Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews August Gorman

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the forty-eighth installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I’m conducting with disabled philosophers and post to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY on the third Wednesday of each month. The series is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional discrimination and personal prejudice in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism, racism, sexism, and other apparatuses of power; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.

I acknowledge that the land on which I sit to conduct these interviews is the traditional territory of the Haudensaunee and Anishnaabeg, covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldiman Treaty territory. I offer these interviews with respect and in the spirit of reconciliation.

My guest today is August Gorman. August is a postdoctoral fellow at Ethics Lab, a program of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, where they also serve as Program Lead for the Engaging Ethics Initiative and partner with faculty across the university to design activities that enhance how students address moral questions in various fields. The ways in which different kinds of mental disability might complicate philosophical conceptions of agency as they bear on normative questions is a major focus of August’s research. In August’s spare time, they play softball, direct and perform musical theatre, and provide volunteer childcare for immigrant rights’ organizations.

Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, August! Please tell us about your background and what led you to do graduate work in philosophy.

Thank you so much for having me, Shelley! I should note at the outset that I’m still somewhat new to talking publicly about my experiences and perspective as a disabled philosopher. I’m really grateful to have this series as a venue for my first foray into, hopefully, doing more of this.

I get the sense that a lot of professional philosophers are introduced to philosophy at a formative age by someone in their family, but neither philosophy nor academia were remotely on anyone’s radar in the world in which I grew up. My dad worked for the Department of Defense, but my mom explored lots of career paths, switching it up whenever she felt like it. While I was growing up, she was a waitress at the local pub, a realtor, a school social worker, a cable salesperson, and a painting teacher. My family didn’t have any set ideas about what they wanted me to be when I grew up. But we always supported my mom no matter what she wanted to do; so, I knew that I, too, would be supported in whatever I chose.

We lived in a very small and fairly homogenous suburban town in rural New Jersey. I was an only child and, for a long time, also the only child in my extended family, which meant that I spent a lot of time around adults and also a lot of time on my own. One thing that is fairly unique about the way that my parents raised me (which might have led to some of my academic interests later in life) is that, in some ways, they treated me like a miniature adult, maybe a roommate or friend of theirs. This meant that I didn’t have much of a prescriptive set of rules for behavior and instead was, at a young age, party to many discussions and disagreements about, for example, whether or not intent mattered if you hurt someone’s feelings, and whether or not an apology really counted if you wouldn’t have done anything differently.

I had a happy childhood, but I was frequently restless and spent a lot of time inventing new things to do. I made up a pottery technique using water and paper towels, discovered a way to make surprisingly advanced animated films using just Powerpoint, and used my recess time in elementary school to hold rehearsals for something I called “Faceband”: a musical ensemble made up of hummers, whistlers, and “nose-harpists”.

For the most part, I enjoyed my studies in high school and was especially enthusiastic about writing essays. But I felt very trapped by how small my world was. Still, I couldn’t have prepared myself for just how transformative my undergraduate education would be. I attended the University of Mary Washington: a public liberal arts college with a pretty campus and a reasonable price tag. Although I applied as a prospective philosophy major, I didn’t really have the slightest clue what philosophy was—just a hunch that it would be something that I might like.

My first semester, I was lucky to get into an Ancient Greek Philosophy course with Nina Mikhalevsky, who has somewhat legendary status at U.M.W. She presented philosophy as a nearly magical subject through which you come to discover that the world is endlessly full of puzzles, the pursuit of any of which might be worth devoting a lifetime to solving. I was sold. Philosophy played a crucial role in my coming of age. As my college experience expanded the scope of my social concern to be much larger than the rather homogeneous bubble in which I grew up, philosophy worked in parallel to expand my understanding of conceptual space, something I think that I had been craving for a long time.

I took just about every philosophy course that the U.M.W. department had to offer. At one point, my advisor had to call the registrar to check how certain policies would apply to a student who had taken so many courses in the major, as no one before had taken as many. After exhausting the department’s course offerings, I picked up a second major in English. I primarily studied poetry writing with the late Claudia Emerson, but also took courses in Disability Studies offered through the department.

I knew that I would have to blaze my own path if I wanted to go to graduate school in philosophy; so, I independently sought out every outside opportunity to improve my C.V. and learn about the philosophy profession. I took a gap year in Philadelphia to put in the effort that I knew I would need to devote to grad school applications in order to have an actual shot. It ended up being the most transformative year in my life. I came to understand and mold my own political views, relationship models, queerness, transness, and disability status in a radically different context where I was surrounded by like-minded people, all living, loving, and working together to carve out the space necessary to live an authentic life given the shared oppressions that we all faced. I stayed on my path to grad school, starting my Ph.D. program at U.S.C the next year, but I returned to my philosophical work with a renewed sense of urgency, and a sense of the dire importance of working to bring conceptual clarity to bear on issues that matter in the real world.

