Mar 16

The Verbal as Proof of Humanity

Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson’s “Rethinking Rhetoric through Mental Disabilities” offers important insight into the pervasive ways that assumptions of rhetorical/communication norms fundamentally impact who is considered fully human in dominant discourses. Her article attempts to work through the question:

“[h]ow can people who have psychiatric and cognitive disabilities that interfere with communication exercise rhetorical agency?” (157).

The question of how this rhetorical agency — and ableist assumptions about who can exercise it and who cannot — has huge implications both for people with dis/abilities and for rhetoric.

Reminding her readers that language is at once material-physical and culturally produced, Lewiecki-Wilson argues that,

“we need… a broadened concept of rhetoric to include collaborative and mediated rhetorics that work with the performative rhetoric of bodies that “speak” with/out language” (157).

She goes on to position facilitated communication as an example of such a redefinition of rhetoricity (and also, perhaps, of literacy). Though negative thoughts and feelings about the efficacy and ethics of facilitated communication abound in popularized debates, the potential power of Lewiecki-Wilson’s argument is that it has the potential to reframe anxieties about facilitated communication by questioning the root of non-autistic people’s anxiety about it.

Lewiecki-Wilson argues that whenever marginalized people enter public debates, the pressures of liberalism push such voices toward using the rhetoric of ‘we are just like you and want to be treated just like you.’ This obliteration of difference from the norm neutralizes the potential power of multiple rhetoricities; this liberalized ‘we are the same’ discourse also delegitimizes any claim to rhetorical agency that is not ‘just like [the norm].’ It validates the norm, situating people with “severe mental dis/abilities” as perpetually striving toward producing normate forms of communication. In this way, Lewiecki-Wilson’s praise of facilitated communication might serve to question the un-question-able: why might people with normate bodyminds be so dead-set against forms like facilitated communication if not because it poses such a threat to the supremacy of the verbal?

Regarding claims of facilitated communication’s relationship with exploitation and appropriation, Lewiecki-Wilson might suggest a reorientation of how we think about exploitation (though I worry that this might be too dismissive of the concern). Because the logics of ‘we are the same’ liberalism also (ironically) claims that we must be fully autonomous individual actors (aside from the fact that this is an impossible aspiration), Lewiecki-Wilson suggests that we define exploitation with the underlying assumption that all people have access to autonomous, individualized, speech-oriented rhetorical patterns. She elaborates, arguing that:

“by insisting on such a sharp demarcation line between individual rhetorical agency and lack, we don’t solve these problems as much as silence them. We may also be revealing our general anxiety to hold back the undifferentiated physical and social flow of language, and our unwillingness to enter into caring and committed intersubjective dependency with others and with the material world” (162).

This discomfort with “intersubjective dependency with others and with the material world” directly feeds in to a cultural refusal to recognize as human people with primarily non-normate rhetorical practices. She argues, crucially, that “we often demand some verbal response from an Other as proof of their humanness” (157, emphasis added).

To me, this work links up importantly with that of Sylvia Wynter, who argues that the very concept of humanity is inextricably tied with race. Her attentiveness to the material histories of race and the violences of racism she argues persuasively that there are several “genres” of lower case-h humanity, which is to be distinguished from upper case-H Humanity. While Humanity is inextricable from western whiteness, those human beings that occupy lower case-h humanity populate rich genres dictated by the power dynamics and cultural interplays of various moments in time and history.

Crucially, here, those who cannot sufficiently perform western whiteness – quite possibly an impossible performative status – are actively barred from achieving Humanity and gaining the basic privileges that accompany this classification.

This denial of capital-H Humanity to people of color is intimately intertwined with the kinds of dehumanizing agency-stripping that Lewiecki-Wilson is observing. Indeed, the history of interpreting non-normate communications and embodiments as less than human has a rich history of conflating racialized people with dis/abled people, through violent histories of dually racist and ableist eugenics practices; racialized reproduction ‘experiments’; and the disproportionate representation of students of color who are labeled as having mental dis/abilities in public schools, just to name a few.

Attentiveness to these interconnections could surely enrich the ways that we understand the relationship between rhetorical agency, interdependency, and the performative rhetorics of non-normate bodies.


Lewiecki-Wilson, Cynthia. “Rethinking Rhetoric through Mental Disabilities.” Rhetoric Review (2003): 156-167.

Wynter, Sylvia. “On How We Mistook the Map for the Territory, and Reimprisoned Ourselves in Our Unbearable Wrongness of Being, of Desêtre: Black Studies Toward the Human Project.” A Companion to African-American Studies (2006): 107-118.

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