What is it and how do we deal with it?
This article is about something which can be a huge issue for people in the Disabled community – status anxiety and ‘tall poppy syndrome’. These issues relate to people attacking others or making uncharitable statements about people within the community who they perceive are somehow doing better than them.
The basis of this is often a combination of insecurity and also responding to the oppression that we face as Disabled people by attacking someone within the community rather than ‘fighting the power.’ Oppressed, intersectional groups often face this issue which is known as ‘lateral violence’, where anger at disadvantage and discrimination is turned inwards and results in jealousy and undermining others. Sadly our community is not immune from the issue. In fact I see it quite a lot.
I think a lot of people are not even aware this is an issue for them. A ‘lateral violence’ response is a broader social issue than one individual being snippy with a well-known person in their community.
Lateral violence essentially involves instead of fighting oppression, oppressed people turning their anger against others in their community and these others tend to be people who are perceived as somehow more successful. So not only is attacking other Disabled people because of their success really unhelpful on an individual level, it is also deferred anger which would be much better used to address issues in society and to fight ableism. Leadership in the community should help enable people to see beyond rivalry. In fact this is an area where everyone in the community can take some leadership and responsibility to respond with respect and care, not lateral violence.
This is not a criticism or attack on people who feel jealous. There is a lot driving that thinking and behaviour and it goes beyond individuals. Lateral violence, while very unhelpful, is an indicator of oppression of itself and happens across most communities that face disadvantage. So while placing blame is unhelpful, it is important to be aware of what it looks like and some ways to address the issue.
I am an autistic advocate and these days I have quite a big profile. While the primary function of my profile is to get my message to an audience, I am sometimes criticised for being well-known. The idea that I am focussed only on making money is one criticism – evidenced through people complaining when I have a book published and promote it. I am a very honest and straightforward person and take words on face value so it has taken many years to work out that people saying ’Jeanette just wants to make money with their books’ is actually almost certainly being driven by jealousy rather than any high ideals of socialism! I meet people who are inexplicably rude to me and it takes me some time to work out that it is due to a ‘fame thing’ on their part rather than anything unethical or unpleasant that I may have done or said. I often get quizzed by people who seem to want me to say something ‘wrong’ or to disprove whatever I am saying. It’s exhausting!
I can guarantee that the people considered famous within the disability community and those in positions leadership have their own struggles and challenges which are not solved by media appearances or book deals or other accomplishments..
Some strategies include:
- Being in a position of leadership can exacerbate this issue and lead others to criticise and blame. It is important to respond in a way that demonstrates leadership and not react in a personal, defensive way (although this can be hard)
- See it for what it is. It usually has nothing to do with the person who is apparently ‘too successful’
- Take responsibility for your thoughts, words and actions
- Use your position of leadership to help address this – call people on it if you can and demonstrate respect and inclusion in your own expression
- Remember that many people have impostor syndrome. People may not see their own value but instead feel intimidated by the actions and the ‘success’ of others
- Share information on lateral violence with others. If you can, be a champion of addressing and calling out lateral violence. If we all did that it would be much less of an issue.
Addressing status anxiety and lateral violence is essential if we want to make a better world. Just imagine if all that energy people spent being jealous and insecure was directed instead to addressing the bigger issues that Disabled people face. Our leaders play a key part in achieving that aim.
Guest blog by Yenn Purkis:
Yenn (formerly Jeanette) Purkis is an autistic and non-binary author, advocate and presenter. They are active in the Disabled community, have published six books, facilitated a women’s group since 2011 and given a large number of presentations, including one for TEDx Canberra. Yenn is also a Disability leadership Institute member.
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