[Description of image below: photo of August, who is standing immediately in front of a wall, looking up into the lens of the camera and smiling widely. They are wearing a t-shirt, jacket, and glasses with large plastic frames, have short tousled hair and a short beard.]

August, you have some strong ideas about what philosophy has to offer when it is done well and the detrimental effects that philosophy may produce when it is not done well. Would you like to share these ideas and tell us what you think philosophy is or should be?

Yes. When done well, I think philosophy expands our awareness of uncharted areas of conceptual space in a way that is deeply humbling, but also genuinely thrilling. Perhaps it’s for this reason also that I have a strange, but enduring, love of introductory texts and overview articles. Obviously, philosophy aims to do more than just expand awareness of the space; it also gives us some tools to help navigate and evaluate the uncharted territory. But the real takeaway for me, often, is that the world is richer and more complicated than we initially thought. One by-product of this way of thinking is that it can reveal that many of the social strictures that we have in place are largely the products of habit and of power-relations playing out in a specific historical narrative rather than what we have decided would be the best way to do things against the range of full possibility.

Because I think philosophy has the potential to be a creative, generative force that can uproot our assumptions and swing open the doors of possibility, I’ve been especially disheartened by some of the ways that, over the past few years, online discourse in professional philosophy has unfolded. This is true especially with respect to the recent wave of trans-antagonism, including what many trans philosophers have experienced as pressure to drop what we’re doing in order to, yet again, attempt to justify our existences within the confines of a blog comment thread.

Philosophy is at its worst, I think, when it presents itself as a combative demand for immediate and simple answers. As a non-binary trans person, I feel uncomfortable with the idea that the veridicality of my self-perceptions of who I, most fundamentally, am and the way that I move through this world seem to be repeatedly up for debate in my professional spaces. I am also deeply concerned about the effect that it has on others. The elevation of trans-antagonistic voices runs in parallel to and acts to legitimize a culture of extreme violence towards trans people. It pushes many of us into hiding or out of the profession altogether. I am also frustrated by the way that these online arguments make philosophy seem to be, since it is so antithetical to everything that I love about philosophy. I would have thought that since, through philosophy, we discover that, at the end of the day, we don’t even really know what things as seemingly simple as, say, causation are (yet), we might approach other topics with more of a similar sense of wonder and intellectual humility.

Recently on BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY, I drew attention to the derogatory ways in which Phineas Gage, a disabled man who lived in the 19th century U.S., has been mischaracterized in philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and associated subfields of philosophy. Please tell us about your interest in how philosophy uses caricatures of disabled people as theoretical tools.

I loved this post of yours, Shelley. The case of Phineas Gage nicely illustrates that we not only risk building our theories on inaccurate information when we resort to using caricatures of disabled people as theoretical tools in philosophy, but we actually risk writing ableism into our canon. As you point out, people are quick to assume that the records that we have about Gage are accurate, when in fact the reports from his friends might have been colored by their own revulsion, intolerance, and impatience with him as he learned to navigate the world post-injury. I think this lesson generalizes.

For example, in working on my dissertation project, I noticed that, in the contemporary agency and responsibility literature, you see a lot of weirdly strong disparagement of the idea that a person might genuinely be alienated from their actions in the way in which some people experiencing addiction and people with O.C.D. speak of their actions. There’s an oft-quoted line from Terrence Penelhum who calls taking talk of this kind of alienation seriously a “form of moral trickery…[that] involves an extension of the notion of non-identification with one’s own desires and behavior from the level of harmless and even mildly illuminating metaphor to that of gross literal false-hood.” I worry that the “intuitions” relied on to support this accusation involve a failure to empathize with disabled people and an accompanying tendency to extrapolate from what would be going on in their own psychologies if they were to act in this way.

I think it’s especially important in the agency and responsibility literature to be careful about how we talk about disabled people because claims are often made about the kind of agency that separates humans from other animals. If our models of agency don’t apply to the experiences of people disabled in certain ways, there’s a risk of actually defining away their humanity. In a paper of mine entitled, “Depression’s Threat to Self-Governance,” I draw attention to the failure of leading accounts of agency to incorporate into their models or even recognize the sort of executive dysfunction common to certain forms of depression.

I think that it speaks volumes about the distribution of power that, historically, what seems to me to be a major oversight, could just be entirely overlooked. Thankfully, I do see a turning of the tide towards more careful interrogation of the ways that these theories intersect with mental health conditions, a turning of the tide that I think can be found in recent work by Agnieszka Jaworska, Hanna Pickard, Nathan Stout, and David Shoemaker, among others.

