Book Review: *Ableist Rhetoric: How We Know, Value, and See Disability*

As a society, our interpretation of disability should be no different than our interpretation of race, gender, class, or any other aspects of our identities. But, as a society, our interpretations of our different identities face constant backlash and oppression that plagues the idea of what is considered to be “normal.” In the monograph, Ableist Rhetoric by James L. Cherney, it is emphasized that ableism studies are different from disability studies, but in studying ableism, contributions are made to the field of studying disabilities. To put it simply, studying oppressive factors enhances knowledge on the situation of oppression. The same can be said for racism and ethnic studies and sexism for women’s studies (Cherney 11). Additionally, Cherney argues that viewing ableism in a rhetorical light allows for us to see the role it plays in everyday life and our commonly perceived norms.

James L. Cherney, Ph.D. is currently an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. In addition to Ableist Rhetoric, Cherney has published multiple journal articles, book chapters, media reviews, and more, most of which with a focus on disability studies and ableist culture.

In Ableist Rhetoric, Cherney argues that the main relationships that support the genre of ableist rhetoric are that (1) deviance is evil, (2) normal is natural, and (3) the body is able (Cherney 24). He discusses that while some media may not fall neatly into one of these three categories of analysis, ableist themes can nonetheless be present. The argument for deviance is evil is that in the media, people and concepts that are “unnatural” or deviate from the accepted norms exhibit sin and are reason for punishment. This relationship is exhibited when Cherney discusses The Exorcist and how the little girl’s deviant behavior is demonic and needs to be expelled. Before it’s accepted as demonic possession, doctors pass it off as a mental disorder or some form of neurodivergence that is not inherently bad. However, once they find that the root of the problem is demonic possession, it is unanimously decided that the girl must be cured. While one may question how this example is an idea that enables an ableist rhetoric (since it rules out a neurodivergence), it still assumes that deviation from normal behavior is evil and needs to be dealt with in a proper, holy way.

The argument for normal is natural is that natural law and biological reason are used to define what we consider as “normal” (25). The relationship is demonstrated by explaining the Cochlear Implant Debate (CID) and the conflict it creates within ableist culture, but more specifically, Deaf culture. According to Cherney, “the CID pits Deaf activists who see the implant as a threat to their cultural identity against medical specialists and implant designers who typically view deafness as an illness that can and should be cured” (64). Activists take the stance that this view assumes that Hearing culture and spoken language is the only valid approach to communication, while there is an entire culture of Deaf people who communicate through gesture and sign language. The issue is that while they are alienated from the general majority in a space that is not originally theirs, who is to say what can be considered normal in a place where that minority is the majority. A hearing person who is learning sign language can be considered a minority in the Deaf community in a similar way in which cultural immigrants are technically the minority in a foreign country or setting. 

The argument for body is able equivocates the capacity of one’s body with ability, enforcing the idea that the confines of body measures determine one’s ability. In the chapter where Cherney builds on the idea, he uses the example that the rhetoric of body is able supports that with the accessibility of stairways, “people who cannot use stairs are disabled by their bodies instead of by a set of ableist ideas and the structures that entrench these in contemporary culture” (85). This relationship is examined further in the context of disability and sport. Cherney discusses the idea that sports rely on “privileging those whose bodies are different enough to give them an advantage in the specified activity,” essentially saying that sport is ableist in its nature to encourage only those who have the specific abilities to participate (94). This not only excludes disabled people, but further excludes “normal” able-bodied people who just don’t have the general skill set to excel at sports. However, the prevalence of disability sports like the Paralympics, wheelchair basketball, quadriplegic rugby, and many more suggest that everyone can benefit from the perks of participating in sports and physical activity. In carrying out the notion that sports are available to all and that to be athletic is to be able-bodied and extremely physical implies the blatant ableism present within the realm of physical activity and the exclusion principle based on biological strength and fitness.

Cherney’s research for the book tends to focus mainly on social and media analyses, drawing information and examples from popular media (like The Exorcist) and current social commentaries (like the CID and the debate about disability and sport). Additionally, Cherney draws information from historical points of view and various ethnographic accounts of ableist culture. By combining the various sources of information, his research contributes an objective as well as a subjective telling of each example.

A main strength of Ableist Rhetoric is that the book highlights the differences between disability studies and ableist studies, giving more clarification in the argument of how we interpret media, society, and otherwise harmless constructs. In the past, we have not questioned the concept of normal and how we define normal in the added context of abnormal. However, with Cherney’s defined relationships that make up ableism, it is easier to understand how we continue to exacerbate the conditions of disability. Additionally, the book manages to tell a subjective view of disability studies and how its rhetoric impacts our daily lives in a much broader context than just simple activism for disability.

