I have been absent from this blog for over a month, in part because of some other writing I’ve been doing and in part because of a valley I’ve been in for a few months now. This is my attempt to prime the pump a bit (I hear that’s a new phrase going around) for more writing in the coming days and weeks.
When I was a sophomore in college, I had to take an introductory literature course to fulfill one of my humanities requirements. (This was before I was on track to become an English teacher and arguably was one of the reasons I ended up there.)
One of the many works we read in that class was Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie. I had always been a fan of plays, but there was something about this play that resonated strongly with me.
For those not familiar, the play focuses on the Wingfield family: the matriarch Amanda, whose husband has abandoned the family and who longs for the better days of the past; the son (and narrator) Tom, who works to support the family in his father’s absence but who clearly wants to leave the family behind and set out on his own; and the daughter Laura, who is so severely introverted that she dropped out of high school and spends much of her time with her collection of glass figurines (the titular glass menagerie).
The character I was almost immediately drawn to was Laura, the girl who had wanted so badly to be accepted by others in high school but who was unable to make those connections. At the point in the play when she thinks she is about to make such a connection with someone from her past, one of the figurines — a unicorn — gets knocked out of the case and is broken. There is no subtlety in this symbolism: Laura is that fragile figurine, having been broken by someone who she trusted to be careful with her.
Given what I personally experienced as a child, I couldn’t help but relate to Laura. More to the point, I felt that what happened to her was utterly unfair. No one in the story treats her with the delicate touch she needs (and deserves), even though virtually all of them realize that she is so fragile, and there is every reason to think that her emotional fragility is due to circumstances beyond her control.
But there is a sort of verisimilitude in this: The world does not treat fragility as a morally neutral trait. To be fragile is to be weak, to lack the will to be more, to be pitied.
And that leaves fragile people with a few possible outcomes: Find ways to simulate strength in order to prevent further harm (although this won’t for a second change how broken you feel) or…don’t survive at all.
This isn’t just a lamentable state of affairs. It is an utterly infuriating one.
Fragile people aren’t lesser; they simply don’t embody the standard of strength that others expect (or, often, demand). They do not project a false strength but embrace vulnerability. To be fragile — openly so — is to be honest about the fact that we are not creatures who are immune to being cut to our very core.
Societal attitudes against fragility, though, are pervasive. There’s a segment of the populace for whom these attitudes comport all too well with other compassion-less stances — the kind of people who decry the “participation trophy” stereotype of my generation and political correctness and appeals for diversity and inclusion in the public square. (I am tempted here to tie these views to the political right, but these days, I feel like you can find proponents of these views on the left as well, even if less commonly.)
But even among people who reject these stances, you can see subtle hints of similar attitudes. In 2011, racial and social justice scholar Robin DiAngelo coined a term for a very useful concept: white fragility. In a paper of the same name, DiAngelo defines this term as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.” Basically, because white people aren’t generally forced to confront the issue of race (and certainly not in the ways that people of color are forced to confront these issues perpetually as a part of daily life), they — I mean, we — will get defensive and lash out, sometimes violently, when confronted with the topic and the notion of their own privilege.
It’s a phenomenon that one can find with many groups that have privilege, and I have seen similar observations about men, to take just one group. (I also think there’s a similar phenomenon with Western Christians, which is why things like the “War on Christmas” take hold in places like the US.)
Calling it “fragility,” though, seems both backward and counterproductive to me. Groups with privilege are almost always the ones who control the narratives about what it means to be strong, so calling them “fragile” in a way fails to acknowledge this basic disadvantage that is used against fragile people as I’ve laid it out earlier (people who do not conform to this generally straight, white, masculine, abled, etc. view of strength).
And — perhaps more insidiously — it is ripe for abuse. The fact that “fragile” is used pejoratively in society makes it an easy insult, and I have seen it used on countless occasions by people arguing for social justice as an epithet against their interlocutors. (The irony of social justice-oriented people using such a term that has a history of being used against the marginalized is not lost on me.)
It also doesn’t address the fundamental problem: People with privilege are frequently unwilling or unable to grapple with serious issues because their privilege typically insulates them from it. Calling them “fragile” in a way that denotes weakness — in other words, hijacking the stigma to get a cheap shot in — not only reinforces the stigma but in fact obscures the real issue. And if privileged people are going to find ways to overcome this particular kind of fragility, it will take more than mere insults.
Mind you, I’m not arguing against calling it “fragility” in this context — I have taken to heart the advice of marginalized folks that avoiding a useful term because some people misuse it for malicious purposes is not reasonable, and besides, the term is established enough that I cannot envision another term easily displacing it.
But I’m done with the stigma. There’s nothing wrong with being fragile, and there’s everything wrong with mistreating people for failing to live up to your arbitrary standard of strength — be it physical, mental, or emotional.
If we want a better, more compassionate world, this is a good place to start.
Image via Pixabay