To me, it seems obvious that we should want to incorporate the lived experience of disabled people into this literature, because the central reason why we ask questions about agency and blame is that we want to figure out how we should treat the real people in our lives. I’m part of communities that are disproportionately impacted by mental health concerns, and I see informal conversations about these issues crop up all the time. What excites me most about working in this area is the potential to bring more conceptual rigor and clarity to issues faced by real people. I know that that’s not the route that led everyone to work in this subfield. But, if it’s the case that when we’re in the context of the real world we find that our theories aren’t fine-grained in the right sorts of ways to speak to our experience, then I think we have more work to do on our theories. That said, I think there’s probably room for self-critique about the ways in which I probably participate, in ways that may not be apparent to me, in the collective tendency of philosophers to consciously or unconsciously bend the details of different experiences to better fit theories.

August, you feel that you grew up without a vocabulary to describe your experiences of disability and that these experiences were in fact shaped by this lack of vocabulary. You have also indicated to me that philosophy has provided a framework to grapple with your experiences. What exactly do you mean?

One evening, when I was twelve years old and watching National Lampoon’s Family Vacation with my dad who was eating a bag of pistachios, I found the sounds of his chewing so upsetting, almost physically painful, that I suddenly declared that I was very tired and needed to go to bed immediately. Since that happened, more and more sounds have provoked in me reactions of pain and disgust: chewing, sniffling, throat clearing, loud breathing, clock-ticking. It became nearly impossible to sit through a family dinner. When I tried to explain how these sounds affected me, I was accused of being overly critical and told that I was making everyone around me walk on eggshells.

I vividly remember the sense I had that there was something very wrong with me, but that it was impossible to determine what it was. When I got angry at a person chewing gum, I could simultaneously believe that there was nothing to be angry about, which is a very odd thing to experience. I desperately wanted to be able to make sense of it. Thus began a quite traumatic journey of therapy and psychiatry, which led me down a number of dead-end journeys of misdiagnosis. There was no name for what I was going through back then. People treated me so strangely when I tried to explain what I was going through.

It wasn’t until I did a Google search when I was almost finished with college that I discovered that my experiences were not unique. In fact, audiologists were starting to notice a pattern of cases that were remarkably similar in detail to mine. They called it “misophonia”: a progressive neuropsychological condition in which a person, generally with a sudden onset around pre-puberty, increasingly has their flight-or-fight reaction triggered by otherwise innocuous soft repetitive sounds. Although there is still no known treatment or cure, it is now a diagnosable condition. Some early scientific studies seem to indicate that misophonia might be caused by extra-connectivity between a set of emotional processing centers of the brain and the anterior insular cortex, the site of interoception (the ability to sense what is happening to one’s own body) in the brain. Once I had a name for the condition, the way that most people close to me treated me drastically changed. They apologized, they took me seriously, and they weren’t offended by my desire to eat in a different room.

I don’t think that I intentionally set out to work on philosophy that makes contact with these issues. Nevertheless, I think that a subconscious driving force in a lot of my work so far has been a fascination with the way in which having a word for misophonia drastically changed perceptions about the way that I should be treated. A lot of my work in philosophy has been focused on foundational concepts in the philosophy of agency, including questions about what it means to say that some of our behaviors might not be fully attributable to us in a sense that matters.

Some of my work explores the appropriateness of blame and the conditions for exemption from various kinds of blame. Part of this work includes seeking a framework to make discriminations about when someone ought or ought not to be exempt from blame, discriminations that have firmer theoretical grounding than mere reference to a medical diagnosis. In one of my recent (provisionally forthcoming) papers, “The Minimal Approval View of Attributional-Responsibility,” I discuss misophonia explicitly. It’s been really exciting, though also nerve-wracking, to introduce discussion of misophonia into the philosophical literature. I also have future plans to write about the ethics of conflicting accommodations, something that comes up rather frequently due to my misophonia.

As someone who is both trans and disabled in ways that have not always been apparent, you are interested in the politics of disclosure in academia. Please explain your interest in this issue and how these identifications have propelled you to think about the political dimensions of disclosure.

Yes, that’s right. So, another way in which my personal experience with misophonia has influenced me concerns how I relate to my identification as disabled and the way that I navigate this identification in the profession. My case of misophonia affects my life quite significantly—for example, I can’t take public transit since I might get stuck next to someone eating, I can’t live with most roommates, and I haven’t been to a movie theatre in seven or eight years. Since, for a long time, I didn’t have access to a vocabulary to understand my condition, I never really imagined that it could be the kind of thing for which I could get accommodations. Even still, in recent memory, I turned down the opportunity to give a poster presentation at a philosophy conference with a roaming snack hour scheduled during the poster session, without disclosing the reason for doing so. My default willingness to treat other aspects of my embodiment as “disabilities” is quite low, even though others would treat these aspects as such.

