You’ve likely heard the phrase “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” at some point over the years. It’s a common colloquialism used to describe finding your way out of a difficult situation by sheer force of will. Unfortunately, what some mean as an inspirational term to describe one’s ability to self-motivate, others use as a weapon to tear down those who don’t display such abilities.
In social justice circles, this has morphed into a verb as the act of “bootstrapping.” It’s common in disability discussion, as many able-bodied people think everyone should be able to bootstrap their way out of anything. Exhausted from the unending muscle pain of an invisible illness? Bootstraps! Just start walking 10 miles to work every day, uphill both ways, and you’ll learn that your pain is all in your head. Unable to conquer depression without medication? Bootstraps! Toss your pills down the sink and just learn to smile at butterflies and fluffy puppies, and all will be right in the world. Terrified to enter certain social situations because of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Bootstraps! Run out your front door and hug some strangers, and you’ll see how you were scared over nothing.
Often, the bootstrapper will offer an “inspirational” story of how they suffered from a similar problem, and bootstrapped their way out of it. They overcame depression by watching Will Ferrel movies, why are you so unwilling to laugh? They once had a broken ankle and still didn’t use the electronic wheelchairs at Wal-Mart, why are you enabling your own laziness? They lost weight by just switching to diet soda, why do you insist on staying fat? It’s not actually done from a place of good will, but rather from one that is trying to induce guilt. If they were legitimately trying to help, they’d be forced to acknowledge that not everyone has the same abilities to overcome the cards they’re dealt. There is nothing wrong with being unable to bootstrap your way over every obstacle you face, and you are no less of a person for needing help.
Bootstrapping ignores the realities of living with physical and mental illnesses. It demeans the experiences of those people suffering them, and paints them as too lazy or self-indulgent to do what is necessary to reach normalcy. It’s another way for the social majority to tell those suffering that they are lesser, another way for them to marginalize them and deride the suffering they face.
Maybe you’re lucky enough that you don’t suffer such illnesses or disabilities, and you fear you may never experience the glory of bootstrapping. Well, worry not! For the social majority has discovered a way to inject bootstrapping into their everyday acts of oppression.
I personally encountered a lovely act of bootstrapping on this very blog a couple of days ago, as I was told that while “[b]eing a rape victim is troubling,” I need to just “get over it.” Well, isn’t that lovely. Time for me to bootstrap my way out of victimhood!
First, such a mindset ignores the reality that social oppression can result in physical and mental consequences that make such bootstrapping arguments flat-out ableist. Based on my own experiences with rape, sexual assault, and gendered violence at large, I had an 89.4% chance of suffering a mental disorder. Excuse me for allowing my PTSD to get in the way of your ableism, dear mansplainers. And what about the women who are infected with incurable STDs by their rapists? Who are left pregnant by their rapists? Who are physically mutilated by their rapists? There are a slew of potential physical side effects to gendered violence that bootstrappers would have us all ignore, as well. They’d rather paint us as bitter old crones, clinging to our victimizations as an excuse to be offended
Second, telling us to bootstrap our way out of being angry over the injustices we face is just another way of dismissing our concerns. It tells us that our plight can’t really be serious, because we could just bootstrap our way out if we tried hard enough. It paints minorities as the bad guys, clinging to our anger as justification to hate on privileged people.
Third, even if we were capable of bootstrapping our way out of our upset, it would be counter-productive to the cause of equality. If every minority simply turned the other cheek when they were wronged, how would justice ever be dealt? If we just bootstrapped our way toward ignorant, half-assed happiness at the expense of reality, how would our experiences be acknowledged, those slights be challenged to not repeat themselves? Minorities have every right to be angry; we are oppressed, and oppression is damn angering.
Last, it is not your place to tell anyone how “troubling” their problems are; only they know the complete realities of their lives. You cannot know how severe their pain is, how deep-rooted their problems are, how much strength it takes to accomplish anything in their lives. You cannot compare your situation to theirs, and tell them, “I overcame your exact problem, so you can, too.” No one lives a life identical to another person, and it is a privileged assumption to think otherwise.
Perhaps the social majority could try picking themselves up by their bootstraps, dragging themselves out of the muck of their own self-righteousness, and learning a little compassion. That is something that can be done by sheer force of will, yet so few are willing to do it.