When It Comes to Inspiration Porn, “Role Model” Is My Most Effective Anti-Inspirant*

Meme that uses a Ban anti-perspirant photo with the words: Role Model Anti-Inspirant Prevents Inspiration Porn Odor

“I’ve found that being inspirational is a lonely business and
unconnected to true efforts or achievements. Being a role model has the pleasure of an honor that’s earned.”

I was asked a few years ago about how I felt being called an “inspiration” based on my identity as a woman with a disability. This was my response, based on events over three decades in the workforce, the majority spent in progressive, community-based nonprofits in the Bay Area where the cross-disability community still remained invisible and therefore marginalized:

“Imagine a boss telling you in an annual review that you’re an inspiration to
people in the office because you have [insert disability here]. None of your
colleagues identify as a person with a disability. Their reaction isn’t
based on your job performance; your boss tells you how amazed everyone is
that someone like you is in the office at all.

“Imagine another boss telling you in an annual review that she sees you as a
role model for some staff members who are dealing with transitions related
to health and aging. She cites how you advocate for inclusive policies such
as flexible schedules, telecommuting, etc.

“In principle, I’m fine with both terms. It would be wonderful to know I
inspired someone to some good end or served as a role model. But in
practice, I’ve found that being inspirational is a lonely business and
unconnected to true efforts or achievements. Being a role model has the
pleasure of an honor that’s earned.”

I’ve said previously that the reason I’m critical of “inspiration,” as such, and disparaging of inspiration porn is that they feed the “overcomer” narrative that inadvertently reinforces stigma:

“There’s no amount of personal pluckiness that’s going to defeat systemic barriers born of — and well-maintained by — prejudice.”

This is not to say I don’t like talking about myself — hello, I’ve got a blog — or that I don’t like hearing others speak when they’re both hilarious and eloquent. I agree wholeheartedly that personal story-telling is powerful and valuable when done well. I recommend it as an alternative to motivational or inspirational speaking.

The distinction between a motivational speaker and a personal story-teller is that the former is aiming for a particular response from the audience, typically to accept a lesson they will then apply to their lives. (They can be very lovely lessons, i.e., “Believe in yourself,” etc.)

The reason inspirational or motivational speaking veers so readily into inspiration porn is that the audience is expected to have a pre-arranged, unsurprising emotional response to the material. Because there’s little ambiguity or opportunity for interpretation, there’s little left to the audience’s imagination. They have been told how to feel.

A story-teller doesn’t rely on a particular response from the audience, or offer an easy path to understanding it. Because a story-teller doesn’t try to control the audience’s response, story-telling can be liberating in a way that motivating and inspiring cannot be.

The compact between the story-teller and the audience is this: The story-teller will enchant** and the audience will be enchanted.  Learning may be a by-product but it’s not the goal. Audiences’ responses can be surprising. Because the stories can be ambiguous and present opportunities for interpretation, much is left to the audience’s imagination. They are not told how to feel.

This is where I’m at — today — on inspiration porn. I get the allure. I’m the Director of Development at Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF) who does her best to handle public communications, as well. Telling stories is part of advocacy. But the issue — always — is not (even unwittingly) undermining the mission through those stories. To paraphrase myself, “How we spread our message says a lot about our attitudes toward the people we want to serve.”

*Anti-Inspirant™: For relief of stigma from stubborn tropes and stereotypes caused by overactive pity and ableism that, unchecked, can result in viral inspiration porn.

** “Enchant” comes from Nabokov. I know bringing Nabokov to a motivational speaking debate is like bringing caviar to a canned goods drive — they’re both wonderful and valuable but seriously? — but I used the term because of him: “There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three — storyteller, teacher, enchanter — but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer…The three facets of the great writer — magic, story, lesson — are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought…Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.”

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8 thoughts on “When It Comes to Inspiration Porn, “Role Model” Is My Most Effective Anti-Inspirant*

  1. Ingrid! Great post & food for thought. I’ve taken personal storytelling workshops (when offered as offshoots/alternatives to improv training), & what you say is true. Probably why I engaged more in them too. Funny for me as well was because I typically have done occasional public speaking & figured this training might help me tweak or hone those skills, but ultimately it lead me to story-telling as both an art (&science) but best yet, I found I had stories to share outside of those that I had “thought” people wanted to hear. Some of them seemingly more mundane came alive. It was refreshing because the speaking I do is mainly towards other organizations to give faces & names to my rare diseases they may not have heard of or may not hear otherwise, not to “motivate” people. My story isn’t the shiny, happy one with the bow on top to present to the world that they want to hear most days, anyway. (I agree w/so much of what you say, btw.)

    Liked by 1 person

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