This is kind of in honor of Fat Guy, Jacked Guy’s new TikTok, which we created begrudgingly because apparently this is the mind-numbing platform that we need to exploit.
In my class a few weeks ago, a group of my students brought up, apropos of nothing, that Helen Keller wasn’t real, or that her disabilities were exaggerated. I had heard this before as a TikTok/Twitter meme, and I wanted to dismiss it immediately, but in my need to turn social media nonsense into “teachable moments,” I asked them to tell me HOW they know this. Their logic and reasoning were based entirely in ableist notions of people with disabilities not being capable of performing tasks. One of them said, “How could she fly a plane if she couldn’t see?” This referred to the story of when Helen Keller took control of a plane I said that all you need to fly a plane are hands, and that there is a difference between piloting and flying. Another said that he never believed she was real. I said “here is a video of her” and showed a video. They said, “how could someone read and write but never see and hear?” I asked them if they knew how to build a plane. They said no. I asked them if they believed it was possible to build a plane, they said yes. So maybe, I said, it’s possible that people are capable of things that you don’t immediately understand. They refused to accept this premise.
At this point, they began to smile because they were clearly unable to logically defend their point, but they continued to dig their heels in, eventually concluding with my favorite defense, “I just don’t believe it.”
I want to start by saying this isn’t a Gen Z takedown fest. I’m not here to berate or belittle Gen Z and their bizarre and terrifying world. I think I understand Gen Z, which is both relieving and terrifying, because their sense of self is often shaped by the sad predestination of our culture. I won’t put any group into a box here, because for every young person that seems to be a sad carbon copy of a crypto vape TikTok influencer, there are several more who are insightful, funny, and down to earth. I will say this though, Gen Z tends to be more nihilistic than Millenials (which is reasonable, because like Millenials they inherited a broken political and economic system and increasing Environmental catastrophes, yet they’ve had time to see that these things feel unfixable). They also have a somewhat contradictory belief that they need to grind and be famous, wealthy, and conventionally attractive. They see that things are bullshit, but their understanding of how to make things less bullshit is stunted by the shortcomings of the world they were born into.
It’s a debilitating cycle: learn the horrors of the world, see that everyone is doing better than you, sift through dozens of false claims and conspiracies, and then be told you have to work every day forever. This is every single day. Since their parents prematurely gave them smart phones. Imagine if we had to deal with that as kids? We’d be nihilistic too. Many of us still are!
It is with this understanding that I approach my classroom. I know my Gen Z students, I respect them as humans, and I treat their lives and experiences as valid. However, I’ve become aware over the past three years of a strain of conspiratorial thinking and grifting, almost exclusively in young men. These are the boys who want to “go against the grain” and in doing so, start to sound a lot like everyone else their age. I haven’t had, for instance, any young man try to call out Andrew Tate’s hackneyed, dime a dozen advice about waking early to lift weights and being the aggressor in relationships with women, but I’ve had SEVERAL defend his content as “useful” or “misinterpreted.” Even so, I think the whole Andrew Tate uproar (sorry I had to mention him TWICE) is indicative of the Helen Keller thing as well.
It is doing two things:
Positing everything with a hefty dose of irony to create plausible deniability if there are accusations of ableism.
Pretending to kill a sacred cow of knowledge by challenging wisdom or dispensing some “secret” information that people don’t want you to know.
Part One: The Conspiracy Theory
I feel awful that I even have to discuss this shit, because it’s so perfectly fucked up. Obviously, the big caveat here is that this whole thing started as SORT OF a joke. However, we know that “sort of” jokes can be taken pretty seriously and result in extreme manifestations. Anyone could “sort of” joke about something on the internet, but if that is pushed to millions of young brains who have a rudimentary filter for bullshit, it could become anything but a joke.
This is from a Slate article about the conspiracy theory: “The Daily Dot’s Audra Schroeder tracked the trend to May 2020, when a TikTok user first posted a video using the hashtag #HelenKellerWasntReal. The idea crossed over to Twitter in early January, with a tweet from screenwriter Daniel Kunka, who reported that his teenage relatives had argued to him over text that Helen Keller “was a fraud who didn’t exist.””
A now-deleted TikTok from May 2020 seems to have fueled some of the early misinformation. The user, @alleyesonharshita, reportedly questioned Keller’s existence, adding the hashtag #helenkellerwasntreal, as well as documented events in Keller’s life—like writing books and flying a plane. Other similar videos followed, some of them getting hundreds of thousands of views. A majority of the top videos under #helenkeller are people making jokes about her being blind.
“The comment sections underneath the conspiracy videos take predictable shape and showcase a cycle of madness: Somebody takes the video to task for ableism; somebody else says, “Go away, boomer, leave us alone”; somebody else says, “But for real. She didn’t do all that.” Sometimes users chime in describing fights with teachers on the matter, reporting being disciplined for holding fast to their beliefs that Helen Keller could not have written books, or flown a plane. “”
Part Two: “context collapse”
One of the inherent problems with social media or any mass media is that posts intended for one specific audience will certainly reach audiences you don’t know or share common understandings with. This, brothers, is called context collapse.
