When I Was De-Platformed

For as long as I can remember, nondisabled philosophers (and disabled philosophers who seem to be grappling with the unfortunate effects of internalized ableism) have expressed some kind of hostility when I pointed out that their utterances use terms that have ableist connotations or are ableist in some other way.

So, I wasn’t the least bit surprised that a pseudonymous commenter at Daily Nous made a failed attempt to correct me when I recently pointed out that Justin Weinberg’s use of the term cretin was ableist. The commenter, who seemed to have pulled a definition of the term from some authority like Wikidictionary, was apparently unaware of the history of the term cretin which (like the similar, though not synonymous, terms moron, imbecile, idiot, and feebleminded) has transitioned from its earlier, restrictive use as a medical classification to a contemporary, more colloquial use as a common pejorative, a signifier of stupidity, idiocy, mental defect, and so on. Numerous disability studies scholars (among others) have demonstrated that these classifications and their contemporary incarnations have played a performative role in the production of various social categories, including cognitive impairment, race, class, and gender.

My introduction to the hostile reactions that my critiques of both ableist language and ableism more generally have met over the course of my career came during the AGM of the very first CSWIP conference that I attended as a disabled graduate student. In that context, a prominent (nondisabled) Canadian feminist bioethicist yelled at me (humiliating and terrifying me in front of a large room of feminist philosophy faculty) because I had been bold enough to suggest that the term blind review should be removed from the CFPs for CSWIP conferences.

Fast forward several years. I joined the FEAST listserv, only to repeatedly witness various feminist philosophers use ableist language in their contributions to the list and otherwise display a passive or not-so-passive contempt for disabled people in these contributions. I made a few interventions. Given my considerable research and activist experience by that point—including a postdoc at the World Institute on Disability and 3 years as a research associate and principal investigator at Canada’s national policy research institute to promote the human rights of disabled people—I felt confident that I was qualified to do so. I had not expected nondisabled feminist philosophers who espoused arguments about power and oppression, situated knowledges, and standpoint epistemologies to make a concerted and evidently unified effort to disqualify what I said and vilify me in the process of doing so.

I recall that it happened early on a Saturday morning. I first received an email from Joan Callahan who, at the time, was the administrator of the FEAST list. In the email, Callahan, in a remarkably patronizing manner, informed me that the Steering Committee of FEAST had decided by consensus to remove me from the listserv for “violating list rules”. Only moments later, I received another email, this one from Hilde Lindemann, the Chair of FEAST at the time, in which I was told in an exceedingly condescending fashion that I had in fact now been removed from the list.

In today’s parlance, I had been de-platformed. (A couple of months after I was unceremoniously removed from the listserv, the Chair of the FEAST program committee at the time contacted me, asking if I would referee submissions for the association’s upcoming conference.)

How had I defied the rules of the listserv? Why had I been isolated from the community of feminist philosophers?

Notwithstanding the formal rationale that was delivered to me, the best explanation that I could come up with was that I had displayed an understanding and knowledge about disability and ableism that the established feminist philosophers on the listserv lacked; and they felt threatened. Indeed, the hierarchical character of feminist philosophy was, at the time, considerably more pronounced than it remains today and thus surely played an important role in responses to me: Who is this upstart? Who does she think she is? Why is she talking to us like we haven’t read Love’s Labor? Where did she come from? Who was her supervisor?

Because none of the Canadian feminist philosophers who knew me supported me in any of the discussions on the listserv (though Christine Overall kindly offered me private support), I needed to fend for myself and was ultimately pushed out.

Last year, in a post on Discrimination and Disadvantage, I mentioned the FEAST incident and alluded to the tremendously painful toll that it (among other events) has had on the trajectory of my career and my life more generally.

To make a long story short, I was systematically stigmatized; denied job opportunities (e.g., I have never been offered an interview with an American department that has a feminist philosopher on its faculty); my proposals to Hypatia have been rejected; I have been addressed by other feminist philosophers in a manner that can only be described as contemptuous; and my research on disability, while readily and frequently accessed at academia.edu and PhilPapers, has never been given the public recognition that it deserves, has repeatedly been plagiarized, and is tendentiously misrepresented.

I refuse to provide my persecutors (yes, I actually used that word) in philosophy with the finer details of the despair through which I have lived. Suffice it to say that the recent discussions on blogs and social media about de-platforming have hit home with me.

In a comment on the aforementioned Daily Nous post, Amy Olberding expressed concern that the deleterious effects of de-platforming in philosophy would disproportionately accrue to members of marginalized and subordinated groups in philosophy. Olberding’s comment was criticized, discounted as self-affirming, as the articulation of a privileged member of the profession.

I hope however that my remarks above will be regarded as a testament that subordinated and disenfranchised philosophers should seriously consider Olberding’s caution. Do not underestimate the complexity and complicated character of the power relations in which you find yourself entwined. Do not underestimate the limitations, paradoxes, and hypocrisies of the alliances that you have forged, especially if and when these alliances are at bottom professional in nature. Do not overestimate the resilience and endurance of these alliances.

None of the feminist philosophers who has so formatively compromised my career and the reception of my work has apologized to me or attempted in any other way to make restitution to me. Although I long ago gave up the expectation that I would receive such apologies and restitution, I admit that I was sad and disappointed when I recently read that Callahan had died: sad and disappointed that they had never taken the opportunity to offer me any regrets or reparations.

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