A weakness of Ableist Rhetoric is that it fails to provide an explanation for exactly what rhetoric is. While it goes very in-depth on the rhetoric of ableism and other rhetorical structures and models, the text does not give a straight definition of rhetoric. It would be beneficial to include this definition in order to give a basic understanding to the backbone of his argument. Additionally, including a more thought-out definition of rhetoric could help to expand the audience that the book targets, since many people may not know what it is off the top of their heads.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Ableist Rhetoric because not only did it help me gain a better understanding of a more rhetorical view of disability studies, but it helped me to realize that my lens on the world is more clouded than I originally thought. I found it really interesting to learn more about the debate of how we define normalcy, mainly because I have been learning more information on what “normal” is, but in many different contexts (my classes, other books, etc.). I believe that everyone should be able to read this book in some shape or form, even if they just hear Cherney’s view on the main three flaws in our understanding of ableism. A major audience for the book should be healthcare providers, people who have a voice in media and society, and even just people who interact with disabled people on a day-to-day basis. Ableism is a real problem in our society, but due to our view on what “normal” is, we overlook its simplest manifestations, whether that be sports, popular culture, or even just daily functioning.

Works Cited:

Cherney, J. L. (2019). Ableist rhetoric: How we know, value, and see disability. The Pennsylvania State University Press.

James Cherney: University of Nevada, Reno. Academia.edu. (n.d.). Retrieved October 31, 2021, from https://nevada-reno.academia.edu/JamesCherney/CurriculumVitae.

University of Nevada, Reno. (n.d.). James Cherney: Communication studies. Department of Communication Studies. Retrieved October 31, 2021, from https://www.unr.edu/communication-studies/faculty-and-staff/james-cherney.

Breaking from the Confines of Normalization

“Never judge a book by its cover” – a seemingly simple phrase that surely every child has heard growing up, whether it is at school, at church, or at home.  This humble, concise phrase has taught children for decades that what is on the inside of a person is what truly matters, not what one sees in a person’s appearance.  However, this well-intentioned phrase is made up of multiple philosophical layers that address two parts of the self: the outer self and the inner self.  According to the common phrase, “Never judge a book by its cover,” only one of these entities of the self should be used as an indication of who one truly is; nevertheless, society also insists that individuals make the inner self known through changes in the body and one’s appearance.  In other words, according to society, the inner self is what truly matters, but this inner self can only be fully known and represented with changes to the outer self, or the physical body.  This idea of changing one’s body to represent the inner self is exactly what Cressida J. Heyes is challenging and objects to throughout her scholarly monograph Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies, along with numerous other topics and ideas that relate to the body and one’s identity.  She discusses the idea that importance should not be placed on the body as a representation of one’s inner self and challenges these Western norms and expectations of appearance.

Plastic surgery is a perfect example of society’s normative culture that places emphasis on the body as an expression of the inner self.  More and more “average” individuals go under the knife every year in hopes of creating the outer self they have always imagined reflects how they truly feel on the inside and how they wish others to see them.  Heyes addresses this increasingly popular phenomenon of bodily changes in varied examples of cosmetic surgery, from discussing breast augmentations and nose jobs to forms of weight loss surgery.  She analyzes individuals’ desire for these surgeries and talks about how these desires for surgeries (and the surgeries themselves) are normalizing the process of identity representation or even transformation through changes to the outer self.  As the title of the book implies, Heyes places focus on breaking from the confines of normalization and suggests how individuals can change themselves in order to discover one’s authentic self while avoiding conforming to what society expects one to be.  She explores this idea by objecting to two main claims: the claim that the inner self has a “unique authenticity; that to know oneself… is to know the nature of this individual” (3), and second, the claim that the authentic self “must be made visible through changes to the body” (4).  She is objecting to society’s expectations that one’s true self must be made known through physical appearance, especially because the Western world has expectations of how the body should appear, placing emphasis on changing the “flaws” of the body so that one can express one’s true and “flawless” self, which is in itself conforming to society’s expectations of perfection.  In discussion of these expectations, Heyes discusses the technologies that are now available that give individuals access to processes that will change the body in order to supposedly bridge the gap between one’s inner self and outer self, such as plastic surgery, but also mentions the complexities of these ideas in procedures such sexual reassignment surgeries.  She questions where the line exists between necessary medical intervention that is needed to restore normal function and bodily enhancement that is aimed at making the individual closer to perfection and beyond normal capacities.  In arguing that one should resist society’s emphasis on the body as a reflection of one’s authentic self, Heyes insists that docility must be resisted, and frequently employs the use of “docile bodies” in her objections to conformity and in her support of breaking out of the confines of normalization and into the liberation of freedom.  The overall aim of the book, which Heyes states in the introduction, is to “recognize the moments of truth in such assessments, while offering a framework for ethics, in which not moral judgment but askeses of freedom are the primary goal of analysis” (8), with askesis being defined as a Foucauldian term referring to the “forms of care of the self that underwrite our art of living” (8).  The “assessments” she refers to in this context are evaluating the body as an expression of an inner self.