“'Context collapse' (CC) refers to the phenomenon widely debated in social media research, where various audiences convene around single communicative acts in new networked publics, causing confusion and anxiety among social media users.”
“An example of context collusion offline may be a wedding where different social circles are purposefully combined. Online, context collusion is seen on social media sites like Facebook where one may create a post to garner attention from various social groups.”
“Consequently, context collapse can flatten multiple audiences into a single context, making the management of the self and our online identities across varied settings increasingly complicated”
Part Three: Helen Keller was a real human being with both awesome and troublesome viewpoints
When conspiracists, even if they are half-joking, discredit the real work of their predecessors, they are also destroying important legacies. I don’t want to throw the F word around, but I think there are elements of that within the Helen Keller conspiracy. This is the kind of work that fascists love, because what is fascism but a rewriting of history to suit a dominant cultural narrative? Keller is a complex historical figure who made contributions to civil rights (like founding the ACLU and supporting the NAACP), was a card-carrying socialist and labor activist, and yet she advocated some eugenicist ideas early in her life, which she eventually took back.
What we don’t want to do, and what we should never do, is provide the simplistic story of the young deafblind girl who worked hard and beat the odds. The issue is that she lived a long and impressive life after what was portrayed in “The Miracle Worker”, full of contradictions and unpopular politics (like socialism).
From the International Socialist Review:
In 1909, Keller became an official member of the Socialist Party. In 1912, she joined the Industrial Workers of the World. She supported Eugene Debs for president.
“When the story of Helen Keller is taught in schools today, it is frequently used to convey a number of anodyne “moral lessons” or messages: There is no personal obstacle that cannot be overcome through pluck and hard work; whatever problems one thinks they have pale in comparison to those of Helen Keller; and perhaps the most insidious of such messages, the one aimed primarily at people with disabilities themselves, is that the task of becoming a full member of society rests upon one’s individual efforts to overcome a given impairment and has nothing to do with structural oppression or inequality.”
“she had come to conclude that “our worst foes are ignorance, poverty, and the unconscious cruelty of our commercial society. These are the causes of blindness; these are the enemies which destroy the sight of children and workmen and undermine the health of mankind.”
“She attended Harvard, wrote 12 books and many more essays and lectures. Her autobiography was adapted for film and stage. She travelled the world, campaigning on civil rights, labour rights and women’s suffrage. Her book on socialism was burned by the Nazis. She died in 1968.”
“But they don’t learn that she co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union✎ EditSign in 1920; that she was an early supporter of the NAACP, and an opponent of lynchings; that she was an early proponent of birth control.”
From a TIME article on Keller’s little-taught adult life: “Some of the reason schools don’t teach much about Keller’s adult life is because she was involved in groups that have been perceived as too radical throughout American history. She was a member of the Socialist Party, and corresponded with Eugene Debs, the party’s most prominent member and a five-time presidential candidate. She also read Marx, and her associations with all of these far-left groups landed her on the radar of the FBI, which monitored her for ties to the Communist Party.
Keller was a Christian in the way we think all Christians should be. This is a quote from the International Socialist Review: “Thus, she often infused a version of Christian socialism into her Marxist politics and activism. Her specific denomination was Swedenborgian, a sect of Christianity that saw the Bible as allegory rather than history, defied Church hierarchy and dogma, and sought to better humanity’s earthly condition while simultaneously believing in the immortality and universality of the soul. Named after its founding exponent, the eighteenth-century Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, Keller found that this particular faith enabled her “to see that I could use the Bible, which had so baffled me, as an instrument for digging out precious truths, just as I could use my hindered, halting body for the high behests of my spirit.”16 Believing that the essence of the gospel was “the supreme and equal worth of each individual soul,” she insisted “there is no peace between the teachings of Christ and any form of slavery.”
However, to some Black disability rights activists, like Anita Cameron, Helen Keller is not radical at all, “just another, despite disabilities, privileged white person,” and yet another example of history telling the story of privileged white Americans. Critics of Helen Keller cite her writings that reflected the popularity of now-dated eugenics theories and her friendship with one of the movement’s supporters Alexander Graham Bell. The American Foundation for the Blind archivist Helen Selsdon says Keller “moved away from that position.”
Interestingly enough, people have tried to remove the teaching of Helen Keller from state teaching standards. “In Sep. 2018, the Texas Board of Education approved a draft of changes to state social studies standards, which included the removal of some historical figures, such as Helen Keller. Shortly after the board opened the draft for public comment, Haben Girma, a Black disability rights lawyer and the first Deafblind Harvard Law School graduate, was one of many who spoke out on the importance of teaching Helen Keller. Girma argued that if Keller’s life is not taught, students might not learn about any history-makers with disabilities. Two months later, the Texas Board of Education approved a revised draft with Keller’s name back in the standards.”
Part Four: How do we reckon with this?
Why should we care about this little joke turned not quite a joke? What’s the harm?