Earlier this year, I met a man who asked if I’d heard of the spoon theory of disability. His eyes were wide and his voice soft with sympathy as he explained that everyone was born with a set number of daily spoons, and must use up one spoon every time they perform a daily activity. Disabled people have fewer spoons, he said, and so could do far less.
This, I later discovered, was a mangled version of a much more nuanced essay that’s resonated with many in the disability community. But, as I listened to him explain just how difficult life can be for people with disabilities, and just how much he cared, I felt furious.
Unbeknownst to him, I’d had two spinal surgeries the year before. I’ve had several periods of short-term disability, roughly a year each, and I know what it’s like to be unable to walk down the street. That means I’ve spent days of lying still, feeling jealous of anyone whose body worked well enough that they could do such mundane chores as scrubbing the toilet. I know what it’s like to go dizzy and start to lose consciousness from searing, brain-splitting pain. How dare he reduce what I’d been through to spoons?
Later, I Googled “spoon theory” and found a moving 2003 essay by a woman named Christine Miserandino describing how she came up with the theory as a way of conveying to her friend what it’s like to have lupus. She used spoons as an analogy to show how her disease forced her to constantly ration and monitor her limited reserves of energy. “We went through the rest of the day, and she slowly learned that skipping lunch would cost her a spoon, as well as standing on a train, or even typing at her computer too long,” Miserandino writes. “She was forced to make choices and think about things differently. Hypothetically, she had to choose not to run errands, so that she could eat dinner that night.”
The original writing is an evocative description of Miserandino’s personal experience, and has resonated with many. But condensed into a three-sentence metaphor, it became utterly reductive: A woke-sounding but shallow anecdote. The guy who cited spoon theory was trying to show how much he got it—how much he understood and empathized with the disabled experience. Instead, he showed that he didn’t get it at all. Rather than using “spoon theory” as a jumping-off point to learn about and engage with disability issues—such as the dismal lack of accessibility, why the straw ban is a huge problem, and the need to consider disability rights in pride marches and #metoo— he assumed he’d learned what he needed to know from the analogy.
The spoon theory tale speaks to a broader problem with our tendency to latch onto vivid analogies. The formulaic headline insisting that “X story perfectly explains white privilege/ US gun laws/ sexism in engineering” has become a clickbait cliché. Though many of these articles riff off thoughtful statements, their framing ignores the reality that no single anecdote can perfectly explain anything. When John Scalzi, for example, writes that being a straight white male is like playing a video game on the lowest difficulty setting, it’s a helpful illustration of a bigger issue. But as Scalzi himself notes, “Metaphors are not perfect; it’s why they’re metaphors and not the thing the metaphor describes. Likewise analogies break down.”
The problem isn’t the metaphors themselves, but when they’re given far too much credit and weight—which inadvertently negates the complex and painful experiences of the people who are impacted by racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism and other forms of bias. Online culture tends to apply the same over-eager excitement to all manner of simple feel-good statements, effectively throwing a party for anyone writes a sentence advancing a progressive idea or acknowledging a minority group’s experience. On Twitter, the phenomenon is evident in basic 👏statements 👏emphasized 👏by 👏clapping 👏hand 👏emoji. On Facebook, John Oliver’s latest Trump “shut down” garners legions of emphatic responses: “YES” and “THIS.”
It’s a trend known as “virtue signaling”: Voicing support for an issue simply to make ourselves look enlightened in front of our peers, rather than to deepen our own knowledge or advance a cultural conversation.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with stating the obvious. After the 2016 US presidential election, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote about the importance of publicly affirming our values and beliefs for The New Yorker. “Now is the time to counter lies with facts, repeatedly and unflaggingly, while also proclaiming the greater truths: of our equal humanity, of decency, of compassion,” she wrote. “Every precious ideal must be reiterated, every obvious argument made, because an ugly idea left unchallenged begins to turn the color of normal.”
Her own essay, though, was far from obvious, containing a nuanced description of identity politics, how words blur memory and obscure truths, and what it means to truly resist racism and sexism. “Now is the time to speak up and to wear as a badge of honor the opprobrium of bigots,” she wrote. Adichie shows the importance of stating self-evident truths, but only as one example of the more overarching, pressing need to stand up for rights where we see them violated.
Virtue signaling becomes a problem when the former is mistaken for the latter: When there’s too great a gap between the fervor with which we greet a basic statement and the extent to which that statement truly advances a conversation.
It’s not easy to understand what another person’s experience is like. And it’s certainly not easy to fight for the rights of others—to consistently demand, in our politics and everyday actions, that everyone be treated equally. So while it can feel affirming to shower praise and applause upon catchy memes or pithy statements of support for minorities, we should question whether such enthusiasm is enough. It takes very little effort to tweet about spoon theory; it takes a lot more work to learn about how to support disability rights. One analogy, no matter how powerful, is never enough.