In order to demonstrate her credibility and both academic and personal experience which give her valid insight into these philosophical ideas, Heyes explains her world travels, research, and academic experience which lead her to write the book in her acknowledgements section prior to the introduction.  She explains how her education attained at Oxford University (where she obtained her undergraduate degree) and McGill University (where she earned her Ph.D. in Philosophy), along with her experience as Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Gender and Sexuality at the University of Alberta and travels around the world, have allowed her to see the issues she discusses from numerous perspectives, thus allowing her to come to a educated and valid conclusion herself about such matters.  The book is only one among many books she has published, along with numerous journal articles, book chapters, and reviews she has published both before this book and since then.

In order to incorporate this experience throughout the book and to more effectively provide her own insight into the arguments of other scholars and experiences, Heyes uses the first person perspective.  She specifically addresses this method in her introduction, stating that her “ethical commitment to situating the author as a partial, prejudiced, and invested theorist” is the motivation behind why she wrote the book “self-consciously” in the first person (13).  She discusses how she includes her own personal experiences and personal disclosure about her own embodied identity, despite its possible contradictory effects.  Heyes explains how publicly displaying personal experience can invite other individuals’ critique or disappointment, but she is willing to do this because of the possible positive ramifications, such as others being able to identify with her.  She also explains how she takes pride in her use of first person because her goal is also to stand in solidarity with others who are afraid to speak up and be wrongfully judged and misunderstood.  This courageous yet plausibly risky technique is in the end successful because it empowers both the author and the reader because of the boundaries broken and criticisms ignored.  This method perfectly displays Heyes’ intention to teach others how to break away from conformity and to discover how to freely express one’s inner self.  Personal experience is certainly not her only method of demonstrating the legitimacy of her research and exploring the material she covers.  Another very effective and substantially more valid manner she utilizes is analysis and incorporation of the work of numerous authors, including renowned philosophers.  As mentioned in the title of the monograph, Foucault is central to a lot of Heyes’ analysis, but she also includes the arguments of philosophers such as Charles Taylor, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Kathy Davis.

The book in its entirety contains numerous strengths, whether one examines the methods Heyes utilizes throughout the book, the content itself, the dense philosophical analysis, or simply the topics themselves.  I think the use of the first person is especially successful and is definitely a strength of the book.  The use of Foucauldian rhetoric and philosophical analysis are also especially effective; Heyes’ use of excerpts from Foucault’s famous works (and from numerous other philosophers and authors) gives the book a depth which simply would not be attainable without its presence and the critical analysis which Heyes provides.  These strengths of the book allow each page to contain such densities of ideas that it most definitely takes an educated and experienced reader to fully comprehend the concepts presented.

All of these immense strengths of the book leave few weaknesses; the only area which could be supported or explored a bit more thoroughly is intersectionality when it comes to the topics she discusses.  For example, Heyes does discuss the intersection between socioeconomic class or race and normalization of the body, but does so most specifically in chapter two: “Feminist Solidarity after Queer Theory: The Case of Transgender.”  Here she rejects the idea that there is no demand for transracial medical interference, citing examples of cosmetic modifications that are used with the intent to make identifying ethnic features less noticeable or different from the white majority, next mentioning how socioeconomic class can also be brought into this picture of changing the body in hopes of reducing telling signs of belonging to a lower class.  Heyes’ incorporation of these intersectional ideas in this chapter is exceptional and critical in fully exploring the norms she is rejecting, yet I think that she can incorporate this intersectionality for frequently throughout the book, such as in her chapter on weight loss and her experience with Weight WatchersÒ.  I am curious as to how race and socioeconomic class intersect with programs such as Weight WatchersÒ, so I think that there is a small weakness in Heyes’ exploration of intersectionality in some parts of the book.

In conclusion, Heyes’ analysis of and objection to normalization in her book Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies is rich in complexity and vastly intellectual in density, thus a highly-educated academic audience with experience in philosophy and sexuality studies would benefit most from reading this book.  Overall, the monograph has far more strengths than weaknesses, and Heyes’ exploration of cultural norms and bodily change through the use of her own experiences, along with her analysis of renowned philosophers’ views, causes her arguments to be highly credible and valid.  Her argument against focusing on appearance and her questioning of Western norms truly makes the reader think about the inner self and how one can be authentic without adhering to societal norms, which is an idea that can be universally beneficial to all who delve into the pages of this scholarly monograph.

Works Cited

Heyes, Cressida. Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.