On Inferiority and Consent

Eleanor Roosevelt once apparently said that ‘no one can make you feel inferior without your consent,’ a quote supposedly involving her husband’s affairs. (There goes the myth that disabled people aren’t sexual.) It’s a quote that’s always bothered me, and I keep seeing it circulated in a way that seems to suggest approval and general support, which makes me wonder if I’m reading too much into it, or reading it the wrong way, or if there’s something just fundamentally different in my approach to comments like this in media and pop culture.

Perhaps I’m supposed to read the quote as ‘don’t dignify nastiness with a response,’ or a variant on the old ‘treat it like water off a duck’s back’ adage, but both of those irk me too. Because they put the burden on you, the person who feels bad, for feeling bad. As though you should feel ashamed and awkward because you responded to something emotionally, and something, or someone, upset you. I’m unclear on why we’re circulating a quote effectively blaming people for ‘feeling inferior’ when we live in a society with structural systems all around us designed to make people feel inferior.

Especially in the United States, there’s a lot of hokum about ‘positive thinking’ and various other iterations of magical thinking, as though by crossing your fingers hard enough and wishing, you can magic yourself to a world where bad things don’t happen. If bad things do happen, you’re not trying hard enough. If you respond to them in a negative way, you’re letting them get you down, instead of confronting them with a cheery smile and brave aspect.

The classic example, of course, comes up in the management of cancer and varied responses to cancer from actual cancer patients, who often have a mixed relationship with the disease. One kind of cancer patient is ‘good’: brave, bold, cheerful, making sure she’s happy and putting a good face on everything at all times. The other kind of cancer patient is ‘bad’: moody, upset, angry at having cancer. People are told that they’ll have worse treatment outcomes if they don’t shape up their attitudes, that they’re depressing friends and family, that they just need to try harder to beat/fight/win the battle against cancer.

And I see the same kind of attitude in these supposedly inspirational quotes telling us that if we feel bad, it’s because we’ve ‘consented’ to feeling bad, and we should just put on a stiff upper lip and get on with it. Are these really the kinds of messages we want to be sending people, especially young women? Should we tell women who are upset and who feel small and worthless after a rape that they are consenting to allowing the rapist to influence their feelings? When they’re already dealing with the aftermath of a trauma that society tells them has ‘ruined’ them and makes them ‘worthless’?

You know what, Eleanor? Sometimes people make me feel inferior. And it makes me feel like shit. I hate it. It’s awful. I hate it when a casual comment cuts to the quick, and I feel like a piece of garbage. And you know what I hate almost as much? I hate that I feel bad for feeling bad because I’m supposed to be able to just blow it off and I can’t. It shouldn’t be important, because I should just be able to decide that something isn’t going to affect me, and I can just move on with my life, pretending the incident never happened, head held high.

So then I really feel like crap, because no only do I feel worthless in the first place, but I feel doubly so because I can’t engage in the right kind of positive thinking. Tell me, Eleanor, is this what you meant by that comment? Is this what people mean when they circulate it approvingly? Because to me, that’s how it reads: as a mandate to grow a thick skin and get over your sensitivities. It reads as yet another reminder that I’m just never going to be good enough, because I can’t respond to things in the way I am supposed to, and I get ‘too emotional,’ and you know, this whole thing is why we can’t trust you, because you react emotively instead of rationally.

I reject that argument. Being hurt by something hurtful is rational. In fact, I’d argue it’s a smart evolutionary move, developed to protect people from hurtful things. Not just in the physical sense — okay, let’s not eat that again — but in the emotional one, too, because emotions clearly influence overall health, wellbeing, and happiness. The brain is doing a smart and good thing by telling me ‘hey, that wasn’t fun, let’s make a point of not being around that person in the future, because that person is clearly a jerk.’

Has that person made me feel inferior? Yes. Did I consent to it? No. I did not. And this is perhaps the thing that makes me angriest of all about this quote, the idea that people who are harmed by cruelty are just too passive, are just asking for it, should just be stronger and they’ll get over it. I don’t want to live in a world where people should be strong and shut up. I want to live in a world where people actually care about each other and work to protect and support each other given that right now, this is a place where passing few things come with kindness or love.