Arms, Legs…Limits!

Check out this brief video. It’s at the top of the homepage for the upcoming ‘National Achievers Congress’ in Singapore (where I currently live)…

Now take a look further down the NAC homepage below the video. Here, the NAC introduces its philosophy.

There are big problems in society today, we are told. Some of us can rise above them, but most are ‘stuck down below – working our whole lives meaninglessly and never realizing our full potential’. However, this itself is not the problem, but the symptom. Most of us blame our condition on various things – ‘the government, our education system, foreign talent, the widening income gap’. Nope. None of this is remotely relevant to our circumstances. Instead, we are told in no uncertain terms that the problem is us. We are 100% responsible for the circumstances we find ourselves in: You are the problem, you are the solution. Let’s think about this diagnosis and prescription in the context of Nick’s video.

There’s no doubting that Nick Vujicic is an incredible man. His immense bravery, strength, determination, and charisma are clear to all. I’m sure that he is an inspiration to countless men and women. Yet…and yet…I have a huge problem with his message, with the principles, with the worldview he and this NAC conference espouse

Two observations about the video. First, I think that it’s particularly revealing that the makers of the video did not actually show another human being refusing to come to Nick’s aid. This is a crucial manoeuvre. The whole focus of this event is on the individual. Therefore, Nick’s success, and by extension the success of any human being, has to be portrayed as a sole endeavour. ‘No one is going to help you in your life’ is the clear message we are to take away early on into the film. Yet, since this is as patently untrue for Nick as it is for all of us, it is necessary for the film-makers to abstract from reality. Were they to actually show a fellow human being refrain from helping another in such a desperate and perilous situation they would probably render their plot untenable. This is why we are not allowed to actually see the act of a human being ignoring another’s cry for helpbecause it would virtually never, ever happen.

Second, it’s pretty obvious that the river is there to signify the River of Life. Yet, if this is so, and if we are to believe that whether we sink or swim in the River of Life depends solely on our own attitude and efforts, then pray tell who constructed the makeshift bridge that Nick seeks to cross by? However talented Nick clearly is, I’d like to see him try to build that bridge himself! Finally, it is important to point out that we don’t actually see Nick crossing the river. As an individual, he doesn’t actually attain his goal, or at least we don’t see him doing it. We’re just led to believe that he is now going to make it.

The first point I’m clearly making is that we are not atomised individuals. We are fundamentally social creatures, linked inextricably to a countless number of others by bonds that stretch far and wide, not just through space but through time as well. These bonds are not just direct ones of kith and kin. Just like Nick’s connection to the people who constructed the makeshift path across the river, everything we utilise/consume or produceconnects us with the people who respectively producedor utilised/consumed that very same item, whether we recognise it or not, whether we ever know about those others or not. From this perspective, the whole of human society is linked together through innumerable social bonds.

The second point I wish to make, that follows on from this, is that, since thisinterconnected society is unfortunately structured by different intersecting forms of oppression and hierarchy, the social bonds that constitute our society are expressive of these structural relations. To refer back to my point about consumption and production, for example, it is obvious that social relations of class permeate here throughout. Thinking of who gets to sit in the boardrooms of big companies or the cabinet rooms of government, i.e. in positions of power, it is far more likely to be rich, white, able-bodied men than poor, black, disabled women. Thinking of our education system – an institution which, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, we are told to believe has no influence on life outcomes – we see a whole system that is reflective and constructive of oppressive structures of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc.

Taking these two points into consideration, if I had one question to ask Nick Vujicic, it would simply be this: ‘Do you think you would still be standing there today if you were an Aboriginal woman with the same condition?’

I don’t know what Nick really thinks about the factors behind his incredible achievements. What I do know is this: It’s no coincidence and it’s far from irrelevant that Nick is a white man, and that he comes from a supportive and loving middle-class Australian family. In earlier parts of history or in other parts of the world today, Nick wouldn’t have even been given the chance of life to succeed in the struggle the way he did. I speak with painful honesty when I say that people with significant disabilities were, and many still are, either aborted, did not survive early childhood, forced into freak circus or, may even be killed at birth.

Nick Vujicic deserves all the praise he gets, but to describe his experience as solely the triumph of the individual is a dangerous half-story peddled by those in positions of social privilege who wish to tell the world about their individual success, and whose greater initial endowments make them trumpet the wonders of natural liberty, free markets, and competition.For them, Nick is the ultimate poster boy: ‘Look, so fair and just is this world that you can make it even without limbs! So, you have no one to blame for your poverty or unemployment but yourself!’

The omitted other half of the story is actually far more fundamental. In reality, it was only fortuitous social conditions that gave Nick even the opportunity to live his remarkable life. For every Nick, there are hundreds, thousands of others to whom unjust social structures bequeath a poisoned inheritance. Even with arms and legs, however much they might seek to improve their position, to grow and develop, to love their life, they find themselves borne down by the weight of oppression. The message propagandised by organisations like NAC has a far wider political significance, of course. Currently, many governments (and their supporters in business and the media) are pushing through severe programs of austerity. At the same time, they are telling those in poverty that it’s their fault. The poor, the weak, the oppressed are told by the rich, the strong, the oppressor that the fault for their misfortune lies solely and purely within themselves. This is a myth that has to be challenged and disproved. It is nothing more than a lie.

The real story of Nick Vujicic is that, in terms of one’s life chances,being born with no arms and no legs, but into a privileged social situation, is actually in many ways considerably easier than being born fully able-bodied into a situation of social poverty, oppression and discrimination. Of course, the individual, her/his abilities, efforts, and application matter. They matter a great deal. Yet, I believe that we are, first and foremost, what Marx called ‘social individuals’ – we all have individual preferences, abilities, and dreams, yet we all want and need to satisfy these in harmony and cooperation with each other, and in the service of our society. We want to achieve personal dreams, but we want to achieve dreams that have social meaning and often benefit. I also believe that this can be achieved by the collective creation of a democratic, socialist system. In such a system, we can create the conditions for every one of us to prosper and thrive. Only social individuals, only socialism can create a world for alla world in which every person, regardless of their physical abilities or disabilities, can achieve what Nick Vujicic clearly has.

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