't feel like I'm allowed any of those things. Reproductive choice is regularly threatened; I live in a world where politicians are trying to take away my birth control and my right to have a safe, legal abortion should I choose one. Sexual choice is besieged on all sides; there are significant social barriers to my revealing my Kinsey scale number in public, and as a woman I am acutely aware of living in a culture that is hostile to me and considers my consent-to-sex as a default to be revoked ("no means no") rather than an absent to be received ("yes means yes").
Having my recent surgery has given me all kinds of Can't and Shouldn't "privilege" that I've never had before. All my life it has hurt to do various things -- from anything to specific exercises to certain types of lifting -- but now that I suddenly have a doctor's note saying that I cannot-mustnot-shouldnot-maynot do these things, I'm taken seriously for the first time in... well, forever. I find myself struggling to hold on to this dubious privilege, to push back against the general impression that Surgery Fixes Everything Forever, to remind people that I'm going to be disabled in these ways for life, just so I can have social permission to not do things that hurt me. Why? Why is this necessary? Why is "I just won't do that" not good enough of an explanation, such that I have to repeatedly dig out my Certified Disability Card?
I THOUGHT THIS WAS AMERICA.
In all seriousness, I've known all my life that my culture is hostile to choice. I knew, even without those words, because I've been engaging with that culture all my life. When I was very young and shy of various things -- parties, sleepovers, large get-togethers -- my mother kindly assured me that I could always use her as an excuse for why I couldn't go. Now that I'm older, it's not at all unusual for Husband or I to use the other as a reason to get out of unwanted social engagements. (And Husband now has a Disabled Wife! Score! No, we can't drive to Vermont for your wedding, cousin-we've-only-met-once. Sorry! Disabled Wife! *sadface* Yes, you may all be jealous of Husband.)
The more I think on it, the more I feel like the American myth of Individualism and Freedom and Capitalism and Choice only really applies to heterosexual cowboys who choose to eat danger, shit bullets, and ride off into pretty sunsets on pretty horses with prettier women clutching prettily at them. But it's important to remember that if there's only one choice, if this "choice" is the only valid one for us to make, then we don't value Choice at all. We just value that one "choice" that everyone is supposed to choose. Or -- more bluntly -- you can have any color as long as it's black.
Choices should not have to be justified when those choices only affect the chooser or when the choice is made based on bodily autonomy. "Because" is not something that should be owed to the people around us.
I want to have sex with the people I want to have sex with. Excuses optional for sparing feelings.
I want to dress in ways that make me feel nice. That doesn't make me public property or food.
I want to eat the foods I want to eat. Food policing is bullshit.
I want to exercise in the manners (or not at all!) that please me. Health is not a moral imperative.
I want to converse with the people I want to converse with. I do not owe anyone an audience.
I want to set boundaries that make me comfortable. Even when society insists I should do otherwise.
I want to laugh only at jokes I find funny. I don't mind being a member of Nofunnington.
I shouldn't have to justify those choices with biological imperatives or doctor's notes in order to make those choices be heard and respected in the larger culture around me. If we are going to claim to appreciate choice and freedom, then we have to really appreciate it and strip away all this moralizing bullshit about health being a moral imperative or not-laughing-at-rape-jokes being (somehow) oppression of free speech or bodies-and-sexuality being public property for criticism and use.
Preferences are valid and should be respected. Reasons are nice but are not owed. Is this so hard?