Nowadays, students with misophonia can get note-takers or can get a transmitter/receiver set so that they can hear the teacher’s voice under headphones or white noise generators. When I was a student, if someone was chewing gum next to me in class, I hid in the bathroom and just had to deal with missing most of what went on in that day’s class. But it’s an awfully contingent matter that I was born twenty years earlier and so didn’t have an accommodation letter, isn’t it? One thing that I always do when teaching is keep a line of communication with students as open as possible about the ways that I can make my classroom more accessible, in addition to accommodating official requests. Why? Because relying on officially sanctioned and processed disclosure reifies all sorts of power asymmetries.

I’ve noticed a significant positive shift in my students’ willingness to disclose things about themselves that are relevant to the classroom once I decided to be open with them from day one about being trans and being disabled. In fact, I felt compelled to finally come out professionally because I had a trans student who felt alone. This experience underscores for me how crucial it is to make academia a safe place for disclosing these sorts of things. With the pressures of the absurdly competitive job market in philosophy, at the graduate level it can be a particularly harrowing prospect to disclose.

This experience has also led me to be somewhat critical of what seems, to me, to be one of the most dominant approaches towards making the philosophy profession more diverse. Several efforts center largely around minorities putting our identities on publicly searchable lists like the UPDirectory and PhilPeople, data reporting about minorities in small departments, or on taking the gamble of disclosing our identities in a Diversity Statement. I think the fact that this kind of self-disclosure is the dominant sort of intervention really re-entrenches a hierarchy where some people feel free to publicize themselves via these channels and other people are reasonably hesitant to do so. I think that many people vastly underestimate the number of philosophy graduate students who hide aspects of their identity. While these sorts of initiatives are well-intentioned, I think that they can sometimes feel essentially like a registry, given the current climate of increasing fascism.

These efforts fall short of their ambitions if they’re not coupled with the everyday work of getting philosophers to care about things that don’t rely on the independent mobilization of self-identified minorities. It’s things like learning how to help their students change their names in Learning Management Software; or making handouts that can be read by screen-readers; or getting real about how we react to African American Vernacular English when it shows up in the papers that our students submit. These topics can be very unsexy, but we shouldn’t have to spin an intervention as philosophically interesting in order to get uptake. I like pontificating about implicit bias and epistemology or the metaphysics of gender as much as the next person, but I don’t want to have to feel like I have to settle metaphysical disagreements before I can feel safe and supported coming to work in the morning.

Would you like to add some last remarks about anything that you have said in this interview, August, or recommend resources to our readers and listeners?

I want to mention that although I have been somewhat critical in this interview about the way that the philosophy profession at large currently handles minority issues, I have met many exceptionally thoughtful and kind individuals in this profession. Without their influence, I would never have felt empowered enough to do this interview.

As for resources, readers and listeners might be interested in checking out “The Ethics of Autism,” a recent manifesto/overview article by Kristien Hens, Ingrid Robeyns, and Katrien Schaubroecksetting. They argue that, rather than using caricatures of autism to advance theories, we ought to center autistic people by changing our research questions to things like: Can an allistic person really know what autism is? What might a neurodiversity-informed epistemology of well-being look like? This is a prime example of the kind of philosophy that I get really excited about because it charts new territory and it does so by centering the lived reality of disability.

On the realities of being a trans academic in the contemporary climate, I recommend this blog post by Ruth Pearce.

For the work of two of my mentors and personal heroes, I recommend both this poem by Claudia Emerson, who gave the world something of beauty by bravely writing about her experience with cancer all the way until her death, and this Ted Talk by Elyn Saks, who I had the absolute pleasure of working with at U.S.C. In addition to compellingly writing and speaking about what it’s like to live with schizophrenia, Elyn has married her philosophical training with the wisdom of her personal experience to influence law and policy regarding involuntary mental health treatment.

Finally, on the theme of deep personal identification in the absence of simple words to express it, the musical theatre-lover in me recommends this performance of “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home.

August, thank you very much for these splendid recommendations and for your considered remarks throughout this interview. The interview is a wonderful addition to the Dialogues on Disability series.

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to August Gorman’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted.

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Please join me here again on Wednesday, April 17th, at 8 a.m. E.S.T. for the fourth-anniversary installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at s.tremain@yahoo.ca. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews. Follow BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY on Twitter @biopoliticalph

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